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Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s minister of foreign affairs, goes about her work in a manner one might describe as hard-nosed. The former reporter prefers direct questions over diplomatic niceties and face-to-face conversations over briefing notes. “You have to talk to a lot of people to get the real story,” she says. In September of last year, Freeland and her top negotiators and advisers met with former prime minister Brian Mulroney in Toronto, at his office in the law firm Norton Rose Fulbright. Mulroney had a story that Freeland needed to hear: how he pushed the North American Free Trade Agreement through negotiations. In 1992, when Mulroney’s Progressive Conservative government signed NAFTA, the Liberal Party of Canada fiercely opposed him; now, Freeland was seeking his advice in her attempt to keep the deal alive.

As recently as October 2015, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals took office, Canada’s status as a trading nation appeared secure. NAFTA seemed carved into the country’s bedrock—at the time, the agreement accounted for more than $1 trillion (US) in cross-border merchandise trade—and Canada was closing in on free-trade deals with both the European Union and a consortium of Pacific nations. However, just over a year later, the incipient Trans-Pacific Partnership was a shadow of its former self after the United States abandoned it, and NAFTA was suddenly imperilled after the election of Donald Trump, who, ever since his campaign, has promised to renegotiate or scrap the agreement.

The NAFTA talks are due to wrap up this March, if they aren’t cut short or extended. If the US kills the trade pact, the fallout north of the border could be brutal. Canada is the world’s thirty-eighth most populous nation but its tenth-biggest economy. To maintain such outsized prosperity, we buy from, and sell to, foreign markets, mainly the US, which absorbs 75 percent of Canadian exports. Today, industrial supply chains criss-cross the continent; disentangling them would be a costly nightmare. Plus, there’s the risk that if foreign businesses feel they cannot access the US via Canada, they will think twice about investing in the country.

To prevent this scenario, Freeland must stickhandle negotiations with an erratic White House. She is, many believe, the best person for the job: a quick study, a tireless worker, and a true believer in markets and trade. Freeland’s predecessor in the foreign-affairs ministry, former Liberal leader Stéphane Dion, was a wonkish academic famous for tortuous sentences and wearing a knapsack over his suit. Freeland is slicker and better connected—when she was a journalist, she interacted with most major players in corporate America—and she can talk in ways that resonate with business-minded Republicans, for whom “efficiency” is a virtue but “regulation” is not. “There are some Canadian Liberals who are only grudgingly accepting of business,” says Roger Martin, former dean of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. “They see it as a necessary evil. Chrystia believes that, by and large, business is good for the world.”

If Freeland pulls out a NAFTA win, she may save Canada from years of economic turbulence. But for her, the challenge represents something bigger. NAFTA, she argues, is a significant piece of a vital political and financial system: a web of treaties, alliances, and commercial networks that the West put in place, beginning after the Second World War, to secure a lasting peace. Freeland espouses a classic liberal vision, whereby democratic countries co-operate and trade with each other, forming a prosperous, ever-expanding bloc. This idea, which came of age during the Truman-Churchill era, is now so old it is largely uncontested, at least among mainstream foreign-policy thinkers.

But as the alt-right conquers hearts and minds, and as nativist political parties gain footholds in the West, liberalism seems under threat. Three years ago, it was possible to think of European countries such as Poland and Hungary as imperfect experiments in democracy; today, these nations seem headed toward authoritarianism. Meanwhile, Trump’s stated intention is to loosen his country’s ties to the international system it helped build. In his September United Nations speech, he articulated his vision of a world dominated not by stable relationships but by temporary, self-serving coalitions.

“I feel very strongly,” says Freeland, “that one of the most pressing challenges today is the threats that the liberal order faces. That order is something we have taken for granted, especially my generation—the postwar peace and prosperity generation. It’s like that Joni Mitchell song, ‘You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.’”

Last August, just before the NAFTA talks began, Freeland spoke at the University of Ottawa. She opened by discussing a US plan to invade the Saint Lawrence River valley during the War of 1812. “Such an invasion,” she said, “might have dramatically changed the outcome of the war, but it never happened,” because merchants on both sides of the border sold to one another and therefore had a stake in each other’s security. The story has an obvious moral—the co-operative imperatives of commerce can triumph over nativism and disorder. It also sends a clear message: Freeland sees herself as an idealist.

“It’s important for us to remember that the arc of history is pretty positive,” says Freeland, who lives with her husband, British-born New York Times reporter Graham Bowley, and their three children in Toronto’s affluent Summerhill neighbourhood. When asked why she believes so deeply in capitalism, Freeland cites Angus Deaton, the Nobel Prize–winning economist who argued that the Industrial Revolution brought for many people a “great escape” from a condition in which oppression and drudgery were the norm.

“I’m a woman. I’m a wife. I’m a mother. One hundred years ago, I would’ve been beaten by my husband. That’s what happened to pretty much all women. Even when I was in school . . . teachers hit children with rulers.” Those actions are no longer socially acceptable. She cautions, however, against conflating her optimism about the world with complacency. “I do think we’re seeing that there’s no inevitability. There can be backsliding inside countries and in relations between countries too.”

As a young adult, Freeland saw first-hand what democratic backsliding looks like. Although she grew up in Alberta, she had close ties to Ukraine thanks to her mother, Halyna Chomiak, a lawyer, activist, and prominent member of the Ukrainian Canadian community. At Harvard in the late ’80s, Freeland studied Russian history and literature and completed an exchange in Kiev, just before the Berlin wall fell. In 1991, she returned to the former Eastern Bloc, working as a stringer for international newspapers. Within a few years, she completed an Oxford master’s in Slavonic studies and was hired on as Moscow bureau chief for the Financial Times.

Edward Lucas, a former reporter for the Economist, remembers Freeland as faster and defter than any of his colleagues. “I always felt that she was laps ahead of me,” he says. “On at least two occasions, I would be interviewing someone, having worked hard to find them. Mid-conversation, their phone would go off. They’d pick up and say, ‘Ah, Chrystia. Zdarova!’” Freeland’s early success rankled established male colleagues, says Lucas. “Some journalists in Moscow didn’t like her very much. These were grand people from the American broadsheets, for whom a Moscow posting came at the summit of a storied career. They didn’t appreciate having Chrystia, who’s young and female, regularly trouncing them.”

Her reporting gave her a measure of clarity about the grim dynamics in post-Soviet society. She observed that the authoritarian structure of the old regime had not disappeared; instead it had transmuted into a kind of business politburo. She met well-connected elites whose licence plates gave them immunity from the law, and she spoke with private mercenaries in the farming heartland who extracted payments from their fellow townspeople. “She saw that what seemed like democracy was actually a democratic skin over a more brutal reality,” says Lucas.

David Hoffman, a Washington Post journalist, remembers reporting with Freeland in Krasnouralsk, a town in the remote Ural Mountains with a poisonous smelting operation at its centre. “It was summer, but the tomatoes were wilting,” he says. “Everybody had elevated levels of lead exposure.” Three-quarters of the children there had mental disabilities due to the toxic water, soil, and air. It was a first-hand encounter with grotesque human suffering, the kind that happens when citizens have few mechanisms—unions, regulators, a robust court system—with which to challenge their mistreatment. Both reporters were horrified. “An experience like that changes you forever,” says Hoffman.

In 1996, Freeland worked on one of the biggest stories of the decade: in a deal to secure re-election, Russian president Boris Yeltsin had liquidated state assets at fire sale prices to a cabal of oligarchs, signalling the country’s descent into full-blown crony capitalism. Freeland’s subsequent reporting was both wide-ranging and intimate. In a scene from Freeland’s 2000 book, Sale of the Century: Russia’s Wild Ride from Communism to Capitalism, the oligarch Vladimir Gusinsky tells her of his desperate need to be loved “by women, children, and dogs.”

Sale of the Century charts the changing mood in Russia from optimism to despair. “Instead of the prosperous market and thriving democracy Russians had dared to hope for,” Freeland writes, “their version of capitalism was limping and corrupt….Russia had freed itself from Communism but not from the Communist legacy; it had constructed a capitalist system only to discover that it had built the wrong kind.” In the late ’90s, she watched as Russia’s frustrated citizenry pinned its hopes on Vladimir Putin, a former KGB spymaster who promised to restore order and keep oligarchs out of politics.

For Freeland, Russia’s swift return to authoritarianism proved that, in transitional nations, it is insufficient for leaders to merely replace communism with any old capitalist system; they must get market democracy right. “It was easy, when the Soviet Union first broke down, to think in terms of dichotomies,” she says. “To think that you had communist central planning on the one hand and capitalism on the other hand, and not to worry too much about the niceties of the system you were building. People thought that as long as you brought in basically private property and relatively open markets, everything would be okay.”

The West, she cautions, is now at risk of making a similar mistake. Her book Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else, published in 2012, depicts the bizarre, stateless universe inhabited by the planet’s wealthiest citizens—people including Carlos Slim, George Soros, and Michael Bloomberg. The book draws on Freeland’s years-long stint covering international business for the Financial Times. At its centre lies a distinction between what she considers to be healthy versus extractive capitalism. In the latter system, the elite makes money not by offering competitive goods and services but by bending the rules in its favour. The relevant chapter begins, unsurprisingly, with a discussion of India and Russia but then mentions similar dynamics in the US: tech companies with monopolistic reach or financial-service providers that regulate their regulators.

The year the book appeared, she predicted in a New York Times op-ed that, if rising inequality and middle-class stagnation continued, America could eventually face a civilizational collapse like the one that destroyed the Venetian republic. A year later, in The Atlantic, she argued that “if capitalism doesn’t deliver for the middle class, then the middle class will eventually opt for something else.” She had seen how, in Russia, a rigged system can erode people’s faith in liberal values—and how, as the West became more unequal, a similar sense of disenchantment had set in. “That reality,” she says, “is behind the nativist, angry, parochial movements that are challenging the liberal order today.”

Freeland’s writing not only reflects her intellectual journey but also provides a blueprint for how Canada might respond to the crises of the present. In the last two years, nations such as the US and the United Kingdom, which once acted as ballasts for this country, have suddenly floundered, creating an opportunity for Freeland to step forward. “Maintaining the intentional rules-based order and the global trade system is a huge project,” she says, “and we are on the front lines.”

Freeland’s negotiation strategy can be boiled down to three principles: persuade but don’t provoke, seek allies where you can, and ground your arguments in facts rather than ideology.

Before the NAFTA challenge, Freeland had already proven herself an adept negotiator. After the 2015 electoral sweep that vaulted the Liberals to majority status, Freeland, then two years into her political career, became minister of international trade. Her first major order of business was finalizing the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement between Canada and the European Union. A legacy project from Stephen Harper’s time in office, CETA is the country’s biggest trade deal since NAFTA, and it’s expected to remove tariffs on 99 percent of goods that pass between Canada and the European common market. To build consensus for the deal, Freeland toured in skeptical parts of the continent, such as Germany and Austria. When, in October 2016, talks broke down in Wallonia, a francophone region of Belgium, Freeland conducted an outreach blitz, enlisting every Liberal MP with passable French to call Walloon government officials. In late October, she helped hammer out a grueling eleventh-hour compromise.

On October 31, 2016, only weeks after the Wallonia breakdown, Freeland appeared in the Canadian parliamentary press gallery and announced that CETA would go through. “It’s possible to have policies that are about building bridges and not building walls,” she said. She also discussed the merits of an “open society,” Canada’s status as both a “trading” and “immigrant nation,” and the “dangerous” protectionist rhetoric coming from south of the border as the US presidential race neared its final week.

While finalizing CETA, Freeland had eked out a victory through sheer force of will; salvaging NAFTA, however, is a more daunting task. With Mulroney’s help, she has come to understand this challenge as a massive human-resources endeavour. According to Derek Burney, a Mulroney-era diplomat and trade negotiator, the former prime minister’s conversations with Freeland are often about messaging. “We talk about how for thirty-five US states, Canada is the number-one customer,” says Burney. “The government has got to get that message across.”

By early 2017, Freeland, now minister of foreign affairs, had spearheaded another outreach campaign. Canadian politicians made hundreds of trips to the US, meeting with federal lawmakers, state governments, business leaders, labour unions, and agricultural boards. Finance minister Bill Morneau travelled to Indiana to schmooze with city and state officials; transport minister Marc Garneau visited Florida, where he’d previously worked; and trade minister François-Philippe Champagne returned to Ohio, where he’d gone to school. The goal was to push a single point: millions of American jobs depend on the trade relationship with Canada.

Dominic Barton, managing director of the consulting firm McKinsey and Company, remembers getting a call from Freeland in February 2017. “I felt like I was kicked in the ass,” he says. “Chrystia was like, ‘Come on, Dominic. Who are you talking to? Are you making sure people understand what’s at stake here?’” Barton then met with retailers, auto executives, and major investors, including Republican donor Stephen Schwarzman and Laurence Fink, who oversees the world’s largest asset-management firm, to discuss how protectionism could hurt business.

Even if Trump announces his intentions to withdraw from NAFTA, negotiations could still continue: it’s unclear whether the US executive branch has the power to kill the pact without congressional approval. But the Canadian government clearly seeks to stay in Trump’s good graces. While the Liberals have sought remedies for what they see as unfair trade practices—last December, they filed a complaint with the World Trade Organization, accusing the US of violating six policies—they’re not spoiling for a war of words with the president. In her high-profile June 6 foreign-policy speech in Parliament, Freeland affirmed Canada’s internationalist outlook and expressed “deep disappointment” with Washington’s inward turn, but she never criticized Trump by name.

Canadians who long to see Trudeau or his foreign minister put the US president in his place will remain disappointed. As a journalist, Freeland didn’t hesitate to call Putin a despot, and as a politician, she will talk unflinchingly about authoritarianism in Venezuela, but she is more restrained in her commentary on Trump. Other journalists who have spent time in both Russia and America—for instance, The New Yorker’s Masha Gessen—have drawn disturbing parallels between the administrations in both countries. When asked if she sees a similar comparison, Freeland says she doesn’t. “Russia is an authoritarian regime that has broken one of the most precious things about the postwar order,” she says, “which is that European countries don’t invade each other. Putin broke that compact. He has been part of terrible persecutions of his own citizens. We should be careful not to lightly compare those actions to shortcomings in our own Western societies.”

It’s a defensible argument, but it underscores how profoundly, as a politician, Freeland’s vision of the world order depends on expediency and pragmatism. It also shows that she’s willing to lead by example. In 2017, when she accompanied Trudeau on his first official visit to the Trump White House, she appeared on CNN with Wolf Blitzer. She spoke judiciously, opting for pivots and platitudes instead of her usual high-precision rhetoric. Blitzer inquired about the so-called travel ban—was Trump wrong to block Syrians from entering the US? Freeland reiterated Trudeau’s signature line, a variation of “I’m not here to tell America what do to.” Blitzer asked whether Trump might act on his stated intentions to kill NAFTA, and Freeland gave a similarly evasive response.“You sound like you’ve emerged from being a journalist,” Blitzer had remarked earlier in the interview, “to becoming an excellent diplomat.” Freeland smiled; “That’s my job, Wolf. What can I say?”

Even if you believe, as Freeland does, that the postwar liberal order enabled seven decades of unprecedented peace in Europe and North America, it’s worth considering what it didn’t do. It failed, for instance, to protect many countries from civil wars, to prevent terrifying nuclear proliferation, or to stop the West (in general) and the United States (in particular) from acting as an empire. Despite its benefits, the liberal order also froze uneven global relations in place. As the postwar West became more secure and prosperous, it inevitably became powerful too. A brief survey of American foreign policy—from electoral meddling in Latin America to atrocities in South Asia to the disastrous invasion of Iraq—suggests that the West didn’t always use its power benevolently.

It’s also worth considering whether free trade is as necessary to global harmony as liberals make it out to be. Agreements such as CETA and NAFTA require countries to submit to rules, which can, at the worst of times, interfere with governance. Stuart Trew, an analyst for the left-leaning Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, argues that trade deals enable foreign corporations to undermine domestic regulators, often through closed-door arbitration panels, such as NAFTA’s investor-state dispute mechanism. “These measures have a chilling effect on strong environmental- and human-health protections,” says Trew. “Under NAFTA, foreign companies use the threat of lawsuits to discourage government policy from being implemented in the first place.”

Freeland’s world view puts her at odds not only with nativists and authoritarians but also with the resurgent democratic left. Left-wing trade skepticism is perhaps strongest outside Canada. The US, for instance, has seen the rise of politicians—Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren—whose rhetoric is often critical of free trade even as it touches on traditional liberal themes: pluralism, human rights, and diplomacy. The world view these politicians share suggests that trade skepticism needn’t be the enemy of democracy or of other kinds of global co-operation.

Freeland is open to critiques of trade—in the NAFTA and CETA negotiations, she has pushed for better union and labour standards—but she balks at the notion that, in Canada, free trade is anything other than necessary. “A closed economy just for your own country is a lot easier to do with 300 million people than it is with 36 million,” she says. “And the Canadian left in particular needs to be mindful of that.”

To fully make good on her goal of strengthening the liberal order, however, Freeland must eventually turn her attention elsewhere. In the past, Canadian foreign-affairs ministers have spearheaded ambitious development initiatives: Joe Clark led the diplomatic charge against South African apartheid, and Lloyd Axworthy helped enact a global ban on land mines. “Since November 2016, there’s been a five-alarm fire happening in the neighbour’s house,” says Roland Paris, a political scientist and former Justin Trudeau adviser. “There’s a risk that the urgency of the situation with the United States could end up sucking up so much of the minister’s time that other elements of our foreign policy get neglected.”

For 2018, which is Canada’s year as G7 president, the Trudeau government promises to make women’s rights and climate action priority issues. Freeland says that, in the coming years, she hopes to focus on several human rights emergencies: the Donbass conflict in Ukraine, the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar, authoritarianism in Venezuela, nuclear threats from North Korea, and wars in Somalia and Yemen. If she can contribute to human security or the rule of law in even a few of these regions, she will have strengthened not just liberalism but the underlying principles it was designed to protect.

“How I think we need to do Canadian foreign policy,” says Freeland, “is to know what our values are, build coalitions around those things, and then be constantly alert for situations in the world where, by acting, we can make a difference.” The liberal order doesn’t begin and end with NAFTA. Freeland’s legacy will depend on what she does next.

Simon Lewsen
Simon Lewsen has contributed to the Globe and Mail, enRoute, The Atlantic, Foreign Policy, and MIT Technology Review. He teaches writing at the University of Toronto.
Denise Nestor
Denise Nestor is a Dublin-based illustrator and artist whose clients include The New York Times Magazine, New York, and Esquire.