Address by Minister Freeland when receiving Foreign Policy’s Diplomat of the Year Award


June 13, 2018 - Washington, D.C.

Check against delivery. This speech has been translated in accordance with the Government of Canada’s official languages policy and edited for posting and distribution in accordance with its communications policy.

Tonight, I would like to speak about a challenge that affects us all: the weakening of the rules-based international order and the threat that resurgent authoritarianism poses to liberal democracy itself.

I would like to start on a personal note. In the late 1980s and 1990s, I studied and worked as a reporter in what was, first, the U.S.S.R. and, while I was living there, became independent Ukraine. In fact, I think some of my former bosses are here tonight.

My experience of watching from the inside as this vast, mighty authoritarian regime crumbled profoundly shaped my thinking.

It was a euphoric moment and one when it was tempting to imagine that liberal democracy was both inevitable and invulnerable. As Francis Fukuyama put it, we seemed to have reached “the end of history.”

Fukuyama wasn’t, of course, arguing that history had ground to a halt. Rather, he was saying that the half-century-long competition between liberalism and authoritarianism had been settled and that liberal democracy had won.

What a seductive argument!

Now, we harboured no illusions that institutions such as the WTO or the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank or the United Nations were perfect. Or that our own democracies at home—with their sausage-making methods of legislating and governing—were without flaw.

But there was a broad consensus that the Atlantic economies, plus Japan, led an international system of rules that had allowed our peoples to thrive and would surely continue to do so. 

Critically, this was built as a system that other nations—emerging powers—could join. And join they have. The past 25 years have seen the rapid rise of the Global South and Asia—most prominently, China—as major economic powers in their own right. We created the G20—with Canadian leadership, I might add. Russia was invited into the G7, making it the G8, in 1998 and into the WTO in 2012. China has been a WTO member since 2001.

In Latin America, in the Caribbean, in Africa and in Asia, developing countries have joined these institutions and accepted their rules; and that has delivered ever-higher living standards to their people.

But although this was and remains a broadly positive evolution, with extraordinary gains in terms of reducing extreme poverty, lengthening life spans and decreasing infant mortality, one assumption about this global shift turned out to be wrong.

This was the idea that as authoritarian countries joined the global economy and grew rich, they would inevitably adopt Western political freedoms too. That has not always happened. Indeed, in recent years, some democracies have even gone in the other direction and slid into authoritarianism—notably and sadly Venezuela. And some countries that had embarked on the difficult journey from communism to democratic capitalism have moved backwards. The saddest example for me is Russia.

Even China, whose economic success in lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty is one of the great accomplishments of recent times, stands as a rebuke to our belief in the inevitability of liberal democracy. 

And within the club of wealthy Western democracies, we’re seeing homegrown anti-democratic movements on the rise. Whether comprising neo-Nazis, white supremacists, “incels,” nativists or radical anti-globalists, such movements seek to undermine democracy from within.

Liberal democracy is also under assault from abroad. Authoritarian regimes are actively seeking to undermine us with sophisticated, well-financed propaganda and espionage operations. They seek to suborn smaller countries, those wavering between democracy and authoritarianism.

The idea that democracy could falter, or be overturned in places where it had previously flourished, may seem outlandish.

But other great civilizations have risen—and then fallen. It is hubris to think we will inevitably be different. Our prime minister likes to say, about our country, that Canada didn’t happen by accident, and it won’t continue without effort. The same can be said of democracy itself.

Let’s set aside the malevolent actors for a moment. Why are our liberal democracies vulnerable at home?

Here’s why. Angry populism thrives where the middle class is hollowed out. Where people are losing ground and losing hope—even as those at the very top are doing better than ever.

When people feel their economic future is in jeopardy, when they believe their children have fewer opportunities than they had in their youth, that’s when people are vulnerable to the demagogue who scapegoats the outsider, the other—whether an immigrant at home or a foreign actor. 

The fact is, middle-class working families aren’t wrong to feel left behind. Median wages have been stagnating; jobs are becoming more precarious, pensions uncertain; housing, childcare and education harder to afford.

These are the wrenching human consequences—the growing pains, if you will—of the great transformative forces of the past 40 years: the technology revolution and globalization. Of the two, technology is having the greatest impact. But even free-traders like me need to recognize that globalization has contributed as well.

So what’s the answer? I think we are agreed that it is not, as the Luddites unsuccessfully proposed at the start of the Industrial Revolution, to stop the march of technology. We all love our smartphones too much!

When it comes to trade, we need to introduce labour standards with real teeth, as Canada and the EU have done in our free trade agreement and as we [Canada, the United States and Mexico] are discussing as part of our ongoing modernization negotiations for NAFTA. It is long past time to bring the WTO up to date with the realities of 2018 and beyond. We need to seriously address non-tariff barriers to trade and forced technology transfers.

However, and overwhelmingly, the chief answer to the legitimate grievances of the middle class lies in domestic policy. The middle class and people working hard to join it need the security that comes from education in your youth, health care for your family, good jobs for your children, and dignity in your retirement. We need to think about what the jobs of the future for our citizens will be and ensure that those jobs will pay a living wage and that our people will have the skills to do them. Perhaps most importantly—and this is work that would benefit from international cooperation—we need to ensure that in a 21st century in which capital is global but social welfare is national, each of our countries has the durable tax base necessary to support the 99%.

But setting our own house in order is just one part of the struggle. The truth is that authoritarianism is on the march—and it is time for liberal democracy to fight back. To do that, we need to raise our game.

One device strongmen use to justify their rule is the Soviet trick of “whataboutism”—the strategy of false equivalency that holds that because democracies are inevitably imperfect they lack the moral authority to criticize authoritarian regimes. We heard this species of cynical rhetoric, for example, from the Venezuelan foreign minister at the Organization of American States meeting in Washington just last week. We must be smart enough to see through it.

It is possible, indeed necessary, for liberal democrats to acknowledge that our democracies aren’t perfect. The record of my own country’s relationship with Indigenous peoples, for instance, is one of tragic failure.

But admitting our mistakes doesn’t discredit us. On the contrary, it is one of the things that make us who we are.

Authoritarianism is also often justified as a more efficient way of getting things done. No messy contested elections, no wrenching shift from one short-termist governing party to another, no troublesome judicial oversight, no time-consuming public consultation. How much more effective, the apologists argue, for a paramount leader with a long-term vision, unlimited power and permanent tenure to rule. 

We need to resist this corrosive nonsense. We need to summon Yeats’ oft-cited “passionate intensity” in the fight for liberal democracy and the international rules-based order that supports it.

Remember those great words at Gettysburg: “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth.”

Preserving Lincoln’s vision means striking back. It means resisting foreign efforts to hijack our democracies through cyber-meddling and propaganda. It means outshining the other models and encouraging those who are on the fence.

And it means governing with integrity. Facts matter. Truth matters. Competence and honesty, among elected leaders and in our public services, matter.

Now I’d like to speak directly to Canada’s American friends and to my own many friends here in this room.

Let me begin by simply saying thank you.

For the past 70 years and more, America has been the leader of the free world. We Canadians have been proud to stand at your side and to have your back.

As your closest friend, ally and neighbour, we also understand that many Americans today are no longer certain that the rules-based international order—of which you were the principal architect and for which you wrote the biggest cheques—still benefits America. 

We see this most plainly in the U.S. administration’s tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum imposed under a 232 national security provision.

We share the world’s longest undefended border. Our soldiers have fought and died alongside yours in the First World War, in the Second World War, in Korea, in Afghanistan and in Iraq. The idea that we could pose a national security threat to you is more than absurd: it is hurtful.

The 232 tariffs introduced by the United States are illegal under WTO and NAFTA rules. They are protectionism, pure and simple. They are not a response to unfair actions by other countries that put American industry at a disadvantage.

They are a naked example of the United States putting its thumb on the scale, in violation of the very rules it helped to write.

Canada has no choice but to retaliate—with a measured, perfectly reciprocal, dollar-for-dollar response—and we will do so. We act in close collaboration with our like-minded partners in the EU and Mexico. They too are your allies, and they share our astonishment and our resolve.

No one will benefit from this beggar-thy-neighbor dispute. The price will be paid, in part, by American consumers and by American businesses.

The price will also be paid by those who believe that a rules-based system is something worth preserving. Since the end of the Second World War, we have built a system that promoted prosperity and prevented smaller and regional conflicts from turning into total wars. We’ve built a system that championed freedom and democracy over authoritarianism and oppression. Canada, for one, is going to stand up in defence of that system when that system is under attack. We will not escalate—and we will not back down.

We remember a time when the United States believed great international projects like the Marshall Plan or the reconstruction of Japan were the pathway to lasting peace, when America believed that its security and prosperity were bolstered by the security and prosperity of other nations—indeed, that America could only be truly safe and prosperous when its allies were too. 

This vision—the Greatest Generation’s vision—was crucially dependent on the rules-based international order and the postwar institutions built to maintain it. It was based upon the willingness of all, especially the strongest, to play by the rules and be bound by them. It depended on the greatest countries of the world giving up, collectively, on the idea that might made right.

Now, the Second World War was 70 years ago. It is reasonable to ask whether our grandparents’ hard-won wisdom still applies today. I am certain that it does and for some new reasons.

After the devastation of the Second World War, the United States was the unquestioned colossus, accounting alone for half of the world’s economy.

Today, the U.S. economy stands at just under a quarter of the world’s. Together, the EU, Canada and Japan, your allies in the G7 and those beyond account for just a little bit more. China produces nearly 20% of the world’s GDP, and in our lifetimes its economy is set to become the world’s largest.

Now, that is not necessarily a bad thing. Americans, Canadians and Europeans are much wealthier and healthier and live longer than our grandparents did.

The rise of the rest has been a chapter in the story of our own increased prosperity. And it is only natural that the 85% of people who live outside the rich, industrialized West should over time account for a greater and growing share of the world’s wealth.

But that shift leaves the Western liberal democracies with a dilemma. How shall we behave in a world we no longer dominate?

One answer is to give up on the rules-based international order, to give up on the Western alliance and to seek to survive in a Metternichian world defined not by common values, mutually agreed-upon rules and shared prosperity, but rather by a ruthless struggle between great powers governed solely by the narrow, short-term and mercantilist pursuit of self-interest.

Canada could never thrive in such a world. But you, still the world’s largest economy, may be tempted.

That, of course, is your sovereign right. But allow me, as your friend, to make the case that America’s security, amid the inexorable rise of the rest, lies in doubling down on an improved rules-based international order. It lies in fighting alongside traditional allies, like Canada, and alongside all of the younger democracies around the world—from the Americas to Africa to Asia to the former Soviet Union—who are so keen to join us and who yearn for leadership.

You may feel today that your size allows you to go mano-a-mano with your traditional adversaries and be guaranteed to win. But if history tells us one thing, it is that no one nation’s pre-eminence is eternal.

That is why the far wiser path—and the more enduring one—is to strengthen our existing alliance of liberal democracies. To hold the door open to new friends, to countries that have their own troubled past, such as Tunisia, Senegal, Indonesia, Mexico, Botswana, Chile or Romania. To reform and renew the rules-based international order that we have built together. And in so doing to require that all states, whether democratic or not, play by common rules.

This is the difficult truth: as the West’s relative might inevitably declines, now is the time when, more than ever, we must set aside the idea that might is right. Now is the time for us to plant our flag on the rule of law—so that the rising powers are induced to play by these rules, too.

To explain our faith in you, let me remind you of the city on the hill Ronald Reagan evoked in his farewell speech in 1989.

It was “a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.”

This city—open to trade, open to immigrants—speaks to Canada’s values too. Indeed, these are the values of liberal democracy. These values are under attack from outside our walls. Most corrosively, even inside the Shining City, some have begun to doubt them. My country, Canada, believes in these values. We are ready to defend them and the rules-based international order that unites all of the world’s cities on the hill.

Our friends among the world’s democracies—in Europe, in Asia, in Africa and here in the Americas—are shoulder-to-shoulder with us. We all know we will be strongest with America in our ranks—and indeed in the lead. But whatever this great country’s choice will turn out to be, let me be clear that Canada knows where it stands and we will rise to the challenge.

Thank you.


Adam Austen
Press Secretary
Office of the Minister of Foreign Affairs

Media Relations Office
Global Affairs Canada
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