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Chrystia Freeland became Minister of Foreign Affairs on Jan. 10, 2017.Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

Chrystia Freeland became Minister of Foreign Affairs on Jan. 10, 2017. John Ibbitson sat down with her to discuss the challenges and successes of the Liberal government’s foreign policy. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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Your government secured the removal of U.S. tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum, which was a precondition for ratifying the new North American free-trade agreement for this country. So will the government now proceed with ratification of the accord, or will you wait for Congress to act first?

Our position on the ratification of the new NAFTA was that it would be difficult to move ahead while the tariffs were in place. Those tariffs have been lifted, which is very good news for Canadians and also for Americans, and our government now intends to move ahead with ratification of the new NAFTA. We are also aware that this agreement has moved from being a negotiation between three countries to being an agreement subject to three domestic ratification processes. Our view in terms of Canada’s ratification is that we want to take a sort of Goldilocks approach relative to the pace of ratification in the U.S.: not too fast, not too slow. Parliamentary procedure in both countries will create a few potholes along the way, but insofar as it’s possible, we want to move in tandem with the U.S. towards ratification.

I realize that you are not the government House Leader. But there are only four weeks left in the session, with the budget bill still to be passed, and other bills as well. How do you navigate that? Is it possible that the government might choose to extend the sitting of Parliament into the summer to get the new NAFTA treaty passed?

As you pointed out, I am not the government House Leader. There are certainly some challenges, and we will have to navigate those carefully. We know that having NAFTA ratified in all three countries and entering into force will give people a lot of economic certainty. And so we will do what it takes to get there, given the limitations of what is within our powers. Just as Canadians would not appreciate it if Americans came here opining on how we ought to manage our domestic politics, I think that it is really inappropriate for us to opine on U.S. domestic politics, which is where the NAFTA ratification process is right now in the U.S. But, of course, that does have an impact on us, because the agreement can only enter into force when it’s ratified by all three countries.

Just so that I understand, the government proceeds with ratification legislation, but the passage of that legislation occurs while closely watching the passage of the matching legislation through Congress, and is contingent on the progress of that legislation.

Our plan will be, insofar as it is possible given two quite different legislative processes, to move in tandem with the U.S. ratification process.

Securing continental free trade with the United States has consumed the government for more than two years. It has been by far your largest priority, and with good reason. Meanwhile, relations with China have seriously deteriorated. Could the preoccupation with American trade and the Trump administration have contributed to the situation with China?

I don’t think so at all. The reality of our geography dictates that getting the relationship with the United States right needs to be a priority of any Canadian government. When this U.S. administration was elected with a clear campaign commitment to renegotiate NAFTA, getting that relationship right took on a huge, you could even say existential, economic aspect for our country. So getting a good deal on NAFTA and getting the [aluminum and steel tariffs] lifted has been hugely important. I have devoted a huge amount of time to it. So has the Prime Minister, so has the cabinet, our whole caucus has been engaged. But I strongly disagree with the notion that doing a good job in managing the U.S. relationship has in any way lessened our capacity to work on other issues. I really do believe you can walk and chew gum at the same time.

The detention of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou at the request of the United States, which has submitted an extradition request, appears to have resulted in the imprisonment of two Canadian nationals in China and a ban on imports of Canadian canola and other products. The Chinese ambassador told The Globe and Mail that Canada was responsible for the fact that diplomatic relations were at what he called “a freezing point,” and that it was up to Canada to thaw them. How have we gotten to this freezing point, and what can Canada do to thaw relations?

On the first point, let me say that it is certainly the case that our relations with China are very difficult. I think that’s clear to everybody. I think it’s also clear that the beginning of the difficulties was Canada’s decision to act on the extradition request from the United States. I am confident that was the right thing to do, and I am confident that Canadians understand it was the right thing to do. Canada is a rule of law country. Our extradition treaty with the United States requires us to act as we did.

On the second point, the consequences that flowed from that decision are not of our choosing. When it comes to Ms. Meng, whose detention was identified by the Chinese as the root cause of all this, her case is now before very fair Canadian courts; she has excellent Canadian lawyers, as she ought to have, and our government did not politically interfere in a judicial process. Nor would we want to. That would be wrong. We are working hard to explain to China that there was no political involvement and therefore no political intent behind Canada’s actions.

I would also add that something adds to our success in explaining that reality, and also to the broader success of our diplomacy in building relationships around the world, is the fact that we have managed to put together what I think is an unprecedented coalition of countries that have been prepared to speak out in defence of the detained Canadians. It’s unusual for a third party to speak out in a case like this.

But it suggests that Canadians should not expect any major thaw in relations anytime soon. It just has to play itself out.

As I said, I really think it’s a mistake to make predictions. We will continue to energetically advocate on behalf of [detained Canadians] Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor. I hear about the consular visits as soon as they happen and I can say based on that these are two really brave, exceptional people, who are handling a very difficult situation with real grace. Each family is supporting their Michael with incredible determination. In the consular visits we make a point of letting them know of the steps that we are taking. And I know from those consular visits that’s important for them to hear. We are unflagging. We are going to keep at it.

Before the detentions, though, there was what appeared to be a promising, but proved to be disappointing, effort to explore trade talks with China. There was the controversial trip to India by the Prime Minister. There have been mixed signals surrounding Saudi Arabia. You and many others in the cabinet had no experience in government when you got there and had little experience in politics. Was some of this the product of a learning curve?

I want to be clear that as far as I am concerned and as far as our government is concerned there are no mixed messages and no mixed signals. Our position on Saudi Arabia, and on human rights in the world, has been entirely consistent, and actually it has been one of the things that is a very important part of our foreign policy. The comments that we made speaking out for feminist activists in Saudi Arabia are comments I would make again.

We are living in a time when fewer countries are prepared to speak out about human rights than maybe had been the case previously. But I think that makes our actions all the more necessary.

Finally, if you would like other countries to support you when you find the rights of other people are being violated, it’s easier to do that if your partners know you are willing to speak out as well.

I really believe that we are at an inflection point in the course of world affairs. We really are at a time when liberal democracy is under greater threat as an idea than at any time since the Second World War. And so is the rules-based international order. And so I think the kind of verities and assumptions of how we should conduct foreign policy, the paradigms, the core issues, the way of doing things, that have been embedded since the Second World World War need to be re-examined because we are facing a very different set of challenges. What do we do about it? We have a plan, and we’re doing a lot to shore both up. Speaking out in support of human rights is a part of that and building coalitions that do that is a part of it.

How might that contribute to the prospects for Canada winning a Security Council seat when the vote takes place in 2020? We’ve already discussed the tensions with Saudi Arabia. There is Canada’s strong support for Israel [which upsets other Middle Eastern states], what some maintain is a limited contribution to foreign aid peacekeeping, and then there’s the competition from Norway and Ireland. At this point, what, realistically are our chances?

My view is, we need to be elected because of who we are and what we stand for. I do not believe the right approach is a Machiavellian the-ends-justifies-the-means. The means and the ends need to be consistent with one another. Our job in the campaign is to talk to our partners about what it is we stand for, talk to them about why those values, which we show every day in the way we conduct our foreign policy, are values they want to have expressed at the Security Council. And I really believe that that is a message which is resonating.