Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

There was nothing wrong with the sentiment that Canada's Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland expressed in her foreign policy speech in the House of Commons in Ottawa this week. Peace, economic opportunity, recognizing the right of self-determination for all nations, these are all nice, desirable things. However, diplomats and analysts alike (and that includes the author) are very good at explaining why the world is the way it is and explaining why it should be that way. If global peace, order, and prosperity are threatened like the Minister suggested they are (and I agree that they are), then the Canadian government needed to do more than declare our fondness for Canada’s halcyon past and pledge to defend the status quo.

While the minister’s diagnosis of the foreign policy challenges Canada faces was largely correct, she tactfully avoided some of the thorny questions about how to meet said challenges. Let’s take two concrete examples: Russia and China.

We needed to hear – in substantive terms – about how a rejuvenated Canadian foreign policy will deal with a Kremlin that dismantles its neighbours. Do we arm Ukraine? Do we increase our commitment to NATO even if the US reduces theirs? Saying we stand behind Ukraine is nice, but will not stop a war that has already killed 10,000 people. Is the government of Canada ready to advocate to skeptical European countries for the need to keep economic sanctions on Russia in place, even if they hurt European and Canadian economies? Is Canada willing to find ways to dull that economic pain in Rome, Athens, or Madrid?

Scant on details, Canadians watching the Minister’s speech at home will undoubtedly conclude that answers might be outside of the grasp of this administration.

We needed to hear about how Canada would engage with China – which on the one hand, as Freeland rightly pointed out is a success story that has pulled hundreds of millions of people out of abject poverty, and is now a crucial part of the global economy – but that also threatens and bullies its small neighbours, takes territory by force, subjects its citizens to the capricious whims of its economic elite, and uses state-owned enterprises to undermine its trade partners. Should Canada enter into a free trade deal with China that does not restrain its state-owned enterprises, just for the sake of waving the free trade banner? Should Canada even entertain the idea of an extradition treaty with Beijing?

Russia and China alone pose huge challenges to Freeland’s call for Canada to recommit to its traditional liberal vision of the world. Add in America’s turn away from global leadership, and already we can see a gap between the government’s aspirations, and what it is publicly willing to commit to doing.

Canadians needed to hear more than just a pledge to uphold “rules”. Everyone likes rules, but rules are not necessarily benign. There are forces on the march – in Russia, in China, in the Middle East, in Europe, and in North America – that obey the rules of strength. One can have a “rule-based world order” that is vicious and unkind to the weak. It would be unjust, but it would follow the very clear rules that governed international politics for most of human history. Some hint at substantive measures to push back against those who want the world to be ruled by the strong would be welcome. Likewise when it comes to values.

Minister Freeland rightly pointed out that ISIS is an affront to Canadian – and indeed – civilized values, but gave little indication about what, if anything, Canada might do to fight extremist ideologies in the long run. If we are hesitant about using our military to combat vicious insurgents, then what do we do? There are other policy options, but Minister Freeland gave few hints about what the government is considering.

In essence, Freeland extolled the virtues of doing things the way we’ve done them, without acknowledging that the same-old, same-old may no longer work. Defending the principles of a liberal world might require Canadians to spend significantly more on aid, diplomacy and defence. It may also force Canada to make hard choices, and to confront governments and social movements that threaten those rules. Canadians don’t like to think of themselves as confrontational, and Freeland certainly drew on episodes in Canadian history where being the reasonable peacemaker worked wonders. But if the world is indeed different today, and governments social movements that are hostile to ideas like democracy, gender equality, ethnic and religious tolerance, free expression, and individual rights are gaining momentum, then we need to talk about more than simply spending more on our armed forces. We need to talk about what we are willing to practically do to create the world we want to live in, and what sort of price we are willing to pay.

Freeland’s speech was fundamentally a declaration of principles. In many ways – and with only a few changes in language – it was a speech that could have been given in the 1950s, 1980s, or the 2000s. Canadian values, principles, and interests haven’t really changed in the last 70 years. In many ways that is reassuring. And we should never shy away from confessing our values and aspirations to the world. But that reassertion of Canada’s values, interests, and hope for the world begs a fundamental question: if the world is changing around us, then should Canadian foreign policy not change with it?


This article originally appeared in the Globe and Mail.

"Canadians needed to hear more than just a pledge to uphold “rules”. Everyone likes rules, but rules are not necessarily benign..."
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