The Trudeau Government: A U.S. View

February 2, 2016 2:32 pm Last Updated: February 4, 2016 5:39 am

Someone said that the Canadians held an election last year, and there is a new “sheriff” in Ottawa? Or was it a new rock star band? Whatever.

The essential point, as Canadians realize with combined bitterness, irritation, and regret, is that Americans pay very little attention to Canada. It is the home of “Mounties,” hockey players (although no longer championship quality), and bad weather where snow starts in August and doesn’t melt until May.

The foregoing is overstated to be sure, but during a presidential election year, U.S. domestic politics sucks all the oxygen from the ruminations of the politically engaged. And this year, that reality is even more real with a madhouse collage of Republicans led by “The Donald” transfixing media—a media still ruminating whether Trump is “for real.”

Among Democrats, Hillary Clinton’s coronation “cake walk” presidential nomination has turned into a stumble-fest with Clinton dogged by questions regarding her handling of classified State Department communications on her personal computer and old concerns over a “Billery” team in the White House. Moreover, from out of nowhere, a socialist senator from Vermont, who looks as if he is wearing a fright wig, is rallying Democrat youth activists in a way not seen for over a generation.

Canadians may forgive us for not paying attention to their change of government when our made-for-TV reality show is blaring.

Canadians may forgive us for not paying attention to their change of government when our made-for-TV reality show is blaring.

But setting aside such amusing distractions, professional Canada watchers can make some observations.

First, a change in style in Ottawa. Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper was a highly intelligent, exceptionally organized political figure who resurrected a Canadian conservative alternative to the Liberal “natural governing party.”

His principles were clear, his personal life impeccable, his adherence to “family values” unquestioned. He even wrote a book on hockey while his wife saved abandoned kittens. Unfortunately, he had the personal charisma of an arm chair and, at the nine-year mark, the Conservatives had worn out their welcome.

The final straw was the arrival of Justin Trudeau as the Liberal leader. Son of the Canadian icon Pierre Trudeau with his father’s charisma if not his intellect, he out-performed all expectations and all but personally transmuted a morose, third-place party into a parliamentary majority. In three months, this peregrinating prime minister has been a well-remarked figure at global confabs from the Paris global warming conference to the Davos meeting of prominent global doers and shakers.

There have been speeches (Canada should be known for “resourcefulness” not just “resources”) and scads of “selfies” with assorted admirers. One can see the shadow of his father pirouetting behind Queen Elizabeth. There has been a lot of distracting “flash,” but there is also substantive change.

Essentially a comfortable decade of closely matched bilateral defense and foreign policy is over. The Conservatives believed in a robust defense and a Canada that “punched above its weight.” The Liberals are not interested in boxing matches. They have canceled the projected F-35 purchase with a projected review for an F-18 replacement that will stretch into the never-never. Their proposals for a rebuilt, modernized navy appear made of paper rather than steel. And a “leaner” Canadian military will probably subtract combat-capable units rather than headquarters paper-pushers.

Essentially a comfortable decade of closely matched bilateral defense and foreign policy is over.

Even more visible is Canadian withdrawal from political-military commitments. The decision to withdraw F-18s from Iraq–Syria combat missions against Islamic State (ISIS) terrorists epitomizes Ottawa’s opt-out attitude. The suggestion that Canada will fill the gap with trainers (far from harm’s way) verges on the risible. We can expect less criticism of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, fewer denunciations of Tehran’s nuclear program (while pushing Bombardier jet sales), and greater “even-handedness” regarding Israeli–Palestinian confrontation.

Domestically, Trudeau appears enthralled with “green” environmentalism with proposed restrictions/reviews for projected pipelines that will assure supporters die of old age before an inch of pipe is laid. Combined with visionary carbon taxes, Americans will watch Canadians pay more for everything.

But many of these (and other) Trudeau policies are more than acceptable to the Obama administration. The president endures rather than embraces the U.S. military, finds terrorism less threatening than global warming, and has a grip-and-glower personal relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Obama and Harper never developed a relationship beyond “correct.” The most blatant illustration of such was the studied avoidance of a White House official dinner for Harper during his nine years’ incumbency. The insult was even more pointed when instantly upon Trudeau’s victory he was so invited.

Perhaps it is akin to the Nobel Peace Prize awarded Obama upon becoming president—a triumph of hope over reality.

David T. Jones

David T. Jones is a retired U.S. State Department senior foreign service career officer who has published several hundred books, articles, columns, and reviews on U.S.–Canadian bilateral issues and general foreign policy. During a career that spanned over 30 years, he concentrated on politico-military issues, serving as adviser for two Army chiefs of staff. Among his books is “Alternative North Americas: What Canada and the United States Can Learn From Each Other.”

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