When middle-class families see little hope for their futures, the allure of “angry populism” can take root and quickly snowball into dangerous threats against global democracy, says Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland.
Freeland delivered the dire warning Wednesday as she accepted the award for Diplomat of the Year, presented by Foreign Policy magazine, in Washington, D.C.
In a wide-ranging speech, Freeland addressed ongoing NAFTA negotiations, her career as a journalist, the shift of global power to China, and how her government is steering Canada amid deeply uncertain times.
Freeland’s pointed comments come as Ottawa faces a new rift with U.S. President Donald Trump, who recently slammed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as “weak” after a fallout at the G7 summit in Quebec.
Canada and the U.S. are also at odds over Trump’s new steel and aluminum tariffs, which Canada will match July 1, and the still-fruitless NAFTA talks.
Freeland did not name Trump in her speech. But her comments shone a harsh spotlight on the populist politics that helped Trump win the 2016 election, while also challenging the U.S. president’s approach to trade.
Before her speech, Freeland joked that, as a modest Canadian, she was “flustered” to have so many nice things said about her in opening remarks.
“But fortunately I have the NAFTA talks to keep me humble, and mindful of my own limitations,” she said.
In her prepared remarks, Freeland made a direct plea to the Americans in the audience to reconsider the deal.
“As your closest friend, ally, and neighbour, 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 wrote the biggest cheques -- still benefits America.
“We see this most plainly in the U.S. administration’s tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum imposed under a 232 national security provision.
“We share the world’s longest undefended border. Our soldiers have fought and died alongside yours in the First World War, in the Second World War, in Korea, in Afghanistan, and in Iraq. The idea that we could pose a national security threat to you is more than absurd -- it is hurtful.
“The 232 tariffs introduced by the United States 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 are your allies and they share our astonishment and our resolve.”
“No one will benefit from this beggar thy neighbor dispute. The price will be paid, in part, by American consumers and by American businesses.”
On the rise of ‘angry populism’
“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.
“When people feel their economic future is in jeopardy; when they believe their children have fewer opportunities than they themselves had in their youth; that’s when people are vulnerable to the demagogue who scapegoats the outsider, the other -- whether it’s immigrants at home or foreign actors.
“The fact is, middle-class working families aren’t wrong to feel left behind. Median wages have been stagnating, jobs are becoming more precarious, pensions uncertain, housing, childcare, and education harder to afford.”
On Russia, neo-Nazis and incels
Freeland offered a brief history of the formation of the G20 and G7, and how international rules-based order came to be. And although those systems spread across the world and created positive change, the assumption that democracy was inevitable everywhere was wrong, Freeland said.
“The saddest 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 liberal democracy.
“And within the club of wealthy Western nations, we’re seeing homegrown anti-democratic movements on the rise. Whether they are neo-Nazis, white supremacists, incels, nativists, or radical anti-globalists, such movements seek to undermine democracy from within.
“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 then fallen. It is hubris to think we will inevitably be different. Our prime minister likes to say about our country that Canada didn’t happen by accident, and it won’t continue without effort. The same can be said of democracy itself.”
On the future of the middle class
“The middle class and people working hard to join it need the security that comes from education in your youth, healthcare for your family, good jobs for your children, and dignity in your retirement.
“We need to think about 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 have the skills to do them.
“Perhaps most importantly -- and this is work that would benefit from international co-operation -- we need to ensure in a 21st century in which capital is global, but social welfare is national, that each of our countries has the durable tax base necessary to support the 99 per cent.”
On fighting authoritarianism
“Authoritarianism is also often justified as a more efficient way of getting things done. No messy contested elections; no wrenching shift from one short-termist governing party to another; no troublesome judicial oversight; no time-consuming public consultation. How much more effective, the apologists argue, for a paramount leader with a long term vision, unlimited power, and permanent tenure, to rule.
“We need to resist this corrosive nonsense. We need to summon Yeats’ oft-cited “passionate intensity” in the fight for liberal democracy and the international rules-based order that supports it.”
On the Rohingya crisis
Before Freeland spoke, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein delivered a speech that touch on the plight of the Rohingya people, who fled their homes in Myanmar last August for Bangladesh amid persecution that has been described by UN officials as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
Freeland thanked Al Hussein for characterizing the crisis as a “possible genocide.”
“This is an issue which is a priority for Canada. And I was glad to hear you use to words ‘possible genocide.’ Words matter, and it is an outrage what has happened to the Rohingya.”