In the United States, presidents since James Monroe have made their own foreign-policy doctrines as a matter of course. That’s not the case for leaders in Canada, a much more modest middle power.
And so Canadians were taken by surprise in June when Christina Alexandra “Chrystia” Freeland, their 49-year-old minister of foreign affairs, stood up in Parliament and articulated what some have come to call the “Freeland doctrine.” An implicit rebuke of U.S. President Donald Trump’s isolationist and unprincipled foreign policy, Freeland’s message was that regardless of what Washington does, Ottawa will continue to act as a free-trading, progressive, constructively engaged member of the international community. She explicitly made the link between a “global order based on rules” and decades of “peace and prosperity,” warning Canadians not to take for granted the liberal order Trump seems bent on destroying.
Though she’s been in office less than a year, she’s already putting her ideas into practice. Freeland has bluntly called out China’s government for being an “authoritarian communist regime” — but she has also argued that China should be welcomed into a “rules-based global economic order.” She’s taken steps to advance Canada’s “feminist international assistance policy” by aiming to double the proportion of female United Nations peacekeepers to stem sexual abuse. She denounced the “ethnic cleansing” of the Rohingya in Myanmar, and she said Canada could house some Myanmar refugees. (Her mother was born in a German refugee camp.) Perhaps most visibly, she’s sought to defend globalization and has become the face of Canada’s campaign to save the North American Free Trade Agreement, which is under assault from south of the border.
To keep Trump from crippling (or altogether destroying) a trade deal that has become vital to North America’s economic prospects in the last quarter century, Freeland has led a relentless, highly professional, multifront campaign. Since Trump took office, she and other Canadian government officials have had more than 240 meetings with their U.S. counterparts at the federal and state level. As the U.S. president seeks to shred the agreement, Canadian negotiators are actually seeking to expand its protections for workers, women, and the environment. (That progressive focus has sparked plenty of sniping from Canada’s conservatives, including former Prime Minister Stephen Harper.)
Freeland’s background as a longtime business journalist and author has shaped her approach. “As a reporter, I was always looking for primary sources,” she says. “I’m usually suspicious of the idea that there is only one way of looking at things. I like to talk to people to get different perspectives — interviews, basically.”
Before formulating Ottawa’s NAFTA negotiation strategy on softwood lumber (a wonky subject that has huge ramifications for Canada’s economy), for instance, she filled her schedule with personal, on-the-ground meetings with business and union leaders. When Canada was trying to strike a trade pact with the European Union, Freeland insisted on immersing herself in the granularities of continental trade politics.
Canada’s foreign minister also largely wrote the Freeland doctrine speech herself, and she likes to act as her own advance team overseas, using her language skills in Russian, Ukrainian, Italian, and French to put people at ease. She bikes to work with no bodyguards and has cooked dinner herself for 16-person parties including prime ministers. A dynamo of energy, her independent no-concessions approach as foreign minister, especially when it comes to Trump, has been met largely with unfettered approval.
Following that groundbreaking, 35-minute June address to Parliament, former Prime Minister Paul Martin called it a “speech that will be studied in universities around the world.” And said, “If Parliament could hit that level every day, it would be wonderful.”
It would appear that Freeland’s plan for defending the global order is one that Canada is ready to embrace. As she said in her speech, the country’s course moving forward would be anything but “Canada First”; it would instead be “the renewal, indeed the strengthening, of the postwar multilateral order.”
Jonathan Kay is a Toronto-based journalist and author.
In fifth grade, Freeland organized a student strike to protest what she said was an unfair system of gifted classes, under the slogan “More Enrichment for All.”