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With Trudeau in town, Canada’s Mideast policy looks to change its tune

Published: Updated:

The day after his party won a majority in the Canadian federal elections, Liberal leader and now prime minister, Justin Trudeau, told a rally in Ottawa that "on behalf of 35 million Canadians - we're back [after having lost our] compassionate and constructive voice in the world over the past 10 years.”

While it was bit of indulgent hyperbole, foreign policy experts were already cautioning that Canada needs to know it limits before its next intervention abroad, be it military or humanitarian.

“Canadian foreign policy will certainly undergo a shift, as Mr. Trudeau has already indicated regarding our role in the fight against ISIS,” said Fen Osler Hampson, Director of Global Security & Politics Program at the Centre for International Governance Innovation. He was speaking at the recent launch of a book on Canadian foreign policy that he co-edited.

Apart from Trudeau’s stated intention to withdraw six Canadian fighter jets from bombing runs on ISIS targets, not much is yet known about actual foreign policy changes under his new government.

Canada's new PM Trudeau poses with his cabinet after their swearing-in ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa. (Reuters)
Canada's new PM Trudeau poses with his cabinet after their swearing-in ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa. (Reuters)

However, the choice he made in selecting his foreign affairs minister, a media briefing by the minister, a letter to Canadian diplomats, and assertions made during the election campaign together give early indications of the government’s priorities.

By choosing Stéphane Dion as Minister of Foreign Affairs, Trudeau sent three messages.

First, as a veteran Liberal leader, Dion’s appointment signals a return to a more pacifist strain of Pearsonian foreign policy. It is a reference to former Liberal prime minister Lester B. Pearson, who had won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1957 for proposing a U.N. peacekeeping force to diffuse the Suez crisis.

Two, supporting the U.N. will once again be a priority of Canadian foreign policy, along with other multilateral forums such as the Commonwealth and La Francophonie. The previous Stephen Harper government was openly critical of the U.N. calling it a forum for dictators, and criticizing it for being inefficient and wasteful.

Climate change tops agenda

But above all, combating climate change will be a top foreign, as well as domestic, policy priority. In Paris next month, Dion will negotiate Canada’s renewed commitment to combat climate change. He, not Environment Minister Catherine McKenna, heads the powerful cabinet committee on climate change.

Dion has lots of experience on that file. Apart from being Minister of the Environment from 2004 to 2005, he helped draft the Kyoto Protocol and chaired the U.N. Conference on Climate Change in 2005.

Climate change is the most important issue of the century, Dion said after the inaugural cabinet meeting. He promised to work with his colleagues “to make sure that Canada will be part of a solution to give to this world a sustainable development.”

Rebalancing in the Middle East

Dion also hinted at a gradual rebalancing of Canada’s position on Israel and Palestine. But don’t expect Canada to follow Sweden and recognize a Palestinian state. Pundits say it would be a hard decision to sell domestically.

Canada can help Israel more by returning to its honest broker role and improving its relations with other Middle East nations, Dion said.

“The main difference is that we will stop making it a partisan issue,” he said. “Israel is a friend, it is an ally but for us to be an effective ally we need also to strengthen our relationship with the other legitimate partners in the region” like Lebanon.

Dion said “Israel understands that for Canada to be helpful, we need to strengthen our links with countries that are around Israel and should be part of the solution and not becoming completely dysfunctional as, unfortunately, Syria became.”

Another understanding that will likely be at play is what Chairman Mao Zedong told then prime minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau [Justin Trudeau’s father] in 1973 during a visit to Beijing.

Mao discussed his theory of “counterweights” in international relations with the elder Trudeau when he expressed concern that the Chinese were tilting towards the Arabs. Mao said it was in response to the West’s support for Israel.

“Shift in tone”

Earlier in the week, after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Trudeau to congratulate him, his spokeswoman described the conversation as a “very positive call.” She said Trudeau also “explained there would be a shift in tone, but Canada would continue to be a friend of Israel’s.”

“Shift in tone” are the operative words here because despite his government’s shrill pro-Israel rhetoric, Harper’s policies were not any different from those of his predecessors.

Bernie Farber, former head of Canadian Jewish Congress, has been quoted as saying that on Israeli-Palestinian issues, Jerusalem, the settlements and so on, “Harper changed not one comma” on Canada’s official policy.

Canada doesn’t recognize Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem; Canada believes that a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem must take heed of international law, including UN Resolution 194; Canada declares that Israeli settlements are a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention.

Un-muzzling of diplomats

The shift in tone is expected to help renew conversations. Benjamin Shinewald, a former senior policy advisor to Canadian prime ministers, believes there’s a host of things Canada could do in the realm of Israeli-Palestinian peacebuilding, starting with empowering the many diplomats who are “demoralized.”

Under the Harper government, they simply “weren’t allowed to engage in public diplomacy,” Shinewald has been quoted as saying. With Trudeau, that should not be an issue going by a letter he sent to ambassadors and high commissioners of Canada's foreign missions.

In the letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Canadian Press, he said his cabinet will be relying on their judgment and insight to advance foreign policy goals. "I expect that you will be engaged energetically in public diplomacy with other diplomats, host government officials, civil society, and the media — in all manner of ways — through direct contact, the media, and social media."

Reopening of ties with Iran

Another of Trudeau’s policy shifts will be with regard to Iran. He had said he is cautiously optimistic about the Iran nuclear deal while acknowledging its implications and advocating reopening of diplomatic relations with Tehran.

“We all start from the same place on this – a nuclear-armed Iran is a threat not just to Israel, not just to the region, but to the entire world, and we have to make sure that Iran doesn’t achieve that,” Trudeau said in an interview during his election campaign. “I do feel that it would be very nice to hope to reopen that embassy at one point because you don’t have embassies with just your friends, you have your embassies with the people you disagree with.”

Canada closed the embassy in September 2012 and also expelled Iranian diplomats from its soil. At that time, the then-Foreign Minister John Baird said Iran was the world's "most significant threat to global peace and security," adding that the Canadian government would list it as a state sponsor of terrorism.

Although Netanyahu called it a "courageous act of leadership," it was a move that affected hundreds of Iranians and Canadians of Iranian heritage who are estimated to number around 165,000. Now with two MPs who share that heritage on the Liberal side, ties with Iran is expected to gain priority.

Trudeau will make his debut on the international stage in the next few days when he travels to the G20 leaders' summit in Turkey on November 15 and goes on to the APEC summit in the Philippines.

Later in the month, he will attend the Commonwealth leaders' summit in Malta and then go on to Paris for what many in Canada see as the main event in his opening round of travel: the international climate change conference in Paris.