A New Playbook For Canadian Foreign Relations

Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland addresses the House of Commons on June 6, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Written by: Justin J. Lee, Trinity College, University of Toronto

The parallels between Louis St. Laurent’s 1947 speech on “The Foundations of Canadian Policy in World Affairs” (often known as the Gray Lecture) and Chrystia Freeland’s 2017 address in the House of Commons on the priorities of Global Affairs Canada make it seem that history repeats itself. St. Laurent, who at the time served as Secretary of State for External Affairs and later as Prime Minister, used the Gray Lecture to codify the principles that would guide Canada’s international relations through the post-war international order. Presently, at a time when countries like the United States are retreating from their international commitments, Freeland, as Minister of Foreign Affairs, calls for the renewal and strengthening of the post-war multilateral order. In fact, the minister signalled that Canada would take a greater role in the world by identifying the fight against climate change and the promotion of the rights of women and girls among the “new shared human imperatives.” Later in 2018, during her acceptance speech for the Washington-based Foreign Policy magazine’s diplomat of the year award, the minister focused on defending the idea of the rules-based international order. The justification and expansion of Canada’s international priorities in Freeland’s speeches indicate that the government recognizes that major geopolitical changes have occurred since 1947. Given such changes, it is interesting to consider whether Freeland’s parliamentary address and Washington speech are useful guides for present day foreign relations in the same way that the Gray Lecture was during the “golden era” of Canadian foreign relations. While the minister’s speeches contain a familiar message that Canadians have long supported, they demonstrate an unawareness of how to manage a strained relationship with the United States and deal with the changes that took place in the rest of the world.

The Gray Lecture came at a time of significant international change. The reordering of the world order in the period following the end of the Second World War neatly divided the East and the West by geography and ideology. It was, in retrospect, a predictable world in which there was a broad consensus at home and abroad that an international system of rules was required to avoid the conditions that led to war. St. Laurent did not propose any radical departures from the direction that the world was already headed towards. Instead, he formally committed Canada to upholding the rule of law in international affairs and declared the country’s “willingness to accept international responsibilities.” The Canadian government had the ability to act on its responsibilities because its ideological position aligned with that of the hegemonic United States. At the time, the US was willing to enforce a rules-based international order and has for decades been a reliable political, economic, and military ally. Despite occasional disagreements that arose between successive Canadian and American governments, the two countries maintained cooperation and served as a model for neighbor states. It is perhaps because of the long history of the strong Canada-US alliance that it was easy to forget the importance of having a partner in the White House. Today, Canadians are reminded of the importance of having a friendly, or at the very least, functional relationship with the US. In the past, the strategic, geographical, and economic interests the two countries shared made it necessary and possible to resolve matters despite differences in foreign policy. For example, although Canada refused to officially support US efforts in wars in Vietnam and Iraq, the neighboring countries maintained a robust relationship. This was in part because the conditions that allowed for the Gray Lecture to be effective remained in place for much of the latter half of the twentieth century. However, in just the past few years, the world has experienced major geopolitical changes. To that end, it is worth considering if the principles introduced by St. Laurent 70 years ago are still relevant today. With the world currently divided along complex axes, and with the American abandonment of the established international order, the minister’s idyllic message on the upholding of the rules-based international order seems outdated.

In an alternative universe, if perhaps anyone other than Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, Freeland’s message would have likely been useful in guiding relations with the US. However, a speech heralding integrity, facts, and the rule of law is at odds with a president who is known to be impulsive and unreliable. The absence of a cooperative partner in the White House particularly jeopardizes the all-important economic relationship that Canada has with the United States. Trump’s infamous jab toward Freeland during the long and tense NAFTA re-negotiation worried Canadians as it indicated that the traditionally strong relationship between the countries appeared to be at serious risk. It is worth noting that disagreements between Ottawa and Washington are not new and that tensions have risen to a boiling point in the past. The Nixon shock in 1971 that dismantled the Bretton Woods system alarmed Canadians and led to the idea of the Third Option, which were a set of policies meant to lessen the US economic and cultural influence on Canada. Despite the initial reaction, the Third Option did not materialize as designed and relations between the two countries normalized. The skilled foreign service officials of both Canada and the US have been recognized for steering the countries through contentious times and maintaining continental unity. It is therefore especially worrying that the US State Department has been commandeered and significantly downsized by Trump. Though it is true that previous American administrations have had intermittent relationships with the foreign service bureaucracy, they have not been liable for events like Trump’s exodus of officials that are vital to the preservation of the Canada-US alliance. But though it is clear that the relationship between the two countries has deteriorated, the NAFTA renegotiations eventually produced the USMCA. Canadians were relieved to know that an agreement that did not fundamentally compromise Canadian interests was reached. That said, future outcomes for Canada in the face of the current US administration remain uncertain. Petitions made by Freeland in her speeches have clearly been ignored. Therefore, the inclusion of practical approaches to dealing with the strained relationship with the US would have made the minister’s speeches more effective.

Louis St. Laurent inspired generations of Canadians to take greater responsibility in world affairs. Since 1947, Canada has been an active and influential member of the international institutions it has helped to create and regularly identifies with. It got what it wanted—a seat at the table—but can it bear the burden of defending decades-old international principles when the rest of the world does not share its views? In the years after the end of WWII, once Western Europe had rebuilt itself, and the world was being shaped by the powerful effects of globalization, the saliency of the Gray Lecture diminished. There is a recognition of this fact in Chrystia Freeland’s 2018 speech in Washington. The references to the assaults on liberal democracies, due on one hand to the hollowed middle class and stagnating wages, and authoritarianism on the other, make it clear that it is increasingly difficult to fervently stand for a rules-based international order. Still, repeating the plea from almost exactly one year prior, the minister doubles down on the insistence that the United States and Canada must “reform and renew the rules-based international order” that the countries have built together. However noble Canada’s intentions are, it is difficult to preach on the rule of law when it remains involved, without remorse, in a 15 billion dollar arms deal with Saudi Arabia—a country denounced for its record on human rights by Freeland herself, Canadian legislators, and human rights groups. Canada’s desire to expand its foreign policy has entangled the country in a web of competing interests that has required it to compromise on its stances. When Freeland rebuked Saudi Arabia for the jailing of dissidents in August 2018, Canada’s ambassador, Dennis Horak, was declared persona non grataa status shared by Freeland in Russia. As explained by Lawrence Herman in The Globe and Mail, the severed relationship with Saudi Arabia presents a serious issue for Canadian foreign policy, because since Canada has had no political relationship with Iran since 2012, it is now “frozen out of the two most influential nations in the Middle East, seriously weakening its entire regional policy.” Even more concerning is its recently damaged relationship with China following its decision to detain the Chinese tech executive, Meng Wanzhou at the request of the US government for violating sanctions against Iran. Canada has found itself playing a dangerous game of diplomatic chicken with a hostile China without the support of the United States. Quoted in the National Post, Robert Bothwell highlights the tough reality of being a middle power by noting that Canada, having no “serious allies” has “never been this alone.” Canada contradicts its rule of law rhetoric as it remains involved in the Saudi arms deal and contradicts itself again as it applies US laws in Canada by carrying out an extradition request on the basis of sanctions violations though it has no sanctions of its own against Iran. The government’s recent actions show that it is not following its own guide to foreign relations.

So, in this unfamiliar world, what is Canada to do? The country’s relations with the US and the world were also imperfect after 1947. Can it therefore hope that things will get better over time? Sitting idly by however, seems naïve and hazardous as the challenges the country face are ones it has never encountered before. The framers of the new playbook for Canadian foreign relations need to balance the country’s national and international interests like St. Laurent had done so when he was mindful of the domestic concern of national unity while declaring a new role for Canada in the world. In 2019, the international concern of an unstable world order should be front of mind. The noticeable differences in the two speeches made by Freeland are evidence of the Canadian government’s recognition of today’s grim reality. Absent from the Washington speech are mentions of the environment and the rights of women. Instead, the speech returns focus to the familiar message of defending the rules-based international order. In comparing the two statements made by Freeland, it can be concluded that each one is not a guide to Canadian foreign relations per se, but rather iterations of the government’s developing ideas on how to position itself in today’s world.