Canada Is Now Openly Questioning the Future of U.S. Leadership

A fiery speech by the Canadian foreign minister could mean trouble for the Western alliance, but a triumph for Trump.

Carlos Barria / Reuters

First European Council President Donald Tusk described Donald Trump as a threat to European unity. Next German Chancellor Angela Merkel declared that Germany could no longer “completely depend” on America, noting that “We Europeans truly have to take our fate into our own hands.” Then, in vowing to “make our planet great again,” French President Emmanuel Macron seized the leadership role on climate change vacated by the United States.

Now signs of tectonic shifts in the Western alliance are cropping up across the Atlantic. On Tuesday—against the backdrop of Trump’s condemnation of NAFTA, withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, and chilly summit with NATO leaders, all three of which have put the U.S. at odds with its northern neighbor—Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland delivered a remarkable address in the House of Commons. At times, it almost sounded like she was bidding farewell to a retiring superpower, even as she held out hope that the superpower would agree to stay on a while longer. She never mentioned Trump by name. But the speech was a forceful rebuttal to Trump’s view of how the world should work.

Many American voters in last year’s presidential election were “animated in part by a desire to shrug off the burden of world leadership,” Freeland told Canadian lawmakers. “To say this is not controversial: it is simply a fact.”

While Canada is “grateful” to its neighbor “for the outsized role it has played in the world” and will try to convince the United States that remaining in that role is in the interest of America and the “free world,” this “is ultimately not our decision to make,” she noted. “It is a choice Americans must make for themselves.” (While Freeland may have intended to signal respect for American sovereignty, this line also carried a faint whiff of condescension—recalling the paternalistic way American leaders have long addressed other nations. Just last month, Trump told Muslim leaders in Saudi Arabia that they faced “a choice between two futures”—one plagued by terrorism and one free of such violence—“and it is a choice America CANNOT make for you.”)

“Our friend and ally has come to question the very worth of its mantle of global leadership,” Freeland observed. “International relationships that had seemed immutable for 70 years are being called into question.”

First, before exploring what all this meant for Canada, recognition of the boss’s hard work were in order: “In blood, in treasure, in strategic vision, in leadership, America has paid the lion’s share” of the cost for building an international system after World War II on the foundation of free trade, U.S. military and diplomatic alliances, and liberal rules and institutions for governing how countries conduct themselves and resolve disputes. “For their unique, seven-decades-long contribution to our shared peace ‎and prosperity, and on behalf of all Canadians, I would like to profoundly thank our American friends,” Freeland said.

Then came a plea for the boss to stick with it: On issues ranging from trade to terrorism, Canadians would keep “open hands and open hearts extended to our American friends, seeking to make common cause as we have so often in the past.”

And, finally, a vision for the way forward if the boss did indeed step down: It’s now clear that the “rest of us” need to “set our own clear and sovereign course,” Freeland argued, alluding to the ways in which Trump’s nationalism and protectionism were steering the United States in a different direction. That course, she said, will involve working with Western allies and emerging powers elsewhere in the world to uphold the postwar international order. Canada, which currently depends on the U.S. for much of its trade, will seek to “diversify [its] trade worldwide,” since trading shouldn’t be considered a “zero-sum game.” The Canadian government will draw closer to European partners through free-trade agreements and NATO deployments in Eastern Europe. And it will strengthen its military so that Canada won’t be left as an American “client state.” On Wednesday, the government followed through on this last promise, announcing that it will increase defense spending from roughly $14 billion today to $24 billion within a decade—a surprising move for an administration that earlier this year ended Canada’s direct combat role against ISIS.

In one sense, the speech is a triumph for Donald Trump. He campaigned on the premise that America’s much-heralded “global leadership” was draining a once-great nation of blood and treasure. He demanded that countries pay their fair share rather than ripping off the United States. After just a few months in office, Trump has accomplished what many of his predecessors couldn’t: He’s persuaded not just Canada but also many other NATO allies to invest more in their own defense. (Trump still hasn’t succeeded in getting these countries to increase their military spending to 2 percent of GDP, a soft target that NATO set a few years ago; the military buildup Canada just announced would only amount to 1.4 percent of GDP.)

But looked at another way, the speech could spell trouble for Trump. This week, Canada’s foreign minister unequivocally stated that while the United States may have lost faith in the international system that it has long led, Canada remains a true believer. Other countries have recently sent similar messages about their commitment to that system, whether or not the U.S. is on board. Canadian, Chinese, European, and Indian leaders, for example, have vowed to press ahead with the United Nations’ Paris process for addressing climate change, leaving America isolated. There are different definitions of American greatness, and Chrystia Freeland just suggested that one version—the kind that involves leading and shaping world affairs—may be on its way out.