It is no coincidence that on the same day Canada voted in favour of a UN resolution condemning Israeli settlements, it was announced that Chrystia Freeland would no longer be Canada’s Foreign Minister. Not only did that vote signal Canada would not support the United States on the most contentious of all issues in UN politics, it also reversed a pattern that began under Stephen Harper and continued under Freeland. The reversal shows why Freeland was a favorite of conservative mainstream media and political pundits at home and abroad and why many wanted her to stay with Global Affairs. But despite what her admirers and enablers have repeatedly stated, Freeland’s tenure as Foreign Minister was both lackluster and pockmarked with missed opportunities and failures.
Most importantly, Freeland did not deliver guidance on how to recast Canada’s place in the world, providing little direction when change was desperately needed. During Freeland’s time at Global Affairs it was virtually impossible to distinguish Canada’s foreign policy on key files from that of the Harper government. Keep a hard line on Iran, Russia and Venezuela and remain silent on the Middle East for example. As the UN vote demonstrates, Freeland’s impact was at best superficial with bureaucratic impulses taking over within a day of her departure. Despite comprehensive defence and aid policy reviews Freeland did not see the need to conduct a parallel foreign-policy review to recalibrate Canada’s national interests in an increasingly complex world. Instead she played on the margins, making passing reference to the end of the liberal international order in speeches to parliament and American think tanks.
Closer to home the Trudeau government promised public engagement in the foreign policy process as part of its commitment to open and accountable government. Yet, if anything, under Freeland what we witnessed was tighter, more controlled and restrained messaging. The progressive trade agenda was transformed into an inclusive trade agenda with little bite. The heavy lifting on a European trade deal was completed by the prior administration Ill-timed exceptions to restraint include her open criticism of Donald Trump during NAFTA 2.0 negotiations and her very public tweet condemning Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, the consequences of which have hurt Canada economically.
It is notable that on these and other debacles, the former Foreign Minister managed to avoid direct recrimination. This would include Trudeau’s disastrous trip to India, in which a known terrorist was part of Canada’s visiting delegation, the failure to negotiate a free trade agreement with China even before the Huawei scandal and the subsequent abduction of two Canadians accused of spying, the threat by Saudi Arabia to pull investments and students from Canada and the now zombie-like NAFTA 2.0 agreement in which Freeland was undercut by both the American and the Mexicans who concluded an agreement between themselves before approaching Canada. The US is clearly in the driver’s seat on free trade. Freeland never was. Certainly with respect to the now all important clause regarding future Canadian trade negotiations with China, the United States has imposed on its North American partners a degree of veto power that heretofore did not exist. Our auto sector is now at risk of becoming noncompetitive. While it is convenient for critics to point the finger at Trudeau for these unforced errors it is was ultimately Freeland’s office that was responsible for overseeing their implementation.
In contrast, the level of effort in reinvigorating multilateralism waned considerably under Chrystia Freeland. This matters not because multilateralism is an end in itself but because Trudeau told voters his party would reinvigorate Canadian diplomacy. At best, Freeland was not a keen diplomat preferring to shuttle between the US and Ottawa than engage the world. She made no formal visit to Africa despite the billions of aid dollars flowing into the continent and made only lukewarm overtures in supporting Canada’s peacekeeping contribution in Mali. She showed little interest in re-invigorating Liberal signature policies like the ICC and R2P. Building support for Canada’s ambitious global agenda was both improvised and ad hoc. She rarely spoke at the UN. Nor did she capitalise on opportunities at the G7 or the G20 to coordinate global policy preferring instead to use these coalitions as platforms to advance her pro Ukraine agenda.
Now that Freeland is gone, can Justin Trudeau reclaim the foreign policy agenda? Over the next three years, which amounts to the time Trudeau has before forcing an election, that seems unlikely. Given that China is the focal point of US hostility, Freeland did not deal very well with that shift in strategic orientation. For example, the repeated call for trade diversification, went unheeded and little thought was given to developing alternative economic or political agendas and strategies that lessen Canada’s trade and dependence on economic powers that subject Canada to their political agendas. If anything, because of the free trade agreement that Freeland negotiated and her party endorsed, Canada is now more tightly bound to the North American continent even as she and others rhetorically at least expressed a desire to weaken these ties.
If Canada has become economically strong, it is largely due to the success of the US market and the expansion of Canada’s resource and manufacturing sectors in which our trading relationship with the US is dominant. However, if Canada has fallen behind in market competitiveness and productivity, it is largely because our multilateral engagement has mostly focused on the dominance of an established power and the institutions it upholds rather than those institutions that are not dominated by an established power.
Canada’s relative economic and political decline globally helps us understand why Freeland sought to preserve the status quo by bringing us closer to the US, on the one hand, and why Justin Trudeau continues to speak of Canada’s importance in the world, despite the obvious contradictions therein. Unfortunately by raising tariffs and walls, the US is withdrawing from its multilateral role of primus inter pares and privileging its own geopolitical interests above all else. By becoming more inward looking, the US is dragging Canada along with it. A major concern for Canadians should be our technocratic and institutional integration with the USA. These arrangements lay outside the scope of democratic accountability and beyond the purview of the ordinary citizen. Justin Trudeau and his new Foreign Minister François-Philippe Champagne need to think about that.
David Carment is CGAI fellow, and principal investigator of the annual Trudeau Foreign Policy Report Card.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect iAffairs’ editorial stance.