Freeland’s foreign policy speech: Short on specifics but strong on principles

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland used a major
foreign policy speech this week to underscore Canada’s deep commitment to the
international order and to outline its priorities, from global trade to

By: /
6 June, 2017
Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland delivers a speech on Canada's foreign policy in the House of Commons in Ottawa, Canada, June 6, 2017. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

In a lengthy, sweeping speech to the House of Commons on Tuesday, Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland laid out her vision for an international environment in which the United States, under President Donald Trump, appears to be moving away from its postwar leadership.

The address came in advance of Wednesday’s long-awaited defence policy review and called for the “renewal, indeed the strengthening, of the postwar multilateral order.”

More than a year and a half since Justin Trudeau’s Liberals took office, many in Canada’s diplomatic and policy communities had been awaiting a coherent, focused presentation of the government’s foreign policy goals. 

In March, 2016, as part of remarks to a conference at the University of Ottawa, former Foreign Minister Stéphane Dion confounded more than he clarified by using the phrase ‘responsible conviction,’ inspired by Max Weber, to describe his goals for Canadian foreign policy. 

Freeland’s speech, almost five months after her appointment — which was made shortly after the U.S. election — has surprised many for its clarity of values and for its subtle critique of the direction taken by the U.S. under Trump.

Stephanie Carvin, an assistant professor at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, told OpenCanada that “even if the speech was lacking specifics, there were a number of extremely blunt statements that I think gave it meat.”

The difference between last year, when Dion made his remarks, and now “cannot be overstated,” Carvin said. “We’re in a situation where very suddenly, the existence of an international rules-based order that Canada basically requires in order to survive is now under threat. So it seems in the speech she is basically saying how we are going to proceed now, to defend this international order, even as the Americans shrug it off.”

A subtle take-down

Echoing comments made by German Chancellor Angela Merkel on May 28, that in an age of Trump, Europe might need to ‘go it alone’, Freeland said: “The fact that our friend and ally has come to question the very worth of its mantle of global leadership, puts into sharper focus the need for the rest of us to set our own clear and sovereign course.”

“When I read that, my jaw hit the floor,” Carvin said. “This wasn’t Dion’s ‘responsible conviction’ speech. What was beneficial about this speech was that Freeland really was trying to lay out the context in which she sees Canada’s mission going forward. I think she did it relatively well without evoking, you know, 19th century German philosophers.”

David Welch, a senior fellow with the Centre for International Governance Innovation, thought the speech was “very, very cleverly crafted.”

“It’s overwhelmingly a critique of Trump-ism and anti-globalist populism; a lot of very subtle, often indirect references that are a step-by-step take-down of Trump’s whole understanding of international politics and America’s role,” he said in an interview.

“[Freeland] leaves no doubt that she thinks she’s dealing with a rogue state. She and Merkel are on the same page here; [though there is] the sense that she is a little less willing than Merkel to write Trump off and strike off on her own with like-minded countries. Maybe that’s because by force of circumstance we can’t afford the luxury in the way the Germans can — they’re better positioned to go their own way than we are.”

In addition to the focus and tone of her speech, the manner in which she delivered it also received praise — from a former foreign minister no less. “A Canadian minister gave a speech in parliament, with questions afterwards — a demonstration of an open, democratic way of articulating policy and being open to response and reaction, treating the democratic institution with respect,” Lloyd Axworthy told OpenCanada. “You’re not resorting to often-incomprehensible three a.m. tweets.” 

Short on specific goals

Axworthy also noted that Freeland’s address had “clearly been crafted in and through cabinet…and is going to be followed up by a host of further policy statements,” in reference to the defence review, as well as the international development assistant review released on Friday. 

While both Carvin and Welch agreed that Freeland provided a robust defence of multilateral institutionalism and liberal values, on the Canadian foreign policy side, both would like to see more specifics.

“It’s still pretty high-level stuff; it’s pretty abstract. Three times she promised details would come out in other ministers’ speeches,” Welch said.

“The one that always raises my eyebrows is the perennial statement that we will support our armed forces and invest in equipment and training to the level we have to. To be frank, we haven’t done that in decades, and I don’t see how that’s going to happen, given the backlog on the procurement side.” 

With Trudeau labelling himself a feminist, there have been calls for the government to root more of its foreign policy in gender equity. In her speech, Freeland emphasized that such an approach was a priority but would be elaborated on Friday, with Minister of International Development Marie-Claude Bibeau’s unveiling of Canada’s first “feminist international assistance policy” targeting women’s rights and gender equality.

Welch said that while this was a “good signal,” he hopes any policy announced by Bibeau would be “contextually sensitive.” He said he has spoken to people in Canada and elsewhere “who work in this area who, while they welcome it, worry that we have a kind of cookie-cutter, Western-centric approach.” 

The big question for Canada’s foreign policy going forward, Welch said, will always be, “What are the deliverables?…Especially in the Asia-Pacific, where I do work — they love Canadians, but they just can’t figure out why we don’t engage better.” 

For Carvin, the speech was “a lot like a mission statement,” but short on specifics. “No China free trade mention — that surprised me,” she said.

Freeland also put emphasis on defending borders, and tied that to both missions Canada is currently engaged with: Ukraine and ISIS. “The illegal seizure of Ukrainian territory by Russia…is not something we can accept or ignore,” she said, adding that the “atrocities of Daesh directly challenge both the sanctity of borders and the liberal international order itself.”

But Carvin reflected that Canada has not always been so rigid when it comes to sovereign borders. “Actually, Canada has a pretty good track record of violating borders, with the responsibility to protect, and the Kosovo mission,” Carvin pointed out. “So where does that leave R2P?”

Raising Canada’s stock

As part of reaction to Freeland’s speech, many in the media speculated what the response would be from the White House — or whether it would register at all — pointing out that Freeland conveniently switched to French when directly addressing the U.S. In addition to recent U.S. policy decisions, she also called out the Americans that had voted for Trump, saying “it would be naive or hypocritical to claim before this House that all Americans today agree. Indeed, many of the voters in last year’s presidential election cast their ballots, animated in part by a desire to shrug off the burden of world leadership. To say this is not controversial: it is simply a fact.”

Welch said given the uncertainty around where Trump gets his information from, as part of his rejection of intelligence briefings and the mainstream press, he doesn’t know “what source he reads is going to cover this, and in what way.”

“But frankly he’s not by himself sharp enough to pick up the very clever subtext here — somebody would have to come to him point blank and say, ‘the Canadians have actually had you on and taken you to the cleaners.’”

One American that has taken notice of Freeland’s speech is former U.S. Ambassador to Canada, Bruce Heyman. He told OpenCanada that while he remains “confident that, longer-term, the U.S will be a global leader in promoting the ideals that we share, today it is important that Canada take a larger leadership role in promoting progressive values.” 

“Minister Freeland’s wide-ranging speech today stands as a guidepost for Canadian leadership. I believe a strong Canada is in the U.S. best interests and encourage Canada to take a larger role on the world stage,” he said.

Ultimately, Freeland’s speech can’t be said to be ground-breaking — Carvin calls it “Pearsonianism for 2017.” But for many, that’s a good thing. 

“This is going back to what we used to do very well,” Welch said. “That’s somewhat reassuring — that at least Canada is a country that’s got some predictability, some principle.” 

“This kind of going back in history and looking at our international role and making it all coherent and sensible; that’s enormously refreshing and encouraging to a lot of countries. Just by doing that, in a fairly high-level way, I think it will raise Canada’s stock globally.”

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