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Canada, Australia and the liberal international order in the Trump era

Can middle powers like Australia and Canada maintain their societal liberalism in a global order no longer supported by the US? We might soon find out.

Photo: Flickr/Kenneth Stronach
Photo: Flickr/Kenneth Stronach
Published 27 Jun 2017   Follow @BrendanTN_

The liberal international order is all the rage these days.

Closing in on the first six months of the Trump presidency, middle powers such as Canada and Australia (as well as other nations in Europe) have begun to ponder why that order is important to them. But Canada is streets ahead when it comes to focused thinking on what to do about it.

For Australia, two major foreign policy speeches have now focused on Asia’s rules-based order, liberalism and Australia’s place in the region.

The first was Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s Fullerton address in Singapore back in March. A central tenet of the speech was that a nation’s full economic potential is only possible in a rules-based system, underpinned by the rule of law, the management of strategic and economic competition, an innovative private sector, and democratic norms. The Foreign Minister also suggested that while states within the region would find their own pathway to reform, 'history shows that embrace of liberal democratic institutions is the most successful foundation for nations seeking economic prosperity and social stability'.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull gave the second speech a few weeks ago at the Shangri-La Dialogue, also in Singapore. Parts of this speech mirrored the Foreign Minister’s, with Turnbull PM saying Australia’s 'vision' for the region is one of open markets, free trade and institutions where small states are 'untrammelled'.

But, as Euan Graham noted over the weekend, the Shangri-La speech was more pragmatic than values-focused. A region that has rules would be nice, it seemed to suggest, but they may not all have to be liberal in the political sense.

While both speeches addressed the consequences of the fragmentation of the rules-based international order for Australia in the geo-political and economic context, they did not make the case directly to Australians. They also made few conclusions on what the order’s destruction would mean politically for Australian society, and what Canberra should be doing about it.

Enter Canada. Earlier this month Canada’s Foreign Minister Christina Freeland made a remarkable speech on the floor of the Canadian parliament, launching a new foreign policy in the wake of Canada’s early efforts to court the new Trump Administration.

The choice of location was significant. Instead of a conference or diplomatic meeting, Freeland presented the Trudeau Government’s current worldview in the heart of Canada’s liberal democratic government. This was a foreign policy speech directed at Canadians, not an international audience. Most importantly, it made the case as to why the international rules-based order, and its upkeep, is essential in allowing Canadians to chart their own sovereign path in both foreign and domestic policy.

One of the questions Freeland sought to answer was: if the rules-based order no longer has a material and moral backer the size of the US behind it, or a US president that believes in its utility, what effect does that have on Canada?

Freeland suggested that in a world dominated by great power competition, where major powers are not 'constrained in their treatment of smaller ones by standards that are internationally respected, enforced and upheld', middle powers are hit the 'soonest and hardest'.

This seems obvious. But Freeland went a step further. She argued that, not only does Canada’s foreign policy in such a world become subject to the whims of larger powers, but Canada’s ability to make sovereign decisions over its own society, values, economy, immigration and climate is also at stake.

Hence her argument that 'in short, Canadian liberalism is a precious idea. It would not long survive in a world dominated by the clash of great powers and their vassals, struggling for supremacy or, at best, an uneasy détente.'

Freeland said an illiberal international system would prevent Canada from making many choices it does now. The message was that liberal societies are only possible in a globalised world if that world continues to be an open one based on rules and norms, and, critically, liberal in character.

It’s an interesting diagnosis for other middle powers such as Australia. How confident are we that our ability to shape the nature of our society, politics and sovereignty would survive in a world dominated by great powers, closed borders and no shared standards, whether political or economic?

Canada’s answer to this question is three-fold. First, double down on the rules-based order by recommitting to global institutions and bodies. Freeland listed examples of this, including Canada’s run for a Security Council seat at the United Nations, ratification of the conventions of the International Labour Organisation, and the conclusion of the Canada-EU Trade Agreement.

The second strategy is to address the global environment with an increased defence budget, including a total redesign of Canada’s foreign engagement strategy. Canada’s major governing political parties have long ignored defence, leading to aging equipment, endless procurement scandals, and a reduced capacity to contribute to policing and peacekeeping operations. However, a new era has apparently begun – the day after Freeland’s speech, the Trudeau Government unveiled its long-awaited defence review and pledged to increase defence spending by 73%, reaching $24.2 billion by 2026-2027.

Of course, it is yet to be seen whether the government will stick to its commitment, but to even get a Canadian government talking about increased defence spending is a sign of the fraying rules-based order all by itself.

The third element is a development policy that focuses on gender inequality and the rights of women and girls. In some ways this reflects a gap left by the withdrawal of the US under Trump and a belief that smaller countries can also make a practical difference. This is Canada’s putting forward values into the international order and articulating the type of liberalism it wants that order to reflect.

Australia has made some strides in diagnosing the problems that increasingly confront middle powers. But political leaders have yet to impress the extent of this problem on Australians. The soon-to-be released Foreign Policy White Paper may be an opportunity to do so, as well as integrating Australia’s broader foreign affairs strategy with that described in the Defence White Paper.

Can middle powers such as Australia and Canada maintain their societal liberalism in a global order that is no longer supported by a liberal superpower? We might soon find out.

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