5 Things Americans Need to Know About the New Canadian Prime Minister’s Foreign Policy


Don’t expect as much change as one might expect from a candidate with a slogan of “real change.” Canada is not going change its stances on most major issues. The reason for this is simple: On many of the major foreign policy issues that have arisen over the past several years, the differences between the Conservatives and Liberals were nuances rather than wide gaps. For instance, expect the Liberals to support the recently signed Trans-Pacific Partnership after satisfying their campaign promise to examine it. The biggest change will be in style, with Trudeau being far less combative, especially with allies like the United States.

What are the five key things Americans need to know?

1. Canada is not going to spend much more money on defense, but not much less either. The Liberals may change some of the spending priorities — they have ruled out buying the F-35 — but remain committed to the expensive build-in-Canada program of shipbuilding to replace the current fleet. In response to accusations about free-riding, Canada will remind its allies that it always shows up when called upon, sacrificing more lives in Afghanistan than any outsider except the United States and United Kingdom.

2. Canada will remain engaged, but probably opt to participate more in institutionalized multilateral efforts and less ad hoc coalitions of the willing. Trudeau has promised to pull out of the bombing missions in Iraq and Syria, but the Liberals are not pacifists. The previous Liberal governments participated in every NATO mission, including Bosnia, Kosovo, Libya, and Afghanistan. That should not change. But there will be less enthusiasm for American-led efforts when not conducted via the United Nations or NATO. Expect more contributions to United Nations peacekeeping since a core part of the Liberal identity is as the people who invented peacekeeping. Trudeau will be far friendlier to Obama’s recent call for more effort in this area.

3. Canada will take more steps to deal with climate change. This is perhaps the area of biggest difference between the Harper, with his Alberta/oil-patch support base, and the progressive Trudeau. Trudeau does not owe his success to votes in Alberta, so he will make more significant moves on carbon taxes and the like.

4. Expect more Canadian diplomacy. In the past, Canada has been successful in trying to shape the norms of international relations — pushing for a landmine ban and promoting the responsibility-to-protect doctrine, for example. Under the Harper government, Canadian foreign policy focused more on harsh rhetoric and less on reaching agreements. Liberals like to talk a good game about soft power, and the past shows that they have been pretty successful.

5. Despite pulling out of the anti-ISIL bombing mission, Canada is likely to have better relations with the United States in the days ahead. The Keystone XL pipeline became a major impediment to U.S.–Canadian relations as Stephen Harper made that the focal point of the relationship. A new prime minister less concerned with Albertan interests is more likely to be able to move beyond that one issue.

In some ways, Justin Trudeau’s policies are hard to figure out, as many of the stances he took over the past year were aimed at distinguishing himself and his party from both the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP) and the right-wing Conservatives. Being in the center was not easy, and there were some key missteps along the way. Governing will be both easier and harder: easier because the NDP took a real body blow in this election, so the Liberal-majority government can focus just on confronting the Conservatives; harder because majority government means that there is no one else to blame. Thanks to strict party discipline, Parliament in Canada is not an obstacle to the prime minister’s agenda like Congress is to the president’s in the United States, so the prime minister can mostly impose his will on the political system. What this means is that there is much potential for both great opportunities and terrible mistakes.

The next step, of course, is assembling a cabinet who can help the relatively inexperienced Trudeau avoid the traps along the way.


Stephen M. Saideman holds the Paterson Chair in International Affairs at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs.


Photo credit: Alex Guibord