Simon Palamar is a research associate at the Centre for International Governance Innovation.
There was nothing wrong with the sentiment that Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland expressed in her foreign policy speech in the House of Commons Tuesday. Peace, economic opportunity, recognizing the right of self-determination for all nations – these are all nice, desirable things. However, diplomats and analysts alike (including myself) are very good at explaining why the world is the way it is and why it should be that way. If global peace, order and prosperity are threatened, as Ms. Freeland suggested they are (and I agree that they are), then Ottawa needs to do more than declare our fondness for Canada's halcyon past and pledge to defend the status quo.
While the Minister's diagnosis of the foreign policy challenges Canada faces was largely correct, she tactfully avoided some of the thorny questions about how to meet said challenges. Let's take two concrete examples: Russia and China.
We needed to hear – in substantive terms – how a rejuvenated Canadian foreign policy will deal with a Kremlin that dismantles its neighbours. Do we arm Ukraine? Do we increase our commitment to NATO even if the Americans reduce theirs? Saying we stand behind Ukraine is nice, but it will not stop a war that has already killed more than 10,000 people. Is the government of Canada ready to advocate to skeptical European countries for the need to keep economic sanctions on Russia in place, even if they hurt European and Canadian economies? Is Canada willing to dull that economic pain in Rome, Athens or Madrid? Scant on details, Canadians watching Ms. Freeland's speech at home undoubtedly concluded that answers may be outside the grasp of this government.
We needed to hear how Canada would engage with China – which on the one hand, as Ms. Freeland rightly pointed out, is a success story that has pulled hundreds of millions of people out of abject poverty and is now a crucial part of the global economy, but which also threatens and bullies its smaller neighbours, takes territory by force, subjects its citizens to the capricious whims of its economic elite and uses state-owned enterprises to undermine its trading partners. Should Canada enter into a free-trade deal with a China that does not restrain its state-owned enterprises just for the sake of waving the free-trade banner? Should Canada even entertain the idea of an extradition treaty with Beijing?
Russia and China alone pose huge challenges to Ms. Freeland's call for Canada to recommit to its traditional liberal vision of the world. Add America's turn away from global leadership, and we can see a gap between the government's aspirations and what it is publicly willing to commit to doing.
Canadians needed to hear more than just a pledge to uphold "rules." Everyone likes rules, but rules are not necessarily benign. There are forces on the march – in Russia, in China, in the Middle East, in Europe and in North America – that obey the rules of strength. One can have a "global order based on rules" that is vicious and unkind to the weak. It would be unjust, but it would follow the very clear rules that governed international politics for most of human history. Some hint at substantive measures to push back against those who want the world to be ruled by the strong would be welcome. Likewise when it comes to values.
Ms. Freeland rightly pointed out that ISIS is an affront to Canadian – and indeed civilized – values, but gave little indication of what, if anything, Canada might do to fight extremist ideologies in the long run. If we are hesitant about using our military to combat vicious insurgents, then what do we do? There are other policy options, but Ms. Freeland gave few hints about what the government is considering.
In essence, she extolled the virtues of doing things the way we've always done them – without acknowledging that the same old, same old may no longer work. Defending the principles of a liberal world may require Canadians to spend significantly more on aid, diplomacy and defence. It may also force Canada to make hard choices and confront governments and social movements that threaten those principles.
Canadians don't like to think of themselves as confrontational, and Ms. Freeland certainly drew on episodes in Canadian history in which being the reasonable peacemaker worked wonders. But if the world is indeed different today, and governments and social movements that are hostile to ideas such as democracy, gender equality, ethnic and religious tolerance, free expression and individual rights are gaining momentum, then we need to talk about more than simply spending more on our military. We need to talk about what we are willing to do to create the world we want to live in – and what price we are willing to pay.
Ms. Freeland's speech was fundamentally a declaration of principles. In many ways – and with only a few changes in language – it was a speech that could have been given in the 1950s, 1980s or the 2000s. Canadian values, principles and interests haven't really changed in the past 70 years. In many ways, that is reassuring. And we should never shy away from confessing our values and aspirations to the world. But that reassertion of Canada's values, interests and hope for the world begs a fundamental question: If the world is changing around us, should Canadian foreign policy not change with it?