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Towards a new Liberal foreign policy (Part 1/n: Ideology)

Over the coming weeks, on OpenCanada.org, I will be exploring the challenges and opportunities for a new Canadian foreign policy. Ideas for this series are based partly on the 2014 Ottawa Forum, a conference of next-generation foreign policy leaders organized with Roland Paris. Our book on this topic, due out in December, is The World Won’t Wait: Why Canada Needs to Rethink Its International Policies. In the interim though, what follows will be a series of posts on the unique moment that we are now presented with a post-baby boomer leader with a majority mandate to reform Canada’s role in the world.  What should a new, 21st century Liberal foreign policy look like?

One of the more fascinating aspects of watching the Liberal platform unfold over the past year has been the tension between its intentional underlying liberalism and the politics of opposition and election policy making.

After many years of Liberal Party handwringing over its identity — Who are we? What do we stand for? — Justin Trudeau and his team used a distinctly liberal approach to shape the platform, an approach markedly different from former Liberal leaders Jean Chretien, Paul Martin and even Michael Ignatieff (full disclosure, I participated in Ignatieff’s policy process). For more than two decades, Liberals had mostly eschewed liberal ideology for a centrist pragmatism. This works well when you are in, or close to, power, but it is less helpful when rebuilding a party, let alone trying to build a movement.

Through this kind of liberalism we get moderate deficits to be used not on national daycare, but family tax cuts and low interest rate deficit spending. We get an uncompromising individual rights based approach to abortion and the niqab. We get a province-up climate strategy. We get democratic reform and a move towards open government. These policies certainly don’t please everyone, but they all fit nicely within a modern liberal construct.

But what does a liberal foreign policy look like, and did Trudeau set one out in his platform?

The particular challenge in the international domain is that in the years since the Liberals were in power the world has changed in some significant ways. While a victorious Trudeau announced to the world that ‘Canada was back,’ this is going to require more than returning to past Liberal policies.  It will mean re-imagining a liberal international agenda suited to the 21st century.

Since the end of the Second World War, the foreign policies of most developed western countries have been dominated by the concepts, or ideology, of liberal internationalism: a rules-based, open and transparent global system, whose goal is to protect and enhance the freedom of the individual.

For most of its seven decades, this goal was actualized through state-based multilateral organizations that made liberal internationalism largely synonymous with the big postwar institutions like the UN, World Bank and IMF, and the ICC. While the ideal of liberal internationalism is to protect the rights of individuals, the solutions for over half a century have been decidedly statist. And so to address the problem of landmines we get the Mine Ban Convention, to protect citizens against gross human rights abuses we get the Responsibility to Protect, to stop war crimes, we developed norms of humanitarian intervention. While the challenge of liberal internationalism is individualistic, the solutions for over half a century have been state-based.

Despite many successes in its early years, the past decade has in many cases exposed the inability of these postwar institutions and norms to fulfill the very mandates they were built to advance. The list of recent multilateral policy failures is sobering: Afghanistan, Iraq, Kyoto, non-proliferation, and any number of macro development initiatives.

The reality is the multilateral framework is increasingly out of step with a world where technological proliferation has made power more diffuse, and empowered individuals and non-state groups both to protect, and to harm, themselves. As a result, increasingly Liberal Party internationalism is trapped between liberalism’s core mandate of protecting individual rights and a traditional nation-state approach that can no longer take for granted its traditional primacy.

Because of this new reality, for a renewed Liberal Party foreign policy to be effective, it must imagine a 21st century internationalism, rather than fall back on an idealized worldview of old. Put another way, what does an open, rules-based approach to protecting individual rights and freedoms look like in a world of ISIS, Wikileaks, Snowden, and climate change?

Despite Trudeau’s rhetorical emphasis on renewing Canada’s multilateral presence (which in my view is a very positive first step away from the Harper foreign policy approach), we have yet to see a cohesive articulation of his foreign policy approach.

What do we know about Trudeau’s foreign policy?

On the decision to cease airstrikes against ISIS, while an argument can be made to shift our engagement, it is entirely possible — indeed likely — that a Liberal government would have supported them, as they have supported similar campaigns in previous conflicts.

On Bill C-51, the Liberal position was developed to buttress an anticipated nasty conservative attack should they have voted against it. Even with the proposed amendments, central challenges of cross department and international data sharing are problematic for an open, rules based and individually focused liberal agenda (more on this in a later post in this series).

On the Saudi arms deal, Trudeau’s position was that he wouldn’t cancel it but would review and be more transparent about future deals.

On F-35s, he would cancel and replace them with a potentially cheaper alternative.

On the Syrian refugee crisis, a proposal to accept more, and faster.

On pipelines, a mix of supporting some and not others that ultimately will lead to expansion of oilsands development, while at the same time committing to renew Canada’s contribution to global climate talks.

Perhaps the biggest nod to liberal internationalism has been Trudeau’s qualified support of the TPP, a deal that has unified the America left in opposition. So much so that one of its architects, Hillary Clinton, has actually come out against it in order to solidify the nomination.

Whether or not each of these positions is sound, what’s clear is that there is not an underlying philosophy to bind them together.  This is completely understandable when running an election.  But frameworks can help when building a governing agenda.

Perhaps the crux of this challenge to find a meaningful modern foreign policy philosophy is found in Trudeau’s strong support of foreign service rejuvenation and renewed multilateral participation. Relative to the Harper government, these are positive adjustments. But simply re-engaging in international organizations that are in dire need of reform is a necessary but not sufficient step in rebuilding our role in the world.

Meaningful renewal requires not just returning to active participation in a 20th century multilateralism, but taking on the principal question for liberal internationalism today: how do the states that built the postwar international system continue to promote and protect the individual in a world where states have diminishing power?

This foreign policy challenge may be daunting, but if taken seriously it would also open a new era of possibility in which the state works to protect the networks on which individuals empower themselves.

The unique opportunity of this Liberal foreign policy moment is to re-imagine liberal internationalism, by figuring out what a rules-based global system for securing individual freedoms looks like in a world that is radically more open, and where power is more diffuse, than when Liberals were last in power. This is the Canada the world needs.

In subsequent posts, I will explore elements of this opportunity further.