Diplomatic dithering another example of Canada’s leadership deficit

Can anyone remember the last time Canadian diplomacy won something for the country?

The list of losses and outright surrenders on international relations ought to convince us we are neither taken seriously nor take seriously our place. Our role is one of virtue signallers even middle powers disdain.

It is rose-coloured to recall the diplomatic eras of Charles Ritchie, Norman Robertson, Lester Pearson, George Ignatieff and Allan Gotlieb, but it is fair to say we lack the gravitas and get-go to grasp and command the context and nuance of global complexity.

The transparency of our hypocrisy on human rights, lecturing China on Uyghur “genocide” while Indigenous Peoples lack even drinking water much less full economic participation, is a liability all the world knows. We are soft touches on managing foreign investment and thus our sovereignty. Our climate change lectures fall flat when we build pipelines and miss our own targets. It should be no surprise that when we co-operate on an extradition treaty and detain a Chinese executive, we can lose two innocent Canadians taken from the streets with no leverage. When U.S. President Joe Biden held a Summit For Democracy last week, how could Canada be anything more than a stenographer?

At best we await other countries and safely draft in behind them, as we did last week in our burst of sanctimony in “boycotting” the Beijing Winter Olympics – not meaningfully by keeping our athletes away but by, gasp, keeping our politicians and diplomats home. Last time anyone checked, that meant nothing.

Canada only did so after the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia. If there were an Olympic boycott competition, Canada would have finished out of the medals. Our foreign affairs minister, Mélanie Joly, insisted this sent a “strong signal” to China about human rights. More than anything, it sent a strong signal that decent hotel space was freed up for other Olympic visitors.

Joly, the fifth foreign affairs minister in six years under Justin Trudeau, is herself a statement of the prime minister’s priorities for the post. His last minister, Marc Garneau, was bounced entirely from cabinet for no obvious reason. Save for Chrystia Freeland, Trudeau has treated the role not as a capstone for a senior statesperson but as a waystation for careerists.

In the early days of Joly, the inexperience shows. Witness her description last week of the swiftly departing Canadian ambassador to China, former McKinsey & Co. managing director Domenic Barton, as “someone who will be remembered throughout history as one of Canada’s great diplomats.” Let’s take a bet on that hyperbole.

Our diplomatic problems are self-imposed, too. Last week the Prince Edward Island premier, Dennis King, ventured to the national capital to plead with the government – his own national government – to let his province’s potatoes back into the United States. America hadn’t banned them; Canada placed an export ban preemptively for fear of a U.S. import ban that might be hard-pressed to undo.

Canada did America a solid and banned the spuds itself when unsightly but unproblematic warts were discovered on them at two Island farms. About $120 million of the P.E.I. economy, no small portion, depends on those exports. Now Canada is in no different circumstance than if the U.S. had itself taken the action, negotiating a return to the market we cut off. Again, the talking point for the prime minister was that Canada continues to “put pressure” on the U.S. on this issue and that he took up the matter with Biden at their recent meeting.

Talk is truly cheap at times.

Cheap talk was all Canada could muster last month at the Trudeau-Biden meeting as it became clear our longstanding auto pact was about to be driven into the ditch with the president’s new nationalist Buy America economic strategy. The U.S. wants to send the world a message that it will not be eclipsed by China, so America’s determination to lead the planet in electric vehicle industry manufacturing will make Canada roadkill by stripping plant capacity and jobs.

Canada can complain all it wants. Even on mutually beneficial bilateral deals, we prove to be the junior partners. Our last free-trade deal with America was more about negotiating how little we’d lose than anything we might gain.

We have been shown to be weak in our handling of the issue involving which companies can provide 5G technology, letting others in the so-named Five Eyes intelligence alliance first make the move to ban Huawei Technologies and forcing the hand of Canadian telecommunications firms to choose Ericsson as a supplier out of global competitive fear fuelled partly by our government’s dithering.

Last week China’s ambassador to Canada, Cong Peiwu, said the exclusion of Huawei would be a “very wrong signal” that would offend his country’s business community. But by waiting this long as the lone member of Five Eyes that might let Huawei supply equipment to the 5G network, Canada has made itself a target if it doesn’t. This indecision, this trouble with navigation, will in weeks ahead alienate either our largest or second-largest trading partner. Where were diplomats or leaders to avert this?

Of course, our largest chronic dispute of meaning to British Columbia continues to slap around our softwood lumber industry, with America imposing last month a 17.9% duty – double the previous one – as yet another frivolous tariff that will make its softwood price-competitive for a time and make Canadian producers feel the pain again.

Once more, our new trade minister Mary Ng expressed how Ottawa is “disappointed” in the decision it will again fight. But really, is our submission to a cycle of tariffs and arbitrations anything other than a sport for the U.S. that Canada just can’t master?

Trudeau has been unable to develop with three U.S. presidents now the basic building blocks of resolving economic disputes. He has no friend in China’s Xi Jinping, evident by the punishment for detaining Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou in Shaughnessy while the two Michaels were in solitary. There is no evident friendship with the U.K.’s Boris Johnson. Africa is upset about our travel bans. Canada couldn’t win a seat on the United Nations Security Council.

Our worry, of course, is as it always is: that anything significant brought to someone else will bring about significant economic pain to us. If that's the case, though, why try to take centre stage as a "conscience" on an issue? We prefer to roll over than to roll upon and have conditioned the world to expect a mixture of pretension and submission.

So, where are the wins here? Anyone? •

Kirk LaPointe is publisher and editor-in-chief of BIV and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.