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Face to Face: Was Pierre Trudeau’s peace initiative of 1983-84 a success?

Raymond B. Blake and Penny E. Bryden say Yes

Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s peace initiative was one of Canada’s most high-profile foreign policy ventures during the Cold War, and it captivated Canadians. 

The existential threat posed by the possibility of a nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the United States had, in fact, preoccupied Canadians since the late 1940s, and especially during the so-called “Second Cold War” following the election of American President Ronald Reagan in 1980. 

Trudeau had the twin goals of improving East-West relations and reviving arms control negotiations between the Soviets and the West. Canada was a mere bystander in that conflict, having reduced its military spending even as the major powers, notably the U.S. and the Soviet Union, increased theirs. Canada then had little leverage to encourage other countries to adopt a particular diplomatic solution and, certainly, no power to force the U.S. and the USSR to do so. As an issue of international relations, the peace initiative was, indeed, a dismal failure. 

But Trudeau’s enterprise was more than global diplomacy: it was an exercise in nation-building that reinforced a particular identity for Canadians. Trudeau believed Canada had an influence more potent than might. It had the power of ideas that, if marshalled at the appropriate time, and in the proper manner, might save the world from nuclear annihilation. 

Trudeau’s peace initiative was really about the promotion of the idea of Canada as a peaceable nation.

Canadian prime ministers had long positioned the country as a peace-loving nation, one that engaged in war reluctantly, and only then to rescue others from tyranny. These notions were integral to the national identity and what naturally followed was prioritizing the pursuit of peace over military intervention.

National identity is lived daily and deeply embedded in the routines of a country’s existence. More than weapons and armies, it drives policy and is a key determinant of national interests. Trudeau’s peace initiative was really about the promotion of the idea of Canada as a peaceable nation at home and in foreign capitals. It was more of a nation-building strategy than a foreign-policy gambit. 

Trudeau was personally committed to the vision of Canada as an international peacemaker. As foreign-policy scholar Greg Donaghy noted, Trudeau’s peace initiative “delighted most Canadians” because it reflected their own ideals and their sense of Canada. The intent was to move away from using military force or threats to coerce states into peace, and an effort to attempt to arrive at peace and security through persuasion and the promotion of ideals. In other words, peace and international security come not from force, but through the dynamics of cooperative principles. 

As his tenure as prime minister was ending, Trudeau visited other countries to promote this alternative route to nuclear disarmament and the end of the Cold War and, simultaneously, secure Canada’s own identity. The continuing salience of the idea of Canada as a peacemaking and peacekeeping nation attests to the success of his initiative. 

RAYMOND B. BLAKE and PENNY E. BRYDEN are professors of history at the University of Regina and the University of Victoria, respectively. Blake’s forthcoming book is We are Canadians: Prime Ministers Build Canada’s Story, 1943-2015. Bryden’s most recent book is Canada: A Political Biography.

J.L. Granatstein says No

The Cold War became very hot in 1983. The Soviet Air Force shot down an off course Korean Air Lines (KAL) 747 near Sakhalin Island on Sept. 1, killing all 269 people aboard. The incident, claimed by Moscow to have been directed at a spy plane flying in prohibited airspace, was denounced in Western capitals. A senior politburo member soon told a meeting: “Comrades, the international situation is white hot….”

So it was, and in Ottawa, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau feared that war might break out. But what could he do? Trudeau had been advocating for the need to reduce tensions for some time. He also said that Canada was heading toward “equidistance” between the USSR and the U.S. in a speech at the University of Notre Dame in 1982, a remark that infuriated the Reagan administration. Worse, on Oct. 4, Trudeau stated that the KAL situation was an “accident.” Still, Trudeau was intent on lowering tensions. 

The prime minister convened a meeting of ministers and officials to see what he might do. There was little enthusiasm for any initiative, but Trudeau was insistent. Why should he not act while in office and able to achieve something, rather than wait until he was out of power and couldn’t? The result was a small working group hastily created to produce ideas in secrecy. 

The peace initiative was outlined in a speech in Guelph, Ont., in late October. Trudeau pointed to the shared responsibilities of Washington and Moscow for the crisis and called for “high level political energy to speed the course of agreement.” 

The initiative’s arms control suggestions were called “one of the worst ideas…produced in modern times.”

That energy would be provided by Trudeau. He flew to the capitals of NATO member nations, garnering tepid support in West Germany and Italy. At a Commonwealth conference in India the response was more positive. A visit to Beijing made no headway, nor did a trip to Washington before Christmas, though some thought his telling Reagan that he was a man of peace had some impact—not on U.S. officials, however,
including one who called Trudeau a leftist high on pot.

Trudeau then reached out to Warsaw Pact leaders, some of whom expressed interest. The prime minister went to Moscow in early 1984 after Soviet leader Yuri Andropov died. He spoke with his successor Konstantin Chernenko, but with no success.

Realistically, the initiative made little headway, except at home. A public opinion poll at the time found 85 per cent of Canadians supported the initiative. Trudeau claimed success, but there were few signs of it. Hastily cobbled together, the initiative was a non-starter, its arms control suggestions called “one of the worst ideas…produced in modern times” by a senior Canadian ambassador. Another official said Trudeau’s “let’s love one another” pitch left only glazed eyes and diminished him and Canada. 

Having already decided to step down, Trudeau was unfazed. He later responded to a query on the success of the initiative with: “Well, there was no war.” True, there wasn’t, but his peace initiative had almost nothing to do with it. 

J.L. GRANATSTEIN has written dozens of books, including Who Killed Canadian History? and Canada’s Army: Waging War and Keeping the Peace. His is a former director and CEO of the Canadian War Museum.


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