Tag Archives: Chrystia Freeland

‘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.

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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.

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.

A bad sign

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is reshuffling his cabinet today, and the CBC reports that he will appoint Chrystia Freeland as Foreign Minister. Freeland was placed on a sanctions list by Russia in 2014. Canada, therefore, will now have a Foreign Minister who is prohibited from entering the Russian Federation. This must be a first in international politics.

Freeland did not end up on Russia’s sanctions list by accident. A former journalist, and author of a book entitled Sale of the Century: Russia’s Wild Ride from Communism to Capitalism, Freeland has been frequently critical of modern Russia. The positive heroes of Freeland’s musings on Russia are the 3 Ks of the so-called ‘liberal opposition’ – Kasyanov, Kasparov, and Khodorkovsky. But she views those who actually govern Russia, especially Vladimir Putin, in an extremely negative light. As for the Russian people, she once wrote: ‘Russians have no one to blame but themselves for the brutal dictatorship they built in their own country and imposed on their neighbours.’ Freeland says, ‘I think of myself as a Russophile. I speak the language and studied the nation’s literature and history in college. I loved living in Moscow in the mid-nineties.’ That may be true, but if so it’s a Russophilia of a particular kind.

To get a feel of her views, let’s take a look at what the new Canadian Foreign Minister has written and said about modern Russia.

Continue reading A bad sign