Skip to main content
opinion

Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland rises during Question Period, on Oct. 18, in Ottawa.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

It is an axiom of Canadian politics that a thing is not known until the Liberals know it. Free trade was terra incognita before the Liberals discovered it, a creature of Tory myth that Brian Mulroney somehow convinced the public to support in 1988. As late as 1993 the Liberals were still campaigning against it.

But then they won power, after which it was suddenly transformed into conventional wisdom – one of those things everybody knows, and what is more has always known. By a similarly mysterious process the GST, balanced budgets and price stability, ideas once so barbaric no civilized person could repeat them, became familiar parts of the Liberal lexicon.

Something of the same seems now to be happening in the realm of foreign policy. For some time now it has been apparent that the great hope of post-Cold War diplomacy, that the world could be made not only more prosperous through trade but also more democratic and more peaceful, had failed.

Trade had, to be sure, delivered the expected economic benefits: The evidence on globalization’s contribution to rising incomes, not only in the developing world but the developed, is overwhelming. But in its civilizing mission it had, if anything, made matters worse.

Not only had Russia and China failed to grow more democratic, they had slid backward into dictatorship. Not only had they declined to embrace the norms and obligations of great power citizenry, they had weaponized the West’s openness to trade with them, using the gains from trade to fund their military buildups and, as we have lately seen, holding hostage those nations who were so unwary as to depend on trade with them.

All this, as I say, has long been apparent – apparent, that is, to everyone but the Liberals. While other countries were raising the alarm about China’s growing threat, for example, the early years of the Trudeau government were given over to ingratiating itself with what many in the government saw as the rising world power.

Not until this year – after Hong Kong, after the two Michaels – could the government even bring itself to formally bar Huawei from our telecoms systems. To this day, present and former Liberal potentates talk glowingly of the business opportunities to be had in China – an expansionist power that, along with Russia, “consider themselves to be at war with the West,” as the chief of the defence staff reminded us the other day.

A similar mix of cynicism and naiveté had animated our relations with Russia, until recent events made the illusion of ameliorability impossible to sustain any longer – though even then, someone at Global Affairs thought it proper to send a representative to that Russian Embassy party.

Hence the news value in last week’s speech in Washington by the Deputy Prime Minister, Chrystia Freeland – a speech that has given rise to excited proclamations of a “Freeland Doctrine.” Certainly it was news to hear a senior Liberal declare that the age of peace through prosperity is over; that China and Russia are not our partners but our implacable adversaries; that national security, with the threat of nuclear war in the air, trumps the gains from trade, or – dare I say it – even the environment. That it was news, however, was not because the ideas are new – only because a Liberal said it.

The “three pillars” on which Ms. Freeland proposed to build a new international order – closer trade and investment ties among the democracies, openness to trade with other countries who share our values, and a determination to stand together against the encroachments of the autocracies – were likewise not particularly new.

The catchphrase “friend-shoring,” or the diversion of trade and investment, particularly in sensitive sectors, from autocratic to democratic countries, was coined by the U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, as Ms. Freeland acknowledged.

Still, it was all sensible enough – a trade bloc among the democracies, an economic NATO – or would have been, had Ms. Freeland resisted the temptation to load it up with extraneous considerations.

There was first the pretense that friend-shoring, rather than a stopgap, a second-best in a security climate that no longer permits global free trade, was somehow also an economic panacea. “Friend-shoring,” she declared, “is an historic opportunity for our workers and our communities … to attract new investment, create more good-paying jobs, and thrive in a changed global economy.”

Well, no. If it were economically preferable to trade with countries other than China, we would not need a foreign policy requiring it. China’s cheap labour, as the minister acknowledges elsewhere in the speech, “brought down the cost of consumer goods and commodities for us all.” Avoiding trade with China and other dictatorships might be good for our security, it might be truer to our principles, but it is not going to make us all richer. In fact it is going to make us a little poorer. It’s a trade-off, not a win-win.

Second, it is not necessarily the case, as Ms. Freeland claimed, that friend-shoring will help “preserve the planet.” The decisions that must be taken, the policies that must be implemented, the sacrifices that must be made – for a cleaner environment also, inescapably, implies some loss of material income – are broadly the same, whether we trade with the world or just our friends.

It may be that there are political opportunities, amid all the other changes friend-shoring will require, to advance a green agenda – I seem to recall Ms. Freeland saying much the same about the pandemic – but that is a different story. For that matter, nothing about friend-shoring requires us to engage in a subsidy war with our allies and partners – it’s supposed to be about free trade, remember? – though Ms. Freeland seems determined to pursue one.

In any case, it’s hard to square the “friend-shoring must be green” dogma with the most remarked-upon bit of Sudden Liberal Awareness in the speech, the commitment to “fast-track” energy and mining projects “our allies need to heat their homes.” Quite what this means we can only speculate: Could it really be that this government is now prepared to put the demands of a global security crisis before the delights of environmental purity? Was it only two months ago that the German Chancellor, on a visit in search of Canadian liquefied natural gas, was turned away empty-handed?

But like much else in the speech it seemed to imply the Liberals were prepared once again to give their blessing to common knowledge, and for that I suppose we should be grateful.