OTTAWA — For more than 40 years, scholar Kim Richard Nossal has been listening to Canadian prime ministers and foreign ministers give grand speeches about Canadian foreign policy.
He did so again Tuesday, perched in the gallery in the House of Commons, to watch the current foreign affairs minister Chrystia Freeland deliver what was billed as a “major” speech on Canada’s place in the world.
What he heard surprised him.
It wasn’t that the Trudeau Liberals had taken a marked departure from the foreign policies of other, particularly Liberal, governments. In fact, Freeland signalled that her government would largely be doubling down on going about their international business in much the same way that Liberals have doing that since Lester B. Pearson was foreign minister to Louis St. Laurent in the 1950s.
No, what surprised Nossal about Freeland’s text was her frank acknowledgement of the outsized role that the United States has played for more than 70 years securing Canada’s prosperity and security.
“We Canadians can rightly be proud of the role we played in building the postwar order, and the unprecedented peace and prosperity that followed,” Freeland said as she began the most remarkable section of her 4,400-word speech. “Yet even as we celebrate our own part in that project, it’s only fair for us to acknowledge the larger contribution of the United States. For in blood, in treasure, in strategic vision, in leadership, America has paid the lion’s share,” Freeland continued.
“The United States has truly been the indispensable nation, Mr. Speaker. For their unique, seven-decades-long contribution to our shared peace and prosperity, and on behalf of all Canadians, I would like to profoundly thank our American friends.”
Saying nice things about the United States — “the indispensable nation” — while in Canada’s House of Commons when there are no visiting American dignitaries present is just not something Canadian politicians tend to do. There has been no shortage of Canadian politicians who, over the years, have sought to boost their own standing with voters by sneering at or laughing at Americans.
“Very rarely have we heard Canadian foreign ministers talk openly and gratefully and enthusiastically about the American contribution to the liberal international order,” Nossal said afterwards. “I’m trying to think of a foreign minister who has spoken as she did today about how grateful Canadians are for the seven decades of contributions that the United States has made in blood and treasure to that order.”
But these are special times in the relationship between the United States and Canada, indeed, between the United States and the rest of the world.
“Indeed, many of the voters in last year’s presidential election cast their ballots, animated in part by a desire to shrug off the burden of world leadership,” Freeland said in the House of Commons, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, most of his cabinet and their parliamentary secretaries looking on.
“The fact that our friend and ally has come to question the very worth of its mantle of global leadership, puts into sharper focus the need for the rest of us to set our own clear and sovereign course. For Canada that course must be the renewal, indeed the strengthening, of the postwar multilateral order.”
Freeland, with her flattery of decades of sacrifice and leadership is clearly wishing America would continue in that role for the benefit, as she said, of both the United States and everyone else.
“The primary chaos of the Trump presidency is Trump himself,” said Nossal, a professor at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont. and director of its Centre for International and Defence Policy.
And so foreign actors, including foreign ministers like Freeland, will have their best chance of influencing American policy if they address themselves to someone other than the president, particularly and most importantly to Congress.
“It is the Congress that is going to drive almost all of the things that are important to Canada,” Nossal said. “One needs to interpret Ms. Freeland’s message as a message to the American people and the American elite rather than to Mr. Trump and the people in the White House because, quite clearly, the Trump White House would listen to a speech like that and their eyes would be rolling to heaven.”
But if America is to withdraw from the liberal international order it once championed, Freeland signalled Canada’s intention to step up its game and “work with other like-minded people and countries who share our aims.”
Canada will, for example, spend more on defence. Details on that are to be announced Wednesday by Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan.
“Canada’s broader interest in investing in a capable, professional and robust military is very clear: If middle powers do not implicate themselves in the furtherance of peace and stability around the world, that will be left to the Great Powers to settle among themselves,” said Freeland. “This would not be in Canada’s interest.
In the coming days, International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau will unveil what Freeland on Tuesday called “Canada’s first feminist international assistance policy,” a program which, presumably, will tie Canada’s foreign aid money to programs that promote women’s rights and gender equality.
But most of all, the Trudeau Liberals will re-double their participation and enthusiasm for the multilateral organizations so disdained by Trump, organizations like the World Trade Organization, NATO, and the United Nations.
“We can and must play an active role in the preservation and strengthening of the global order from which we have benefited so greatly. Doing so is in our interest, because our own open society is most secure in a world of open societies.” And it is under threat in a world where open societies are under threat.