Canada is in a difficult position internationally – this sends mixed and conflicting messages regarding which states are its friends in the global system. From the outside, it appears that Canada is presenting two different faces. One day, Canada talks about expanding trade and diplomacy to various and diverse states around the world. The next day, Canada speaks of only working with democracies and uniting against any “authoritarian” regimes. For foreign leaders or policy advisors, it is unknown which version of Canada they will be negotiating with, and whether they are now considered a friend, foe, or both.
This confusing set of events can be traced back to the two main spokeswomen of Canada’s foreign policy: Chrystia Freeland and Mélanie Joly. Both have close relations with the Prime Minister, both have experience in foreign affairs, and both are leading campaigns to further Canadian partnerships, albeit with different goals.
Ever since she left the Foreign Ministers Office, Chrystia Freeland has remained a consistent representative of Canada on the world stage. The main architect of Canada’s negotiations with the U.S. and Mexico over NAFTA (now known as the CUSMA), Freeland built a grand reputation during her time as Foreign Minister, and carried her experience into her dual role of Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister. Ever since, she has spent a substantial amount of time on the international stage, most notably with her “Freeland Doctrine” and its subsequent idea, “Friend Shoring,” which was made popular by the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen in July of 2022.
This strategy takes a hard stance, reiterating Canada’s commitment to its relationship with the U.S. and other democracies of the world, not to mention the more aggressive language and position against authoritarian regimes (mainly Russia and China). This rhetoric has come as a shock both within and outside the Canadian government, especially since Global Affairs Canada released its Indo-Pacific Strategy.
This new Indo-Pacific strategy, headed by Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly, prioritizes expanding relations with the world. For instance, Joly mentions wanting warmer relations with China, while also detailing the need to confront them on multiple issues. Continued expansion of diplomatic and trade ties to states within the Indo-Pacific and beyond are also major aspects of the strategy. Recent free trade agreement (FTA) talks with ASEAN and India, as well as the opening of an embassy in Armenia, are examples of this effort to expand diplomatic and trade ties.
Within both camps, there appears to be a lack of communication between the two on what to say to Canada’s foreign partners. Looking at the two Ministers’ approaches together, we begin to see stark differences in how Canada says it will deal with non-alike states. Both strategies talk about approaching non-alike states cautiously, with Freeland favouring democratic unity against them and Joly favouring increased, but selective, cooperation and relationship building. Both realities cannot exist at the same time, and this continued divided diplomacy will only make Canada’s stance on certain issues more complicated and hypocritical.
There are signs of agitation and confrontation as the two Ministers present their cases of Canada to the world. A speech delivered by Freeland confused foreign affairs experts in Canada, as she “sought to realign Canada’s interests from its traditional multilateral approach to adopting the American path of ‘friend-shoring’.” This speech was not sanctioned by Minister Joly or Global Affairs Canada, who have been vague and reluctant to talk about China and relations with un-alike states while at the same time saying things such as, “We need to engage even when we disagree.” Freeland is often unable to elaborate on how friend-shoring can work with the new Indo-Pacific Strategy, while Joly is silent on whether the strategy will contradict Freeland’s rhetoric. This sends an unclear message from the government regarding Canada’s strategy. If Canada is trying to have its cake and eat it too, it is not likely to work.
Ultimately, these two strategies will not work with each other although they are easy to sell alongside states like Japan and South Korea. However, once Canada engages with states such as India, who have numerous examples of human rights violations; Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, who are one-party states; or Myanmar which is a military junta, the contradictions will become more apparent. China’s case is even more complex, as the Indo-Pacific Strategy details in length the need to combat China while working with them on key issues all the same. Freeland has expressed that friend-shoring will not diminish China’s role as a major trade partner. How this notion will work in practice alongside the Indo-Pacific Strategy is yet to be seen.
These contradictions between Freeland and Joly do not appear to be a concern for any in the government, but they will be once the two diverging strategies are implemented. Eventually, Canada will have to make a choice when it comes to its rhetoric around non-alike states and committing to being their friend or foe. Perhaps doing both is achievable, but for states like China, where Canada’s rhetoric details the need to combat them one day and ask for help on the next, this strategy will continue to bring a sense of contradiction, confusion, and concern to the fold.
Does our seemingly contradictory strategy affect how states such as those in ASEAN might see Canada if in the morning we are negotiating with them, and in the afternoon we are criticizing their actions? Furthermore, could this divide in diplomacy make it harder for the average Canadian to understand our relationships and our diplomatic approaches in the Indo-Pacific region?
There is no easy solution to this problem, as working with un-alike states causes ethical issues. However, only partnering with friendly democracies hinders Canada’s economic and diplomatic potential. I believe the government is fully aware of this and is doing its best to tread the fine line between both strategies. Trying to remain a force for ethics while also requiring the resources of non-alike states is a difficult situation for any government to be in. Nevertheless, these contradictions need not be the case as Freeland and Joly have worked together numerous times and have proven to be very formidable when on the same page. This contradiction may not be a big issue now, but Canada must get its priorities straight and make a difficult choice on how to handle non-alike states. This should be done before Canada finds itself in a position where Canadians and the states we work with cannot tell who are our friends or foes.
Evan Donlevy is a graduate student at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University, pursuing an MA in International Affairs with a specialization in international organizations and global public policy. He graduated with a BA from MacEwan University in Political Science and Anthropology. Evan is also a student policy analyst at Global Affairs Canada, currently working in the U.S. relations division.