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Obama defends U.S. policies eroding under Trump during speech in Montreal

Former U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at the convention centre in Montreal, on June 6, 2017.

Paul Chiasson/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Barack Obama spoke out on Tuesday evening to defend key pieces of the world order that are eroding under U.S. President Donald Trump, saying free trade, immigration, the NATO alliance and the fight to control climate change are all vital to maintaining peace, progress and stability.

While Mr. Obama never mentioned Mr. Trump by name in his wide-ranging speech to Montreal business leaders and thousands of fans, he advocated for policies that have come under attack and decried the growing isolation of the United States.

Mr. Obama criticized his country's plan to withdraw from the Paris climate-change accord and described it as temporary. He said trade agreements such as NAFTA and alliances such as NATO that are under threat from the Trump administration have led to peace and the greatest global prosperity the world has seen, despite disruptions for some.

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"None of these achievements would have happened if we'd acted alone," Mr. Obama said. "I believe we cannot unwind integration. I don't think we can pull up the drawbridge, we cannot stuff technology back in the box. We can't reverse progress, we have to build new social compacts to make progress work for everyone."

Late last week, Mr. Trump announced that his government will pull the United States out of the Paris accord on regulating greenhouse gases, marking the end of U.S. leadership in the global struggle to control climate change. Scientists say climate change will harm billions of people with droughts, floods, rising sea levels and changing weather patterns.

Mr. Trump called the Paris accord a "bad deal" and said his goal is to strike a new one that gives more responsibility to developing countries such as China and India. Mr. Obama was a key figure in negotiating the deal. He said it will survive because state and local governments and private enterprise are still guided by it.

"In Paris, we came together around the most ambitious agreement in history to fight climate change," Mr. Obama said. "An agreement that even with the temporary absence of American leadership will still give our children a fighting chance."

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Earlier Tuesday, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said Canada can no longer rely on the United States as it shrugs off "the burden of world leadership." Ms. Freeland's speech echoed similar sentiment from German Chancellor Angela Merkel after international meetings at which Mr. Trump refused to reaffirm the United States' pledge to defend NATO countries from attack.

Mr. Obama urged a return to co-operation.

"We have to sustain our alliances and help other countries with their own problems," he said. "We have to couple our extraordinary military strength with the power of our economies and ideas and investments and know-how."

One of Mr. Trump's first acts in office was to withdraw the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an international trade treaty also brokered by Mr. Obama. Mr. Trump also wants to renegotiate the North American free-trade agreement. Mr. Obama defended free trade.

"Capitalism and open markets have been the greatest generators of wealth in human history," Mr. Obama said, while acknowledging more must be done to combat inequality. "Economies that are unequal pose challenges to our international order."

Mr. Obama appeared to rebuke Mr. Trump for attacking London Mayor Sadiq Khan after a recent terrorist attack in the city. He said the British responded to the violence "not with fear, but with resolve and not with blame and division."

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Mr. Obama broke from his prepared text to comment on Mr. Trump's preferred media for gathering information, saying they can create a false impression the world is going downhill.

"Where TV and Twitter can feed us a steady stream of bad news and sometimes fake news, it can seem like the international order we have created is constantly being tested and the centre may not hold," he said.

"And in some cases, that leads people to search for certainty and control and they can call for isolationism or nationalism or they can suggest rolling back the rights of others."

The trend toward authoritarianism in countries such as Turkey and Russia will not last, Mr. Obama predicted. "I am convinced the future does not belong to strongmen," he said.

While Mr. Trump continues to pursue a ban on travel from some Muslim countries and threatens to build a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico, Mr. Obama called for a balance between American traditions and the enforcement of immigration law and openness to immigrants and refugees. "That's fundamental to who we are," Mr. Obama said.

It was not clear why Mr. Obama picked Montreal for one of his early speaking engagements. Organizers with the Montreal chamber of commerce said they began planning their pitch to Mr. Obama nearly a year ago, but he accepted their invitation from among the hundreds he has received only a little over three weeks ago. The chamber would not disclose how much Mr. Obama was paid.

The event was initially planned to be closed to the media, but Mr. Obama made a last-minute decision to allow it to be broadcast.

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