The following is adapted from an acceptance speech by Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland on receiving Foreign Policy’s Diplomat of the Year award on June 13
In the late 1980s and 1990s, I studied and worked as a reporter in what was first the USSR and, while I was living there, became independent Ukraine and Russia.
My experience of watching from the inside as this vast authoritarian regime crumbled profoundly shaped my thinking.
It was a euphoric moment – and one when it was tempting to imagine that liberal democracy was both inevitable and invulnerable.
Now, we harboured no illusions that institutions such as the WTO, or the International Monetary Fund, or the World Bank, or the United Nations, were perfect. Or that our own democracies at home – with their sausage-making methods of legislating and governing – were without flaw.
But there was a broad consensus that the Atlantic nations, plus Japan, led an international system of rules that had allowed our peoples to thrive, and which would surely continue to do so.
Critically, this was built as a system that other nations, emerging powers, could join. And join they have. The past 25 years have seen the rapid rise of the Global South and Asia as major economic powers in their own right. We created the G20. Russia was invited into the G7, making it the G8, in 1998, and the WTO in 2012. China has been a WTO member since 2001.
In Latin America, in the Caribbean, in Africa and in Asia, developing countries have joined these institutions and accepted their rules – and that has delivered ever-greater living standards to their people.
But although this was and remains a broadly positive evolution, one assumption about this global shift turned out to be wrong.
This was the idea that, as authoritarian countries joined the global economy and grew rich, they would inevitably adopt Western political freedoms, too. That has not always happened. Indeed, in recent years, even some democracies have gone in the other direction and slid into authoritarianism – notably and tragically Venezuela. And some countries that had embarked on the difficult journey from communism to democratic capitalism have moved backwards. The saddest example for me is Russia.
Even China, whose economic success in lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty is one of the great accomplishments of recent times, stands as a rebuke to our belief in the inevitability of liberal democracy.
And within the club of wealthy Western nations, we’re seeing homegrown anti-democratic movements on the rise. Whether they are neo-Nazis, white supremacists, incels, nativists or radical anti-globalists, such movements seek to undermine democracy from within.
Liberal democracy is also under assault from abroad. Authoritarian regimes are actively seeking to undermine us with sophisticated, well-financed propaganda and espionage operations. They seek to suborn smaller countries, those wavering between democracy and authoritarianism.
The idea that democracy could falter, or be overturned in places where it had previously flourished, may seem outlandish.
But other great civilizations have risen – and then fallen. It is hubris to think we will inevitably be different.
Why are our liberal democracies vulnerable at home?
Here’s why. Angry populism thrives where the middle class is hollowed out. Where people are losing ground and losing hope – even as those at the very top are doing better than ever.
When people feel their economic future is in jeopardy; when they believe their children have fewer opportunities than they themselves had in their youth; that’s when people are vulnerable to the demagogue who scapegoats the outsider, the other – whether it’s immigrants at home or foreign actors.
The fact is, middle-class working families aren’t wrong to feel left behind. Median wages have been stagnating, jobs are becoming more precarious, pensions uncertain, housing, child care and education harder to afford.
These are the wrenching human consequences – the growing pains, if you will – of the great transformative forces of the past 40 years – the technology revolution and globalization.
So what’s the answer? I think we are agreed that it is not, as the Luddites unsuccessfully proposed at the start of the industrial revolution, to stop the march of technology. We all love our smartphones too much!
Overwhelmingly, the chief answer to the legitimate grievances of the middle class lies in domestic policy. The middle class and people working hard to join it need the security that comes from education, healthcare, good jobs and dignity in retirement. Perhaps most importantly we need to ensure a 21st century in which capital is global, but social welfare is national, that each of our countries has the durable tax base necessary to support the 99 per cent.
But setting our own house in order is just one part of the struggle. The truth is that authoritarianism is on the march – and it is time for liberal democracy to fight back.
One device strongmen use to justify their rule is the Soviet trick of “whataboutism” – the strategy of false moral equivalency which holds that because democracies are inevitably imperfect they lack the moral authority to criticize authoritarian regimes.
It is possible, indeed necessary, for liberal democrats to acknowledge that our democracies aren’t perfect.
But admitting our mistakes doesn’t discredit us. On the contrary, it is one of the things that make us who we are.
Authoritarianism is often justified as a more efficient way of getting things done. No messy contested elections; no wrenching shift from one short-termist governing party to another; no troublesome judicial oversight; no time-consuming public consultation. How much more effective, the apologists argue, for a paramount leader with a long term vision, unlimited power, and permanent tenure, to rule.
We need to resist this corrosive nonsense. We need to summon Yeats’s oft-cited “passionate intensity” in the fight for liberal democracy and the international rules-based order that supports it.
Now, I’d like to speak directly to Canada’s American friends.
For the past 70 years and more, America has been the leader of the free world. We Canadians have been proud to stand at your side and to have your back.
As your closest friend, ally and neighbour, we also understand that many Americans today are no longer certain that the rules-based international order – of which you were the principal architect and for which you wrote the biggest cheques – still benefits America.
We see this most plainly in the U.S. administration’s tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum imposed under a 232 national-security provision.
We share the world’s longest undefended border. Our soldiers have fought and died alongside yours in the First World War, in the Second World War, in Korea, in Afghanistan, and in Iraq. The idea that we could pose a national-security threat to you is more than absurd – it is hurtful.
The tariffs introduced by the United States are illegal under WTO and NAFTA rules. They are protectionism, pure and simple. They are not a response to unfair actions by other countries that put American industry at a disadvantage. They are a naked example of the United States putting its thumb on the scale, in violation of the very rules it helped to write.
Canada has no choice but to retaliate – with a measured, perfectly reciprocal, dollar-for-dollar response – and we will do so. We act in close collaboration with our like-minded partners in the EU and Mexico. They too are your allies and they share our astonishment and our resolve.
No one will benefit from this beggar thy neighbour dispute. The price will be paid, in part, by American consumers and by American businesses.
The price will also be paid by those who believe that a rules-based system is something worth preserving. Since the end of the Second World War, we have built a system that promoted prosperity and prevented smaller and regional conflicts from turning into total war. We’ve built a system that championed freedom and democracy over authoritarianism and oppression. Canada, for one, is going to stand up in defence of that system. We will not escalate – and we will not back down.
We remember a time when the United States believed great international projects like the Marshall Plan, or the reconstruction of Japan, were the path to lasting peace; when America believed its security and prosperity were bolstered by the security and prosperity of other nations – indeed, that America could only be truly safe and prosperous when its allies were too.
This vision was crucially dependent on the rules-based international order and the postwar institutions built to maintain it. It was based upon the willingness of all, especially the strongest, to play by the rules and be bound by them. It depended on the greatest countries of the world giving up, collectively, on the idea that might made right.
Now, the Second World War was over 70 years ago. It is reasonable to ask whether our grandparents’ hard-won wisdom still applies today. I am certain that it does – and for some new reasons.
After the devastation of the Second World War, the United States was the unquestioned colossus, accounting alone for half of the world’s economy. Today, the U.S. economy stands at just under a quarter of the world’s. Together, the EU, Canada and Japan, your allies in the G7 and beyond, account for just a little bit more. China produces nearly 20 per cent of the world’s GDP, and in our lifetimes, its economy is set to become the world’s largest.
Now, that is not necessarily a bad thing. Americans, Canadians and Europeans are much richer and healthier and live longer than our grandparents did.
The rise of the rest has been a chapter in the story of our own increased prosperity. And it is only natural that the 85 per cent of people who live outside the industrialized West should over time account for a greater and growing share of the world’s wealth.
But that shift leaves the Western liberal democracies with a dilemma. How shall we behave in a world we no longer dominate?
One answer is to give up on the rules-based international order, to give up on the Western alliance and to seek to survive in a world defined not by common values, mutually agreed-upon rules and shared prosperity, but rather by a ruthless struggle between great powers, governed solely by the narrow, short-term and mercantilist pursuit of self-interest.
Canada could never thrive in such a world. But you, still the world’s largest economy, may be tempted. That, of course, is your sovereign right. But allow me, as your friend, to make the case that America’s security, amid the inexorable rise of the rest, lies in doubling down on a renewed rules-based international order. It lies in working alongside traditional allies, like Canada, and alongside all of the younger democracies around the world – from the Americas, to Africa, to Asia, to the former Soviet Union – who are so keen to join us and who yearn for leadership.
You may feel today that your size allows you to go mano-a-mano with your traditional adversaries and be guaranteed to win. But if history tells us one thing, it is that no one nation’s pre-eminence is eternal.
That is why the far wiser path – and the more enduring one – is to strengthen our existing alliance of liberal democracies. To hold the door open to new friends, to countries that have their own troubled past, such as Tunisia, Senegal, Indonesia, Mexico, Botswana, Chile or Ukraine. To reform and renew the rules-based international order that we have built together. And, in so doing, to require that all states, whether democratic or not, play by common rules.
This is the difficult truth: As the West’s relative might inevitably decline, now is the time when, more than ever, we must set aside the idea that might is right. Now is the time for us to plant our flag on the rule of law – so that the rising powers are induced to play by these rules, too.
Our friends among the world’s democracies – in Europe, in Asia, in Africa and here in the Americas – are shoulder to shoulder with us. We all know we will be strongest with America in our ranks – and indeed in the lead. But whatever this great country’s choice will turn out to be – let me be clear that Canada knows where it stands. And we will rise to this challenge.