Chrystia Freeland on trade and democracy, June 2018

Chrystia Freeland diplomat of the year
Chrystia Freeland

Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland was named “diplomat of the year” at a forum hosted by the Washington, D.C.-based Foreign Policy magazine in June 2018. In her acceptance speech, Freeland talked about both the strengths of democratic societies and the threats to them. She also defended a globalized, free-trade order against the protectionist measures being taken by Trump administration in the U.S. Freeland’s speech is reproduced here in its entirely.



Authoritarianism is on the march. It’s time for liberal democracy to fight back.”

The Speech

I would like to speak about a challenge that affects us all: the weakening of a rules-based international order. I would like to start on a personal note. In the ’80s and ’90s, I studied and worked as a reporter in what was first the USSR and later became independent Ukraine and Russia. My experience of watching from the inside profoundly shaped my thinking. It was a euphoric moment, one in which it was tempting to imagine that liberal democracy was inevitable and invulnerable.

End of history

As Francis Fukuyama put it, we seemed to have reached the end of history. Fukuyama wasn’t arguing that history had ground to a halt. Rather, he was saying that the competition between liberalism and authoritarianism had been settled and that liberal democracy had won. It was a seductive argument.

We harbored no illusions, then, that institutions such as the WTO, the IMF, or the World Bank or the U.N. were perfect. Or that the democracies at home with their sausage-making of legislating and governing were without flaw. There was a broad consensus that international system of rules had allowed our system to thrive. This was built as a system that other nations could join, and join they have.

We created the G-20. Russia was invited into the G-7 making it the G-8 in 1998 and WTO in 2012. China has been a WTO member since 1991. Developing countries have joined these institutions and accepted their rules, and that has delivered ever-greater living standards to their peoples.


While this was and remains a positive evolution, one assumption about this great global shift turned out to be wrong: the idea that, as authoritarian countries became rich, they would inevitably adopt Western political freedoms too. Even some democracies have gone in the other direction and slipped into authoritarianism, notably and tragically Venezuela. Some countries that had embarked on the difficult journey from communism to democratic capitalism have moved backwards. 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 democratic liberalism.

Anti-democratic forces at home

And within the club of wealthy Western nations, we are seeing homegrown anti-democratic forces on the rise. Whether they are neo-Nazis, white supremacists, incels, nativists, or radical anti-globalists, they seek to undermine our democracies 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 programs. And they seek to suborn smaller countries wavering between democracy and authoritarianism.

Now, 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 fallen. It is hubris to think we will never be different. Our PM likes to say about our country that Canada didn’t happen by accident and won’t without effort. The same can be said of liberal democracy itself.

Democracies are vulnerable

Why are our liberal democracies vulnerable at home? 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. People feel their economic future is in jeopardy — when they believe their children have fewer opportunities than they themselves had in their youth, that is when people are vulnerable to the demagogue who scapegoats the outsider, the other, whether it is immigrants at home or trading partners abroad.

Middle-class working families are not wrong to feel left behind. 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 technological revolution and globalization.

Of the two, technology is having the greatest impact. But even free traders like me have to realize that globalization has contributed as well. So what is the answer?

Updating trade agreements

When it comes to trade, we need to introduce labor standards with real teeth as Canada and the EU have done in our free trade agreement, and as we are discussing as part of our ongoing NAFTA modernization negotiations. It is long past time to bring the WTO up to date with the realities of 2018 and beyond. We need to seriously address nontariff barriers to trade and force technology transfers.

However, and overwhelmingly, the chief answer to the grievances of the middle class lies in domestic policies. The middle class and people working hard to join it need the security that comes with educating their youth, health care for your family, good jobs for your children, and dignity in your retirement.

We need to think of 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. In the 21st century, in which capital is global but social welfare is national, we need to ensure that each of our countries has the durable tax base necessary to support the 99 percent.

Liberal democracies fight back

The truth is that authoritarianism is on the march. It’s 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 moral equivalency which rules that, because democracies are inevitably imperfect, they lack the moral authority to criticize authoritarian regimes.

We heard this cynical rhetoric from the Venezuelan foreign minister just last week at the Organization of American States in Washington just last week. We must be smart enough to see through it. It’s possible, indeed necessary, to acknowledge that our democracies are not perfect. The record of my own country’s relationship with indigenous peoples, for example, is one of tragic failure.

Admitting our mistakes does not discredit us. On the contrary, it is one of the things that makes us who we are. Authoritarianism is seen as a more efficient way of getting things done.

We need to resist this corrosive nonsense. We need to summon Yeats’s 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. It means governing with integrity.

Facts matter. Truth matters. Competence and honesty among elected leaders and in our public service matter. I’d like to speak directly to Canada’s American friends and to my own many American friends who are here in this room.

America as leader

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 neighbor, 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 did write the biggest checks still benefits America. We see this most plainly in the U.S. administration’s tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum imposed under the 232 national security provision. We share the world’s longest undefended border.

Naked protectionism

Our soldiers have fought and died alongside yours. The idea that we could pose a national security threat to you is more than absurd, it’s hurtful. The 232 tariffs introduced by the U.S. 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 share our astonishment and our resolve.

No one will benefit. The price will be paid in part by American consumers and American businesses. And the price will also be paid by those who believe that a rules-based system is worth preserving.

Defending freedom and democracy

Since the end of the Second World War, we have built a system that championed freedom and democracy and prevented regional conflicts from turning into total war. Canada for one is going to stand up in defense of that system. We will not escalate and we will not back down.

We remember a time when the U.S. believed great international projects like the Marshall Plan or the reconstruction of Japan were the path to lasting peace. When America believed that its security and prosperity were bolstered by the prosperity of other nations. Indeed, that America could only be 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. It is reasonable to ask whether our grandparents’ hard-won wisdom still applies today. I am certain that it does.

After the devastation of the Second World War, the U.S. was the unquestioned colossus, accounting alone for half the world’s economy. Today, the U.S. economy stands at just a quarter of the world. Together, the EU, Canada, and Japan, your allies in the G-7 and beyond, account for just a little bit more. China, meanwhile, produces nearly 20 percent of the world’s GDP. In our lifetimes, its economy is set to become the world’s largest. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Americans, Canadians, and Europeans are much richer 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. It’s only natural that the 85 percent of people who live outside the industrialized West should over time account for a greater and growing share of the world’s wealth. But that shift leaves the world’s liberal democracies with a dilemma.

The way ahead

How shall we behave in a world we no longer dominate? One answer is to give up on a rules-based international order. Canada could never thrive in such a world. But you in such a world may be tempted. That is your sovereign right. But allow me to make the case that America’s security amid the inexorable rise of the rest lies in doubling down on a renewed rules-based international order. It lies in working alongside traditional allies like Canada and alongside all the younger democracies around the world.

From the Americas to Asia and Africa to the former Soviet Union who yearn to join us and who yearn for leadership, you may feel that your size makes you entitled to go mano a mano with your adversaries and be guaranteed to win. The far wiser path and more enduring one is to hold the door open to new friends. To countries that have their own path such as Tunisia, Senegal, Mexico, Botswana, or Ukraine.

To reform and renew the rules-based international order we have built together. And in so doing to require that all states, democratic or not, play by these common rules. This is the difficult truth. As the West’s relative might inevitably declines, now is the time that, more than ever, we must set aside the idea that might is right. Now is the time to plant our flag on the rule of law so that the rising powers are induced to play by these rules too.

Let me remind you of the City on the Hill Ronald Reagan evoked in a farewell speech in 1989. It was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace. 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 there.

Canada’s values

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 the world’s cities on a hill.

Our friends in 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. 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 this challenge.


Full speech video transcript:

Short video clip: “protectionism pure and simple”

Associated article in  Foreign Policy

Photo credit: Foreign Policy


One thought on “Chrystia Freeland on trade and democracy, June 2018

Add yours

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Create a website or blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: