Skip to main content

Stephanie Carvin is an assistant professor at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, Carleton University

If Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland had one message for Canada in her speech to the House of Commons on Tuesday, it is that the world is now entering a post-American phase and Canada needs to figure out how to navigate it – and fast.

Essentially, Ms. Freeland's post-American world is one where the United States no longer seeks to lead or be a guarantor of the post-1945 global order. Historically, this order has always been essential to Canada (and other middle powers), as it established the rule of law and stability, the fostering of international trade and the creation of international institutions where Canada has a voice at the table. Even if the United States has clearly not always played by its own rules, its diplomacy, military might and willingness to engage in free trade have underpinned a global system which has been largely peaceful and has fostered prosperity.

The dilemma Ms. Freeland put forward is essentially simple: The assumptions upon which Canada's prosperity have rested have been rocked as Donald Trump has sown the seeds of U.S. retrenchment. In language that is extremely blunt for a minister, Ms. Freeland makes it clear that she believes what is going on in the United States is a failure to respond to the challenges of a changing global order and populism. As such, Canada must move to protect its sovereignty and shore up the world order while the United States drops the "mantle of global leadership."

Read more: Canada can no longer rely on U.S. for global leadership, Freeland says

John Ibbitson: Trudeau decides it's just not worth appeasing Trump in foreign-policy shift

Opinion: Freeland has woken up to reality. Has Trudeau?

It remains to be seen if this strong rhetoric will be noticed south of the border. Perhaps the Trudeau government is gambling that an easily distracted Mr. Trump will not see Ms. Freeland's comments on Fox News. Alternatively, they may have given up on achieving any kind of ambitious agenda with Mr. Trump, short of surviving new NAFTA talks.

But in contextualizing Canada's current dilemma, Ms. Freeland's speech accomplished three things. First, it is a recommitment to the ideals of the 2015 Liberal platform. On the surface, this may not be terribly surprising, but the election of Mr. Trump put many things into doubt. Does it still make sense for Canada to pursue a UN Security Council seat post-Trump? Ms. Freeland clearly says yes.

Second, her speech offered a broad articulation of four very broad priorities:

  • The defence of multilateral institutionalism (a possible rebuke of former foreign minister John Baird’s refrain “we don’t go along to get along”);
  • Defence spending and the “principled use of force,” which was given considerable time in the speech – possibly to prepare Canadians for a new mission abroad;
  • A defence of a rules-based international order – and the contextualization of Canada’s current missions abroad as a support for international borders;
  • Perhaps least surprisingly, a defence of free trade. (Although one of the bigger surprises of the speech was the lack of a mention of a free-trade agreement with China.)

Third, Ms. Freeland offered a vision of Canada in an unstable world that most Canadians will identify with. To be sure, there will not be much that the Conservative Party will like, and the NDP will probably chafe at the support of military spending. But according to an Abacus Data poll released in May, approximately 60 per cent of Canadians see themselves as "globalist" in orientation, and will likely approve of Ms. Freeland's vision and ideas.

What is missing, of course, is specifics. Ms. Freeland has done very well to explain to Canadians where we are and where we need to go, but it is still not clear how we are going to get there. She has set goals, but foreign policy is about the means to achieve them. It is true that we are awaiting the results of the Defence Policy and International Development Reviews (the former to be released Wednesday), but we have yet to see the government articulate a foreign policy or set priorities in more concrete terms. More than a year and a half into the Trudeau government, it is time to see some tangible ideas.

It is important for Ms. Freeland to articulate an understanding of where she believes Canada to be in a fast-changing world. On Tuesday, she did so convincingly.

But the true test of her skills as a minister will be putting this vision into practice and successfully navigating Canada through Mr. Trump's choppy waters.