There are two reactions you get when you ask around the globe about Chrystia Freeland and Canadian foreign policy under her leadership. She’s either one of the last, best hopes of the liberal world order – or she’s an out-of-touch idealist who is risking trade by starting diplomatic fights that Canada can’t hope to win.
Not since Lester Pearson has Canada had a foreign minister so widely recognized on the international stage. Despite her loud detractors, she is increasingly viewed as Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau’s most likely successor, particularly should their party lose power in the Oct. 21 federal election.
In an effort to examine the motivations and implications of Ms. Freeland’s chin-out approach – and where her policies might lead if she retains a leadership role after the election – The Globe and Mail’s foreign correspondents in the United States, Asia, Africa and Europe spoke to politicians, non-governmental activists and business figures about how they perceived Canadian foreign policy, which has become synonymous with her name over the past 2½ years.
Ms. Freeland’s admirers hail her as a principled and effective diplomat, someone who can turn a room in her favour with a mix of well-researched facts and understated charm. Her Canada is the one that tangled with Donald Trump’s White House over trade and came out relatively unscathed, and the one that won’t back down in its outsized support of Ukraine in its struggle with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. It’s her Canada that led the rescue of Syria’s famed White Helmets and has become a beacon for women fleeing Saudi Arabia, as well as LGBTQ refugees from around the world. The Washington-based Foreign Policy magazine named Ms. Freeland its diplomat of the year in 2018.
But Ms. Freeland’s critics are as vitriolic as her supporters are effusive. She has been the target of startlingly personal attacks from the foreign governments that don’t share her worldview. Male leaders, in particular, seem to bristle at being criticized by a female foreign affairs minister who represents a country of just 36 million people.
“We don’t like their representative very much,” Mr. Trump famously said of Ms. Freeland amid the sometimes acrimonious negotiations that resulted in a new free-trade deal – pending ratification – between the U.S., Canada and Mexico.
Worse has been said about her by the governments of China, Russia and Saudi Arabia – regimes that Ms. Freeland’s foreign policy has put Canada into conflict with.
The 51-year-old journalist-turned-politician says she’s fine with the heat. “The notion that the objective of foreign policy is to be friends with everyone is to misread very much the situation in the world today, where some very big principles and issues are at stake,” she said in a telephone interview during a campaign stop in Vancouver this week. A candidate in the Toronto riding of University-Rosedale, it’s a sign of her growing importance to the Liberal Party that she has been deployed across the country in a closely fought campaign.
While she says foreign affairs comes up wherever she goes – “people still like to talk to me a lot about NAFTA, both during the campaign and when I’m buying groceries” – Ms. Freeland was in British Columbia this week, using her star power to boost local candidates.
In many ways, she’s acting like the deputy prime minister that Canada doesn’t have (both Mr. Trudeau and his predecessor Stephen Harper left the post empty as more and more power was accumulated in the Prime Minister’s Office). But as questions grow about Mr. Trudeau’s leadership, the charismatic Foreign Affairs Minister is clearly the Liberal Party’s No. 2.
But Ms. Freeland, who served as deputy editor of The Globe from 1999 to 2001, remains most passionate about foreign policy, and specifically the need to defend liberal democracy and what she calls the “rules-based international order” in a time of rising populism and authoritarianism around the world. It’s also plain from speaking to her that Canada’s global direction is currently hers to set.
While relations with the U.S., China and Russia have been the defining challenges of Ms. Freeland’s time in office, those who have worked closely with her on a variety of files say that she’s at her most energetic and convincing when she’s seized by a cause.
Ukraine, where her late mother was a prominent intellectual who helped draft the country’s post-Soviet constitution, has always been close to her heart. Her conviction that Ukraine’s struggle with Russia is a front line between the forces of democracy and the rising authoritarian menace has led to a deepening of the confrontation between Ottawa and Moscow that began under Mr. Harper’s Conservative government.
“Is it personal? Yes,” said Natalie Jaresko, a long-time friend of Ms. Freeland’s who served as Ukraine’s finance minister from 2014 to 2016. “But [Ms. Freeland’s support for Ukraine] is based in values, and what will happen if we don’t defend those values in the world that we live in today.”
Another crisis that captured Ms. Freeland’s imagination is Venezuela, where anti-government protests erupted shortly after she became foreign affairs minister.
Ben Rowswell, who was Canada’s ambassador to Venezuela during the 2017 uprisings, said Ms. Freeland understood the gravity of the crisis – which saw President Nicolas Maduro attempt to strip the opposition-dominated Congress of its powers amid an economic collapse that left Venezuelans scrambling for food and medicine – earlier than most of her counterparts on the world stage.
Mr. Rowswell recounted how bureaucrats at Global Affairs Canada warned him that Ms. Freeland would be too focused on U.S. relations to take briefings on Venezuela.
To his surprise, Mr. Rowswell received the opposite response from Ms. Freeland.
“She was really quite clear that she placed priority on this because she took time that she really didn’t have and invested it,” said Mr. Rowswell, who is now the president of the Canadian International Council, a group of foreign-relations experts.
Mr. Rowswell said Ms. Freeland saw Venezuela – like Ukraine – as a “front line in the emerging global competition between democracy and authoritarianism,” with Russia, China, Iran and Cuba backing the Maduro regime.
But Ms. Freeland’s willingness to use Canada’s diplomatic clout in places such as Ukraine and Venezuela invites comparison to the places that she hasn’t made a priority.
Africa stands out as one region that appears to have fallen off the Liberal radar. Mr. Trudeau’s government came to office promising Canada would return to its previous leadership role on UN peacekeeping missions. Ms. Freeland’s predecessor as foreign affairs minister, Stéphane Dion, had helped draft a plan for a large-scale deployment of Canadian peacekeepers and police in the West African country of Mali.
But those ambitions were scaled back after Ms. Freeland took over the portfolio. Mr. Trudeau was “afraid of the risks,” according to Jocelyn Coulon, a former top aide to Mr. Dion, in memoirs published this year. Within weeks of Ms. Freeland’s appointment, her chief of staff “informed me that the files I had been working on – multilateralism, peacekeeping and Africa – would not be priorities for the minister,” Mr. Coulon said.
Ms. Freeland has yet to make an official visit to Africa during her tenure as foreign affairs minister. The eventual Canadian peacekeeping mission in Mali, which consisted of just 250 troops and a handful of helicopters, was limited to barely a year in the country.
Canada’s policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, meanwhile, has become less overtly pro-Israeli than it was under the Conservatives; the Liberals restored funding to the United Nations agency that supports Palestinian refugees after it was cut off by Mr. Harper’s government. But Ms. Freeland has stuck to what she calls a “balanced” approach toward Israel and the Palestinians, rarely criticizing Israel’s five-decade-old military occupation of the West Bank.
“On this issue there hasn’t been any form of recalibration. None,” said Diana Buttu, a Palestinian-Canadian lawyer and former legal adviser to Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas. “I wish I had the answer.”
Jeremy Kinsman, a veteran Canadian diplomat who was a part of Mr. Trudeau’s early foreign affairs team, said he believes that on some files, it’s still the Prime Minister’s Office that calls the shots – and it often does so based on domestic political considerations. Support for Ukraine plays well at home, particularly among the million-strong Ukrainian diaspora. Deploying troops to a risky peacekeeping mission in Africa, or taking a side on Israel-Palestine, are not vote-winning ideas.
Ms. Freeland, unlike Mr. Dion, grasped these realities and built them into her policies, he said. And while Mr. Dion always remained an outsider in the Trudeau cabinet, Ms. Freeland built friendships and alliances inside the Prime Minister’s Office. “She has an emotional intelligence that’s highly advanced,” Mr. Kinsman said. “When Chrystia came in [as foreign affairs minister], she immediately got what the politics were.”
Canada’s foreign policy was a muddle after the Liberals came to office in 2015. Mr. Trudeau declared after the election win that Canada was “back” and “here to help” – phrases that meant different things to his two key foreign policy ministers. That sparked a contest of wills that would come to a head over the issue of how to deal with Mr. Putin’s Kremlin.
To Mr. Dion’s ears, those vague terms meant that Canada would return to its Cold War role of being a country that everyone could get along with. A core priority was to reheat relations with countries such as Russia and Iran that had frosted over under Mr. Harper. Ms. Freeland, then minister of international trade, interpreted Mr. Trudeau’s same phrases through her own prism that Canada best stands up for itself by standing up for principles such as democracy and human rights.
One of Mr. Putin’s most prominent critics, financier Bill Browder, recalls receiving a split reception from the new Canadian government. Ms. Freeland, he knew, was a supporter of his efforts to slap sanctions on the Russian officials allegedly involved in the death of Mr. Browder’s accountant, Sergei Magnitsky. But Mr. Browder says he also knew that Canada would never have sanctions, in the form of a Magnitsky Act, as long as Mr. Dion was foreign affairs minister and hoping to mend relations with Moscow.
By January, 2017, Mr. Dion was out of government, Ms. Freeland was foreign affairs minister, ties with Russia were on their way to a new low and the Magnitsky Act was headed toward becoming law.
“In a world where there are few truly moral leaders in the world, Canada has now stepped into the top spot, and a lot of that is due to Chrystia Freeland,” said Mr. Browder, who has known her since the 1990s, when she was a Moscow-based correspondent for Britain’s Financial Times and he was an investment banker in the Russian capital.
The Kremlin would strongly disagree with that statement. Russia has had Ms. Freeland on its list of Canadians targeted for sanctions since 2014, when she was an opposition MP who Moscow saw as an extension of the influential Ukrainian-Canadian diaspora. After she rose to become the country’s foreign affairs minister, Russian diplomats in Canada launched an astonishingly undiplomatic campaign to tarnish her, alerting media to the fact that Ms. Freeland’s maternal grandfather had edited a newspaper in Nazi-occupied Poland during the Second World War, and suggesting she herself might harbour fascist sympathies.
Part of Moscow’s anger is born out of the hope the Kremlin placed in Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Dion after the Liberal election win. Mr. Putin, who has ruled Russia for two decades, had gotten along well with the previous two Liberal prime ministers, Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin, and Russian state media expressed hope in 2015 that the rise of another Liberal government might mean an end to Canada’s pro-Ukrainian policies.
Mr. Dion’s departure put an end to that belief. Ms. Freeland became the first Canadian foreign affairs minister to take office while on the personal sanctions list of a major world power.
She has similarly been singled out for personal attacks in China’s state-controlled media as ties between Ottawa and Beijing tumbled over the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, and more recently over Ms. Freeland’s support for protesters in Hong Kong.
She has also aggravated the Saudi royal family. A tweet in August, 2018, that called for the release of two jailed human-rights activists sent Riyadh into a fury. Rather than backing down, Ms. Freeland personally intervened five months later to clear the way for Rahaf Mohammed – a Saudi teenager who fled her allegedly abusive family – to gain asylum in Canada. The official Saudi Gazette newspaper called Ms. Freeland’s policies “childish” after she personally welcomed Ms. Mohammed when she arrived in Toronto.
Ms. Freeland does her best to shrug off the attacks: “I think we need to be honest with ourselves and honest with Canadians that standing up on these issues will not always be without a cost. And that’s okay.”
But while the barbed relationships with Moscow, Beijing and Riyadh put Ms. Freeland’s vision for Canada into sharpest contrast with Mr. Dion’s, it was the rise of Mr. Trump – and his vow to tear up the North American free-trade agreement – that created a crisis that necessitated the cabinet shuffle that saw Ms. Freeland promoted and Mr. Dion dispatched to serve as Canada’s ambassador to Germany and special envoy to the European Union.
“The most important foreign-policy challenge facing this government was managing relations with the Trump administration and averting his threat to terminate NAFTA,” said Roland Paris, a professor of international affairs at the University of Ottawa who worked as a foreign-policy adviser to Mr. Trudeau for a year after the 2015 election. “Everything else pales in comparison.”
Canada’s original NAFTA strategy was to take a hard line at the bargaining table and concede nothing of substance. During the first five months of talks, Ottawa’s negotiators were happy to tell the Americans why their protectionist demands were wrong, but unwilling to meet halfway on anything the Americans wanted. Canada’s intransigence both surprised and confused the Americans, sources told The Globe at the time. They had expected Canada to gang up with the U.S. against Mexico; after all, both of NAFTA’s wealthier countries had seen manufacturing move to their poorer southern cousin.
But Ms. Freeland was ideologically opposed to Mr. Trump’s worldview. Rather than fighting other countries for “stealing” jobs, she argued that more and freer trade would ultimately cause higher economic growth everywhere.
In June, 2018, with more than $1-trillion in continental trade hanging in the balance, she went to Washington to deliver a speech excoriating the President’s “America first” ideology, including steel and aluminum tariffs imposed by the Trump administration.
Ms. Freeland called the tariffs “a naked example of the United States putting its thumb on the scale, in violation of the very rules it helped to write.”
To make sure the Trump administration got the point, Ms. Freeland handed a copy of the speech to U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer the next day. A source with knowledge of the Americans’ thinking said several White House officials were upset by the speech, and that it made them less inclined to make a deal with the Canadians.
But three months later, Canada got a deal.
The agreement effectively saw the worst of Mr. Trump’s protectionism taken off the table in exchange for Canadian concessions on a raft of long-running trade irritants from dairy protectionism to pharmaceutical patents.
Because of her tough public persona, one of Ms. Freeland’s underappreciated skills is her ability to charm adversaries behind the scenes, said people who have watched her closely. Despite publicly sparring with Mr. Lighthizer, for instance, the pair were said to actually enjoy a reasonably friendly rapport in private.
In early October, 2018, the week after closing NAFTA negotiations, Mr. Lighthizer and C.J. Mahoney, his deputy in charge of North America, flew to Toronto to accept an invitation to have dinner at Ms. Freeland’s house. She cooked the repast herself, with a main course of roast beef.
China would top most lists of countries that threaten Ms. Freeland’s cherished liberal world order.
But she had initially positioned herself as the successor to a long Liberal tradition in China. She spoke of opportunity for partnership and profit with the world’s second-largest economy, a country that greeted the election of Mr. Trudeau, son of a prime minister who sat down with Mao Zedong, as a chance to build a new gilded age of co-operation.
In August, 2017, during Ms. Freeland’s first and only trip to China as foreign affairs minister, she met with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and discussed a “shared desire for deepened + broadened relationship,” her ministry later tweeted.
Ms. Freeland’s optimism on China was longstanding: In her book, Plutocrats, she described the 2012 downfall of Bo Xilai, a rival to now-President Xi Jinping, as “part of a wider drive to make the Chinese economy more fair and open.” Mr. Xi has instead overseen a strengthening of the state’s authoritarian hand on the economy and society alike, and China’s assertive foreign policy – including the building of artificial islands in the South China Sea – pose an arguably larger threat to the liberal order than Russia.
But while Ms. Freeland expelled Russian diplomats, she only went so far as to delay visas for some Chinese state media journalists.
Ms. Freeland had “very little knowledge of Asia to start with,” said Paul Evans, a China scholar at the University of British Columbia. The Liberals, he said, “have been mugged by a kind of reality which is a very nasty, hard international environment. China is part of that, but so is the United States.”
Indeed, by the time Ms. Freeland concluded negotiations toward a new NAFTA deal last fall, the U.S. had already issued a warrant for Ms. Meng, the Huawei executive. Her arrest in Vancouver in December, 2018, would force a harsh new reckoning toward China, which subsequently arrested two Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, and sentenced two others to death for drug crimes.
Ms. Freeland tends to function either as an energetic pragmatist or an absolutist with a “cold war-like” view of the world: “authoritarians versus democrats,” Prof. Evans said. The diplomatic fight with Beijing shifted her into that second mode.
She spoke out publicly against the “arbitrary” detention of Canadians in China and issued statements of concern about Hong Kong, where protesters, some violent, have for months demonstrated against Chinese influence.
As with Russia, her statements on Hong Kong have earned her the wrath of China’s Foreign Ministry, which has repeatedly singled her out, condemning her “gross” interference in Chinese affairs and demanding that she “think twice before speaking.” Online, Chinese media called her a “laughingstock” who has damaged the image of Canada.
Still, Ms. Freeland has also courted criticism at home, where she is sometimes accused of being too soft on China. Ottawa has not responded in kind after Beijing blocked imports of Canadian canola and meat products. The Trudeau government also picked Dominic Barton as its new ambassador to China. A former consultant who has publicly praised Mr. Xi, his appointment has won Canada flattery amid the continuing frictions.
It was the smallest of her diplomatic battles – the tiff with Saudi Arabia over a tweet – that exposed how much Ms. Freeland’s ambitions for Canada put the country in the firing line of some of today’s new authoritarians.
Previous Saudi rulers had taken Western criticism over the kingdom’s human-rights record, and its repressive treatment of women, as part of a grand pact that saw the West buy Saudi oil, while also defending the kingdom from military threat. (The Liberal government has controversially continued to deliver on an agreement to sell 742 light armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia, some of which have since taken part in the kingdom’s bloody military intervention in neighbouring Yemen. The $1-billion deal has been under review since January, though deliveries of the vehicles have continued in the interim.)
But the man who holds sway in Riyadh today, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, had clearly tired of Western lectures and seemed to want to make an example of Ms. Freeland and Canada. A furious Saudi Arabia recalled its ambassador to Ottawa, cancelled direct flights between Toronto and Riyadh and put pressure on the thousands of Saudi students paying university tuition in Canada to find somewhere else to study.
Shuvaloy Majumdar, who advised three Conservative foreign affairs ministers while Mr. Harper was prime minister, said the episode encapsulated Ms. Freeland’s fondness for bold gestures that sometimes harm Canadian interests.
“It’s virtue-signalling, rather than substantive contributions or interventions,” said Mr. Majumdar, who is now a foreign-policy specialist at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an Ottawa-based think tank. “For all of the human-rights advocacy done in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia – and I think advocacy is important when done in the right way – in which way has it had any impact on the people she is advocating for?”
The Saudi episode also revealed how much the world was shifting under the Liberals’ feet.
“The Twitter incident with the Saudis was a wake-up call. None of our allies spoke up in Canada’s defence when Riyadh retaliated. Not the U.S., not Britain, not even Germany, which had been subject to similar treatment by the Saudis. The lesson was that Canada needs to be more deliberate about calling out wrongdoing and that it’s generally better to do so as part of a group of countries than alone,” said Prof. Paris, the former adviser to Mr. Trudeau.
Prof. Paris said the Saudi episode seems to have influenced Canada’s subsequent approach on other sensitive files. Ottawa, for instance, waited to speak in concert with almost two dozen other countries this summer – rather than acting first and alone – in criticizing China over its mass detention of Muslims in the Xinjiang region.
Ms. Freeland is now trying to encourage like-minded countries to join her in the battle to, as she puts it, “fight for liberal democracy.” Some 43 foreign ministers met on the sidelines of the recent UN General Assembly meeting in New York last week to discuss how they hold their ground against the populist tide – and start to push back.
“In a lot of countries right now, I think we’re seeing the institutions of liberal democracy sort of standing up for liberal democracy. And in authoritarian countries, we’re seeing a lot of brave people fighting for their freedom,” Ms. Freeland said. Suggesting that she’s learned lessons from her early scraps, that quote hints at, but doesn’t mention, the impeachment proceedings against Mr. Trump, as well as recent pro-democracy protests in Moscow and Hong Kong.
But if she has adapted her style, she hasn’t altered her conviction. “I feel that we in Canada are on the right side of history,” she said.