Marketing and image are as central to politics as to commerce in the era of advanced capitalist decay. For much of the postwar era, the image of Canada has reflected the leadership of its so-called natural governing party, the Liberals. With the restoration of a Liberal majority in the 2015 federal election, newly sworn-in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has promised a more multilateral approach to foreign affairs than the departing Conservatives, reflecting the historic Liberal “brand.” In practice, the new government’s foreign policy will differ little from that of the Conservatives—upholding the global interests of the Canadian bourgeoisie, but with a more youthful, “progressive” image.
Setting the tone of his government’s approach to foreign affairs immediately after the Liberals’ sweeping election victory, Trudeau confirmed on Oct. 21 that Canada would withdraw its fighter jets from the bombing campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS, also known as ISIL or Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) led by the United States—though he did not lay out a specific timeline for the withdrawal. Under his predecessor Stephen Harper, the Canadian government had committed six CF-18s to the mission, which were scheduled to remain in the area until May 2016.
The underlying message, however, was not one of “change,” but continuity. Trudeau previously stated that a deployment of 69 Canadian special forces troops to train Kurds in northern Iraq would continue. In the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks, which led to a renewed climate of militarism among bourgeois politicians and the media, Trudeau said he would deploy more Canadian soldiers to Iraq as trainers, signalling his continued support for U.S. imperialism in the region.
Historically, the Canadian ruling class has always tied its fortunes to the dominant imperial power of the day. In the decades after Confederation, Canada served as a stalwart North American outpost of the British Empire. With the decline of Britain and the ascent of the United States through two world wars, Canada drew closer and closer to its southern neighbour. Today, as the dominant military and economic superpower and Canada’s largest trading partner, the U.S. continues to set the tone for Canada’s approach to global affairs, reflecting the broad common interests of the U.S. and Canadian bourgeoisie.
The Liberal decision to join the war in Afghanistan, for example, was largely motivated by the desire to prove Canada’s status as a loyal U.S. ally in the aftermath of 9/11. Even on the question of whether Canada should have joined the U.S. war in Iraq—perhaps the biggest policy difference between the Conservatives and Liberals in recent history—while the Conservative opposition under Harper expressed its desire to join the invasion, the Liberals under Jean Chrétien continued to provide Canadian "moral" and military support with four Canadian ships deployed to the Persian Gulf and Canadian exchange officers participating in the invasion.
The latter deviation from U.S. foreign policy reflects one of the abiding characteristics of Canada under Liberal rule—a desire to maintain an independence from U.S. policy in certain cases by presenting a more “moderate”, multilateral image that complements the aims of the superpower. It was under Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, for instance, that Canada opened diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China in 1970, paving the way for the subsequent re-establishment of diplomatic relations between China and the U.S.
Another mainstay of Canada’s global brand is its commitment to “peacekeeping,” initiated by Liberal Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson during the Suez Crisis in 1956. The Liberal emphasis on peacekeeping, as a contrast to the more blatantly militaristic tone of the Conservatives, may be due for a comeback. As reported in The Guardian, following intense pressure from the U.S. to “remake United Nations peacekeeping as a fighting force,” dozens of UN member countries pledged to provide troops, equipment and technology to strengthen peacekeeping missions, particularly to combat Islamist groups in Africa. The prevalence of such groups and related instability is due in large part to U.S. imperialist meddling around the world, but the new focus on peacekeeping provides a golden opportunity for Canada to militarily support its main ally in a less aggressive guise, one more in keeping with “Canadian values.”
Despite tactical and tonal differences, the broad strategic outlines of Canadian foreign policy remain largely the same whether under the Liberals or the Conservatives. Thus, both Harper and Trudeau have expressed their support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a massive “free trade” deal that would empower multinational corporations to override domestic laws protecting workers’ rights, the environment and human health. Both men were strong proponents of the Keystone XL Pipeline, with Trudeau noting he was “disappointed” by Obama’s recent decision to reject the pipeline. And in a sign of capitulation to the Islamophobic fearmongering against Syrian refugees that has erupted in the wake of the Paris attacks—with Republicans and many Democrats in the United States voting to bar all refugees to the country—Trudeau announced in November that Canada would turn away single men in its mass resettlement of refugees due to concerns that they may pose a “security risk.”
Canada’s approach to numerous flashpoints around the globe generally reflects the U.S. line. As a member of NATO, Canada has joined the campaign to demonize Russia as a threat to world peace, though Russia’s actions may be more aptly characterized as a defensive reaction to NATO’s eastward expansion after the end of the Cold War. The current Ukrainian government came to power in a U.S.-instigated coup against a corrupt but democratically elected government and is dominated by neo-Nazi parties such as Svoboda. Blithely ignoring such facts, politicians and a compliant corporate media have exclusively blamed Russian President Vladimir Putin for the ongoing civil war in Ukraine.
Unsurprisingly, Trudeau has chosen to swim with the tide, attacking Putin as a “bully” whose behaviour is “dangerous” in Europe, “unduly provocative” in the Arctic and “irresponsible and harmful” in the Middle East. One week before the election, he noted, “If I have the opportunity in the coming months to meet with Vladimir Putin, I will tell him all this directly to his face because we need to ensure that Canada continues to stand strongly for peace and justice in the world.” We can therefore expect that Canada will continue to participate in provocations against Russia such as the NATO military exercise Operation Trident Juncture, a massive “show of force” described by the National Post as involving “hundreds of warships and war planes, and more than 36,000 soldiers spread across the eastern Atlantic, Mediterranean, Portugal, Spain and Italy.”
In Israel, Canada will remain a lockstep supporter of the Zionist state, continuing the pro-Israel policy of Harper and previous Liberal governments. Speaking to the Canadian Press, Israel’s ambassador to Canada Rafael Barak noted a phone call by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Trudeau congratulating him on his election victory and described the latter as an unwavering supporter of Israel. “I’m sure maybe the style will change,” Barak said. “But I don’t feel there will be a change on the substance. I’m really reassured.” Confirming Trudeau’s pro-Israel outlook, in November Canada joined with the United States to vote against six UN resolutions condemning the state of Israel.
The Trudeau government is likely to offer cosmetic change from Harper’s hardline stance by at least paying lip service to Palestinian grievances. A more concrete example of their shift in approach may be the pledge by Trudeau to re-establish diplomatic relations with Iran, which Harper severed in 2012 after citing the safety of Canadian diplomats. Israeli officials, however, have downplayed the impact of such a decision. Though Netanyahu continues to paint Iran as an “existential threat” to Israel, Barak said the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between Canada and Iran would not harm the Canadian-Israeli relationship, declaring, “This is a Canadian issue . . . It is a domestic Canadian consideration of the security of their diplomats.”
In the case of China, the approach of the new Liberal government is likely to retain the same ambivalence as its Conservative predecessor. While China is a vital trading partner, it also represents an increasing economic and military competitor to the United States, which under Obama has initiated a “pivot to Asia” strengthening U.S. alliances with China’s neighbours and staging numerous military provocations in the South China Sea. The Chinese retain a respect for Pierre Trudeau for his role in promoting Canada-China relations and Beijing has extended an invitation to his son for a formal state visit, but a key determinant going forward will be Canada’s acceptance of the TPP, which purposely excludes China in an attempt to strengthen the hand of the U.S. and its allies in the global marketplace.
Amidst the details of Canadian foreign policy from country to country and the tactical differences between successive governments, the overriding aim remains the same: to represent the interests of the Canadian ruling class. As Karl Marx wrote in The Communist Manifesto, “The executive of the modern state is nothing but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.” The policies of the Canadian government around the world are based not on the common good of working people in Canada and their brothers and sisters in other countries, but rather on maintaining the profits of the capitalist elite and preserving access to markets and resources for Canadian corporations. Policies such as the TPP impoverish the many to enrich the few, while continued military actions in foreign nations bring little more than death and destruction to all but the elites who profit off such human misery.
Many have made the comparison between Justin Trudeau and Barack Obama, in that both came to power following the rule of a reviled conservative predecessor, bolstered by a youthful image and cynical promises of “change.” But just as Obama merely offered more of the same imperialist policies with a fresh coat of paint, so the emptiness of Trudeau’s rhetoric will emerge as his actions—despite token symbolic efforts to provide a “progressive” gloss—continue to primarily serve the interests of big business at the expense of workers and the poor.
“Real change,” in the end, will not come through opportunistic politicians with slick marketing campaigns offering empty words. Only with the overthrow of capitalism and its replacement by a socialist system will working people in Canada and around the world be empowered to democratically decide their own fate, to build a lasting peace and to create a rationally planned economy that serves not the private profit of a few, but the common good of all.