Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly’s speech during her recent address to the Council on International Relations in Montreal clearly marked a change in approach compared to the speeches Canadian diplomats have become accustomed to over the years. The minister announced a shift toward a less moralistic foreign policy, emphasizing two guiding principles: the defense of Canadian sovereignty and resolutely pragmatic diplomacy.
This approach emphasizes the need to perceive the world as it is, rather than to imagine it as we would like it to be. An obvious fact for many, but not always self-evident in Ottawa. Did this speech by Minister Joly represent a departure from the general direction of the Trudeau government? NO. The centralization of power in Ottawa and control of the government’s message meant that Minister Joly’s speech received the blessing of the Prime Minister’s Office before it was announced.
We believe this change in approach, even this realistic turn, is beneficial for Canada. For decades, Canadian foreign policy has been defined by the export of our values, whether under the banner of human security under Jean Chrétien, principled diplomacy under Stephen Harper or feminism under Justin Trudeau. Canada presented itself primarily as an entrepreneur with international standards and sometimes moralized towards other countries, especially those in the global south. However, with the rise of illiberal regimes and an international context characterized by populism, armed conflict, great power rivalries and the weakening of international liberal norms, geopolitical balances have changed.
It is now imperative to recognize the reality: Canada is a second-order power, unable to impose its vision of the world or dictate the rules of the game. Of course, we may begrudgingly repeat that “the world needs more Canada,” but the reality is that our influence is waning and the world needs Canada.
In this context, the Minister announced that Canada will take a less moralistic stance and seek to work with the countries of the Global South, considering them as full partners, to better define possible solutions to global problems, including those of climate change . This pragmatic approach means that we are willing to work with states with which we have significant differences in Canada’s best interests. This new direction seems sensible and responsible given the current international situation.
The Minister’s approach is also more realistic as it highlights the need to defend our territorial sovereignty, particularly in the Arctic region. It appreciates growth in defense spending and promises to strengthen safeguards against foreign interference, including China, Russia and Iran. It is interesting to note that this guiding principle is reminiscent of certain strands of the Harper government’s 2007 Canada First defense policy.
So not everything in this speech is new. Overall, however, it marks a real change in the overall approach to the world and in the way the current government views our priorities and the role it wants to assign to our international action. The key now lies in implementing these ideas. If the current government seriously embarks on this path, we may be able to talk about a small revolution in Canadian foreign policy.
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