Tag Archives: Canada

None of the Above: Thoughts on Two Elections

Citizens of Russia and Canada go to the polls over the next few days to elect new parliaments – the Duma in Russia’s case, the House of Commons in that of Canada. It’s fair to say that neither is generating a lot of international excitement. In Russia’s case, because the result is (within certain boundaries) a foregone conclusion; and in Canada’s case because nobody cares.

Insofar as the Canadian press is covering the Russian election, it’s to portray it as fundamentally flawed, if not downright corrupt – a pretence at democracy rather than the real thing. Typical is the latest by the CBC’s new Moscow correspondent Briar Stewart, which starts off by quoting the campaign manager of the liberal Yabloko party in Krasnodar, saying that, “the State Duma election is the most terrible election I have seen since my birth.” The rest of the article then hammers home the point in case any readers hadn’t got it already.

There’s an element of truth to the complaints about the Russian elections, although it’s worth noting that the authorities’ manipulation of the system occurs primarily before votes are cast rather than after. That’s to say that the ‘managed’ party of ‘managed democracy’ mainly involves making life difficult for opposition candidates, limiting their access to the media, and things like that, rather than practices like ballot stuffing or falsifying the count (not to say that these practices don’t happen, but the general feeling is that the authorities prefer to limit them so as to avoid ridiculous results that lack legitimacy).

Nevertheless, although the playing field is far from a level one, when Russian voters head into the booths to cast their ballots, they have quite a lot of choice.

It’s reckoned that four or five parties will gain seats in the Duma via the proportional representation system that assigns half the total to those parties that win over 5% (the other half are chosen by first-past-the-post constituency elections). Most of these likely winners fall, I would say, in the left-conservative bracket, but there’s a lot of variation – from the hard left Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF), through the also fairly left wing Just Russia party, the centrist United Russia, the centre-right New People (the least likely to pass the 5% hurdle), and the nationalist LDPR.

If those aren’t to your liking, there’s another 9 parties on the ballot papers. Most are no-hopers, though one or two might win a constituency here or there. For instance, if you’re the kind of person who thinks that the CPRF has sold out communism, you can vote for the more hardcore Communists of Russia. Or, likewise, if you think that the LDPR are a bunch of softies and you want tougher action on issues like immigration, you can throw your support behind Rodina. Or, if you’re liberally-inclined and think that New People are Kremlin stooges, you can put your cross next to the name of Yabloko (also Kremlin stooges according to the bizarre logic of the Navalnyites) or the more free market-inclined Party of Growth.

In other words, despite all the manipulations of the authorities, even if the final result is not in doubt (United Russia will win a majority), once you’re in voting booth ready to cast your secret ballot you actually have a lot of options open to you.

Now, let’s look at Canada.

Outside of Quebec (where you also have the separatist Bloc Quebecois), there’s only three options if you want to vote for somebody who win will a seat: Liberal, Conservative, and NDP (Green might pick up one seat, but overall are somewhere around 3% in the polls). The only other party likely to get a reasonable number of votes is the People’s Party of Canada, which is enjoying a surge (6-7%), primarily, it seems, by appealing to anti-vaxxers. But it has no chance of winning any seats and is thus a wasted vote except as a protest.

In other words, in real terms you have a choice of three parties. Let’s see what distinguishes them. As far as I can see, their platforms run roughly as follows:

Party A: Money grows on trees. Spend, spend, spend. Party B: Money grows on trees. Spend, spend, spend, and spend! Party C: Money grows on trees. Spend, spend, spend, and spend some more!

Party A: Here’s the list of interest groups I want to throw money at. Party B: Here’s my list. Look it’s even longer. Party C: Hah, you think your list is long – look at mine!

Party A: Woke is good. Party B: Woke is extra good. Party C: Woke is extra, extra good.

Party A: Russia is evil. Party B: Russia is very evil. Party C: Russia is very super evil.

Party A: We’ll be tough on China. Party B: We’ll be extra tough on China. Party C: We’ll be extra, mega tough on China. (Of course, in practice, none of them will!)

By now you get the point. It doesn’t really matter who you vote for, you end up with pretty much the same thing. That’s not to say that there are no differences, but they’re not on fundamentals. Basically, it’s three variations of a theme.

So there you have it. In one country, you have lots of choice, but the system’s fixed to make sure the same guys always win. In the other, it’s a fair fight – anyone can win – it just doesn’t matter who does – they’re all the same. You might say that one is rigged at the micro level, while the other is rigged at the macro level.

Which is better? I’ll leave it to you to decide. Meanwhile, I have the difficult decision as to whether Party A, Party B, or Party C is more worthy of my vote on Monday. What a choice!

Oh What a Lovely War!

Back in autumn 2006, I attended a conference at the Chateau Laurier here in Ottawa at which a Canadian general waxed lyrical about the just completed Operation Medusa in the Panjwai District of Afghanistan. The Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan were the best the country had every produced; the Taliban had been utterly crushed; it was now just a matter of some final mopping up. Victory was ours!

It was a glorious display of triumphalism, echoed in just about every other talk at the conference. It was also completely unjustified. The Taliban were far from defeated, and the Canadian army had to go backwards and forwards in Panjwai for several more years (“mowing the grass” as they called it) before packing up and going home.

Now, the tables are turned, with news emerging from Afghanistan that Panjwai has fallen fully under Taliban control. It’s estimated that Canada spent $18 billion in Afghanistan. 159 Canadian soldiers lost their lives – many more were injured. After the country paid such a price, you might imagine that our press would be interested in the news that the Taleban have captured Panjwai. But not a bit of it. On the CBC website, there’s not a word. In Canada’s premier newspaper, The Globe and Mail, not a word. In my local rag, The Ottawa Citizen, not a word. It’s as if it all didn’t happen.

To my mind, this is deeply problematic. If we are to learn any lessons from the fiasco of the Afghan operation, we first have to admit that there’s a problem. Instead, we seem intent on forgetting.

The military campaign in Afghanistan was a mistake from the very start. It’s tempting to believe that we could have got a different result if we’d committed more resources or tried different tactics. But political limitations meant that more resources were not available. Afghanistan simply didn’t matter enough for the government to be able to persuade the public to commit significantly more to the conflict. As for tactics, different commanders tried a whole succession of different methods; none worked. Failure wasn’t a product of military incompetence. The war was fundamentally unwinnable.

Against this, some might argue that winning was never the point. Canada, like many other NATO members, wasn’t there to defeat the Taliban but to be good allies to the United States. But this isn’t a very effective argument. The only point of showing oneself to be a good ally is so that you get something back in return. But Canada – like, I suspect, other US allies – appears to have got diddly squat. For instance, helping the Americans in Afghanistan didn’t stop Trump from tearing up the NAFTA treaty or stop Biden kicking Canada in the teeth by cancelling the Keystone and Line 5 pipelines (both of great importance to the Canadian economy). Besides, if the point of fighting is to be an ally, you achieve your strategic goal just by turning up. Consequently, what you do thereafter doesn’t matter. Military operations thus get entirely detached from strategy. The result is inevitably a mess. In other words, it’s a poor strategic objective. It’s not one we should have set ourselves.

There is a simple lesson to draw from all this: we shouldn’t have sent our army to Afghanistan. It didn’t help Afghanistan, and it didn’t help us. Let’s not repeat the same mistake somewhere else in the future.

Russia, the Arctic, and the Healthy Nature of the International Order

The Arctic tends not to get a lot of headlines. But here in Canada, it’s a big deal. Or at least it is rhetorically speaking. Canadians like to think of themselves as a wintery, northern people – as Gilles Vigneault sang: ‘Mon pays ce n’est pas un pays, c’est l’hiver.’ We get all emotional about the north, and pump ourselves up with stirring speeches about defending our sovereignty. After which, we then do nothing – at least until the next time somebody else does something we don’t like in the Arctic. At that point, we make some more stirring speeches, before slinking off back to our local Timmy’s in Toronto or some other place as far from the Arctic as we can get without actually ending up in the United States.

And so it is that the Canadian press was none too happy this week when the Russian Federation deposited its latest submission to the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf to advance its claim to a large portion of the Arctic Ocean seabed. ‘That’s our Arctic Ocean seabed, you wretched Russians! How dare you?”

The Commission in question is a product of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), that gives states the right to exclusive exploitation of the seabed up to 200 nautical miles from their continental shelf. To claim such a right, however, states have to provide the Commission with scientific evidence of where the continental shelf extends under the sea. If they can satisfactorily show where the shelf goes, then the UN will approve the claim. If they can’t, then the UN won’t.

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Military Industrial Boondoggle

Today in my defence policy course my students and I shall be spending some time discussing defence procurement. As luck would have it, as I was munching on my morning bread and marmalade, a highly relevant article swan into view in the op-ed page of my local rag, The Ottawa Citizen, after which I then discovered a new US report on a similar topic.

The Citizen article concerns Canada’s shockingly badly managed naval shipbuilding program. Written by a former Assistant Deputy Minister of Defence, Alan Williams, the article declares that ‘Canada’s Warship Program is Sinking Fast.’ In this Williams reports that Canada’s plan to build 15 new surface combatants originally had

an estimated cost of $26 billion, with deliveries to begin in the early 2020s. Today, the forecasted costs to build these ships is far beyond that. Deliveries are to start in the early 2030s, a decade later than scheduled … [The Parliamentary Budget Office] estimates that it will cost $77.3 billion … to maintain these ships over their expected total life-cycle would amount to an additional $208 billion, for a total life-cycle cost of $286 billion. In comparison, the funds available in DND’s [Department of National Defence] budget over the next 30 years to acquire and maintain its capital goods for the army, navy and air force combined is only $240 billion. This program alone would bankrupt the department’s capital and maintenance accounts for the next 30 years.

Despite this, DND insists that, ‘It will neither entertain a new design nor undertake a new procurement process.’ Williams adds that the United States is building very similar ships for about one-third of the price of the Canadian ones, and also that DND rejected an offer by the Italian company Fincantieri to build the ships in Canada ‘at a fixed cost of $30 billion’, less than half what DND is now paying. ‘As currently planned, these ships will likely never be built. They are simply unaffordable,’ concludes Williams.

But could the government cancel such a project after throwing so much money at it? That’s where the US report comes in. Published by the American Enterprise Institute, and entitled The 2020s Tri-Service Modernization Crunch, the report mentions how the shift in priorities during the War on Terror led the USA to cancel a whole series of projects originally designed for fighting wars of a different type. You can see the details in this chart, showing cancelled projects from 2002 to 2012 alone.

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Imperial Waste

Imperialism is a big gigantic waste of money. Let’s start with that.

A couple of news items caught my attention this week that illustrate this point, but before getting on to them, we first need to make a bit of a detour and try to determine imperialism’s roots.

It’s harder than it might seem. For instance, historians have a real problem explaining late nineteenth century imperialism, in which European powers conquered large parts of the globe, most notably in Africa. All sorts of explanations have been generated, but few stand up to a lot of scrutiny.

Particularly implausible are the theories of socialist thinkers, the most famous of which is Lenin’s Imperialism: The Last State of Capitalism. The socialists’ idea was that capitalism generates lots of surplus capital that it can’t get rid of because it is suppressing the wages of its own workers and so denying itself investment opportunities at home. Instead, capitalism exports its surplus, for which it needs colonies – thus imperialism.

The problem was that, like a lot of Lenin’s stuff, the theory was total hogwash. First, capitalist economies had no shortage of investment opportunities at home; and second, they didn’t need colonies to invest abroad. The British, for instance, invested far, far more in Latin America, which they never conquered, than in Africa, which they did.

Furthermore, imperialism was, generally speaking, loss-making. Colonies had to be defended and administered, but they tended to be economically undeveloped, and so didn’t generate much revenue. There was a reason why the Brits were so happy to let the Canadians become self-governing – they were fed up having to pay for a frozen piece of wasteland that only produced some fur and lumber.

So, imperialism doesn’t make a lot of sense from the point of view of the national interest, broadly defined. But it does make sense to certain minority interests within an imperial society. There are medals and promotions to be won by the military; there are contracts for the military industrial complex; and there’s also money to be made by all sorts of other entrepreneurs willing to hang on the imperialists’ coattails. If these people and groups have outsized political influence – through control of the media, financial support to politicians, or whatever – they can distort politicians’ and even the entire population’s understanding of the national interest. And thus the nation gets dragged into foreign endeavours that enrich and empower a few but do nothing at all for the people as a whole.

Which brings me on to this week’s new stories, both of which involve staggering waste of government money on military and imperial adventures.

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WAtching the Disinformation Watchers

The Roman poet Juvenal was a curmudgeonly old sod. Rome was going to the dogs, he thought. Things were better in the good old days, when men were men, people had a sense of duty, and there was an all round understanding of the importance of public morality. Foreigners, women, homosexuals – you mention it, Juvenal disliked it (one has to wonder if it’s still permissible to get students to read him nowadays). He also wasn’t too fond of soldiers, and in his final (incomplete) satire complained that it was impossible to get redress against them. ‘Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?’ (‘Who guards the guardians themselves?’) he asked, and never has a more pertinent question be posed.

As I’ve mentioned before, the fight against alleged Russian disinformation, electoral ‘meddling’, and so on, has led to the creation of a large and well-funded disinformation industry devoted to controlling what the rest of us can read and hear, in accordance with the industry’s own understanding of reality. Canada, where I live, now has its own branch of the industry in the form of an organization called Disinfowatch, which is reported to be funded by the Ottawa-based Macdonald-Laurier Institute and the US government.

So, who watches Disinfowatch?

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Beware Russians on campus

My university has pretty much shut down this week due to coronavirus, which gives me an opportunity to talk about some non-virus-related stuff to provide readers with a bit of a distraction. Among these is a newly issued report by the Canadian National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP), whose contents make me think that closing down our universities may be a good thing as it will safeguard national security against the rampant ‘ foreign interference’ apparently prevalent on campus. Every cloud, and all that!

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Toronto for Putin!

The more Russophile elements of the online universe are up in arms today about the latest attempt to smear presidential candidate Bernie Sanders as some sort of Kremlin agent. This follows an article in the New York Times describing how as mayor of Burlington, Vermont, Sanders endeavoured to find a ‘sister city’ in the Soviet Union, eventually signing a twinning agreement with the town of Yaroslavl. No matter that the twinning program in question was approved by no less a person than Republic president Ronald Reagan, there was obviously something dodgy about it, the Times implies. Vote for Bernie at your peril!

This kind of Russia-related scaremongering has become commonplace in the United States since late 2016, when the Democratic Party decided to make Russia the central point of Hillary Clinton’s campaign against Donald Trump. Fortunately, we’ve been relatively free of it up here in the frozen north, but only relatively. For every now and again somebody pops out of the woodwork to strike fear in Canadians about their Arctic neighbour, Russia.

And so it was that on Wednesday, the Chief of the Defence Staff of the Canadian Armed Forces, General Jonathan Vance, told a conference in Ottawa that, ‘the most immediate state-sponsored military threat, if I could caveat it that way, that we face right now and today in physical space is Russia’. Others piled on. Lieutenant General Christopher Coates, deputy commander of the North American Aerospace Defence Command, remarked that ‘Russia today represents the greatest short-term threat to North America’. And American writer Frederick Kagan, invited to Ottawa for who knows what reason, told the conference that, ‘We are collectively … standing around waiting for the next play to start while the ball is actually live and the Russians are running back toward our goal. This is not an interwar period. The war is on.’

I’ve somehow missed the fact that my country is at war. I really ought to wake up. For while we sleep, the Russians are taking us over. They’ve even managed to capture our largest city.  Or at least, that’s what the Toronto Sun thinks, judging by an article published yesterday, headlined ‘Is Toronto under the sway of Russian propaganda?’ Clearly, the Sun wants its readers to think that the answer is yes. Author Marcus Kolga who, on behalf of the Baltic diaspora, has undertaken heroic efforts to enlighten Canadians about the Russian threat, laments that ‘the City of Toronto Parks department cynically rejected a proposal’ to rename a ‘small street inside Earl Bales park’ after murdered Russian politician Boris Nemtsov. Note how they didn’t just reject this proposal, they rejected it ‘cynically’. What moral turpitude has infected our municipal leaders!

Apparently there was an online public consultation about the renaming, and it would appear that it didn’t go too well for the proposal. Kolga suspects Kremlin manipulation of the results. ‘It would not have taken much effort by staff at the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, or the St. Petersburg troll factory, to undertake such an effort,’ he says. Forget about the war in Syria and the like. Toronto Street names are clearly top priority back in Russia.

The failure to honour Nemtsov is the least of our problems, though. Even more exasperating from Kolga’s point of view is the atrocious fact that last month Toronto city council allowed the Russian consulate to use the foyer of city hall to put up an exhibition about the Second World War. This included displays on outrageous topics such as ‘The Battle of Stalingrad’, ‘The Siege of Leningrad’, and ‘The Holocaust: Annihilation, Liberation, Rescue.’ City council had allowed the Russian consulate ‘to post historical propaganda posters’, complained Kolga on Twitter, linking to a message from the consulate which included the following shocking example.

toronto

It’s ‘outrageous’ that this happened, said Kolga on Twitter. I’m sure, dear readers, that you share his outrage. This cannot be tolerated. As Kolga said in the Toronto Sun:

It is difficult to comprehend how the Nemtsov street naming project … was rejected while a Russian Government initiated and sponsored historical propaganda exhibit … was allowed to proceed. … The Mayor and Council should immediately revisit the decision to reject the naming of a street … in honour of this great Russian hero … The City must immediately review policies and reject all attempts by malign foreign states to hijack public spaces in our city to advance their own false narratives in order to manipulate our citizens.

God forbid that Torontonians learn about the Second World War or the Holocaust. They might, for instance, conclude that Baltic collaborators were on the wrong side of history. We must prevent this ‘malign’ attempt to ‘manipulate our citizens’. But Kolga got one thing wrong. It isn’t ‘difficult to comprehend’ how this happened. The answer is obvious. Toronto is ‘under the sway of the Kremlin.’ What other answer could there be?

Russians for Wexit

Those infernal Russians are spreading their interfering tentacles wider and wider. At least, that’s what the Washington Post would have us believe, with a screeching headline this week: ‘Russia has turned its interfering attentions to Africa’. Meanwhile, the long-running saga of alleged Russian interference in Brexit is making news due to a refusal by the British government to release a report on the topic. Buzzfeed says that anonymous sources within British intelligence told it that the report will say that no evidence was found of Russian interference in the 2016 Brexit referendum, But do you trust anonymous Buzzfeed sources? We shall have to wait and see.

But if there are some doubts about Russia’s role in Brexit, we now have evidence of something just as bad, and for Canadians like me, closer to home  – Russian interference in Wexit.

WEXIT??? What’s Wexit, you ask. As well you might. For no doubt by now you’re more than a little confused.

confused

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