U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen recently introduced a concept she referred to as “friend-shoring.” In her words, “Friend-shoring is the idea that countries that espouse a common set of values on international trade … should trade and get the benefits of trade.” She added that the idea was to ensure the U.S. and its allies have “multiple sources of supply and are not reliant excessively on sourcing critical goods from countries especially where we have geopolitical concerns.”

The idea struck a chord with me. I remember during the Cold War feeling a little uneasy about trading with totalitarian states such as the Soviet Union. I also remember knowing that prairie farmers would have revolted if there had been any attempt to cut off their wheat sales to that same totalitarian state. And, after all, the Russians had to eat.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the development of the new global order of free trade, I became more concerned about trade agreements than who we traded with. As our finance minister Chrystia Freeland recently said, “Workers in our democracies have long understood that global trade without values-based rules to govern it made our people poorer and our countries more vulnerable. They have long known that it enriched the plutocrats but not the people.” Unfortunately the rules often tended to favour the plutocrats.

In any case, the new world order is tottering. Alienation and distrust of institutions within countries and growing tensions between countries, including the two economic giants China and the U.S., are taking a heavy toll. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may be the tipping point. Cynics are beginning to see global trade as as much a threat as a promise.

Trade can lead to improved social relations as well as economic relations, so I have always thought of it as generally a good thing but, as Putin has taught Europe, sometimes it isn’t. The continent is facing a cold, hard winter as the price of relying on a country whose values are inimical to its own. Recognition of this has led Janet Yellen to friend-shoring.

Minister Freeland is an enthusiastic supporter of the idea, warning in a recent speech, “We need to understand that authoritarian regimes are fundamentally hostile to us. Our success is an existential threat to them.” She has urged the world’s democracies to confront the hard new economic truths and collaborate around shared values of prosperity, energy security, protecting the planet, and free and fair trade. Some are calling this the “Freeland doctrine.”

I admit to finding the idea highly attractive. But there are cautions.

We cannot solely depend on friends. The world is now far too interconnected for that. And who are our friends? Much of the world functions somewhere between democracy and autocracy and if we want to tip countries toward the former we will have to have good relations, including trade relations, with them. Otherwise we hand them over to China which is busy peddling its own political system.

And then there’s the fact that much trade will rely on commercial, not political, decisions controlled by businesses not governments. Friend-shoring would have to be reasonably competitive with any alternatives. It would have to make economic sense.

Clearly, if adopted it must be practiced selectively. A good example might be the recently announced plans to turn Nokia Canada’s Ottawa facility into a research and development technology hub with assistance from the federal, provincial and city governments. The venture will reduce dependence of Canadian telecom companies on Huawei and ZTE, the two largest Chinese telecom equipment makers.

Ottawa has already banned Huawei from 5G wireless development. This is consistent with some of our major allies, including the United States and United Kingdom, who have taken steps to curtail the Chinese company’s participation in their markets.

Democratic countries are reluctant to give Huawei a role in their next-generation communications networks because under China’s National Intelligence Law, all Chinese organizations and citizens are obligated to “support, assist, and co-operate with state intelligence work.” Restricting such firms adds to our security while advancing the interests of free-world companies.

During the Cold War, the West competed with the Soviet constellation of socialist countries and the West won hands down, politically and economically. The Soviets ultimately collapsed under the dead weight of oppressive regimes that so sharply contrasted with the prosperity of the West. If we are now to compete with China et al. we retain the advantage of free institutions while Xi seems be leading China back into Mao-inspired stagnation. I like our chances.

Trading with the world but favouring our friends will provide best for our values and our security and may, just as with the Cold War, encourage autocracies in the right direction.

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