Canada’s foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland, gave a speech yesterday outlining her vision of Canada’s place in the world and the principles underlining her foreign policy. Below are some excerpts with my comments on them.
Mr Speaker, Here is a question: Is Canada an essential country, at this time in the life of our planet? Most of us here would agree that it is.
Hubris. What does it mean to be an ‘essential country’? Freeland doesn’t say, but I would guess that the idea is that the world cannot do without us. But why is Canada so special? Again Freeland doesn’t say, beyond listing a few examples of how Canadians have contributed to the world. It is arrogance for any people to believe that they are special, let alone ‘essential’, to imagine that others need them, and can’t get along without them. Foreign policy ought to include a sense of humility, a recognition of the limits of one’s own righteousness, and a recognition of the interests of others. That is the way to avoid conflict. Freeland gets off to a bad start.
Why do we spend billions on defence, if we are not immediately threatened? For some countries – Israel, Latvia come to mind – the answer is self-evident. Countries that face a clear and immediate existential challenge know they need to spend on military and foreign policy. And they know why.
For a few lucky countries – like Canada and the United States – that feel protected by geography and are good neighbours, the answer is less obvious. Indeed, you could easily imagine a Canadian view that says, we are safe on our continent, and we have things to do at home, so let’s turn inward. Let’s say Canada first.
Here’s why that would be wrong.
First, though no foreign adversary is poised to invade us, we do face clear challenges. Climate change is by definition a shared menace, affecting every single person on this planet. Civil war, poverty, drought and natural disasters anywhere in the world threaten us as well – not least because these catastrophes spawn globally destabilizing mass migrations.
I find this passage rather bizarre, as military power doesn’t help in any way to deal with the threats that Freeland lists. How does spending more on the military contribute to combating climate change, poverty, drought, or natural disasters? It doesn’t. As for mass migrations, the use of Canadian military power has actually helped to make these worse. Canada played a prominent role in the overthrow of Colonel Gaddhafi in Libya, an act which has contributed to the mass migration of people from North Africa into Europe. Pointing to dangers isn’t a good argument for defence spending unless you can show that defence spending helps reduce these dangers. Freeland fails utterly to do so.
Next, she says:
To rely solely on the US security umbrella would make us a client state. And although we have an incredibly good relationship with our American friends and neighbours, such a dependence would not be in Canada’s interest.
That is why doing our fair share is clearly necessary. … It is by pulling our weight in this partnership … that we, in fact, have weight. … To put it plainly: Canadian diplomacy and development sometimes require the backing of hard power. Force is of course always a last resort. But the principled use of force … is part of our history and must be part of our future.
To have that capacity requires a substantial investment, which this government is committed to making. The Minister of Defence will elaborate fully on that tomorrow. I know he will make Canadians justly proud.
Hang on. Didn’t Freeland just say that Canada isn’t directly threatened? If so, then why do we have to rely on the ‘US security umbrella’? Could we not liberate ourselves from it and remain unthreatened? Why would that make us ‘dependent’? And how does subordinating ourselves, as a very minor military power, to US-dominated institutions save us from becoming a ‘client state’? Might it not in fact have the very opposite effect? Surely the way to avoid becoming a client is to pursue an independent policy and to assert one’s sovereignty.
As for the use of force, it cannot be a ‘last resort’ if it is ‘principled’. These are two different things. The statement that the use of force ‘must be part of our future’ is quite chilling. With this statement, Freeland has thrown the idea of the supreme value of peace firmly out of the window.
Finally, in this segment, I find it odd that Freeland thinks that by announcing increases in defence spending, the Canadian government will make Canadians ‘justly proud’. Spending more on weapons isn’t something to be ‘proud’ of. At best, it is a regrettable necessity, forced upon us by the fallen nature of man’s world, but it certainly isn’t a reason for pride. Liberal interventionism has now moved beyond the realm of supporting war in pursuit of humanitarian aims into the realm of militarism.
Freeland says also:
Canada has a huge interest in an international order based on rules. One in which might is not always right. One in which more powerful countries are constrained in their treatment of smaller ones by standards that are internationally respected, enforced and upheld.
The single most important pillar of this, which emerged following the carnage of the First and Second World Wars, is the sanctity of borders. And that principle, today, is under siege.
That is why the democratic world has united behind Ukraine. The illegal seizure of Ukrainian territory by Russia is the first time since the end of the Second World War that a European power has annexed by force the territory of another European country. This is not something we can accept or ignore.
I fully agree with the first part of this – Canada does have an interest in ‘an international order based on rules’. But if that is what we want, we should start by looking closer to home rather than criticizing far away countries we happen not to like. It is true that the annexation/reunification of Crimea is the first annexation of territory in Europe since WW2, but it certainly isn’t the first time that European borders have been changed by force. Turkey invaded Cyprus in 1974 and still occupies half of it. Turkey remains a member of NATO. Canada joined other countries in changing the borders of Serbia by bombing Serbia and then physically occupying Kosovo in 1999. Canada has also participated in the violation of borders in many other ways. I have already mentioned Libya. What is less well known is that some Canadian troops participated in the invasion of Iraq in 2003. These were soldiers who were on exchange posts with the US Army, and whom the Canadian government did not recall. Canada is hardly without guilt when it comes to violating borders.
As for our allies, most notably the Americans and the British, they have probably done much more to undermine ‘an international order based on rules’ and the principle of ‘inviolability of borders’ than our supposed ‘enemies’ ever have. They continue to do so today in Syria.
If it is true that breeches of international order are ‘not something we can accept or ignore’, we ought to start by doing something about ourselves and our allies. Then perhaps we might have some moral standing.
Freeland is on sounder ground when she talks about economic issues:
Another key benefit for Canada from an international system based on rules, is of course free trade. … The second great challenge is an exhaustion in the West of the belief among working people, the middle class, that the globalized system can help them better their lives. … It’s true that the system is flawed. But international trade is the wrong target, Mr Speaker. The real culprit is domestic policy that fails to appreciate that continued growth, and political stability, depend on domestic measures that share the wealth.
I’m on Freeland’s side when it comes to the benefits of trade, though I think the talk of the declining fortunes of the middle class is unjustified. But our government needs to think through what is being said here. If we believe in free trade, and wish to support measures that ‘share the wealth’ not just domestically but also globally, we should be working on eliminating the continued barriers to trade which exist within our own country. Abolition of the system of ‘supply management’ which subsidizes our dairy industry would be a good place to start.
Next, Freeland comments:
Now, it is clearly not our role to impose our values around the world, Mr Speaker. No one appointed us the world’s policeman. But is our role to clearly stand for these rights both in Canada and abroad.
… It is our role to set a standard for how states should treat women, gays and lesbians, transgendered people, racial, ethnic, cultural, linguistic and religious minorities, and Indigenous people.
In short, it is our role to impose our values around the world. What else is the ‘principled use of force’ about? And it would have been better, I think, to have left indigenous peoples out of this list. The Canadian record on this matter is not good. Again, perhaps we should look to rectifying problems at home before setting out to rectify the problems of the rest of the world.
I offer the example of my grandfather, John Wilbur Freeland. … My grandpa was the opposite of an Upper Canada elite. But in the darkest day of the Second World War, Wilbur enlisted to serve. Two of his brothers, Carleton and Warren, joined up too. Wilbur and Carleton came home. Warren did not. … They rose to their generation’s great challenge. And so can we.
At least Freeland did not mention grandfather no. 2. But, putting that to one side, the anecdote on which she chose to end her speech is revealing. The analogy she uses to describe the world is WW2. This a frame of good v. evil, one in which failure to confront ‘evil’ wherever it appears, however far away, is seen as endangering Canada itself. But the world is not such a simple place. Canada and its NATO allies aren’t all ‘good’. Their geopolitical opponents, such as Russia’, aren’t all ‘bad’. Confrontation doesn’t help provide solutions, but often makes things worse. And failure to resist ‘aggression’ in places like Ukraine isn’t actually going to put the lives of Canadians at risk. We often can simply leave things as they are for others to sort out themselves. In fact, as often as not, they will probably sort them out much faster without us than with us.
Overall, this is not an encouraging speech. It lacks humility and self-reflection. In this respect, it is exactly what one would expect from a politician: self-reflection isn’t patriotic; it certainly isn’t a vote winner. But at least we can take consolation in the fact that nothing much is likely to come out of it. To a large degree, it’s hot air. Canada isn’t going to suddenly become a military, political, or economic superpower. By international standards, Canada is a great place to live. There is an awful lot to be said in its favour. But, whatever Freeland says, we aren’t an ‘essential nation’ at all.