Justin Trudeau has a chance to lead the Americas

Ken Frankel
Ken Frankel

Kenneth Frankel*

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau may be the new kid on the block at international gatherings right now, but he will soon vault to be this hemisphere’s senior statesman. When leaders from throughout the Americas meet at the next Summit of the Americas in Peru in 2018, the current leaders of the continent’s largest countries will be lame ducks or out of office.

Peruvian President Ollanta Humala will be out in 2016; presidents Barack Obama (U.S.), Michelle Bachelet (Chile) and Rafael Correa (Ecuador) will leave office in 2017; and presidents Juan Manuel Santos (Colombia), Enrique Pena Nieto (Mexico), Dilma Rousseff (Brazil) and even Cuban President Raul Castro are all expected to be out of office by 2018, Rousseff likely much sooner.

This situation represents a tremendous opportunity for Trudeau to advance his policy narrative abroad and gain friends and allies on the international stage. (Did someone say something about wanting to win a United Nations Security Council seat?)

Several of his priorities — engaging in peace-building and post-conflict reconstruction, promoting evidence-based social policy, reducing carbon emissions, deepening social inclusion (particularly for indigenous peoples, racial minorities, women and refugees) and strengthening inclusiveness and transparency in government — align with the priorities of many of our hemispheric neighbours.

There are at least two areas where Canada can have an immediate and visible impact.

First, Canada can make a significant difference in peace-building and post-conflict reconstruction efforts. When Colombia finally signs its peace agreement with the FARC guerrillas, the UN will deploy a relatively small, 12-month, unarmed monitoring mission to investigate violations of the peace agreement and oversee the FARC disarmament.

It will be led by a French diplomat and comprised of emissaries from Latin American and other countries. Canada may be able to insert itself into the mission, as some in Canada have advocated it should, but Canada’s value-add would be marginal. Colombia has a more critical need for which Canada is well suited.

Colombia’s greatest challenge will be to bring quickly the “presence of the state,” as Colombians would say, to areas long controlled by the FARC, before criminal gangs fill the stateless vacuum. This will require setting up responsive government institutions and bringing government services to remote areas, including training police forces and offering social services like education and health care. Transportation, energy and communication infrastructure needs to be built, and sustainable development fostered for a population that has lived in remote areas and outside the national economy for decades. Canada is admired in the region for its delivery of social services, particularly in remote areas. As such, Canadian government and private-sector engagement could make a noticeable impact.

Second, Canada could play a leadership role in promoting evidence-based social policy. Violence in many parts of the region is staggeringly high and the illegal drug trade is a main cause. In Mexico, for example, drug cartels have been responsible for more than 80,000 homicides since 2006. Aside from the human toll, the illicit drug trade has also resulted in widespread corruption and environmental degradation.

Several eminent hemispheric statesmen — led by former Brazilian president Fernando Henrique Cardoso and including ex-presidents of Chile, Colombia and Mexico — have made a forceful case for rethinking the strategy of criminalizing drugs. Armed with studies that support their view and the Report on the Drug Problem in the Americas published by the Organization of American States in 2013, they advocate seriously exploring alternative solutions that reduce the harm caused by drugs. They believe that coordinated international action is required — coupled with redoubled efforts to strenthen government and social institutions — to help solve this problem.

Hemispheric leaders aren’t ready to decriminalize or legalize all drugs for personal use, as Cardoso and his colleagues advocate. But more are ready to consider the kind of evidence-based concepts that underlie Trudeau’s position on the legalization of marijuana. He now has the opportunity to take a leadership role on this issue and advance the dialogue on this issue that could have a positive impact on people throughout the Americas.

Latin American leaders are also concerned with the rhetoric coming out of the U.S. election campaign and many are worried that the next president could undo many of the positive foreign policy measures that Obama has taken in the region. Were Trudeau to extend his hand now, it would go a long way toward laying the foundation for his hemispheric leadership and allow him to project his vision on the international stage.

*Kenneth Frankel is president of the Canadian Council for the Americas. Published originally at the National Post.