Chrystia Freeland: Liberal democracies are being "hijacked by angry populist politicians"

Oct 2 2019, 1:16 pm

Since becoming Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs  in 2015, Chrystia Freeland said it’s “striking” to her how different the world is today, just four years later.

“The international paradigm has changed, and we need to behave differently,” she said, during a sit-down interview with Daily Hive this week.

And while she believes that, as Canadians, “our principles and our value are exactly the same,” she also believes now is the time to “take different approaches, because the threats are different.”

And with the Liberal Party unveiling its platform this past Sunday, and the federal election just weeks from now, Freeland said the “central theme” of the party’s foreign policy is “fighting back against these threats” to a rules-based international order and liberal democracy.

And while this may sound somewhat dramatic, Freeland is serious in her desire to drive home the importance of this policy.

“I think we do need to take seriously the threats that the whole idea of liberal democracy is facing,” she continued.

And it’s not necessarily “threats from the outside from places like authoritarian regimes trying to undermine liberal democracy,” either.

Instead, said Freeland, it’s “the doubts creeping in inside liberal democracy… liberal democracies that are becoming totally polarized societies, divided into these hostile – even warring – tribes who can’t talk to each other, and societies that have been hijacked by angry populist politicians.”

Freeland said this theme exists in what she called “unhappy liberal democracies,” where “the details may be unique but the basic storyline is the same.”

What has happened, she continued, “is the middle class has been hollowed and there is a significant group of people who feel disenfranchised, dispossessed, even cut off from how the country is being run.”

This “disenfranchised” segment of the population, she said, then “provides the fuel for an irresponsible politician to go to them and to whip that kind of frustration into red-hot populist anger.”

And while it’s her belief that Canada is “the smartest liberal democracy” in the world, the “single biggest mission” the government has, and “all Canadians should have,” is to not let a scenario like the one she describes come to fruition in Canada, she said.

“I think we’ve learned in this time — along with like-minded countries — is we can be most effective if we bring together alliances of countries that share our view and work together — and Canada is pretty good at that,” she said. “There is actually no single hyperpower today, so I think actually everyone benefits from a rules-based international order, and there are a lot of countries that think the way Canada does.”

“For me, the way we vaccinate Canadians against this threat, is we keep on investing in our middle class, and we don’t let our country have that group of people exist who feel hopeless and left behind,” she said.

It’s that investment in the middle class that is a central theme of the Liberal Party’s 2019 election platform.

“What’s really important is this platform as a whole,” said Freeland. “There are a lot of specific pieces, but the whole is even greater than the sum of its parts.”

The platform, she continued, “is about investing in Canadians in a number of essential areas, the middle class, and those who are working hard to join our middle class, with investment across the spectrum.”

At home and abroad

Freeland also reflected on what her role as foreign affairs minister has meant, the type of work she’s done, and the role that Canada has played on the global stage, over the past four years.

“We’ve been working on a number of issues,” she said. “Our leadership of the equal rights coalition on LGBTQ rights, the fact that Canada continues to be a strong supporter of the Paris Accords, all of these multi-lateral groups.”

She also spoke about a “broader effort” to support multilateralism, noting this has been a theme of Canada’s foreign policy over the last four years, and “will be something that we need to double down on.”

Freeland knows of course, that not all countries share this world view.

“We also have to be prepared for some people not to like it when we speak of up in defence of human rights, and in defence of the rules-based international order,” she said. “There will be countries and leaders who object, and that’s okay; it actually means that we’re having an impact and people are noticing what we’re doing.”

She also spoke about her involvement with the high-profile renegotiation of NAFTA — now popularly referred to as the US-Mexico-Canada (USMCA) agreement, as coined by President Donald Trump — earlier this year.

“The NAFTA negation, both the process and the outcome, I think, represent Canada out our best, and the way we approached it, was really as team Canada,” said Freeland. “It wasn’t just me or even just the caucus, it was the whole parliament — it was all cabinet colleagues and premiers across the country.”

She also recalled something the prime minister had said during the back-and-forth process.

“I remember that right after we announced our retaliation on the steel and aluminum tariffs — which was our biggest trade action since the second world war — and the PM was talking to cabinet,” she said. “He said ‘this is going to be our approach: we do not escalate and we do not back down.'”

Freeland said that for her this was “a perfect summary of ‘Canadian-ness’ and that is certainly Canada in the world: we don’t escalate, we’re not out there looking for a fight, but we also don’t back down.”

Eric ZimmerEric Zimmer

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