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opinion

Minister of Finance Chrystia Freeland in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Oct. 6.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

The Canadian government works on two world stages.

In one, a decisive Canada identifies the developing dangers of the globe and acts boldly to deal with them. Unfortunately, that exists only in the imaginary world of Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland’s foreign-policy speeches. In the other one, the real world, Canada vacillates aimlessly on tough choices without much of a foreign policy.

We saw this last week, when Ms. Freeland went to Washington to deliver a highly-touted speech.

The speech itself was fascinating. The Deputy Prime Minister argued that the era of hoping that democracy and global rules would inexorably spread around the world is over. Now, democratic countries must recognize that their powerful authoritarian nations aren’t about to change, and those democracies will have to take steps to blunt the power and economic leverage of authoritarian rivals.

The implications are vast. This wasn’t just about sanctioning Russia for invading Ukraine. It was about taking steps to reduce economic dependence, not only on Russian energy but Chinese supply chains. Follow the logic, and it means dividing into two trading blocs.

But there’s no sign that bears any relation to Canada’s actual foreign policy. It is not clear that Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly agrees, or Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

In Ottawa, officials have been labouring on a new Indo-Pacific strategy, but the first hiccup was that the drafters couldn’t decide if they should have the audacity to mention China by name. The current draft is said to be too tough on China for Ms. Joly’s liking. At any rate, the Foreign Affairs Minister has indicated she is out to re-establish warmer ties with China. The European Union’s policy declared China a “strategic rival,” but Canada hasn’t said anything like it.

Yet Ms. Freeland is telling the world we have to wake up to the fact that we can’t always have “win-win” relationships with authoritarian states, and that although we should continue to trade, “we should avoid strategic vulnerabilities in our supply chains and our economies more broadly.”

“There isn’t unanimity in the cabinet on that question,” said Guy Saint-Jacques, a former Canadian ambassador to China.

Last week’s speech was at odds with another one Ms. Freeland gave five years ago when she was foreign affairs minister. In that one, delivered in 2017 when Donald Trump had been president for five months, she warned that the rules-based international order that advanced peace and prosperity since the Second World War was under threat. So Canada and other middle-power nations had to “step up” to defend it. Last week, she essentially declared that the rules-based international order was dead.

There is no crime in updating one’s assessment in a changing world. But it’s worth noting that the Liberal government never really do the bold things – such as stepping up to substantially expand its diplomatic influence and military capabilities – that she called for in her 2017 speech, either.

Last week, Ms. Freeland said many in democratic countries once believed that welcoming authoritarian states into global trade and institutions would eventually lead them to open up and move closer to democratic values; now, they realize that’s not happening. Russia responded to sanctions by cutting off gas to Europe, and China responded to Australia’s calls for an inquiry into the origins of COVID-19 by blocking a lot of its trade.

The Deputy Prime Minister echoed some of U.S. President Joe Biden administration’s rhetoric about working with allies to counter China’s economic coercion, especially the concept of “friend-shoring.” That is an alternative to “re-shoring” – which refers to switching Chinese suppliers to domestic ones – by instead finding suppliers among allies. You can see why Canada wants to be the friendly shores where U.S. supplies come from.

But the whole notion is predicated on the idea that democratic countries such as the U.S. and Canada have to recognize authoritarian powers as rivals or adversaries and take steps to de-couple our economies – at least in certain key strategic areas. It’s not clear Mr. Trudeau’s government has embraced that.

Shuvaloy Majumdar, director of the foreign policy program at the MacDonald-Laurier Institute and a former adviser to Conservative ministers of foreign affairs, argued the speech was “welcome and impressive,” but also an admission by Ms. Freeland that the Liberal government’s foreign policy has been on the wrong track.

“Is this a radical departure or a personal perspective?” Mr. Majumdar asked.

We don’t know. And if you don’t whether the Deputy Prime Minister’s speech is the government’s foreign policy, it could be because in the real world, it hasn’t really got one.