Tag Archives: Canada

The blob strikes back

Our semester starts today, with the first class in my course ‘Defence Policy and Military Affairs’. Early on, we’ll look at models of how a rational defence policy would in theory be made, and then we’ll go through each step of the policy process in more detail. Along the way, students (if they’re paying attention) should become aware that reality doesn’t fit the ideal model. Both process and outcomes can be decidedly odd.

As evidence, let’s take a look at some of the defence policy stories which popped up on my radar over the Christmas holidays.

The most recent, dating from yesterday, could be well titled ‘The Blob Strikes Back’ – the ‘Blob’ being a derogatory term for the American security establishment, an amorphous being which defies easy definition and is decidedly hard to pin down, but which exerts enormous power and which seems to be impervious to outside realities, continuing along its chosen path regardless of all the disasters it confronts, and causes, along the way. As alert readers will be aware, just before Christmas, US president Donald Trump announced that he intended to withdraw American troops from Syria. The reaction of the Blob was total outrage. Starting wars is something the American security establishment can cope with; ending them is something which causes it real difficulties. To be fair, the way Trump made his decision didn’t exactly fit with the rational policy making model. It seems like he was going to do one thing, but then spoke with Turkish president Recep Erdogan, and spontaneously decided to do something different. But that is his prerogative, and that part of the Blob which works for Trump couldn’t directly contradict him. Instead, we got what we might call ‘bureaucratic obstruction’. Officially, the policy remains in place, but the bureaucracy will enact it in such a way as to render it effectively null and void.

This became clear yesterday when National Security Advisor John Bolton declared that the US withdrawal from Syria is ‘conditional’. Bolton insisted that it depended on the final destruction of the Islamic State and on the US receiving assurances from Turkey that it would not attack America’s Kurdish allies. This means that US forces could remain in Syria for ‘months or years’. Trump – who gives the impression of being an extremely weak president, unable to hold his own against his officials – apparently caved in, declaring that he ‘never said we were doing it that quickly’. The result is that US policy is now apparently to withdraw, but also not to withdraw.

The Trump presidency would seem to be a paradigm of bizarre policy making processes – impetuous announcements from the leader followed by bureaucratic opposition, resulting in what can only be described as an incoherent mess. But it would be wrong to see this as a peculiar outcome of Trump’s unusual character. A quick look at defence policy in Canada, where I live, indicates that things aren’t much better elsewhere. The ongoing saga of Canada’s efforts to buy fighter planes is an indication. And then there was this story which appeared in the Canadian press earlier this week:

Nearly three years after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised to send weapons to Kurds in Iraq the armaments are still sitting in a military warehouse in Montreal. … The government went as far as arranging to have a military aircraft transport the weapons to the Kurdish region of Iraq, where Canadian special forces were to distribute them to Kurdish soldiers. … But the armaments, with an estimated value of around $10 million, got no further than the Canadian Forces Supply Depot in Montreal, where they remain. … A Department of National Defence official said no plans currently exist to distribute weapons in Iraq.

The reason for this fiasco? Before Trudeau announced that he would arm the Kurds he never bothered to check with the Iraqi government whether it was ok with that. As it turns out, the Iraqis weren’t ok with it, as they didn’t want Canada providing weapons to what they regard as a separatist force. As we used to say when I was in the army, ‘you don’t need the brains of an Archbishop’ to know that arming Kurds is somewhat incompatible with the objective of creating strong states in Iraq and Syria, likely to cause problems further down the line, and unlikely to be popular in Baghdad. As Canadian journalist David Pugliese points out, ‘ Some defence analysts warned the Canadian government and military from the beginning that providing the Kurds with weapons was a mistake.’ But I don’t think that anybody has ever suggested that Trudeau has the brains of an Archbishop. I don’t have insider information on how the government reached this decision, but it strikes me as likely that its zeal to be seen to be ‘doing something’ got in the way of rational analysis. This is defence policy as gesture politics. It’s not at all what it’s meant to be about. But it’s often what it ends up being.

Finally, we have an example of ludicrous policy making from British defence minister Gavin Williamson. For some time now, Williamson and his generals have been warning Britons about the terrible threat to their security posed by Russia. According to Williamson, Russia is ‘a bigger threat to Britain than were insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan.’  According to the policy making models I show my students, in a rational world threats drive policy – you structure your defences to combat the dangers you perceive. So if Williamson really believes that Russia is the no.1 danger, his priority should be doing something about it. Instead, just after Christmas he gave a very bizarre interview to the Daily Telegraph in which he declared that he wanted to build new military bases in the Caribbean and the Far East!! Apparently, Singapore, Brunei, Montserrat and Guyana are on the shortlist.

Let’s return again to my policy planning models. In these, you’d come up with the idea of a base in  Montserrat, for instance, if when going through the process you determined that there was some vital national interest in the Montserrat area which was under threat and so required the presence of British military forces. Suffice it to say that this is not what Williamson has done. He mentions not a single reason why British security requires its military to be in Montserrat. Rather his logic is that post-Brexit:

This is our biggest moment as a nation since the end of the Second World War, when we can recast ourselves in a different way, we can actually play the role on the world stage that the world is expecting us to play. … This is our moment to be that true global player once more.

According to Williamson, foreign military bases would give the UK ‘influence’. Britons underestimate how other nations look at them, he claimed, adding that, ‘the rest of the world saw Britain standing 10 feet tall – when we actually stood six feet tall – Britons saw us standing five feet tall, not the six, and certainly not the ten.’ Williamson ‘also predicted Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Caribbean states and nations across Africa would look to the UK for “the moral leadership, the military leadership and the global leadership”.’

This really is preposterous nonsense. I know of no evidence that the world ‘is expecting’ Britain to play some enormous global role and is looking to the UK for ‘moral leadership, military leadership, and global leadership.’ This is just swagger – waving a big stick so that you can feel better about yourself. The giveaway is Williamson’s talk of feeling five feet tall when you’re actually six and others think you are ten. Simply put, his proposed military bases serve no military purpose. They’re just a means of letting Williamson feel that he’s taller than he actually is.

In all these cases – the United States, Canada, and the UK – we see utterly dysfunctional defence policy. There is a reason for this, I think. As I said above, in the ideal, rational model, the policy flows naturally out of analysis of threats. But Western states don’t actually face the sort of threats which require large-scale military establishments to keep them safe. If they were to follow the rational decision making model, they’d have to radically downsize their armed forces. But the Blob doesn’t like that. It’s wedded to the idea that military power is the measure of power. And so it goes around hunting for ways to keep the military’s profile high. Consequently, defence policy ceases to be about defence and becomes about ‘doing something’, prestige, and that extremely vague term ‘influence’. In all this, evidence that ‘doing something’ does any good, or that military activity really does bring prestige or influence is sadly absent. It should be no surprise, therefore, that so much defence policy is incoherent. We expect education policy to be about education; health policy to be about health; and so on. But for some reason, we don’t seem to worry that defence policy has so little to do with defence. Until that attitude changes, we’ll continue to get things wrong.

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Video bridge, Ottawa-Simferopol

Today, I participated in a ‘videobridge’ with Sergei Iurchenko of V.I. Vernadsky Crimean Federal University and Aleksandr Bedritskii of the Tauride Information-Analytical Centre. Those of you who speak Russian can watch it here:

https://crimea.ria.ru/press/20180522/1114462640.html

 

 

‘Foreign’ Minister

Chrystia Freeland gives a new meaning to the title ‘Foreign Minister’. Normally, it means the person in charge of a state’s dealings with foreign countries. In Canada’s case, however, it sometimes seems to mean something rather different – namely, the minister who represents the interests of a foreign country. For on occasion Ms Freeland appears to be less the foreign minister of Canada and more the foreign minister of Ukraine.

This week, Canada is hosting a meeting of foreign ministers of the G7. But on this occasion, Freeland has made it into something of a G8 by inviting along her Ukrainian counterpart, Pavlo Klimkin. As The Globe and Mail reports:

Russia is using Ukraine as a test ground for its information war against Western democracy, Ukraine’s foreign minister told G7 ministers meeting here on Sunday.

Foreign Affairs Minister Chystia Freeland wants the disruptive influence of Russia on the West to be a top agenda item, and she set the table – literally – for Ukrainian foreign minister Pavlo Klimkin to deliver that message to her G7 counterparts.

Freeland invited Klimkin to be part of Sunday’s talks, hosting him and other ministers at her home for a traditional brunch that was prepared by her own children.

“It was amazing how she organized it, in the sense of creating this friendly atmosphere of hospitality with ministers sitting around the table with her kids what they had personally prepared,” Klimkin told The Canadian Press in an interview Sunday afternoon.

Their conversation was decidedly less festive, with Klimkin pressing the G7 to make a strong, unified stand against what he described as Kremlin efforts to destabilize democracy through election interference and other cyber-meddling.

He called this part of a bigger war “against the democratic transatlantic community.” Supporting Ukraine, he said, should be seen “as a part of a bigger pattern.

“Fighting along with Ukraine would give an immense asset to the whole democratic community in the sense of understanding Russian efforts to destabilize the western world.”

Freeland views the clash of the forces of democracy and authoritarianism as a defining feature of our time, and she has singled out Russian President Vladimir Putin as a major disrupter.

The G7 consists of Canada, the US, the UK, France, Germany, Italy, and Japan. These countries have some serious issues to deal with: trade relations (particularly due to the renegotiation of NAFTA, Brexit, and the recent round of protectionist measures taken by the USA and China against each other); climate change and environmental issues more generally; terrorism and international security, including the wars in Syria and Iraq; and so on. Yet Ms Freeland, in setting the G7’s agenda, has put Ukraine at the top of the list.

To say the least, it’s a rather odd choice. The future of Ukraine is hardly a vital Canadian national interest; not only is it far, far away, but bilateral trade between the two countries is a pathetic $260 million a year. The decision to promote the topic can only reflect Ms Freeland’s own personal connections to Ukraine and her consequent desire to get the G7 to take action against Russia. This becomes clear in the phrases above which say that, ‘Freeland wants the disruptive influence of Russia on the West to be a top agenda item … Freeland views the clash of the forces of democracy and authoritarianism as a defining feature of our time, and she has singled out Russian President Vladimir Putin as a major disrupter.’

G7 members take turns chairing and hosting the meetings, so a country only gets to set the agenda once every seven times. You’d have thought that you’d use this rare opportunity to turn conversation to matters which are really vital national interests. Instead, Canada has chosen to use it to focus on Ukraine and on whipping up anti-Russian sentiment. It is extremely hard to see how this serves the Canadian national interest.

The only explanations I can come up with is that either Freeland is blinded to Canadian national interests due to her Western Ukrainian nationalist sentiments, or she really believes all that guff about Ukraine being in the front line of a Russian-led assault designed to transplant democracy with authoritarianism, and so actually does imagine that Canadian democracy is in peril because of the malign influence of Russia. If it’s the former, she subordinating Canadian interests to those of a particular foreign government. If it’s the latter, she is, in my opinion, quite deluded.

Take, for instance, the war in Syria. This does not fit Freeland’s idea of a ‘clash of the forces of democracy and authoritarianism as a defining feature of our time’. On the one side in Syria, there is the Syrian government, Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah. One can argue about this, but just for the simplicity’s sake, let’s take it as given that this side doesn’t consist of bastions of liberal democracy. But who’s on the other side? The USA, Britain, and France, plus a whole bunch of jihadists of various unpleasant sorts, plus the increasingly ‘authoritarian’ Turkey, plus the decidedly undemocratic Saudi Arabia and Qatar. So, how is this a war of ‘democracy’ versus ‘authoritarianism’. It clearly isn’t, as the democracies are acting in alliance with quite definitely non-democratic actors.

Then, there’s the war in Yemen: Iran supposedly backing the Houthi rebels, and Britain and the USA backing Saudi Arabia. Again, given that the democracies are working hand in hand with the Saudis, how can this be described as democracy versus authoritarianism?

One could go on and on. The authoritarianism/democracy dichotomy is not a good model for describing international relations. And it isn’t a good model for describing what’s happening in Ukraine either. The toppling of Viktor Yanukovich in 2014 was certainly not a democratic process, and the post-Maidan government has not exactly been a paradigm of liberal democratic government. In today’s Kyiv Post, I see the headline ‘US State Department calls for anti-graft court, slams human rights violations in Ukraine.’ Meanwhile, another of today’s Ukraine-related headlines reads: ‘Ukrainian neo-Nazi C14 vigilantes drive out Roma families, burn their homes.’ The article which follows reveals that this wasn’t a ‘vigilante’ attack after all: the neo-Nazis responsible were members of the National Guard working in cooperation with the local administration.

Somehow, I doubt that we’ll ever see Chrystia Freeland condemning any of this. Canada’s foreign foreign minister would have us believe that Ukraine is the frontline of a struggle between democracy and authoritarianism. Forgive me, but I’m not buying what she’s selling.

Expelled for Tweeting

For some reason, I have never quite grasped the concept that Russia is trying to ‘undermine our democracy’. Democracy is a system in which, theoretically speaking, governments are elected, and decisions made, by popular consent. Attempting to influence the public, or the government, to get them to support this policy or that, doesn’t constitute ‘undermining’ because at the end of the day it is still the people who decide through their elected representatives. Within a democratic system, it is normal for interests groups of all types to lobby parliamentarians and bureaucrats and attempt to sway public opinion. Those groups include foreign diplomats: indeed, one might say that influencing other governments’ policies is pretty much the purpose of diplomacy. There’s nothing odd about it.

Despite this, there appears to be widespread agreement that what once might simply have been called ‘public diplomacy’ actually constitutes ‘interference’ in our internal politics and as such a serious threat to national security. At least that is what one feels obliged to conclude based on recent statements and actions by the Canadian government.

A week or so ago Canada announced that it was expelling four Russian diplomats as part of the general Western purge of Russians in the wake of the Skripal affair. I suspected something was amiss the moment that I read Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland’s explanation of why those four particular Russians had been chosen. Freeland said that they had been identified as ‘intelligence officers or individuals who have used their diplomatic status to undermine Canada’s security or interfere in our democracy.’ The first part of this statement was pretty standard – throughout the Western world, governments justified the expulsions by saying that they were targeting Russian spies. Indeed British Prime Minister Theresa May called on allies to take the opportunity to smash Russian spy networks. What struck me was the final bit of Freeland’s statement – that about ‘undermining our democracy’ – and it immediately made me think that something else was going on here.

Confirmation that this was not chiefly about espionage came a few days later when the Globe and Mail published an article saying that:

Three of the four Russian intelligence operatives expelled from Canada on Monday were conducting cyberactivities out of the Montreal consulate aimed at discrediting the World Anti-Doping Agency [WADA] and spreading disinformation about Canada and its closest allies, a source has told The Globe and Mail.

WADA has made some very serious accusations against Russia. It’s natural that Russian diplomats should be responding. Their job includes defending their country’s reputation. In this instance, that means trying to discredit (whether rightly or wrongly) what WADA is trying to say. If these diplomats were using social media to try to influence public opinion, they were only doing their job. Moreover, WADA isn’t Canada. Attempting to discredit it in no ways constitutes ‘undermining Canadian security and democracy’ as claimed by Ms Freeland. Rather, what the diplomats are guilty of is telling the Canadian public things which the Canadian government doesn’t want its citizens to hear.

Two days ago, Prime Minister Trudeau was asked how the expelled Russians threatened national security. He responded:

I think we can all remember the efforts by Russian propagandists to discredit our Minister of Foreign Affairs, through social media and sharing stories about her.

This provides a clue as to the reason for the expulsion of the fourth Russian diplomat, identified in today’s National Post as Embassy Press Secretary Kirill Kalinin. Back in February this year, Kalinin was described as ‘maybe one of the more influential media-relations operators in Canada’ due to the impact he was having as the man responsible for the Twitter account of the Russian Embassy in Ottawa. In particular, Kalinin managed to annoy the Canadian government by retweeting a link to a story which had already broken about Freeland’s grandfather and his alleged collaboration with the Nazis during World War Two. It’s worth noting that in this case, he didn’t invent the story, which was already circulating widely on the internet; he merely passed on the link. This was enough to have Freeland accuse the Russian Embassy of spreading ‘disinformation’ (which was itself disinformation given that the story about her grandfather is true).

Kalinin then caused an additional scandal by noting on Twitter that Canada hosts a couple of monuments to Ukrainians who served alongside the Germans in World War Two, including the Galicia SS Division. Reporter David Pugliese notes in today’s National Post that these Tweets not only led to a number of large stories in national newspapers on the subject, but also sparked a flurry of concerned emails among Canadian government officials who tried to figure out how to respond publicly, according to documents obtained by Postmedia under the Access to Information law.’ Pugliese writes:

The officials, who indicated they were ‘under pressure’ from the senior levels of government to come up with something, wrote a response that the Canadian government remained concerned about what it called inappropriate Russian efforts to ‘spread disinformation.’ The response also included highlighting Russia’s attempts to undermine democracy.

But that sentence sparked debate about whether a tweeted photo of monuments to Ukrainian SS members fell into such a category. ‘Framing them as “destabilizing western democracies” seems a step too far,’ one public servant noted in an email.

I’m with the public servant on this one. The story about the monuments is true. I can’t see how providing the Canadian public with true information of which they might be unaware constitutes either spreading ‘disinformation’ or ‘undermining democracy’. Indeed, I would argue that trying to deprive the Canadian public of such information more accurately fits those categories.

This story suggests that the expulsion of the four Russians had nothing, as originally claimed, to do with intelligence gathering or threats to Canadian national security, and everything to do with the four diplomats’ activities on social media. Of course, that doesn’t prove that those expelled weren’t also doing something nefarious, but the publicly available evidence doesn’t suggest that that was the reason they were selected. What Ms Freeland should have said was that the four were chosen ‘because they’ve been saying stuff on social media which we’d rather that the Canadian public didn’t know about.’ That wouldn’t sound as good as citing threats to national security and democracy, but it would at least be the truth.

What’s the objective, and how does this help achieve it?

Today the Canadian government announced that it had added Ukraine to the Automatic Firearms Country Control List, which is a list of countries deemed to be permitted destinations for the export of firearms. This does not necessarily mean that Canadian companies will immediately start exporting weapons to Ukraine, but it does mean that they are now allowed to do so.

Ukraine, of course, is hardly short of firearms. It’s hard to see what difference a few from Canada will make. Nevertheless, one can see this as another victory for Canada’s Ukrainian lobby, coming just a day after the House of Commons Standing Committee on National Defence issued a report on Ukraine which included a recommendation to add Ukraine to this list. The report drew heavily on statements by Ukrainian officials, the president of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress, Paul Grod, and some other Canadian-Ukrainian activitists such as Taras Kuzio and Lubomyr Luciuk. The fact that the government acted on one of its recommendations within a day must be something of a record for speed.

There’s a lot wrong with the standing committee’s report, which you can read here. I won’t bother listing all its problems, but they include a poor understanding of the origins and nature of the war in Donbass, and an extremely one-sided perspective on all issues relating to Ukraine and Russia. But that’s not what I want to talk about here. What concerns me is the detachment of the policy recommendations from any clear objective, and the lack of evidence to support the recommendations.

When presenting any policy proposals, what one needs to do is first explain one’s objective, and second explain how the recommended policies will help one to achieve the objective. If the objective isn’t credible, and if the policies won’t help one achieve it, then the recommendations are worthless. In this case, the defence committee report recommends, among other things, that:

  • Canada expand its training and support of the Ukrainian army.
  • Increase its commitment to the OCSE monitoring mission in Donbass.
  • Advocate for a ‘peacekeeping mission in Ukraine that respects its territorial integrity’.
  • ‘Provide lethal weapons to Ukraine … provided that Ukraine demonstrate that it is actively working to eliminate corruption.’
  • Add Ukraine to the Automatic Firearms Country Control List.
  • Encourage cooperation between Ukrainian and Canadian defence industries.
  • Assign members of the Canadian Armed Forces to Ukraine’s cyber-security operations.
  • Expand sanctions against Russia.

My question to the committee is this: ‘What is this all meant to achieve?’ The report doesn’t actually lay out any objectives, so we can’t tell whether these recommendations are relevant or how one could measure their success. This is a pretty serious failing.

About the only place where there is a hint of the committee’s idea of what it hopes for is a section entitled ‘Conflict Resolution and Prevention in Ukraine’. In that section, we are told that , ‘Canada and the international community are trying to find peaceful solutions to the conflict in Ukraine’ So, the committee wants to promote peace in Ukraine. But what does the committee think a peaceful solution would look like? That’s not clear, as the report doesn’t say. But it does cite Paul Grod as follows:

Mr. Grod noted that, as long as Russia is not prepared to ‘have a resolution and stop the ongoing conflict and military aggression,’ Minsk II will never be implemented. In his opinion, Minsk II is ‘stale-dated’ and the ‘simple way’ to ‘bring peace and stability’ to Ukraine is ‘to force Russia’s hand to remove their military, their equipment, and their financing of the separatists’ in the Donbas region; Russia must agree ‘to stop the war in Ukraine.’

In other words, the objective is the total surrender of rebel Donbass, and the chosen means of achieving this end is ‘to force Russia’s hand’ – i.e. coercion.

This is dumb. It’s dumb because it is totally unachievable. The rebels in Donbass aren’t just going to give up. The report says that the rebels have 35,000 men under arms. I have never heard of an undefeated army of that size simply deciding one day that they’ve had enough and will lay down their arms to their enemies and put themselves at their mercy. It won’t happen. The report seems to think that everything depends on Russia, and that if Russia can simply be coerced sufficiently it will abandon Donbass. It won’t. Russia won’t stop supporting the rebels without receiving something extremely tangible in return. Complete Ukrainian victory of the sort apparently favoured by the defence committee is a fantasy.

The report says that, ‘Witnesses told the Committee that Canada and the international community must stand together in trying to find a peaceful solution to the armed conflict in Ukraine.’ So, if a peaceful solution can’t take the form of the total surrender of Donbass, what could it take the form of? The only two alternatives are: a) a negotiated peace settlement, and b) a complete ceasefire, perhaps enforced by peacekeepers, dividing the sides and in effect freezing the conflict. Will the report’s recommendations help achieve either of those?

The answer is no. A negotiated settlement would have to take the form of something like Minsk II, but unconditional support of Ukraine of the sort proposed by the committee doesn’t provide any incentives to Kiev to change its current policy of refusing to enact the Minsk provisions. The report’s recommendations merely encourage Kiev to carry on its current course. The recommendations therefore undermine peace, not promote it.

As for the frozen conflict option, the Canadian recommendations are equally irrelevant. The report spends a lot of time talking about a potential peacekeeping operation. This is absurd. There is currently no peace to keep. In any event, the committee totally supports the Kiev government’s line on what a peacekeeping operation should consist of – forces deployed throughout the rebel republics, including on the border with Russia. Neither the rebels nor Russia will ever agree to this. It’s pointless proposing it. Insisting on this formula serves only to rule out the possibility of an alternative which could actually stop the killing – a peacekeeping force along the front lines. By rejecting this latter formula, the Canadian committee is once again working against peace, not in favour of it.

What we see here, therefore, is a stubborn refusal to choose achievable objectives combined with recommendations which are in any case detached from any objective, and without the provision of any evidence that the recommendations can help produce successful results. The committee, for instance, favours increased sanctions versus Russia without providing any data which shows that sanctions have in any way altered Russian behaviour in a desired way, justifying the decision solely on the basis of unbacked assertions by certain interested parties. This is not ‘evidence-based policy.’

There was a time when Canada was seen as a peacekeeper and an ‘honest broker’ in international relations. Alas, those days are in the past.

Grandstanding

Yesterday the Canadian Senate passed the lengthily-titled Act to provide for the taking of restrictive measures in respect of foreign nationals responsible for gross violations of internationally recognized human rights and to make related amendments to the Special Economic Measures Act and the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, more commonly known by its ‘short title’, Justice for Victims of Corrupt Foreign Officials Act (Sergei Magnitsky Law).

The Act gives the government of Canada the authority to seize, freeze, or sequestrate the property of a foreign national in the event that the said foreign national does any of the following things:

(a) is responsible for, or complicit in, extrajudicial killings, torture or other gross violations of internationally recognized human rights …

(b) … acts as an agent of or on behalf of a foreign state in a matter relating to an activity described in paragraph (a);

(c) … is responsible for, or complicit in, ordering, controlling, or otherwise directing, acts of significant corruption. …; or

(d) … has materially assisted, sponsored, or provided financial, material or technological support for, or goods or services in support of, an activity described in paragraph (c).

On the face of it, this is all very fine. If people are responsible for “extrajudicial killings, torture, or other gross violations of internationally recognized human rights,” or for “acts of significant corruption,” then why should Canadians tolerate them? Aren’t sanctions against them a perfectly reasonable response?

It’s hard to argue against that. If one does, one appears to be saying that “gross human rights violations” and “significant corruption” are perfectly fine, which of course they’re not. So what could possibly be wrong with this Act?

Continue reading Grandstanding

Address by Minister Freeland

Canada’s foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland, gave a speech yesterday outlining her vision of Canada’s place in the world and the principles underlining her foreign policy. Below are some excerpts with my comments on them.

Mr Speaker, Here is a question: Is Canada an essential country, at this time in the life of our planet? Most of us here would agree that it is.

Hubris. What does it mean to be an ‘essential country’? Freeland doesn’t say, but I would guess that the idea is that the world cannot do without us. But why is Canada so special? Again Freeland doesn’t say, beyond listing a few examples of how Canadians have contributed to the world. It is arrogance for any people to believe that they are special, let alone ‘essential’, to imagine that others need them, and can’t get along without them. Foreign policy ought to include a sense of humility, a recognition of the limits of one’s own righteousness, and a recognition of the interests of others. That is the way to avoid conflict. Freeland gets off to a bad start.

She continues:

Why do we spend billions on defence, if we are not immediately threatened? For some countries – Israel, Latvia come to mind – the answer is self-evident. Countries that face a clear and immediate existential challenge know they need to spend on military and foreign policy. And they know why.

For a few lucky countries – like Canada and the United States – that feel protected by geography and are good neighbours, the answer is less obvious. Indeed, you could easily imagine a Canadian view that says, we are safe on our continent, and we have things to do at home, so let’s turn inward. Let’s say Canada first.

Here’s why that would be wrong.

First, though no foreign adversary is poised to invade us, we do face clear challenges. Climate change is by definition a shared menace, affecting every single person on this planet. Civil war, poverty, drought and natural disasters anywhere in the world threaten us as well – not least because these catastrophes spawn globally destabilizing mass migrations.

I find this passage rather bizarre, as military power doesn’t help in any way to deal with the threats that Freeland lists. How does spending more on the military contribute to combating climate change, poverty, drought, or natural disasters? It doesn’t. As for mass migrations, the use of Canadian military power has actually helped to make these worse. Canada played a prominent role in the overthrow of Colonel Gaddhafi in Libya, an act which has contributed to the mass migration of people from North Africa into Europe.  Pointing to dangers isn’t a good argument for defence spending unless you can show that defence spending helps reduce these dangers. Freeland fails utterly to do so.

Next, she says:

To rely solely on the US security umbrella would make us a client state. And although we have an incredibly good relationship with our American friends and neighbours, such a dependence would not be in Canada’s interest.

That is why doing our fair share is clearly necessary. … It is by pulling our weight in this partnership … that we, in fact, have weight. … To put it plainly: Canadian diplomacy and development sometimes require the backing of hard power. Force is of course always a last resort. But the principled use of force … is part of our history and must be part of our future.

To have that capacity requires a substantial investment, which this government is committed to making. The Minister of Defence will elaborate fully on that tomorrow. I know he will make Canadians justly proud.

Hang on. Didn’t Freeland just say that Canada isn’t directly threatened? If so, then why do we have to rely on the ‘US security umbrella’? Could we not liberate ourselves from it and remain unthreatened? Why would that make us ‘dependent’? And how does subordinating ourselves, as a very minor military power, to US-dominated institutions save us from becoming a ‘client state’? Might it not in fact have the very opposite effect? Surely the way to avoid becoming a client is to pursue an independent policy and to assert one’s sovereignty.

As for the use of force, it cannot be a ‘last resort’ if it is ‘principled’. These are two different things. The statement that the use of force ‘must be part of our future’ is quite chilling. With this statement, Freeland has thrown the idea of the supreme value of peace firmly out of the window.

Finally, in this segment, I find it odd that Freeland thinks that by announcing increases in defence spending, the Canadian government will make Canadians ‘justly proud’. Spending more on weapons isn’t something to be ‘proud’ of. At best, it is a regrettable necessity, forced upon us by the fallen nature of man’s world, but it certainly isn’t a reason for pride. Liberal interventionism has now moved beyond the realm of supporting war in pursuit of humanitarian aims into the realm of militarism.

Freeland says also:

Canada has a huge interest in an international order based on rules. One in which might is not always right. One in which more powerful countries are constrained in their treatment of smaller ones by standards that are internationally respected, enforced and upheld.

The single most important pillar of this, which emerged following the carnage of the First and Second World Wars, is the sanctity of borders. And that principle, today, is under siege.

That is why the democratic world has united behind Ukraine. The illegal seizure of Ukrainian territory by Russia is the first time since the end of the Second World War that a European power has annexed by force the territory of another European country. This is not something we can accept or ignore.

I fully agree with the first part of this – Canada does have an interest in ‘an international order based on rules’. But if that is what we want, we should start by looking closer to home rather than criticizing far away countries we happen not to like. It is true that the annexation/reunification of Crimea is the first annexation of territory in Europe since WW2, but it certainly isn’t the first time that European borders have been changed by force. Turkey invaded Cyprus in 1974 and still occupies half of it. Turkey remains a member of NATO. Canada joined other countries in changing the borders of Serbia by bombing Serbia and then physically occupying Kosovo in 1999. Canada has also participated in the violation of borders in many other ways. I have already mentioned Libya. What is less well known is that some Canadian troops participated in the invasion of Iraq in 2003. These were soldiers who were on exchange posts with the US Army, and whom the Canadian government did not recall. Canada is hardly without guilt when it comes to violating borders.

As for our allies, most notably the Americans and the British, they have probably done much more to undermine ‘an international order based on rules’ and the principle of ‘inviolability of borders’ than our supposed ‘enemies’ ever have. They continue to do so today in Syria.

If it is true that breeches of international order are ‘not something we can accept or ignore’, we ought to start by doing something about ourselves and our allies. Then perhaps we might have some moral standing.

Freeland is on sounder ground when she talks about economic issues:

Another key benefit for Canada from an international system based on rules, is of course free trade. … The second great challenge is an exhaustion in the West of the belief among working people, the middle class, that the globalized system can help them better their lives. … It’s true that the system is flawed. But international trade is the wrong target, Mr Speaker. The real culprit is domestic policy that fails to appreciate that continued growth, and political stability, depend on domestic measures that share the wealth.

I’m on Freeland’s side when it comes to the benefits of trade, though I think the talk of the declining fortunes of the middle class is unjustified. But our government needs to think through what is being said here. If we believe in free trade, and wish to support measures that ‘share the wealth’ not just domestically but also globally, we should be working on eliminating the continued barriers to trade which exist within our own country. Abolition of the system of ‘supply management’ which subsidizes our dairy industry would be a good place to start.

Next, Freeland comments:

Now, it is clearly not our role to impose our values around the world, Mr Speaker. No one appointed us the world’s policeman. But is our role to clearly stand for these rights both in Canada and abroad.

… It is our role to set a standard for how states should treat women, gays and lesbians, transgendered people, racial, ethnic, cultural, linguistic and religious minorities, and Indigenous people.

In short, it is our role to impose our values around the world. What else is the ‘principled use of force’ about? And it would have been better, I think, to have left indigenous peoples out of this list. The Canadian record on this matter is not good. Again, perhaps we should look to rectifying problems at home before setting out to rectify the problems of the rest of the world.

Finally:

I offer the example of my grandfather, John Wilbur Freeland. … My grandpa was the opposite of an Upper Canada elite. But in the darkest day of the Second World War, Wilbur enlisted to serve. Two of his brothers, Carleton and Warren, joined up too. Wilbur and Carleton came home. Warren did not. … They rose to their generation’s great challenge. And so can we.

At least Freeland did not mention grandfather no. 2. But, putting that to one side, the anecdote on which she chose to end her speech is revealing. The analogy she uses to describe the world is WW2. This a frame of good v. evil, one  in which failure to confront ‘evil’ wherever it appears, however far away, is seen as endangering Canada itself. But the world is not such a simple place. Canada and its NATO allies aren’t all ‘good’. Their geopolitical opponents, such as Russia’, aren’t all ‘bad’. Confrontation doesn’t help provide solutions, but often makes things worse. And failure to resist ‘aggression’ in places like Ukraine isn’t actually going to put the lives of Canadians at risk. We often can simply leave things as they are for others to sort out themselves. In fact, as often as not, they will probably sort them out much faster without us than with us.

Overall, this is not an encouraging speech. It lacks humility and self-reflection. In this respect, it is exactly what one would expect from a politician: self-reflection isn’t patriotic; it certainly isn’t a vote winner. But at least we can take consolation in the fact that nothing much is likely to come out of it. To a large degree, it’s  hot air. Canada isn’t going to suddenly become a military, political, or economic superpower. By international standards, Canada is a great place to live. There is an awful lot to be said in its favour. But, whatever Freeland says, we aren’t an ‘essential nation’ at all.