Melanie Joly’s ‘Pragmatic Diplomacy’

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Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly pitched a need to increasingly engage with countries that don’t share Canada’s values.


As Canada’s top diplomat sets out a new path for Ottawa’s international engagement, some experts are applauding a shift to a dogma underpinned by an acceptance of the real world in which Canada finds itself, not one that always mirrors Canadian values.

In two recent addresses on the state of Canada’s place in the world, Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly (Ahuntsic–Cartierville, Que.) put forward a view of international engagement that she said will be centred on “pragmatic diplomacy” and “vigorously” defending Canadian sovereignty.

Only a handful of speeches have been presented on the tenets of Canadian foreign policy since the Liberals came to power in 2015. Then-foreign affairs minister Chrystia Freeland (University–Rosedale, Ont.) presented her view of Canada’s place in the world in 2017 amid the disruptions brought by the unpredictable Trump administration in the United States. After becoming deputy prime minister and finance minister, Freeland offered a new doctrine inspired by geopolitical shocks in which she embraced the U.S.-backed concept of “friendshoring” to link democracies together. In 2016, then-foreign affairs minister Stéphane Dion presented his own view of “responsible conviction” to greater engage with those countries sidelined during then-prime minister Stephen Harper’s pursuit of principled diplomacy.

Joly gave a mostly English-language address in Toronto on Oct. 30, and a mostly-French-language mirroring address in Montreal on Nov. 1.

During her speeches, she said the international system is “cracking.”

“Our world is marked by geopolitical turbulence, unpredictability, and uncertainty. The tectonic plates of the world order are shifting beneath our feet. And the structures that are built upon them are fracturing,” she added.

Joly called for the use of “pragmatic diplomacy” to engage countries that may not share Canada’s worldview or values.

“We must resist the temptation to divide the world into rigid ideological camps. For the world cannot be reduced to democracies versus autocracies. East versus West. North versus South,” she said, adding that “pragmatic diplomacy” is about “keeping allies close, while also being open to different perspectives as we encourage others to take a chance on peace.

“We will always defend our national interests. We will always defend our values,” Joly said. “But we cannot afford to close ourselves off from those with whom we do not agree. For engagement does not mean that we support or condone the policies and actions of others.”

She said that, aside from “rare exceptions,” Canada will engage with the world. “I am a door opener, not a door closer,” she proclaimed.

Joly trumpeted an expanded diplomatic presence as underpinning that increased engagement, noting the additional embassies being opened in eastern Europe, Armenia, and Fiji, as well as the establishment of a permanent observer to the African Union.

The two addresses come as Canada’s relations with India and China are at a nadir, and three years after it failed to win a temporary seat on the United Nations Security Council

Jocelyn Coulon, a former policy adviser to Dion during his time leading Canada’s foreign service, applauded the course Joly set out.

“It is an important speech because it’s the first time that a Canadian foreign minister had said so bluntly that we have to take the world as it is, and we have to deal with some nasty countries, with some exceptions, which I suspect is Russia,” said Coulon, now editor-in-chief of l’Université de Montréal’s Centre for International Studies’ blog.

“I think for a long time Canadian foreign policy has been defined by the export of our values. That served us well during part of the Cold War and the following years after the Soviet empire. At the same time, the world has changed,” he said. “What we have noticed is the new emerging countries—the members of BRICS [Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa], but also from the Global South—no longer want to be lectured on values and principles.”

Coulon, who helped author Dion’s “responsible conviction” speech, said through her address, Joly has forwarded a new way to deal with the rest of the world.

“We don’t come with our narrative on values for the first item on the agenda,” he said. “I think this type of behaviour was frustrating for a lot of countries, [and then] they ignored us. If you are in a more pragmatic way, I think they will be much more open to discuss several aspects of international relations.”

Coulon said Joly’s vision for Canada’s foreign policy diverges from Freeland’s past pitch for a more values-based view of Canadian foreign policy, remarking that Freeland’s approach was to build blocs of countries, which forces them to choose one side or the other. On the other hand, Coulon said Joly made the explicit point that democracies shouldn’t be pitted against autocracies because there is a greater need for collaboration across the board.

“It seems to me that [Joly] almost rebuked Ms. Freeland,” he said. “Canada should speak with one voice on foreign policy now.”

Coulon said there are three views of Canadian foreign policy being put forward—one from Joly, one from Freeland, and one from Chief of Defence Staff General Wayne Eyre, who has indicated that Russia and China believe themselves to be at war with Canada, according to a Ottawa Citizen report.

“If you have three people talking differently about some very important aspects of foreign policy, which is our relations with China, we will send a very mixed signal to this country,” Coulon. “It’s time we speak with one voice on foreign policy.”

He said it is up to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) to clarify which worldview he endorses.

Former diplomat Colin Robertson, vice-president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, said Joly is laying the groundwork for rebuilding Canada’s relationship with India and China.

“You don’t have to agree on the fundamentals, but you are still going to trade,” he said, remarking that employing a “pragmatic diplomacy” will require a change in tack from the Liberal government after a series of diplomatic spats since it came to power.

“There’s a sense now that we don’t have to agree with you on everything,” he said. “The subliminal theme is that we’re not going to preach anymore because it’s not working.”

Royal Military College professor Adam Chapnick, a leading expert on Canada’s foreign policy, said absent from Joly’s speech is a reliance on values-based foreign policy—a previously frequent focus for the Liberal government.

“It’s absolutely a good thing,” he said. “It suggests that the government is taking the world a little bit more seriously.”

Chapnick said Joly’s foreign policy view and the one set out by Freeland last year aren’t incompatible, as Freeland was speaking about economic co-operation with other democracies, and Joly is spotlighting the need for diplomatic engagement with everyone.

“We may not do business with them, but that doesn’t mean we shut them out completely,” he said. “We still have to talk with them and we still have to deal with them on other issues.”

Chapnick said the real-world execution of Canadian diplomacy won’t be significantly altered, but Joly’s address signals to the Canadian public the realities of foreign service work.

“The biggest change is changing the expectations of Canadians,” he said. “It seems to me that the foreign minister is trying to recalibrate Canadians’ understanding of how Canada behaves in the world.”

“It’s more that we’re telling Canadians what happens in diplomacy,” he said. “Things are not black and white. You have to deal with people that you don’t agree with; some of those people that you have to work with do things that make you feel extremely uncomfortable. That is the nature of the world where not every state shares your interest.”