Asean can help support rules-based multilateral order: Canada FM Chrystia Freeland

Canada's Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland in Mexico City on July 25, 2018.
Canada's Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland in Mexico City on July 25, 2018.PHOTO: REUTERS

SINGAPORE - Authoritarianism is on the march and threatening the rules-based order that has brought peace and prosperity to many parts of the globe, Canada's foreign minister said on Thursday (Aug 2).

"It is time for liberal, open societies to fight back," Ms Chrystia Freeland said.

That meant summoning "passionate intensity" in the fight for liberal democracy and the international rules-based order that supports it.

Asean's peace and prosperity, she said, stood as a testament to the promise of the international rules and multilateral institutions that bind the countries. Yet Canada and Asean confront unprecedented geopolitical and geo-economic uncertainties, she added ahead of meetings with Asean foreign ministers on Friday.

"North Korea's pursuit of nuclear weapons continues to undermine regional and global peace and stability. And the increasing militarisation of the South China Sea threatens regional security in a vitally important area which Canada, Asean - and much of the world - rely on for trade," she said in the IISS Fullerton Lecture, hosted by the International Institute of Strategic Studies, at the Fullerton Hotel.

"The global trading system, upon which so much of our shared prosperity is based, is being put to the test as never before," she said.

Also worrying was that developing nations, with large infrastructure needs "confront increasingly coercive debt-trap diplomacy which threatens their sovereignty and erodes the open investment principles".


Authoritarianism, she said, was 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."

"We need to resist this corrosive nonsense."

"We need to resist foreign efforts to hijack our democracies through cyber-meddling and propaganda. We need to outshine the other models and encourage those who are on the fence. And we need to govern with integrity," she said.

She pointed to the mistaken view that as authoritarian nations became wealthy they would adopt greater political freedoms. She pointed to Russia and Venezuela's slide into authoritarianism.

Even China, she said, "stands as a rebuke to our belief in the inevitability of liberal democracy. The same might be said of the troubling elections held in Cambodia over the weekend."

But liberal democracies were not perfect and needed to make improvements at home that benefit ordinary people and ensure jobs, greater income equality, access to healthcare and dignity in retirement, she said. She pointed to the hollowing out of the middle class in industrialised nations and people who were losing ground and losing hope even as those at the very top were doing better than ever. "Populism thrives where the middle class is hollowed out."

She said it was time to think about the jobs of the future and ensure that those jobs pay a living wage and workers were properly trained. She added that it was crucial each nation had the durable tax base necessary to support its people.

Part of the solution, too, was introducing strong labour standards in trade pacts.

She said as the West's relative might inevitably declined, now was the time to set aside the idea that might is right. "Now is the time for us to plant our flag on the rule of law - so that the rising powers are induced to play by these rules, too."