Address by Foreign Affairs Minister for the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ Fullerton Lecture


August 2, 2018 – Singapore

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.

Thank you for the invitation, thank you for the very kind introduction and thank you very much for inviting me to deliver this lecture.

Just three months ago I was in Bangladesh to address the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation’s Council of Foreign Ministers, and this is actually my fourth visit to Asia in the past year. It is really great to be back again and I’m looking forward to the ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] meetings later this week.

Southeast Asia is a dynamic and thriving part of the world and a region that actually has a lot in common with my own country, Canada.

Canada is home to more than one million people from Southeast Asia and those communities enrich our national life every day and greatly contribute to one of my country’s greatest strengths, which is its diversity. And that is a characteristic of very many Southeast Asian countries as well: Singapore, where we are today, Indonesia, Malaysia, for example—nations that are home to a myriad of ethnic groups with distinct languages, cultures and religions.

I really wanted to start by pausing for a moment and saluting our partners in Southeast Asia for showing us all how diverse societies, and indeed a larger diverse region, can find strength, not despite their differences, but because of them. This embrace of diversity is a value that Canada deeply shares. And at a time when many countries are being seduced by the siren song of divisive nationalism, our shared commitment to pluralism is something to celebrate and to stand up for. After all, Southeast Asia knows far too well the bloody toll that nativism can exact.

As a Pacific nation that has a permanent diplomatic presence in all 10 ASEAN member states, Canada deeply values the stronger ties we have forged with our Southeast Asian partners over the past four decades.

And we believe that our partnership is needed now more than ever. Today, both Canada and ASEAN confront unprecedented geo-political and geo-economic uncertainty. North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons continues to undermine regional and global peace and stability, and Canada was very pleased at the beginning of this year [2018] to co-host with the United States a summit in Vancouver on peace and security on the Korean peninsula. The increasing militarization of the South China Sea threatens regional security in a vitally important area, which Canada, ASEAN and much of the world rely on for trade.

Equally worrying is the fact that the global trading system, upon which so much of our shared prosperity is based, is being put to the test as never before. And in seeking to fund their massive infrastructure needs, developing countries confront increasingly coercive debt-trap diplomacy that threatens their sovereignty and erodes the open-investment principles thanks to which countries like Singapore have thrived. These challenges risk undermining the rules-based international order upon which Canada and our Southeast Asian partners depend, and which together we have helped to build. And that’s the topic that I want to focus on today: the weakening of the rules-based international order.

The multi-lateral system that arose from the chaos and rubble of two world wars was built on shared values and standards, a commitment to pluralism, human rights and the rule of law and the collective pursuit of a better, safer, more just and more prosperous world. In Asia, multilateral institutions such as ASEAN arose from a determination to deepen cooperation on trade and security.

The ASEAN community, which has ushered in an unprecedented era of peace and prosperity in Southeast Asia, stands as a testament to the promise of international rules and multilateral institutions, which bind countries together.

ASEAN’s achievements are particularly impressive given the grim starting point. The legacy of colonialism and the great power struggles of the 20th century set the stage for devastating civil conflicts throughout this region. Indeed, in 1967, when ASEAN was formed, this was one of the most troubled parts of the world. As veteran Singaporean diplomat Bilahari Kausikan has observed, “All five ASEAN countries face Chinese-inspired, if not directly backed, internal communist insurgencies. At the same time, almost every member of the five original ASEAN members was at the other’s throat. Almost all of the Southeast Asian states were artificial entities whose boundaries were established only during the colonial era, still imperfectly integrated, and therefore, subject to fits of insecurely insistent nationalism.”

Hardly promising.

Yet, thanks to a shared commitment to multilateralism and a strong collective desire to join the international community, the countries of ASEAN and the ASEAN community itself, have prospered. That success is chiefly a testament to the vision, determination and incredibly hard work of the people of Southeast Asia. Yet one essential outside factor, which facilitated the stunning emergence of Asia, was the far-sighted fact that the post-Second World War rules-based international order was expressly designed by its founding countries, one of which was Canada, to allow other nations, emerging powers, to join. This was very much an open community. And join you have.

The past 25 years have seen the rapid rise of Asia and the global South as major economic powers in their own right. We created the G20—with Canadian leadership, I might add. The five founding ASEAN countries, including, of course, Singapore, joined the WTO in 1995. By 2013, all 10 ASEAN countries were WTO members. India has been a WTO member since 1995; China since 2001. Here in Asia, in Latin America, in the Caribbean, in Africa, developing countries have joined the post-Second World War institutions and accepted their rules. And that has delivered ever-higher living standards to your people. Just look around us here in beautiful Singapore, where I had a chance to go for a run this morning along the Singapore River. And it really is a beautiful city.

This is a country that thrives thanks to a global political and economic system underpinned by respect for international laws and institutions. South Korea’s rise, emerging from the ashes of war, to become a democratic and prosperous country is another striking example.

Another remarkable illustration of progress was the Malaysian election this spring, when Malaysians peacefully exercised their right to vote and opted for a change in government. But although the expansion of the rules-based international order was, and remains, a broadly positive evolution, with extraordinary gains in terms of reducing extreme poverty, lengthening lifespans 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 greater political freedoms too.

That hasn’t always happened.

Indeed, in recent years some democracies have even gone in the other direction and slid into authoritarianism. Notably and tragically in my hemisphere, Venezuela. And some countries that had embarked on the difficult journey from communism to democratic capitalism have moved backward. The saddest personal 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. The same might be said of the troubling elections held in Cambodia over the weekend.

And within the club of wealthy Western democracies, we’re seeing homegrown anti-democratic movements on the rise. 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 foreign actors for a moment.

Why are our liberal democracies vulnerable at home? Here’s why.

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.

The fact is working-class families, middle-class families aren’t wrong to feel left behind. In the industrialized West, median wages have been stagnating; jobs are becoming more precarious; pensions uncertain; and housing, child care 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 do need to introduce labour standards with real teeth, as Canada and its partners in the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, the CPTPP, have done.

The labour chapter that we pushed for requires that the basic workers’ rights included in the International Labour Organization Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, adopted in 1998, be reflected in law and practice.

Canada is proud to be a member of the CPTPP and is swiftly moving forward with its implementation and ratification.

We’re eager to deepen our trading relationship with ASEAN, including through a Canada-ASEAN free trade agreement. And 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 legitimate grievances of the middle class lies in domestic policy. The middle class and the 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%.

In addressing these challenges at home, we in the West would be wise to look to the East for inspiration. The optimism and self-confidence here on the streets of Singapore, for example, surely owe a lot to domestic policies that seek to create broadly shared economic opportunity and push back against income inequality.

As Prime Minister Lee put it earlier this year in reply to a parliamentary question, “The issues of mitigating income inequality, ensuring social mobility and enhancing social integration are critical. If we fail, if rising income inequalities result in a rigid and stratified social system, with each class ignoring the others or pursuing its interests at the expense of others, our politics will turn vicious, our society will fracture and our nation will wither.’’

I could not agree more.

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’s time for liberal, open societies 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 must be smart enough to see through this species of cynical rhetoric.

It’s 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 example, 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 government 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 Yates’ oft-sighted “passionate intensity” in the fight for liberal democracy and the international rules-based order that supports it.

We need to resist foreign efforts to hijack our democracies through cyber-meddling and propaganda.

We need to outshine the other models and encourage those who are the fence.

And we need to govern with integrity.

Facts matter. Truth matters. Competence and honesty among elected officials and in our public services matter.

And let me pause for a moment to emphasise the importance of an independent, ethical and effective public service and to pay tribute to the outstanding Canadian public servants I have the privilege to work with every day.

Since the end of the Second World War, we’ve worked together in an effort to build a system that promoted prosperity and prevented smaller and regional conflicts from turning into total wars. We’ve worked to build a system that championed freedom and democracy over authoritarianism and depression. Canada will always stand up in defence of that system when it is under attack. And we will defend those who suffer most when the rules-based international order is violated.

Which brings me to the plight of the Rohingya.

A campaign of violence by Myanmar’s military has forced over 720,000 Rohingya to flee their homes. The Rohingya are the target of ethnic cleansing, of horrific organized attacks, which have included the systemic use of rape and appalling violence and slaughter.

And I have visited some of the Rohingya in the camp in Bangladesh and listened to some of the most wrenching personal testimony—including the use of rape as a weapon—that I have heard in my life. Beyond the grave human toll of these crimes, they’re having a devastating effect on Myanmar’s fragile transition to democracy. Canada has pledged $300 million over three years to help the Rohingya and to support Bangladesh, which is providing them sanctuary very generously. Our partners here in Southeast Asia, in particular those who have demonstrated the promise of diverse and inclusive societies, can and must lead the efforts to bring peace and reconciliation to Myanmar and to deliver justice for the Rohingya.

One of the hard-won lessons of the bloody 20th century was the recognition that the protection of human rights is a prerequisite for peace. That dearly bought epiphany led to the creation of one of the documents that underpins the rules-based international order: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, whose first article states that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.

That assertion was written 70 years ago. It’s reasonable to ask if the wisdom that gave us the declaration, and which has precipitated an unprecedented era of international cooperation embodied in organizations like ASEAN, is still relevant today. I am certain that it is and for some new reasons.

Consider the fact that today China produces nearly 20% of the world’s GDP, and in our lifetime, its economy is set to become the world’s largest.

The ASEAN economic community is currently the third largest economy in Asia and the fifth largest in the world. Its combined GDP is just a bit higher than that of Canada.

The rise of the emerging powers, very much including the countries of Southeast Asia, has been a chapter in the story of the entire world’s 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.

That’s a good thing.

But that shift leaves the traditional powers 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 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 is the world’s 10th largest economy, but we know we could never thrive in such a system—nor, I think you will agree, would the middle-power countries of ASEAN.

The far wiser path—and more enduring choice—is to reform and renew the rules-based international order that we have built together. And in doing so to require that all states, whether democratic or not, whether large or small, 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.

Canada believes in multilateralism and in the rules-based international order. We know we have many allies here in Southeast Asia. Let’s work together.

Thank you.


Adam Austen
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Office of the Minister of Foreign Affairs

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