The international order is under attack — and Ukraine might not be the end of it

History keeps happening. Years back, Chrystia Freeland called on the world's free nations to stand up for liberal democracy against the forces of chaos. Today — thanks in large part to Russia's brutal attack on Ukraine — that unified front seems to be coming together.

One U.S. presidential election could unravel the united front of free nations against Russia

A man on crutches walks past the remains of Russian military vehicles in Bucha, close to the capital Kyiv, Ukraine, on Tuesday. Russia on Tuesday stepped up shelling of Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city, pounding civilian targets there. (Serhii Nuzhnenko/The Associated Press)

History keeps happening. And with each new twist — each new reminder that the world has been knocked off balance since 2016 — Canada's political leaders are forced to decide how this country should navigate a precarious new reality.

"There are moments in history," Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said Monday afternoon as her government announced new measures to respond to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, "when the great struggle between freedom and tyranny comes down to one fight in one place, which is waged for all of humanity."

Minister of Finance and Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland holds a press conference in Ottawa on Oct. 6, 2021. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

"The West and, indeed, countries around the world are united in standing up for Ukraine — not just for Ukraine, but for the principles of democracy and the rule of law that [have] led to tremendous prosperity and stability in our world over the past 75 years," Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters moments later.

That feeling that this isn't the moment for half-measures might help to explain why the world's democracies have suddenly drawn such a hard line together in Ukraine's defence.

On Parliament Hill, reactions to the crisis have been split between short and long-term viewpoints.

In the short-term, the Conservatives want the Russian ambassador expelled. The New Democrats want specific oligarchs targeted for sanctions. Both parties want visa requirements dropped for anyone wishing to come to Canada from Ukraine.

During question period on Monday, Conservatives also demanded a ban on imports of Russian oil. Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson stood and reported that no crude oil from Russia had been imported into Canada in more than two years. An hour later, the Liberal government implemented a ban on Russian crude anyway.

The long-term viewpoints are fuzzier.

WATCH | MPs debate Canada's approach to Ukraine crisis:

Federal leaders debate Canada's support for Ukraine in the House of Commons

2 years ago
Duration 0:44
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, interim Conservative Party Leader Candice Bergen and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh debate steps Canada should take to support Ukraine during a "take note" debate in the House of Commons.

The Conservatives want to talk about military procurement and a renewed emphasis on the Arctic. The Liberals are already committed to a significant increase in defence spending, but a renewed debate about Canada's ability to defend itself seems inevitable. 

Conservatives also are demanding new efforts to quickly develop and export Canada's oil and gas with an aim of helping Europe reduce its dependence on Russia's fossil fuels.

For some politicians, there is no problem that a pipeline can't solve. But it could be years before Canada has the sort of export capacity such an approach would require.

It also would be short-sighted to focus on production without accounting for any resulting increase in greenhouse gas emissions. Whatever else is going on in the world, climate change is still happening and still threatening to get much worse. In the meantime, Europe could embark on a major push to retrofit its buildings and increase its supply of renewable energy.

WATCH | Canada closes off exports to Russia in response to invasion of Ukraine:

Canada halts exports to Russia in new round of sanctions

2 years ago
Duration 2:41
Canada has halted export permits to Russia in its latest round of sanctions, which also target 62 Russian individuals and entities such as major banks.

Freeland — like the columnist and author she used to be — has for several years now been trying to draw the big picture around world events and has placed Russian President Vladimir Putin's recent actions within that frame. On Monday, she said Putin had "attacked the values and the international rules-based order which are the foundations of all of the democracies of the world."

Freeland's fears for the "international rules-based order" — her preferred shorthand for the many agreements, alliances and multilateral organizations built after the Second World War to maintain the peace — go back to at least 2017, when she laid out a vision for Canadian foreign policy in a speech before the House.

"Canadians understand that, as a middle power living next to the world's only superpower, Canada has a huge interest in an international order based on rules," she said. "One in which might is not always right."

Two sides of one big problem

In 2018, she told the New York Times that the world was faced with "two related megaproblems" — the erosion of democracy and the threats posed to the international order. Shortly after, she went to Washington, D.C. and put her concerns directly to an American audience in another speech.

"We need to summon Yeats' oft-cited 'passionate intensity' in the fight for liberal democracy and the international rules-based order that supports it," she said.

At the time, the Liberal government was more than a year into its campaign to salvage as much as it could of the North American Free Trade Agreement and U.S. President Donald Trump's administration had just claimed "national security" concerns to justify tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum.

Sick children and women with their newborn babies stay in a basement used as a bomb shelter at the Okhmadet children's hospital in central Kyiv, Ukraine, on Tuesday. (Emilio Morenatti/The Associated Press)

Six months later, Chinese authorities arrested Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig in a barely concealed attempt at hostage diplomacy.

Canadian officials convinced a number of allies to speak out against China's actions, but it wasn't until the United States agreed to let tech executive Meng Wanzhou return to China that Kovrig and Spavor were released.

The war in Ukraine is of a different order of magnitude. But the West's response so far might be something like the "passionate intensity" Freeland was calling for in 2018. Perhaps Canadians and all those who fear a world in which "might makes right" can take some solace in the potential revitalization of the liberal international order.

But even if optimism persists against a backdrop of incredible tragedy in Ukraine, it still might extend only as far as the next American presidential election — the result of which could tip the global order again.

Refugees from Ukraine sit in a bus after arriving at the border crossing in Vysne Nemecke, Slovakia, on Tuesday. (Darko Vojinovic/The Associated Press)

Three years ago, at a meeting of the Senate foreign affairs committee, Freeland was asked if she could identify the biggest threats to the international rules-based order. The biggest threat, she said, was "at home."

"The greatest threat is if we lose faith in ourselves, and if we ourselves lose faith in liberal democracy and in the idea that liberal democracy works," she said.

She proceeded to riff on her government's economic policies and the importance of a strong middle class. But if there's a connection between the strength of individual democracies and the strength of the international rules-based order, it might be said that the recently departed "freedom convoy" and the fight for Ukraine are at two ends of a very large debate.

That suggests this challenge won't be solved by banning Russian oil, expelling an ambassador or scrambling to get natural gas to Europe. And it won't go away even if Ukraine is saved.

WATCH | Mayor of Kopychyntsi talks about how he's protecting his town in western Ukraine:

Mayor of town in western Ukraine on impact of the war

2 years ago
Duration 9:54
Bogdan Kelichavyi, the mayor of Kopychyntsi in western Ukraine, and his Canadian-Ukrainian wife Mariya Tuzyk speak with CBC about the impact of the Russian invasion.


Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.