29 May 2024

The Trudeau Government’s lack of ability concerning in all things foreign policy, defence, and national security, has been a major liability for Canada both internationally and at home. Nowhere is this more clearly demonstrated than as it concerns Israel and Palestine. To demonstrate this one need only compare Trudeau’s position to Harper’s to highlight several lessons, chiefly how far Canada has fallen, not to mention the dangers of trying to be all things to all people instead of being an actual leader (instead of a pantomime of one) and staking out a clear position.

To start it’s worth laying out the current situation Canada finds itself in. For the last nine years, we have been governed by a leadership team that has consistently shown itself disinterested, if not totally incompetent in the realm of defence, national security and foreign affairs.

In terms of foreign affairs, we have had 5 Foreign Ministers in those 9 Years. In that time, we have seen Canada turn its back on long-standing geopolitical positions, such as that concerning Israel. Under Trudeau, Canada has retreated from its international military commitments and, instead, this administration has sought high-profile symbolism over substance. This has led to a situation where Canada finds itself in an unenviable light of appearing to lecture and virtue signal as our dilettante Prime Minister prances across the stage completely oblivious to the complex differences and competitions which underlay his simplified positions.

As this relates to national security, the most recent, longest serving, and dare I say most undeservedly celebrated Foreign Minister openly acknowledged that she had not been receiving national security briefing until the allegations of Chinese interference in Canadian elections became known to the public. Take a moment to absorb a Foreign Affairs Ministry unwilling or unable to perform a core function of providing their Minister with national security briefings. It is impossible to understate how shocking it is that the Minister was not receiving these briefings and kept her job when that fact became public. This only came to light, when our national intelligence service (CSIS) leaked it to the press and put the spotlight on the level of Chinese inference operations targeting our elections. They resorted to this approach due to the level of concern held over the disinterest and incompetence our government had shown in confronting the situation. It also has come to light that Canada is also being targeted electorally by India and Pakistan in 2019 and 2021.

Instead, Trudeau’s playbook has been to ignore, deflect, dodge, and finally cede to making the smallest of commitments. Despite the overwhelming demand for an inquest, it would take a long slow wearing down by stages to achieve and only after the ‘special rapporteur’ (a family friend – who did not have the confidence of Canadians) completely fell flat on his illustrious face.

Somehow this pales in comparison to what has, or more appropriately has not happened with defence. That is to say nothing other than Canada’s rapid charge towards becoming the biggest slacker in NATO at the absolute worst possible moment. Our allies have grown increasingly brazen in openly criticizing Canada’s defence posture on numerous occasions. This while the current government has made it pretty clear that they have no interest, intention, or plan to address the situation. At a time of growing international tensions, when the rules based international order is quickly fading into our rear-view mirror as an aggressive Russia and China seek to assert their dominance over global affairs this is incomprehensible. Make no mistake what is occurring right now is unprecedented and whether Canada realises it or not, this is a sign of how terribly damaging this neglect has been.

Now take the Harper years in contrast (a line I am loathed to find myself writing with a sense of nostalgia). They, too, failed on defence cutting spending but did so while the CAF was in Afghanistan and supporting a major allied mission there. The Harper government, it should also be noted began what was guaranteed to be the disastrous CSC program once they awarded it to Irving, but they were at least aware of the need to look towards new ships. The Harper Government made (what I would still argue is a questionable choice) of pursuing the F-35, agree or disagree at least it was decisive. Trudeau finds himself, after 9 years and a promise that Canada would never buy the F-35 stuck in the position of having the begrudgingly agree to buy the F-35….one day, maybe, since the defence minister is now saying there is no room in the budget to procure those F-35s. The Harper Government also had a keen eye on the Arctic, and Trudeau ridiculed Harper’s weird obsession with, but that we now find Trudeau turning to as a sort of half-measure on defence that might placate the Americans. Harper also closed the recruitment centres that I would argue laid the groundwork for the CAF’s current (entirely self-induced) recruitment crisis.

That said Harper also made clear where Canada stood on Ukraine, the Arctic, and most significantly Israel and radical Islam. And this is where we circle back to the beginning of this article. The Harper Government had a very clearly defined set of foreign policy ideas and made them (at times painfully) clear. Under Harper’s Conservatives, Canada’s junior defence minister was flying to Ukraine with non-lethal aid to Ukraine in 2014 after Russia annexed Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine. This seemed like a publicity stunt for Bezan, but fast forward a decade and it is now cast in a different light and demonstrates the Harper Government’s long-term understanding of the very real threat Russia posed to not only Ukraine but the rest of us. Although our allies could (and often did) have problems with our methodology, there was no question concerning the fundamental principles we stood for or our commitment to them. That is where the big difference is, it’s costly and it shows. Although Trudeau talks big on Ukraine (the largest Ukrainian diaspora population outside of Russia is in Canada and represents a significant, if not usually conservative voting bloc) his efforts have been pitiful.

On Israel, say what you will of Harper, his position (like with Ukraine) was incredibly clear, he supported the only legitimate western democracy in the Middle East and its right to defend itself. He also saw the connection this position had with acting as a bulwark against antisemitism. For Harper support of Israel was ‘the right thing to do’ viewed through two key lenses, strategic and moral, which were seen as inherently intertwined. Strategically his government had a clearly defined view of support for Israel as a necessity to ensure that democracy flourished and spread its benefits across the Middle East to combat the instability there, which held real-world consequences to a globalised community of nations. In connection with this Harper saw support for Israel as a moral imperative. To stand for Israel was to stand against radicalization and terrorism, to establish that violence would never be tolerated, and peaceful dialogue was the only path toward lasting peace. His own words on the subject can be found here and are worth reading.

In contrast, Trudeau’s desire to avoid upsetting a core constituency critical to his electoral calculations, Muslims, has witnessed his retreat from a full-throated commitment to a not so subtly anti-Israel indifference. The results have been disgusting here at home where this has acted as a silent nod that we will tolerate the very worst currents of political Islam. The line between pro-Palestinian protests and antisemitic hating marches (minus the brown shirts) has become indecipherable. As an aside, we should be far more concerned with the rhetoric surrounding “settler states” and the justified use of terrorist violence against civilians as a “legitimate form of resistance” against these settlers. A current that has become so normalised and mainstream by Trudeau’s political cowardice that the country looks totally unrecognizable from what it was even a year ago, never mind the era of Harper and his hotline for barbaric cultural practices, misguided, poorly executed, but perhaps not entirely incomprehensible in certain light. This attempt to please everyone and offend no one has left us with a government too afraid to call out misbehaviour and the result has been to delegitimise the government in the eyes of the people, while fomenting considerable unrest, a sense of a double standard being applied, and an overall divisiveness that Trudeau is nutritious for and will likely stand as his true legacy.

The Trudeau Government’s public fracturing over Israel and Palestine only mirrors the divided lines in Canada and elsewhere. It would be too bold for the Trudeau Government to actually have a foreign policy and direction that it could sufficiently and succinctly convey to the general public.

Internationally Trudeau’s, as near as possible without saying so, support for international movements targeting Israel has put us in the uncomfortable company of states like South Africa. It has seen our Prime Minister explicitly and embarrassingly publicly fact check by Netanyahu on the basic questions concerning this conflict. It has signaled to our allies that we are very quickly retreating from shared principles towards the embarrassingly incoherent too-progressive-to-function international stance of countries such as Ireland. Furthermore, it has sent a dangerous signal to aggressor nations bent on overturning the rules-based international order that might make right and that in the face of violence, we will fold. October 7th is a harsh lesson on this point. On a side note, in terms of self-interest, one might do well to consider how Trudeau’s position on Israel will contrast with that of the next Trump administration (which seems likely).

The lesson from all this is that you are better off picking a side. Indecision leads to chaos, trying to please everyone pleases no one. As a leader, the job is to pick a policy position and go out and advance it. Say what you want about Harper, but credit where credit is due, on foreign affairs he had a clear vision. Trudeau has demonstrated an unwillingness or inability to fully consider international positions beyond immediate domestic metric and Canada has suffered for it.


Feature Photo: Merged Photo from two Wikimedia Commons photos – Justin Trudeau at Eurasia Group 2023 & Stephen Harper in Greece 2011, Wikimedia Commons, 2024

DefenceReport’s Analysis is a multi-format blog that is based on opinions, insights and dedicated research from DefRep editorial staff and writers. The analysis expressed here are the author’s own and are not necessarily reflective of any institutions or organisations which the author may be associated with. In addition, they are separate from DefRep reports, which are based on independent and objective reporting.

By Chris Murray

Chris is the Assistant Editor at DefenceReport and Senior Analyst. He holds a PhD is Defence Studies from King’s College London, an MA in War Studies from the Royal Military College of Canada, as well as both an Ba in Anthropology and an HBa in History from Lakehead University. He specialises in irregular conflicts, guerrilla insurgencies, and asymmetrical warfare. His areas of focus include the Caucasus, and Eastern Europe, but are primarily aimed at the Balkans. Chris is an Associate Member of the of The Corbett Centre for Maritime Policy Studies at King's College London, a Member of the Second World War Research Group at King’s College London, as well as an Associate of King’s College London. Chris has formally served as a defence and foreign policy advisor in the Canadian House of Commons to the office of a Member of Parliament. [email protected]