Walkom: Chrystia Freeland’s nostalgic elegy

Chrystia Freeland’s eloquent defence of a rules-based international order this week was a call to arms. It was also a requiem.

In an impassioned speech to the Commons on Tuesday, the foreign affairs minister anchored her approach to the world firmly in the tradition of the liberalism associated with former prime minister Lester Pearson.

Pearson and others of his generation had lived through the horrors of the Second World War and the Depression. Determined to prevent similar catastrophes in the future, they created a host of international institutions designed to bring some order to a dangerous planet.

In a world dominated by the U.S. and Soviet Union, they reckoned, a rules-based system could also provide smaller countries, such as Canada, with a degree of relative autonomy.

And so the postwar international order was born. It had many parts.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) would encourage countries to follow the basic rules of fiscal solvency. The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, while not a full-fledged free trade deal, would set rules for international commerce.

To the U.S., the 1949 NATO alliance was a vehicle to confront the Soviets. To Europe and Canada, it was also a mechanism designed to keep an America prone to isolationist impulses engaged in the larger world.

Overseeing the entire edifice was the United Nations, a world body that was supposed to intervene whenever state-to-state relations got out of hand.

The postwar order was far from flawless. But most of the time, it worked. It is that order that Freeland says she hopes to recreate – with or without Donald Trump’s America.

She forgets how crucial America was to the entire era she yearns for. Beneath all of those supposedly collegial international organizations was the stark fact of American power.

In the West, the U.S. was the ultimate arbiter. Its dollar acted as the global currency. It could project military force anywhere and often did.

Its corporations ruled.

International organizations, such as the IMF, operated with some degree of independence. But in the end, their actions reflected the needs of American capital.

The Americans complained about the UN. But its most important decisions, from entering the Korean War in 1950, to authorizing NATO’s intervention in the 2011 Libyan conflict, reflected U.S. priorities.

And then America’s engine began to sputter. The forces of globalization that it had unleashed bit back.

The 2008 financial collapse, in particular, demonstrated that the U.S. could no longer shift the destructive effects of boom and bust onto other countries.

And now, as Freeland noted in her speech, Donald Trump’s America is sick of being the world’s indispensable nation. It is tired. It is weary.

In the past, it was willing to spend money and lives to protect American economic interests. But its voters see no upside in protecting multinationals that do most of their work in Europe and Asia.

Can the postwar, rules-based world that America directed for so long survive without a powerful country like the U.S. at the helm? I’m not sure it can.

It’s not clear that China, which has its own economic problems, is able to step into the breach. Even if it were, an international order dominated by Beijing would look far different from one dominated by Washington.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is hinting that Europe might rise to the task. But given that Europeans already agree on little, this is surely wishful thinking.

In short, there may be more nostalgia than realism in Freeland’s paean to the rules-based world.

But even if Ottawa follows through on its ambitious plans to increase military spending over the next decade (plans which, incidentally, appear designed to speak to Trump’s demand that America’s NATO allies devote more to defence) Canada alone won’t have the muscle to enforce much of anything should the rules-based world continue to go awry.

The postwar world was, for many Canadians, a golden era. Its time has passed.

Thomas Walkom is a national affairs writer.

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