The challenge facing Justin Trudeau and the Liberal government this summer has come like a bolt of lightning. It has come out of nowhere – or out of nowhere foreseeable when Trudeau was elected in October 2015, from a direction that was barely foreseeable as recently as 12 months ago.
The challenge can be stated in two words. No, those two words are not “deficit spending” or “electoral reform” or “Syrian refugees” or “gender parity” – words that now seem so 2015. The two words are simply “Donald Trump.”
Trump has changed everything. Managing the Canada-United States relationship has always been high on the Ottawa agenda, but now it dominates the agenda. Not since the early 1970s, when an earlier Trudeau was running the show, have American relations loomed so large. Older readers will remember Pierre Trudeau’s “Third Option” (an unsuccessful strategy to reduce dependence on the U.S. by developing closer ties with other countries), his “contractual link” with Europe, and the creation of FIRA (the Foreign Investment Review Agency, invented to cast an evil eye on American takeovers of Canadian companies).
The big difference between then and now is that in those days relations were calm and fairly predictable, notwithstanding President Richard Nixon’s animus toward the elder Trudeau.
Today, nothing is calm or predictable. Like other world leaders, Justin Trudeau has to deal with a President Trump who says one thing one day and does another the next, who writes policy as he tweets, who is profoundly ignorant of world affairs, who does not appreciate history, and who trusts the Drudge Report more than his own State Department.
Trump has already caused a more significant shift in Canadian foreign policy and defence priorities than Trudeau’s father’s Third Option ever did. In Commons last week, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, Justin’s go-to minister on all things American, attacked Trump’s policies without mentioning the President by name.
She didn’t need to. She rejected his isolationist “America First” foreign policy with its hostility to free trade and his withdrawal from the Paris accord on climate change. She attacked him in terms seldom heard coming from a Canadian cabinet minister and directed at the White House. She expressed concern that many American voters desire to “shrug off the burden of world leadership.”
Freeland went on: “The fact that our friend and ally has come to question the very worth of its mantle of global leadership puts in sharper focus the need for the rest of us to set our own clear and sovereign course. To say this is not controversial. It is a fact.”
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan followed the next day with a beefed-up military policy to add muscle to Freeland’s call for a “clear and sovereign course.” After years of fiscal restraint, defence spending will be boosted by 70 per cent over the next 10 years, from $18.9 billion to $32.7 billion by 2026-27 in the first leg of 20-year funding commitment for the military. There will be new personnel (5,000 additional regular and reserve members for the Canadian Forces), plus new equipment.
Sajjan promised 88 new fighter aircraft to replace the Royal Canadian Air Force’s elderly CF-18s. That compares to 65 fighters pledged but never ordered by the Harper Conservative government. For the navy, there are to be 15 new “surface combat ships” to replace ageing or unserviceable frigates and destroyers.
A measure of skepticism is in order. Military acquisition has been a mess for many years. Tenders come in over budget. Specifications are changed. Costs rise further. Orders are delayed. Reviews are conducted. Suppliers cannot meet deadlines. New equipment – land, air or sea – may eventually arrive, but it will be years late.
It was Samuel Johnson who observed, “Nothing concentrates the mind like the knowledge that one will be hanged in the morning.” Perhaps the knowledge that Trump is busy stamping his “America First” brand on the world will concentrate the woolly minds in Ottawa’s military hardware department.