Canada @150: Still trying to keep the US happy

Canada’s birthday present to the world is its old foreign policy wrapped in new fancy rhetoric.

Canada''s PM Trudeau embraces Foreign Affairs Minister Freeland after she delivered a speech in the House of Commons in Ottawa
Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau embraces Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland after she delivered a speech on Canada's foreign policy in the House of Commons [Chris Wattie/Reuters]

Often, birthdays are a moment to take stock of the past and reflect on the future.

On July 1, Canada marks its sesquicentennial. It’s a date infused with myth and symbolism. On the eve of the anniversary, Canada’s perpetually effervescent foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland, made a much-anticipated speech that heeded the nation’s past to help navigate its future during these turbulent times.

Freeland, a former editor and columnist for a variety of establishment publications in Canada, the United States and Britain, has exploited her deep journalistic roots to cultivate ties with her ex-colleagues who routinely gush over her credentials and intellect (Disclosure: Freeland was a senior editor at The Globe and Mail while I was an investigative reporter there many years ago).

It was hardly surprising then that Freeland’s foreign policy “opus” – delivered in the House of Commons earlier this month – was applauded almost universally by swooning pundits and academics who cheered its “breathtaking” originality, defence of multi-lateral institutions and “hard power” diplomacy in the cacophonous age of Donald Trump.

Stripped of its veneer of profundity, the sophomoric nature of Freeland’s supposed defining diplomatic blueprint and the attendant prescriptions was immediately apparent.

The speech was an amalgam of Freeland’s selective and sentimental trip through her family’s controversial past and the usual tropes and bromides proffered by a succession of Liberal foreign ministers who have paid requisite homage to the deified memory and legacy of former Canadian prime minister and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Lester Pearson.

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Indeed, diplomatic sources confirm that Freeland’s statement was fashioned principally in reply to belated concerns that a sweeping defence policy review undertaken by the Department of National Defence – the findings were announced a day after her address – would also, de facto, establish Canada’s foreign policy priorities.

Hence, the imperative to quickly and, it turns out, haphazardly stitch together what amounted to a cliche-ridden, dissonant “major” statement designed to reassert publicly the diplomatic corps’ primacy over international affairs.

As if to prove the point, Freeland began her speech with what a veteran diplomat described to me as “warmed-up crap” by claiming that Canada is an “essential” nation globally.

Curiously, Freeland didn’t or couldn’t name the countries who also consider Canada “essential” – thereby laying bare this pollyannish and self-congratulatory tripe.

Despite the media-propelled myths, Canada isn't seized with departing dramatically from its traditional diplomatic modus operandi, but cementing it to satiate the demands of the nation that, in its geopolitical calculus, truly counts - the United States of America.


My goodness, if Canada is considered so “essential” by its allies why did it lose so decisively to tiny Portugal the last time it seriously contested a seat on the UN Security Council in 2010?

Oh well, in her meandering address, Freeland promptly abandoned the notion of human security championed by her Liberal predecessors – that is to say, if a state becomes a predator against its own people, other states have the right and responsibility to intervene.

In one, little-noticed passage, Freeland discarded that previously sacrosanct principle, insisting instead that the “rule” of the “sanctity of borders … is under siege.”

This philosophical volte-face allowed Freeland, of course, to parade her Cold War bona fides and bash “the illegal seizure of Ukrainian territory by Russia” – no doubt pleasing a healthy chunk of Canada’s 1.2 million strong Ukrainian Canadian community.

Not done executing sudden U-turns, Freeland acknowledged implicitly that her boss’s strategy of playing nice with Trump by bending the ear of his close surrogates and enlisting the overrated schmoozing services of widely reviled former Conservative prime minister, Brian Mulroney, had been a diplomatic dud. 

Trump’s response to Trudeau’s icky charm offensive was blunt and uncompromising: Serve prompt notice to reopen the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and declare, in effect, a trade war over Canadian exports of softwood lumber.

Freeland’s rejoinder: Canada was going to “step up” and out of the US sphere of influence by spending billions more on the military to throw its phantom “weight” abroad.

Arguably, this headline-grabbing rhetoric was less a declaration of independence, but rather a blatant and subservient sop to Trump’s repeated demands that America’s NATO partners boost their military spending.

Trump barked and Canada, ever the faithful poodle, scurried to comply and called it, ironically, an act of sovereignty.

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Meanwhile, the starry-eyed New York Times suggested the wily Canada is the architect of an ingenious end-run around the obstinate Trump by dealing directly with states and mayors on a range of bilateral issues, including trade and climate change.

Newsflash to the Times: diplomats stationed at Canada’s embassy and consulates in the US have, for decades, been making their case to governors and mayors of major and influential cities.

The Times’ silly boosterism and Freeland’s mendacious flag-waving hyperbole can’t disguise the reality that Trump has left Justin Trudeau and company acutely troubled and unsure about how to respond to the potentially devastating consequences of his impulsive bilateral gambits. 

Still, what Freeland didn’t have time for or couldn’t be bothered to say in her speech is further testament to its scribbled-on-a-napkin quality.

Not a word about Israel’s 50-year-old illegal and inhuman occupation of Palestinian territories. This, despite Freeland professing solemn fidelity to the “notion of territorial integrity …respect for the rule of law” and her insistence that: “Peace and prosperity are every person’s birthright.” Sure they are.

Freeland did, however, predictably trot out the pat line that Israel arms itself obsessively because it “faces a clear and immediate existential challenge.” Canada: The Middle East’s “honest broker”. Sure it is.

Not a word about the looming prospect that Canada will send troops back to Afghanistan at NATO’s urging to “deal with a resurgent Taliban”. Canada pulled out in March 2014. More than 150 soldiers were killed, and another 2,000 injured after more than 12 years of trying to tame those same “resurgent” Taliban.

Not a word about Canada’s murky “non-combat role” in Iraq where a Canadian sniper reportedly killed an Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) fighter last week in a “non-combat role.”

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Not a word beyond a passing reference to China’s emerging status as an economic behemoth while stubbornly remaining an unrepentant and systemic human rights violator.

Not a word about the swelling concentration of global poverty in Africa and the implications for grinding inequality, nor an unrelenting refugee crisis, continental instability, nor the rights of women and girls.

Not a word about the Arctic where ever accelerating climate change is bound to complicate further disputes involving transit through waterways and tense skirmishes over competing jurisdictional claims.

Like so many aspects of the image-obsessed Trudeau government, Canada’s “new” foreign policy is a poll-driven, manufactured mirage: more flowery gibberish than substance. Despite the media-propelled myths, Canada isn’t seized with departing dramatically from its traditional diplomatic modus operandi, but cementing it to satiate the demands of the nation that, in its geopolitical calculus, truly counts – the United States of America.

Andrew Mitrovica is an award-winning investigative reporter and journalism instructor.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.