Will Foreign Policy Prove Decisive in Canada’s 2019 Election?

As Canada heads to the polls for a federal election on October 21, 2019, Canadian foreign policy may become an unusually important factor for voters in deciding the next government. Canada relies on trade for 64 percent of the country’s GDP (2017 data), and about 22 percent of the population was born abroad. Canadians ought to follow international issues as a result, and they do; but as Darrel J. Bricker and Sean Simpson of Ipsos Public Affairs noted in 2016, Canadians, for the most part, pay attention to the world more than they pay attention to Canada’s foreign policy toward that world.
This paradox means that in most Canadian elections, foreign policy is not an important factor. Apparent exceptions, such as the 1988 election fight over the issue of the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement with the United States, are consistent with this paradox since an international issue (a closer economic relationship with the United States) is interpreted by voters as a domestic one as well (how Canada’s domestic political economy and national sovereignty will be affected by the agreement).
What might make 2019 different is the coincidence of three factors: a more dangerous international environment, uncertainty over U.S.-Canadian relations, and Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau’s emerging campaign strategy.

A More Dangerous World

The re-emergence of great power rivalry as the dominant condition in international affairs after more than a quarter century affects Canada’s national security and economic options. Russian aggression against its neighbors led Canada to station armed forces in Europe—to Latvia, as part of a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) force—for the first time since it withdrew Canadian troops from Germany in 1994. Canada has also taken command of the NATO mission to train the Iraqi army at a time of rising tension with Iran.
Diplomatically, the rules have changed as well. When Canadian foreign minister Chrystia Freeland spoke out in Canada about Saudi Arabia’s treatment of two journalists whose children are Canadian citizens, the Saudi reaction was ferocious: the Saudi ambassador was recalled to Riyadh, Saudi students at Canadian schools ordered home, and Saudi investments canceled.
Canada’s arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou as she passed through Vancouver on a flight to Mexico, prompted by a U.S. warrant for her role in violating sanctions on Iran has led China to retaliate against Canadian exports and to arrest Canadians in China as hostages. Many Canadians saw the muted reaction from other countries including the United States as a sign that Canada was confronting a great power alone.  

Uncertain U.S. Relations

U.S. president Donald Trump introduced uncertainty about the future course of U.S.-Canadian relations by proposing the renegotiation or cancellation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). That effectively cast a shadow over 76 percent of Canada’s exports destined for the United States.
Trump’s characterization of Trudeau as “dishonest and weak” following the G7 summit hosted by Trudeau in Charlevoix, Quebec in 2018 led Trudeau to avoid drawing attention to himself in subsequent global summits in part to avoid another clash with Trump.
Trudeau has also wrestled to reconcile his commitment to combatting climate change and support for the Paris Agreement with Canada’s largest export sector by value, the oil and gas sector, which exports nearly exclusively to the United States; where the Trump administration has rejected the Paris Agreement and is unraveling many of the Obama administration’s climate policy measures.
Energy politics affect the Trudeau government’s election campaign principally in terms of domestic policy, not foreign policy. For many Canadians, political debates about adding pipeline capacity within Canada, and Trudeau’s attempt to balance support for the Canadian energy sector with his environmental ambitions, are the focus of voter concern.

Trudeau’s Campaign Challenge in 2019

Canadian voters do not expect a prime minister to shape world events in the same way that Americans expect U.S. presidents to do. And most Canadians blame Trump rather than Trudeau for the recent turbulence in U.S.-Canadian relations. For Trudeau, this limits the need to defend his foreign policy record in the 2019 election campaign.
Trudeau’s successful visit to the White House on June 20 suggests that in fact, the prime minister might use foreign policy as part of his campaign for reelection.
Overlooking past tensions, Trudeau took a conciliatory tone in his approach to Trump. As promised, after the United States lifted “national security” tariffs imposed on Canadian steel and aluminum, Trudeau personally lobbied Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to start the congressional approval process for the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement that would replace NAFTA. Trudeau also asked for Trump’s help in pressing China for the release of Canadian hostages when Trump meets with Chinese president Xi Jinping at the G20 summit in Osaka. Trudeau’s request for a meeting with Xi had already been rebuffed by Beijing, and Trump’s response was to pledge to raise the issue, expressing concern for the hostages and their families back in Canada.
None of the Canadian opposition party leaders can match Trudeau’s experience on the world stage, and although he has faced numerous foreign policy setbacks and challenges since taking office in 2015, the prime minister’s experience now sets him apart from his rivals.
A dangerous world and an unpredictable leader in the United States, Canada’s most important ally and trading partner, may lead Canadian voters to value experience in foreign affairs more highly than usual in 2019. If so, Trudeau’s odds of reelection may have improved in Washington on June 20.
Christopher Sands is a senior associate (non-resident) of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a senior research professor and director of the Center for Canadian Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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Christopher Sands

Christopher Sands

Former Senior Associate (Non-resident), Americas Program