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Konrad Yakabuski

Freeland moves from the Davos bubble to the real world Add to ...

This month last year, Chrystia Freeland was with her boss in Davos. The Swiss resort and site of the World Economic Forum, Ms. Freeland once wrote, is where the globe’s plutocrats go to “figure out their party line.” The onetime chronicler of the superrich had always seemed unusually at ease among the 0.1 per cent she claimed to criticize. By last year, as a key player in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s new cabinet, she seemed utterly in her element among them.

After the event, Ms. Freeland posted photos on her website of her with George Soros and Richard Branson. Mr. Soros, the billionaire hedge-fund magnate best known for his massive donations to Democratic causes, has called Donald Trump “a con-artist and would-be dictator.” Mr. Branson, the billionaire founder of Virgin Group, worried last fall that Mr. Trump’s “vindictive streak … could be so dangerous if he got into the White House.”

Progressive plutocrats, with whom Ms. Freeland seems to feel some kinship, are now catatonic in the face of a Trump presidency. Davos will never be the same. There was always something surreal about the Davos plutocrats and their hangers-on gathering in splendid isolation to decry rising income inequality. In the Trump era, they will seem even more hopelessly extraterrestrial.

While the Davos crowd was making its usual calls for “inclusive growth” and climate accords, the masses had other things on their mind, such as the utter repudiation of the experts in business and politics who kept on telling them that globalization was good for them if only they’d listen.

Ms. Freeland, whose meteoric rise in the Trudeau government was confirmed with her Tuesday appointment as Foreign Affairs Minister, is a strong advocate of the Davos consensus. It holds that open borders, combined with activist government policies to redistribute income and promote social mobility, are the keys to ensuring global growth and stability. It is an upbeat vision that sees ethnic and religious diversity as linchpins of modernity, not threats to social cohesion.

It is also a vision inimical to the Trump administration and senior Trump adviser Stephen Bannon, who is tasked with keeping white working-class voters on board the Trump train. In the Bannon world view, globalism, diversity and the nanny state have eroded everything that once made America great. He admires Russian President Vladimir Putin’s skillful cultivation of ethnic and religious nationalism and wants to revive their domestic counterparts in America.

This makes Ms. Freeland a risky choice as the Trudeau government’s point person on the Canada-U.S. file. She may be less prickly than her predecessor, Stéphane Dion. But she is no less preachy. And her relentless antagonism toward Mr. Putin, to the point of being banned from Russia, will not ingratiate her with Mr. Bannon or his boss as they warm up to Moscow.

Much will hinge on the relationship Ms. Freeland develops with Rex Tillerson, provided the former ExxonMobil chief executive is confirmed as Mr. Trump’s secretary of state. Mr. Tillerson is no stranger to Davos. But he also showed up last year at Mr. Putin’s St. Petersburg Economic Forum, in defiance of the Obama Administration and U.S. sanctions on Russia. At Exxon, he pursued close ties with Mr. Putin and the head of Russia’s state-controlled oil giant, Rosneft.

As the ex-CEO of an oil multinational with operations in more than 50 countries, Mr. Tillerson has far more geopolitical experience than any incoming Canadian foreign affairs minister. He is a skilled negotiator, whether doing deals with African dictators or Western democracts. (He got burned by former Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez, but he learned from it.)

He has been criticized for putting Texas-based Exxon’s bottom line ahead of U.S. national security interests. But as CEO, that was his job. If he applies himself as effectively on behalf of his country, U.S. foreign policy is likely to be ruthlessly focused. Realpolitik, not values, will dictate policy. Canada may be an afterthought.

Ms. Freeland will need to direct all of her abundant energy to earn the trust of both Mr. Bannon and Mr. Tillerson. The Trump people have no particular animus toward Canada – but they will not do us any favours either on softwood lumber exports or renegotiating the North American free-trade agreement. The biggest threat of all remains the collateral damage Mr. Trump’s America First agenda will inflict on Canada as he targets Mexico and China.

Davos is fun. But Ms. Freeland’s real work lies elsewhere.

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Follow on Twitter: @konradyakabuski

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