Justin Trudeau puts his (small) mark on the world

Paul Wells: The PM is set to become the longest-lasting leader in the world’s most exclusive club—hailed by his team as ‘dean of the G7.’ His record on foreign aid, peacekeeping and Canada-U.S. relations points to a much more disinterested role.

(Illustrations by Anna Minzhulina)

(Illustrations by Anna Minzhulina)

To be fair, Justin Trudeau was fielding a bit of a snotty question.

“If I may, the G7 in Cornwall risks being forgotten in the way that most G7 summits are forgotten,” Nick Robinson, a veteran BBC political reporter, said to the Canadian Prime Minister at a news conference at the end of the Cornwall summit in June. “Beyond the beach and the barbecue and the royal banquet, what do you think the world ought to remember from this summit that will make a real difference?”

Well, isn’t that just great. Here Trudeau had at last slipped the politically safe bonds of domestic quarantine. He’d crossed the Atlantic for the first time in more than a year. He’d held his first actual 3D face-to-face meeting with a new U.S. president, Joe Biden, and, given the duo’s surprisingly shaky start, not a moment too soon. He’d finally caught up with a bunch of other A-list world leaders after way too much Skyping. Together they’d spent two days talking about all the big issues facing the world.

And now, here was some snide backseat driver with a plummy accent and a laminated press pass basically wondering why he’d been dragged out of bed to cover a taxpayer-funded beach vacation.

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Trudeau’s pride actually isn’t usually easily wounded, but there does come a point, and you can generally spot when he hits it. The tight little smile that crept onto his face while Robinson was wrapping up his question was a tell. So was the steam coming out his ears.

The Prime Minister began by reminding everyone of the 2019 G7 in Charlevoix, Que.—the one Trudeau planned and hosted, the one that a lot of reporters wrote was “derailed” or “torpedoed” after a departing Donald Trump tweeted from Air Force One that Trudeau had been “very dishonest and weak.” In fact, Trudeau said now, that G7 resulted in improved education for “thousands and thousands” of girls in developing countries, a charter to slow the dumping of plastics into the world’s oceans, and “many, many partnerships” that didn’t make headlines, but did make a difference.

“And I don’t know what you will all be writing tomorrow,” Trudeau continued—he had by now done a pretty good job of winding himself up, and he waved a dismissive hand at the BBC’s Robinson before charging ahead—“but I can tell you that the work we got done here today—at a time when the G7 is more united than ever before; more focused on the responsibility we wield collectively as some of the world’s leading economies not just to our own citizens but of citizens around the world; during a time of duelling crises of the pandemic and of climate change—the impacts of this G7 will be felt long after the newspapers you write for will have been used to wrap fish.”

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Trudeau’s swipe at the fish-wrap brigade was a decent defence of the work that often happens at G7 summits, which really do help the world’s major industrialized economies align their work. And if it also had a wounded tone, well, it turns out it’s because Trudeau has begun to feel a sense of ownership over these annual meetings.

This was the fifth G7 Trudeau has attended. Not every leader survives the vicissitudes of electoral fate that long. Some members of Trudeau’s entourage have started to notice the boss’s relative longevity. And, indeed, to market it. Two Bloomberg reporters noticed the chatter from the Canadian entourage and wrote about it. Compared to Biden, France’s Emmanuel Macron and Italy’s Mario Draghi, a former long-time head of Europe’s central bank, “the leader of the smallest G7 economy cuts a marginal figure in spite of efforts to be the new ‘dean,’ as he became known among the Canadian delegation,” Bloomberg reported.

The basis for the claim is that German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has attended every G8 and G7 since 2006, will retire from politics after elections in September. Among the leaders left standing, only Trudeau was at the 2016 summit in Japan. The rest came along later. Team Trudeau is rarely more charming than when it’s trying to be subtle: the PM’s chief of staff, Katie Telford, posted on Instagram a photo of Trudeau and Merkel walking together, apparently in solemn, weight-of-the-world conversation. “Another @g7 wrapped,” Telford captioned the portrait. “Last one with Chancellor Merkel (@bundeskanzlerin). Hard to imagine one without her!” Get it?

The fish-wrap legions were unimpressed.“Merkel is a natural leader,” the Toronto Sun—admittedly always a tough crowd—said in an editorial. “Trudeau isn’t.”

But there’s a simple truth to the notion of Trudeau as elder statesman that makes it worth pausing to reflect. First, the math checks out. Assuming he survives a looming federal election that frankly doesn’t look like an overwhelming challenge, he really is about to become the longest-serving G7 leader. What effect have the years had on Trudeau as a foreign-policy Prime Minister? And—the harder question—what effect has Trudeau had on the world?

The notion of a “dean of the G7” is essentially invented, and freshly so, too. There’s no traditional role or prestige for the longest-serving leader in the G7, says John Kirton, the University of Toronto political scientist who, as director of the university’s G7 Research Group, is the world’s leading authority on the G7. There’s the host of each year’s summit, and then there’s everyone else.

It’s only an accident of fate that has Trudeau assuming silverback status so soon. Japan’s Shinzo Abe was elected in 2012 but resigned earlier this year because of colitis. The U.K. Conservatives have been in power since 2010, but Brexit ended the careers of David Cameron and Theresa May. Lasting longest in the G7 these days is a bit like winning a bicycle race because all the cyclists in front of you collide and collapse in a heap.

At another level, Team Trudeau’s precocious marketing of an as-yet-unearned deanship is a sign. It marks the resurgence of a familiar yearning for Trudeau: the desire to matter in the world, se faire un prénom, in a felicitous French phrase, to earn himself a first name, since his family name was already made famous by another guy long before this one got into politics. Trudeau’s problem is that there is a growing sense that he hasn’t yet left much of a mark on the world. This sentiment is reflected, for instance, in a growing current in mainstream political science scholarship. “Liberals are discovering that celebrity politics is not enough to deal with pressing global challenges,” Alex Marland of Memorial University and Richard Nimijean of Carleton University write in their contribution to Political Turmoil in a Tumultuous World: Canada Among Nations 2020, an annual essay collection published in May of this year. “Trudeau’s instant political celebrity initially improved his political fortunes and increased Canada’s global profile. However, blunders, controversy and shortcomings have damaged his reputation.”

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At first, the sense that Trudeau would be a consequential PM spread well outside the Liberal party as such. The buzz of the early Trudeau years was so euphoric it’s hard to remember. On Nov. 6, 2015, hundreds of civil servants spontaneously cheered Trudeau and other members of his new cabinet like a liberating army when they arrived for a meeting at the Pearson Building, the gloomy ziggurat on Sussex Drive that houses the Foreign Affairs Department. Foreign diplomats joined the chorus. “It’s as though Harry Potter had replaced Voldemort!” one ambassador to Ottawa from a key Canadian ally told me, revelling in the change of tone on climate issues in particular. Another diplomat complained that his country’s prime minister was having a hard time securing face time with Trudeau for a photo op.

Perhaps the most extravagant coming-out party for what felt like a new era for Canada in the world took place on Feb. 11, 2016, at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, Que. The occasion was a visit from Ban Ki-moon, then the UN secretary general. The dinner drew hundreds of invited guests. A bunch of former Liberal foreign ministers were on hand, as well as the Liberals’ favourite former Conservative foreign minister, Joe Clark. In his before-dinner remarks, Ban obligingly shouted the night’s slogan under Trudeau’s approving gaze: “Canada is back!”

Ban liked Trudeau for three main reasons. First, in a stark departure from the Harper government, Trudeau had promised to accept 25,000 more refugees, mostly from Syria, part of an unprecedented global crisis. Second, Canada was promising to return to UN-sanctioned peacekeeping in a big way. Finally, Canada was promising to resume a leadership role in global climate talks.

(Illustrations by Anna Minzhulina)
(Illustrations by Anna Minzhulina)

And under Trudeau, Canada followed through on all of these commitments. Sometimes more than others. In a little over 100 days, more than 25,000 refugees arrived in Canada, though in later years, with the 2015 crisis receding, refugee flows into Canada have fallen to levels closer to where they were before Trudeau’s election. Catherine McKenna, Trudeau’s first environment minister, played an active role at the Paris climate talks, and Canada imposed a carbon tax on recalcitrant provinces.

Peacekeeping was the hard one, and eventually a bit of a fiasco. People who work closely with Trudeau say he’s engaged and thoughtful on foreign-policy questions. A pleasure to brief. He likes to indulge hypotheticals, he pushes back at assumptions he doesn’t like, he doesn’t mind when his interlocutors push back against him. This is a robust observation I’ve heard from several people. Yet he was amazed to learn, after the 2015 election, the first thing any undergraduate poli-sci student learns about peacekeeping: that traditional peacekeeping between large, coherent armies whose leaders all agree to a UN presence has all but vanished from this earth. These days, even the UN’s blue helmets work in far more fluid and dangerous situations than they did when Lester Pearson was winning his Nobel Peace Prize. Realizing this, the Trudeau government was transfixed, uncertain, and dithered for years before sending eight helicopters to Mali in 2018. For a year. To fly over the troops sent by countries that were willing to fight. With that deployment done, there are no plans for a second mission of any size. By May 2021, Canada had 56 peacekeepers working anywhere in the world.

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Peacekeeping is hardly the only way to engage with the world, of course. There’s also international development assistance, or foreign aid. Here, though the Trudeau government has done interesting new thinking on the file with its Feminist International Assistance Policy, it hasn’t backed the thinking consistently with money. In a 2018 paper for Canadian Foreign Policy Journal, the University of Ottawa’s Stephen Brown told the story of governments across two decades: “As was the case for other Western donor countries, Canada significantly increased its foreign aid allocations in the early 2000s, after a period of steep decline,” Brown writes. “The Liberals under prime minister Paul Martin promised to double aid spending, a commitment that was kept by the Conservative government that replaced it. No sooner had the latter done so, however, than it first froze aid budgets and then decreased spending. The Trudeau government increased aid only slightly in its three federal budgets—barely enough to keep up with inflation. As the result of economic growth, [development assistance as a fraction of the Canadian economy] will remain stagnant at around 0.26 per cent—the lowest average of any Canadian government since the 1960s.”

So far I haven’t discussed the big global events that would have made it difficult for any Canadian government to make its mark on the world: Donald Trump’s election, an increasingly bitter standoff with Xi Jinping’s China and the COVID-19 crisis that killed millions, endangered countless others and left every world leader locked up at home for more than a year. It’s been a brutal half-decade, and the Trudeau government handled much of it with a grim focus that produced good results.

Trump didn’t just have a low opinion of NAFTA; he campaigned on a promise to repeal the agreement, which he repeatedly called “the worst deal ever.” Yet Trudeau and Chrystia Freeland read the situation well and reached a deal that preserved most of NAFTA’s advantages while avoiding a deeper crisis. Canada weathered the COVID storm with fewer deaths per capita than any G7 country except Japan. And after a slow and chaotic start, Canada is climbing the global league tables on vaccine distribution.

China, however, has the big guy stumped. This began before Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor were arrested at the end of 2018. Before the 2015 election, Trudeau put stronger economic relations with China at the centre of his economic policy. After he became PM, he pushed hard for a trade deal with China, even flying to Beijing in a doomed attempt to salvage the project. Especially since the Michaels’ arrest, Trudeau has often seemed unsure how to proceed. He’s had four foreign ministers in six years. He’s written a public mandate letter to each. None of the four letters even mentioned China.

But every government faces crises. Some work around them and make progress. In this respect, it’s useful to follow what happens to the Trudeau government when a major crisis generator—the Trump presidency—recedes from the scene.

It isn’t going well between Trudeau and Joe Biden. In fact it’s barely going. Trudeau ministers have been amazed that trade disputes on lumber and dairy have continued under the Biden Democrats. The new president has consistently passed up opportunities to tell Congressional Democrats that his vision of a “Buy American” policy should be construed as a “Buy North American” policy that keeps Canadian providers inside the continental bubble. If that situation doesn’t change, the consequences for Canada would not be great.

One long-time Canada-watcher in Washington told me that Biden is well-disposed toward Trudeau and remembers the excellent reception he received during a trip to Ottawa in his last weeks as Barack Obama’s vice-president. But the new president doesn’t share Obama’s fascination or kindred feeling for Trudeau. “There’s no bromance this time,” this observer says.

Christopher Sands, a U.S. political scientist whose work has long focused on Canada-U.S. relations, runs the Canada Institute at Washington’s Wilson Center think tank. “Expectations in Canada—and inside the Canadian government—were too high for Biden,” he says, “but have been reset as the continued political divisions in the U.S., reflected in the narrowly divided Congress, have become clear.” Sands also discerns a “structural problem” within successive U.S. administrations in managing relations with Canada. In other words, it’s hardly all Canada’s fault. Expertise on Canada is only intermittently available in departments and agencies whose decisions influence the relationship. “This results in an incoherent strategy—or failure to have a strategy—for U.S. policy toward Canada,” Sands says.

This is the sort of thing diplomats could help settle. But almost half a year into his term, Biden still hadn’t named an ambassador to Ottawa. He fixed that on July 21 by nominating Philadelphia lawyer David Cohen, long rumoured to have been his pick for the post. Cohen has a formidable CV: as chief of staff to Ed Rendell when Rendell was mayor of Philly and then governor of Pennsylvania; as top lobbyist for the Comcast telecoms giant; as board chair of the University of Pennsylvania.

While Cohen cooled his heels waiting for the call and then for what might yet be a leisurely Senate confirmation process, the Biden administration sent a lower-key but still impressive emissary to Ottawa, one who didn’t need Senate approval. In June, Arnold Chacón arrived in Ottawa as “chargé d’affaires ad interim.” Chacón is a career diplomat, a former U.S. ambassador to Guatemala who then became director general of the Foreign Service, an administrative position comparable in rank to an assistant secretary of state. Sands says Chacón’s assignment is an attempt to unstick a bunch of files as the Trudeau-Biden partnership approaches the half-year mark with little to show.

One issue is the border, not yet fully open after more than a year. Border-state governors are apoplectic at the continued shutdown. Canadian authorities are in no hurry to lift restrictions. Polling suggests the public is on the side of border caution, and in fact disdainful of letting the Americans in.

This opens up a dark and too-rarely discussed possibility: maybe Canadians don’t much like the world, and especially not the neighbours? To the minority of Canadians who frequently visit the U.S., know and respect a lot of Americans, and viewed Trump’s election as an aberration, a closed border was a necessary sacrifice that mustn’t be prolonged a moment longer than needed. But there’s another Canadian public, one that never did think much of the neighbours and views Trump’s election as evidence of a lasting pathology that can’t be assumed to be behind us.

Maybe a Prime Minister who sheltered in place for a year, who seems overwhelmed by much of the world and who can’t shake a suspicious attitude to cross-border relations is simply in touch with public opinion? Including some of its less lovely aspects?

Stephen Harper won his only majority government, in 2011, by campaigning as a rampart against a “sea of troubles” that threatened Canada from every direction. Trudeau’s different from Harper in a bunch of ways, but is that part of their world view—an abiding suspicion that the rest of the world can do us no good in the long run—all that different? Trudeau’s longevity at the G7 is an accident of fate and statistics, of little consequence to that institution or much of anything else. But he is earning his longevity in Canadian politics the only way anyone ever does: through his ability, imperfect and intermittent as it may be, to read the room. A country that doesn’t think much of the world has found a leader who spends most of his time in a similar mood.

This article appears in print in the September 2021 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “Justin Trudeau puts his (small) mark on the world.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here