Budget 2021 and Foreign Policy

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While the Trudeau Liberal government focused on a domestic recovery from the public health and economic crises brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, it left foreign policy largely ignored in its first budget in two years.

Ambitious plans for childcare and Indigenous spending were unveiled in the April 19 budget, but that same ambition wasn’t seen in the announcement of new foreign policy initiatives, said Canadian International Council president Ben Rowswell.

“We’ve seen a huge increase on spending on domestic priorities by this government without a corresponding increase in foreign policy,” said Mr. Rowswell, a former senior-level Canadian diplomat. “And I think that represents a failure of organizations in civil society that are focused on global affairs … we don’t seem to have convinced the government that the challenges facing Canada are growing considerably on the international stage. We need the focus of the government and its resources [to be on] as much as what’s happening abroad as what’s happening in Canada.”

“This budget shows the government’s willingness and determination to tackle certain long-standing systemic issues at home and put its money where its mouth is,” he said. “There are equal challenges on the international stage—they are not as directly within our control, that’s the definition of foreign policy—but they are no less urgent.”

For Canada’s foreign policy, Mr. Rowswell said, the budget represents continuity at a time of dramatic global change. “From my own perspective, that’s not adequate,” he added.

The budget’s foreign policy commitments include pledges to increase NATO contributions and funding for NORAD modernization. Canada’s international development purse got an injection—around $1.4-billion over five years, including more than $500-million in the next fiscal year—but not as much as some stakeholders hoped. The federal government also responded to geopolitical crises around the world with funding to address the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar, the migrant and refugee crisis in Venezuela, and a one-year extension of the Middle East strategy.

The government also announced $236.2-million over five years to address the sexual misconduct and gender-based violence crisis in the Canadian Armed Forces.

The budget additionally earmarked funds to ensure the “timely delivery” of defence and marine procurements, as well as ensured future procurements would include a provision to assess a bidder’s impact on “Canada’s economic interests.”

Mr. Rowswell said many of the initiatives are responses to regional crises that have emerged, suggesting a lack of foreign policy ambition.

“If Canada were to be ambitious in its international affairs, there would be some kind of changes that we would be driving as well, not just responding. It would be something more proactive,” he said.

What is lacking, he said, is a recognition of the new world that Canada is finding itself, such as in global economics, geopolitical rivalry, and defence.

Faced with these new challenges Canada, Mr. Rowswell said Canada has only made a “slight increase” in its commitments, none of which respond directly “to some pretty serious shifts in geopolitical realities facing Canada.”

“I get the sense that we are kind of treading water. That we’re operating on the assumption that the international environment will remain as it has been up until now and so we can focus on what’s happening in Canada,” he said. “While I’m certainly not arguing that we ignore these challenges on the domestic front, the contrast is jarring between huge ambition at home and no ambition abroad.”

Mr. Rowswell applauded Indigenous and gender equality initiatives that he said may give Canada a greater ability to promote human rights and gender equality on the international stage, but said there is no vision for how that can be done in the budget.

“I don’t see the feminist foreign policy reflected in the budget. There’s potential there that the government has not pursued,” he said.

University of Waterloo professor Bessma Momani, an expert on international relations, said she wasn’t surprised that foreign policy wasn’t a focus of the budget.

“It was personally what I would expect from a budget where we’re going to have to do something about some real economic scarring,” she said. “I didn’t really expect a lot on the international side … I think under the circumstances of where we are in the economy, I wasn’t surprised that there wasn’t a lot of international [focus].”

She noted there was investment in multilateralism through NATO and NORAD.

For the extension of the Middle East strategy, Prof. Momani said it will need to be further developed, as what was announced didn’t give much indication of its scope.

The strategy was last renewed in the 2019 budget with $1.39-billion over two years. The new extension reduces the strategy’s per-year funding level, with $527 million over a single fiscal year. The initiative was first forwarded to stabilize the region following the rise of ISIS, and includes diplomacy, defence, development, and intelligence.

Prof. Momani said the objectives of the strategy are a “moving target.”

Former diplomat Colin Robertson says Canada is following the U.S.’s lead in addressing the pandemic at home before embarking on ambitious foreign policy plans. The Hill Times photograph by Sam Garcia

“We don’t know what the needs of the region are. We have to wait for the dust to settle for this crisis to see really where investment is required,” she said, noting the strategy could shift based on geopolitical changes in the region, which has had significant transformations in the past year, such as in Lebanon.

She said the budget also spotlights the realities of a government’s commitment to foreign policy during a minority Parliament. With an election coming sooner or later, governments don’t win votes on foreign affairs initiatives, she said.

“I think a strong majority government … would put more emphasis towards the international, and I certainly don’t think it would happen in the immediate term coming out of this pandemic, where there’s just so much stimulus need at home,” Prof. Momani said.

Former Canadian diplomat Colin Robertson, vice-president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, said the domestic budget isn’t unlike spending packages that have come out of the United States and Europe.

He added much of the budget’s focus is to strengthen the domestic situation to build the desired foreign policy, which he said is the same approach as the Biden administration.

“If Canada wants to do things abroad, it first of all has to get its domestic house in order,” he said. “And that starts with of course with recovery from COVID economically, and only then will we have the kind of capacity to continue to do work abroad.”

While foreign policy doesn’t feature predominantly in the budget, Mr. Robertson said it doesn’t mean that the government isn’t looking at global affairs.

Mr. Robertson said the foreign policy initiatives that were announced are “housekeeping” and largely are things the government was already doing.

He noted that the funding for the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar reflects an approach of the government to target specific efforts where it thinks it can make a difference.

“We’ve taken a leadership role, which is kind a niche foreign policy, which I think is a helpful fixer role,” he said, noting the work of now-UN Ambassador Bob Rae and then-foreign affairs minister Chrystia Freeland (University-Rosedale, Ont.) on the file.