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A former Canadian diplomat, Colin Robertson is Senior Advisor and Fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and hosts its regular Global Exchange podcast.  He is an Executive Fellow at the… Read more »

Robert Kaplan The Loom of Time

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‘The Loom of Time’: A Geopolitical Tour of a Turbulent Neighbourhood

The Loom of Time: Between Empire and Anarchy, From the Mediterranean to China 

Penguin Random House/August 2023

Reviewed by Colin Robertson

September 24, 2023

Journalist Robert Kaplan’s accounts of the people and places in countries he regularly visits at the ‘back of beyond’ are must-reads for those who enjoy journalism infused with history, culture and a critical perspective. The Loom of Time: Between Empire and Anarchy, From the Mediterranean to China is his 22nd book and it meets the high standard we expect of him. The Loom of Time is a sweeping portrait of geopolitical developments painted from a half-century of travel and reportage in what he calls the ‘Greater Middle East’.

Bounded by the waters of the Indian Ocean, the Bay of Bengal, the Arabian Seas, the Aegean, the Adriatic and the Mediterranean, Kaplan’s canvas is the people in the lands stretching from Xinjiang in western China, south to the Indian subcontinent, and west through Central Asia, the Middle and Near East, North Africa and into the Balkans.

These lands correspond, roughly, says Kaplan, to the early 20th century geographer Halford Mackinder’s broader ‘heartland’. In Mackinder’s observation, “Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland; Who rules the Heartland commands the World Island; Who rules the World Island commands the World.”

For centuries, these lands were ruled by successive empires: Assyrian, Roman, Persian, Byzantine, Ottoman, British, Soviet, and American. The legacy of that imperial rule is a collection of often unstable states.

This should not surprise us as many are artificial creations of Wilsonian idealism at the 1919 Paris peace conference. Those who drew their lines on a map mostly ignored history, geography and cultural realities. That these states endure is only, says Kaplan, through rule, by a “severe form of authoritarianism”. This is hardly fertile ground for democracy.

Ongoing regional turbulence means that the real measure of peace is that between order and chaos. Using the western construct of democracy vs autocracy, argues Kaplan, does not apply in the Greater Middle East.

Western leaders, says Kaplan, have had an “obsession with formalizing political behavior in distant societies that they barely understand and do not appreciate.” What people want most, says Kaplan, is order. Pointing to Saudi Arabia, he says that, for its citizens, rights are about women being able to drive and getting a passport on-line.

Kaplan’s thesis is provocative and it should force western policymakers to rethink our efforts to promote democracy. This has particular application to the Trudeau government that has promised over the years a Canadian initiative on “peace, order and good government” and democracy.

Western governments have put great store in elections as legitimizers of democracy. But, as the Arab Spring proved in Egypt and elsewhere, elections can produce illiberal governments. Stepping back and looking at the result of democracy promotion, did we spread ourselves too widely and lose the ability to focus on where we could make the most differences?

We need to prioritize and invest in what works. After 18 years of democratic decline around the world, can democracies still deliver the basic necessities of life? Should our policymakers not be more tough-minded in making choices and commitments? At a minimum, support to places like Haiti, Sudan and Ukraine will need to be for generations rather than an electoral cycle.

This probably starts with the hard and long work of building institutions to include political parties, think tanks and civil society as well as the public service. It means enabling the rule of law and core institutions like the judiciary, police, and the military.

We need to find a new way of making the case for human rights, development and democracy around the argument it gives people better lives and security. “Rather than pine exclusively for democracy in the Greater Middle East”, says Kaplan, “we should desire instead consultative regimes in place of arbitrary ones: that is, regimes that canvass public opinion even if they do not hold elections.”

Kaplan says that a “consciously realist” China, “embracing stability over anarchy”,is playing a long game. As Kaplan described in his 2010 book Monsoon, which included a prescient section on China’s purchase of strategic ports in the South China Sea, Beijing’s goal is to obtain energy and resource security. Using the Belt and Road Initiative and other investments, China is increasing both its presence and its influence. China is now everywhere between the Mediterranean and its own borderlands in Xinjiang. Besides its hub at Djibouti, it envisions military bases at Port Sudan on the Red Sea and at Jiwani on the Pakistan-Iran border.

This is forcing the Biden administration to re-focus on the Greater Middle East but Kaplan warns that making human rights the main message only serves to push the Saudis and others to do their business with China. Leaders in the Greater Middle East, who are not sanctioned by voters for either their foreign or trade policy, want money and technology, not moralizing. China is only too happy to oblige.

Kaplan says President Joe Biden needs to study Franklin Roosevelt, who did not like the autocrats but knew American interests would only be advanced through pragmatism. Biden appears to be adapting accordingly: reinforcing NATO, reviving the QUAD, creating AUKUS, and, in his speech to the United Nations this week, dropping the ‘autocracy versus democracy’ language in favour of arguing that free choice is the better way to improve collective health and welfare.

A self-described realist-internationalist, Kaplan admits he was wrong to back the American intervention in Iraq. Saddam Hussein ruled the ‘most despotic regime in the region but the disorder that followed after invasion was even worse,’ he surmises.

In other observations, Kaplan says that the Arabs use Palestine as a distraction from their own shortcomings and he doesn’t think the trend to normalization of relations with Israel will generate major blowback. On Turkey, Kaplan says Erdogan is shifting away from the West with the increasing belief that, in a multipolar world, he can be a power player both regionally and internationally on his own terms.

On Afghanistan, Kaplan says it will continue to be of geostrategic importance. The Taliban did not emerge out of a vacuum but had its roots in the mujahidin movement and the more conservative and tribal elements. With its Western and Soviet weaponry and the backing from its inception of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, the Taliban represent the Greater Middle East’s interaction with Westernization, and “in this case a conscious rejection of it”.

Of America’s 20-year Afghan odyssey, Kaplan concludes that, “We were always said to be making progress, even if we weren’t. We were always on the cusp of building democracy, even as the Afghan regimes we supported were brought to power in flawed and at times chaotic elections.” Looking forward, Kaplan observes that only contiguous powers, especially China, can help stabilize Afghanistan but it will require energy and commercial deals to bring order and development.

A self-described realist-internationalist, Kaplan admits he was wrong to back the American intervention in Iraq. Saddam Hussein ruled the “most despotic regime in the region but the disorder that followed after invasion was even worse,” he surmises. The American-led military interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, says Kaplan, “were all about the idea that we could remake societies, and that our historical experience was somehow more important to these countries than their own historical experiences and ideals.”

Kaplan admires the diplomacy of Henry Kissinger, George Shultz and Jim Baker and encourages their heirs to study their statecraft. Pragmatists, they also recognized that reason and analysis are not enough, as Kaplan learned in Ethiopia and other places. “True clairvoyance is really about a powerful imagination”, he writes. “Because you cannot imagine an occurrence or situation doesn’t mean it cannot happen.”

Kaplan says we can learn much from history and his prose draws on Edward Gibbon, Samuel Huntington, Fernand Braudel and Arnold Toynbee. The book’s title is from Toynbee:

The work of the spirit of the Earth, as he weaves and draws his threads on the ‘Loom of Time’ constitutes the ‘elemental rhythm of the history of man, as it manifests itself in the geneses and growths and breakdowns and disintegrations of human societies.”   

The Loom of Time is a superb blend of journalism, travelogue, and geopolitics. Permeating all of his accounts of people and places is the ‘inevitability of tragedy’ unless we learn the lessons of history, geography and culture, and then apply our imagination.

Contributing Writer Colin Robertson, a former career diplomat, is a fellow and host of the Global Exchange podcast with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute in Ottawa.

Trudeau in India

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‘There are some fundamental issues that have been weighing on this relationship for a long time that make it hard to take it to the next level,’ says trade consultant Eric Miller.

Following a G20 summit in New Delhi that featured seemingly frosty exchanges between the Canadian and Indian prime ministers, former diplomats and foreign policy observers say the bilateral relationship is at its lowest point, compounded by Ottawa’s decision to put a hold on trade talks.

The hostile nature of the bilateral relationship complicates Canada’s Indo-Pacific strategy, since India was highlighted as a “critical partner” in the $2.3-billion plan.

The visit featured an awkward handshake during which Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) pulled away from Indian counterpart Narendra Modi. Trudeau also chose not to attend Modi’s leaders’ dinner at the summit, according to a Canadian Press report

The two met on the margins of the summit, but didn’t hold a formal bilateral meeting like Modi did with many other leaders. The readouts from the talk feature stark differences. The Indian readout highlighted concerns over the presence of the Khalistan movement in Canada, and allegations that secessionists are promoting violence against Indian diplomats and the Indian community in Canada. The Canadian readout focused on Trudeau raising “the importance of respecting the rule of law, democratic principles, and national sovereignty.” Ottawa has previously raised concerns regarding Indian foreign interference.

Former Canadian diplomat Colin Robertson, vice-president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, said the personal relationship between Trudeau and Modi is “terrible,” remarking that neither of Trudeau’s visits to India—including his infamous 2018 trip—have been greeted with success

Following the visit, Robertson said it will be up to Canada’s High Commission in India to put the pieces back together.

“It’s foot diplomacy, going from office to office to try to restore relations,” he said.

He said implementing an Indo-Pacific strategy without having cordial relations with India is a tall order.

“You can’t do it,” he said, remarking that ties with India should be “natural” for Canada given the deep freeze of its relationship with China, and India’s link to Canada through its diaspora community.

Part of the strategy was to reach an early progress trade agreement, but movement has been slow dealing with India’s notoriously difficult trade negotiators, as previously reported by The Hill TimesThe Canadian Press reported that Ottawa has paused trade discussions. Neither Trudeau nor International Trade Minister Mary Ng (Markham–Thornhill, Ont.) has directly explained why that decision was made.

Saskatchewan Trade Minister Jeremy Harrison criticized the federal government in a Sept. 8 letter to Ng for not using the G20 summit to forward trade negotiations.

Robertson said reaching a trade deal with India won’t happen as long as Modi is prime minister, unless the bilateral relationship can be improved.

Trade consultant Eric Miller, president of Rideau Potomac Strategy Group, said the discord in trade talks reveals issues at the negotiation table as well as bilateral irritants between the two countries.

“Why is there a pause? It’s because these things are hard. Why are they hard? It’s the fundamental issues of agriculture versus temporary entry. They’re also hard because there are some serious unresolved issues between Canada and India.”

Miller said the two countries need to find ways to deal with these differences, including India’s concerns about the Khalistan movement.

“You have these deeply fundamental issues and it’s not just about economics,” he said. “There are some fundamental issues that have been weighing on this relationship for a long time that make it hard to take it to the next level.”

Carleton University professor Vivek Dehejia, who researches India’s economy and international trade, said Canada-India bilateral relations are at their “lowest ebb” in years.

“It’s become clear that there’s not much personal rapport or chemistry between Modi and Trudeau,” he said.

Dehejia said the news that trade talks were paused, as well as the spotlight on foreign interference, meant that even before the summit began on Sept. 9, there were muted prospects for a successful visi

He said the timing for the pause in trade talks is “peculiar,” and has “not been really well explained.”

“I find the recent pause problematic given that both sides say they want an agreement,” he said. “And why pause it now after just restarting it?”

He said under the relationship’s current configuration, the signs point to a continued deep freeze as long as Trudeau and Modi both remain in power.

Dehejia said the rhetoric of India being a “critical partner” in the Indo-Pacific strategy is “captive to diaspora politics.”

“If Trudeau’s main message to Modi is that ‘we’re worried about election interference that you guys are doing in Canada,’ and not that ‘we want to build a partnership with you,’ that tells you what Trudeau’s priorities are,” he said. “There’s been a very, very poor judgement—at least by him and people around him—not to take the long geopolitical view. Whether you like Modi or not, or India or not, you can’t ignore them and you’ve got to engage with them.”

Toronto Metropolitan University professor Sanjay Ruparelia, an expert on Indian politics and democracy, said Canada and India’s substantive differences have led to a situation of a hardened bilateral relationship.

He said the difficult diplomatic relationship between the two countries may force Canada towards increased co-operation with Japan and South Korea as part of the Indo-Pacific strategy, but noted that a reduced role for India would give the strategy a “lack of coherence.”

“[India] is a necessary, vital relationship for Canada to maintain and improve, but there are a lot of issues that are going to challenge that,” he said.

With the strategy, Ruparelia said there was an expectation that ties between Canada and India would get stronger, but he remarked the last year has shown that is not the case.

He called Trudeau’s summit visit “incredibly difficult,” but noted that there will always be differences between the two countries given their policy divergences.

Former senior diplomat Ben Rowswell, head of the Network for Democratic Solidarity, said the G20 summit showed a denigration of global governance given its weak results.

“I’m not sure this really bodes well for the broader environment that Canada needs,” he said, pointing to the failure to build consensus at the summit in responding to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and sustainable development.

“That’s extremely worrisome to Canada,” he said, “way more worrisome than any one bilateral relationship.” He added that Canada has to balance its engagement with India and engage where it can, while not being subject to a country that is showing “complete disrespect” for Canadian sovereignty.

He said that India’s actions aren’t in the “same league” as China’s illiberal behaviour, but are in the “same character” and “same tone” when it comes to its aggressive attitude towards Canadian sovereignty.

“It’s really an attempt to try to rewrite the rules and norms of the international system in favour of raw power politics,” he said.

G20 Takeways

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What Got Done in Delhi: Takeaways from the 2023 G20 Leaders’ Summit

The G20 Leaders’ Summit in New Delhi/@G20org

Colin Robertson

POLICY MAGAZINE September 12, 2023

What Got Done in Delhi: Takeaways from the 2023 G20 Leaders’ Summit

The G20 leaders are a ‘disparate’ bunch – dictators, and democrats – but it is the premier forum for international economic cooperation. They met this past weekend in New Delhi around the theme of “One Earth, One Family, One Future”.

Despite their differences and with Indian prime minister Narendra Modi in the chair, they achieved a consensus declaration that addresses Ukraine, climate mitigation, food and energy security, as well as debt relief. In recognition of the growing weight of the Global South, the African Union, representing the 55 nations of the second most populous continent, joins the group.

On Ukraine, while it failed to explicitly condemn the Russian invasion as G20 leaders did in last November’s Bali communiqué, the intent is clear with the call for states to abide by the UN Charter, refrain from using force for territorial acquisition, cease attacks on civilians and infrastructure, declaring “inadmissible” the threat or use of nuclear weapons and calling for restoration of the Black Sea Initiative around shipping of food and fertilizer “to meet the demand in developing and least developed countries, particularly those in Africa.”

Looking to the climate change conference (COP28) in Dubai this December, G20 leaders agreed to “triple renewable energy capacity globally” and pledged preferential financing to help developing countries transition to lower emissions.The G20 accounts for over 75 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. A Global Biofuels Alliance will include India, USA, Argentina, Brazil, Italy, Mauritius, and the UAE.

In other institution-building, India, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, France, Germany, Italy, and the European Union pledged to work together in developing the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor – a new ‘spice route’ designed to increase their connectivity. The US, India and Gulf countries also announced a ‘historic’ new railways and port corridor to link the regions. These new initiatives will both compete with and complement the Chinese-driven Silk Road and Maritime Belt Initiative. These initiatives remind us again that economic weight and growth continues to shift to the Indo-Pacific.

Leaders agreed to collectively mobilize more concessional finance to boost the World Bank’s capacity to support low- and middle-income countries. Rising interest rates have escalated debt financing. The World Bank calculates that the world’s poorest nations face annual debt servicing of over $60 billion to bilateral creditors, escalating the risk of defaults. Two-thirds of this debt is owed to China.

Recognizing the critical role of digital infrastructure, India will build and maintain a Global Digital Public Infrastructure Repository. In a joint statement on the eve of the G20, the World Bank and IMF noted that nearly 3 billion people remained offline, the vast majority of whom live in developing countries.

For Justin Trudeau, the G20 was part of travel to Jakarta for the ASEAN summit, to Singapore to promote economic ties, and then to New Delhi, all intended to underline Canada’s increased engagement with the Indo-Pacific region.

At the G20, Trudeau tweeted that he’d pressed for “greater ambition”on climate change, gender equality, global health and inclusive growth while advocating for “continued support for Ukraine”. He committed over $100 million for programs supporting climate mitigation and food aid.

But, as with his last trip to India (2018), it was not without controversy. Trudeau’s contentious meeting with host Narendra Modi is another reminder of the twin perils of preachiness and diaspora politics. Meanwhile, the efforts to secure a closer Canada-India economic partnership, a key objective of the new Indo-Pacific strategy, are paused. Our high commissioner and his team will have to pick up the pieces.

A more successful Indo-Pacific policy initiative were the exercises, coincidental with the prime minister’s travels, involving  HMCS Ottawa, HMCS Vancouver and MV Asterix with the Japanese navy and then the transit of HMCS Ottawa with American and Japanese allies through the East China Sea. Ottawa’s encounters with Chinese warships remind us that for Canada to make headway on our economic objectives, those living in the Indo-Pacific need to see that we are equally invested in their regional security.

This is what multilateralism is all about, and while giving everyone a seat can be tiresome, for a middle power like Canada it means that with ideas and diplomatic skill, we can make a difference.

Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping were G20 no-shows. Putin faces potential extradition because of the International Criminal Court war crimes warrant so he was represented by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

Why Xi did not attend is unclear: was he sick, subsumed by domestic problems, or was it to snub Modi over border and other disputes? Or does he think the G20 is too ‘Western’?  Xi has made few international trips: to Samarkand for the Chinese-inspired Shanghai Cooperation Organization last September, to Moscow to see Putin in March, and to Johannesburg for the BRICS in August. There, he drove the effort to expand BRICS membership of emerging economies to include Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Some see the expanding BRICS and Shanghai Cooperation Organization as rivals to the western inspired G7 and G20.

The G20 is the brainchild of then-Canadian finance minister and later prime minister, Paul Martin, and then-US Treasury Secretary Larry Summers. They recognized, in the wake of financial crisis in emerging economies (Mexico in 1994, Asia in 1997, Russia in 1998) that with globalization and the growth of the emerging economies, the G7 was inadequate to the task of global financial crisis response.

The G20 began in 1999 as a meeting of finance ministers from the G7 – Canada, USA, UK, France, Germany, Italy Japan – as well as Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Australia, South Korea, Indonesia, India, and the European Union. They are joined by the heads of the United Nations, IMF, World Bank and World Trade Organization.

The G20 was raised to the leaders’ level in 2008 to deal with the Great Recession. The next year it declared itself the primary venue for international economic and financial cooperation representing 80 per cent of world GDP, 75 per cent of global trade, and 60 per cent of the world’s population.. It has morphed into year-long series of meetings that now involve business and civil society, culminating in the annual summits.

Given the numbers and many languages involved, the formal plenaries tend to be a series of tedious set-speeches. The real work takes place at the prior sessions involving ministers, sherpas and officials and then, after the conference begins, in the behind-the-scene meetings and corridor pull-asides.

Going into this year’s summit there was no agreement on the leaders’ communiqué given the divisions on Ukraine. The Indian officials shepherding the process say the final negotiations involved over 200 hours of meetings and 15 different drafts before agreement on the nearly 15,000-word Joint Declaration was achieved.

For Canada, multilateralism is an article of faith and a cornerstone of our foreign policy. We see it as the means by which nations can preserve peace, create prosperity and solve global problems. At a time of rising economic and geopolitical tensions, the world faces major transformational challenges and increasingly frequent shocks. Figuring this out depends on collective action by all nations.

This is what multilateralism is all about, and while giving everyone a seat can be tiresome, for a middle power like Canada it means that with ideas and diplomatic skill, we can make a difference. But making a difference requires investments in diplomacy, defence and development something our current and recent governments seem to have forgotten. That  Trudeau’s Canadian Forces plane, originally commissioned in the 1990s,  suffered from mechanical problems delaying his departure from Delhi can be seen as a reflection of years of underinvestment by his and previous governments in the readiness of our Forces.

Multilateralism comprises different shapes, forms and operating systems. If the G7 is like a cabinet, the G20 is more of a caucus, and the UN General Assembly a cacophony. There is a tendency to portray the various groupings as exclusionary or adversarial. They can be. In that sense, they reflect global realities, especially in this era of great power competition. But mostly, they are about identifying solutions and taking collective action to our shared problems, recognizing the realities of ‘One Earth, One Family, One Future.’

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Statesmen, Strategists & Diplomats:  Canada’s Prime Ministers and the Making of Foreign Policy

Edited by Patrice Dutil

UBC Press/June 2023

POLICY MAGAZINE Reviewed by Colin Robertson

September 3, 2023

A NATO-member ambassador asked me what book she should read to learn more about our prime ministers and their foreign policies. She was not the first ambassador to recognize that, in any Canadian government, prime ministers have the most profound effect on the direction of foreign policy. Certainly, more than the revolving door of foreign ministers.

I now have an answer for that ambassador and for anyone seeking insight into our prime ministers and their foreign policies: Statesmen, Strategists & Diplomats: Canada’s Prime Ministers and the Making of Foreign Policy (UBC, 2023)edited by Patrice Dutil, professor in the Department of Politics and Public Administration at Toronto Metropolitan University

Only those prime ministers who formed governments after winning an election are covered in the book. In a couple of cases – Sir John A. Macdonald with Alexander Mackenzie and Stephen Harper with Justin Trudeau – the approach is comparative. It probably would have been better to give each his own chapter. Each chapter begins with a summary chart of legacies in terms of structure, policy and style. The fifteen authors also collectively assess the prime ministers based on eleven questions.

Louis St-Laurent comes out as most ‘successful’, followed by Mackenzie King and Brian Mulroney. St-Laurent’s 1947 Gray Lecture was delivered while he was foreign minister. I tell new ambassadors to Canada to read it as it lays out the contours that still guide Canadian foreign policy: balancing the US relationship with a multilateralism that puts the accent on humanism, while always, always keeping an eye to national unity. It was St-Laurent’s speech, but it also reflected the view of his deputy minister, Lester Pearson, who would serve as St-Laurent’s sole foreign minister for nearly nine years.

I would have thought that Pearson, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in resolving the Suez crisis, would rank higher but as the authors point out, the assessment is not on lifetime achievement but rather their time as prime minster. Pearson does get a mention, along with St-Laurent and Mulroney, as a ‘foreign policy superstar’.

I’d have given Jean Chrétien and Robert Borden higher grades. Borden got us a presence, if not a full place, at the Versailles Treaty table because of the blood and treasure we’d contributed during World War I. Borden’s personal efforts apparently included lifting up Lloyd George by his lapels to make a point. As historian Bob Plamondon has written, Chrétien kept us out of Iraq and gave his foreign ministers the backing needed for the Ottawa Treaty on land mines and then the Smart Border Declaration. Chrétien was underestimated during his career, to his adversaries’ regret.

In the bottom tranche are John Diefenbaker, R. B. Bennett, Stephen Harper and Justin Trudeau. Judgements on contemporary leaders are always tricky but, as veteran diplomat and Policy contributor Jeremy Kinsman recently observed in these pages, “while Trudeau is now the dean of G7 leaders, longevity in office hasn’t made him an international leader of consequence.”

That prime ministers play a central role in the direction of foreign policy is no surprise. Prime ministers in Westminster governments, whether with a majority or managing a minority, are recognized, writes Dutil, as ‘typically wielding enormous power’. 

Foreign policy can be a point of difference, as with the division on the imperial ties in 1926, on acquiring nuclear warheads in 1962-63, and on free trade in 1911 and 1988. But, generally, there is more continuity than change in foreign policy, if not in style, as is illustrated in the comparative looks at Macdonald and Mackenzie, and Harper and Trudeau.

There are also factors particular to Canada: national unity and the preoccupation with Quebec; the imperatives of diaspora politics; and, always, the presence and preponderant place in all foreign-policy making of the United States. Confederation was, in large part, a strategic response to the threat of the Union Army. Fresh from Civil War, there was real concern that the US would complete the ‘manifest destiny’ that many Americans thought was both inevitable and their right.

What is a surprise to many prime ministers, and Dutil specifically cites Stephen Harper, is how much time they must devote to external affairs. It is, says Dutil, a recognition that that “‘external’ sits like a giant iceberg on the prime minister’s agenda”.

Part of this, of course, is that Canada’s foreign policy, like those of other nations, is also a reflection of domestic policy.  For Mackenzie King foreign policy goals were “extensions of domestic policy”. Lester Pearson called foreign policy “domestic policy with its hat on”.  Pierre Trudeau described it as “the extension abroad of national policies”. His son has certainly followed this approach. Justin Trudeau’s speeches to the UN with their focus on gender, the indigenous and climate reflect his domestic priorities.

The authors’ analysis is usually sound but I find awkward the statement that John Manley and Bill Graham — who served as Jean Chrétien’s foreign ministers after André Ouellet and Lloyd Axworthy — “were distinguished from the first in their relative lack of Parliamentary experience.”  Manley had spent twelve years in parliament, four years in opposition, and was then industry minister. As foreign minister, he personally negotiated the Smart Border accord in a year. He left to become finance minister and deputy prime minister. Graham served over eight years in Parliament, shining as chair of the foreign affairs committee, before he succeeded Manley. Graham would become defence minister and manage the Afghanistan war before his eventual retirement as interim Liberal leader. Manley and Graham were able parliamentarians.

Dutil has done an excellent job both in selecting his fellow scholarly contributors and in producing a readable account. The book is meticulously footnoted for those wanting more with over 1200 references drawing on both original and secondary sources. There is also a moving tribute to the late Greg Donaghy, who passed away in 2020, and to whom the book is dedicated.

Dutil concludes that Canadian prime ministers who aspire to become statesmen must be strategists, meaning having vision and ideas. They also need to be diplomats “in the day-to-day testing of international relations” which means patience and perseverance — both hard for politicians. I’d add two more qualities: discipline and focus.

Time and chance also enter into the equation. But when it all comes together, as Dutil and his fellow contributors demonstrate in Statesmen, Strategists & Diplomats, then Canada has been able to punch above and beyond its weight.

Contributing Writer Colin Robertson, a former career diplomat, is a fellow and host of the Global Exchange podcast with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute in Ottawa.

What if Trump returns?

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Forewarned is Forearmed: The Bilateral Lessons from Trump One

After a balmy return to diplomatic normalcy with the Biden administration, the exercise of bracing Canada’s bilateral brain trust for a Trump Two scenario could be a useful one — in today’s probability climate, even if doesn’t win, even if he isn’t nominated, we could somehow still end up having to deal with him. Career diplomat Colin Robertson takes us down that road.


August 24, 2023

Is Canada prepared for a Trump win next year? The shock of his victory in 2016 should have taught us the value of being ready for anything.

Despite Trump’s various indictments for his flagrant attempts to overturn the 2020 presidential election, current polls suggest he commands a majority of future Republican primary voters. Trump dominates the news, repurposing that coverage as propaganda to peddle a persecution fable to his base, a fable endorsed by some of his Republican challengers.

With that narrative in place, Trump seems likely to win the 2024 GOP nomination.Given the apparent polarization between the two parties, a return to the Oval Office is possible.

It would not be a return to the kind of ‘regular order’ that characterizes the Biden presidency or former administrations. Nor can we assume that Trump’s authoritarian instincts would be checked by those around him the way they sometimes were last time.

Knowing now how far Trump was ready to go to keep himself in power, there is legitimate concern about the prospect of an America divided between the security of the regime and the security of the people and how Canada might respond to that dilemma.

If his first hundred days in 2017 were characterized by chaos and confusion, planning is already underway in Trumpian Republican circles to ensure a sequel is more orderly and that his administration’s appointments are ready for Senate confirmation.

Conservative think tanks and advocacy organizations, including the Claremont Institute, America First Policy Institute and the Centre for Renewing America, arealready at work in training personnel and planning policies, including the reorganization of government. The Heritage Foundation has produced the 900-page The Conservative Promise: Mandate for Leadership.

Reflecting his base’s preoccupation with economic and cultural wedge issues, the focus would be inward and Making America Great Again, again. The “America First” agenda would mean restricted immigration. Taxes might drop but the debt would rise. Judicial and other appointments would shift right. Ending “the war on fossil fuels”, ‘climate’ would be replaced by ‘energy’. ‘Diversity, equity and inclusion’ would not be part of the Trump lexicon. “Anti-wokeness” would be.

In foreign policy, bilateralism would again replace multilateralism. Trump promises to end the war in Ukraine “in 24 hours”, which many fear translates as ending it on Vladimir Putin’s terms, tacitly embracing the ‘spheres of influence’ approach favoured by Putin and Xi Jinping. We need to be considering this now, particularly what we would do about Taiwan.

Trump would require allies to pay their share on defence. We should expect more pointed questions to Canadian officials on defence spending.

On trade policy, former US Trade Representative Bob Lighthizer, who is part of the Trump transition team, wants more “strategic decoupling” from China to “change the trajectory of the relationship” and achieve reshoring.

Trump promises to end the war in Ukraine ‘in 24 hours’, which many fear translates as ending it on Vladimir Putin’s terms.

That we succeeded in ‘managing’ Trump and advancing Canada’s interests following his win in 2016 is a credit to the Trudeau government’s quick response. There was an immediate, focused and continuing outreach to get to know the emerging players and their priorities by our ambassador in Washington, David MacNaughton, and the teams at our embassy and network of consulates. It was a main topic for cabinet deliberations, a war room was created within the PMO, and, critically, the cabinet was remade.

Chrystia Freeland, who already chaired the cabinet committee on the US, replaced Stéphane Dion as foreign minister, having demonstrated competence and understanding of the American system in negotiating a resolution to the protectionist country-of-origin labelling requirement. Her parliamentary secretary, Andy Leslie, drew on his personal relationships with flag-rank American officers from his various tours of duty. I would run into him in airports travelling to places well beyond the Beltway to make the case for Canada.

The premiers and legislators from the various levels of government, whose constituents’ welfare depends on access to the US market, were encouraged to cultivate neighbouring governors. The business community has always understood the value of cultivating customers and suppliers. Our industrial unions, especially those representing our auto workers, weighed in with their American brothers and sisters.

Individually and in tandem, the various players reached out in a Team Canada effort to their counterparts to underline the mutual advantages of our trade and investment. All of these channels, which largely stood down during the bilateral normalcy of the Biden administration, should be re-activated and new channels opened.

David MacNaughton once told me, Trump is “predictable in that everything was unpredictable! You had to be ready for any eventuality.” Trump, observes the former ambassador, is “transactional” so “you have to demonstrate to him every time what’s in it for the United States.”

Whatever the provocations, the one relationship a Canadian prime minister has to get right is that with the president of the United States. It does not mean turning the other cheek. Rather, as Brian Mulroney put it: you can disagree without being disagreeable. It also means circumspection in the context of what best serves Canadian interests, including the fact that our influence internationally derives in part from what is seen as our privileged access to the Oval Office.

Donald Trump wanted to rip up NAFTA on Day 100 until Agriculture Secretary Sonny Purdue showed Trump a map of how farmers in the Midwest — ‘Trump country’ – would be adversely affected. Purdue, a former governor of Georgia, understood the value of Canada thanks in part to prior outreach by our consul general in Atlanta, Louise Blais.

While we don’t always realize its potential, the rest of the world thinks Canadians understand the United States better than anyone else. As one PMO aide told me, instead of Trudeau reaching out to foreign leaders in the days after the Trump election in 2016 the calls were coming in the other way. Trudeau’s peers all asked the same questions: “What just happened? What do we do now?” If Trump somehow wins, that question will be posed again. We should be working on our response now, taking advantage of our propinquity and our knowledge of American politics, media and culture.

I recently asked the visiting foreign affairs head of a NATO ally what troubled him the most: Russian victory in Ukraine, a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, or Donald Trump back in the White House? He didn’t miss a beat, replying: “Donald Trump…the Alliance can manage the rest but there may be no Alliance after another four years of Trump.” He reflects the feeling of most Europeans and other allies.

Trumpism goes beyond Donald Trump in its influence and impact on American policy. We must plan now. Preparation will protect Canadian interests and serve us well with our allies.

Contributing Writer Colin Robertson, a former career diplomat, is a fellow and host of the Global Exchange podcast with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute in Ottawa.

Aboard HMCS Winnipeg

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‘Ready, Aye, Ready’: Aboard the HMCS Winnipeg

The author aboard the HMCS Winnipeg (Royal Canadian Navy)


By Colin Robertson

POLICY MAGAZINE August 4, 2023

Spend time on one of Canada’s warships or submarines and you are struck by two things. First, despite heroic efforts at refurbishment, our marine hardware is past its best-before date. Second, the ingenuity, competence and teamwork of the men and women who adapt and improvise around that fact, and whose efforts ensure that Canada’s aging fleet can still ‘float, move and fight’, are awe-inspiring.

In July, I went to sea aboard HMCS Winnipeg — a 440-ft, Halifax-class frigate that has served the Royal Canadian Navy since 1996 — as a participant in the RCN’s Leaders at Sea program. We were seven men and seven women, mostly educators from schools, colleges and universities along with those active in community affairs and civic government.

We started with an early-morning tour of Esquimalt naval base. Located at the southern tip of Vancouver Island, overlooking the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Esquimalt has been the West Coast home of the Royal Canadian Navy since the Crimean War, first to the Royal Navy, and since 1909, to the Royal Canadian Navy. The next year, Canada acquired its first warships, HMCS Rainbow, which arrived in Esquimalt in November 1910, and HMCS Niobe stationed in Halifax. They were second-hand Royal Navy cruisers, a practice we would continue later in the purchase of our four Victoria-class submarines, two of which are now undergoing repair in the Esquimalt dry docks.

The next stop on base was to get outfitted with the naval combat uniform and seaboots that we wore for our three days at sea. Our spare kit, bulked by yellow life jackets, was stuffed in the green sea bags that we slung over our shoulders as we boarded HMCS Winnipeg.

HMCS Winnipeg, a 440-ft Halifax-class frigate (Phil Bates)

From a privileged spot on the bridge, we watched our departure from the harbour. We were impressed by the crew’s practised navigational skill and quiet calm as we threaded through the pleasure craft, cruise ships and container vessels, more of the latter than usual because of the port strike in Vancouver.

Rear Admiral Chris Robinson, who commands our Pacific fleet, and Commander Vince Pellerin, captain of HMCS Winnipeg, briefed us about our navy and the training role of HMCS Winnipeg before we explored the ship from stem to stern. The engine room had particular appeal to the engineers in our group. The bridge gave us a panoramic view and we got a chance to pilot the ship.

We met the ship’s physician’s assistant, who said the most common complaint she dealt with was seasickness. Fortunately, we enjoyed fair winds and following seas, as our route took us around Vancouver Island, spotting whales and revelling in the iconic coastline that inspired Emily Carr.

Time flew, with a full program that included watching a team from Naval Tactical Operations Group scale and board the ship on foot-wide ladders. We fired 16 rounds in target practice and participated in a firefighting drill. Firefighting is an essential, vital skill maintained with regular exercises for everyone aboard.

We ate heartily: breakfast of eggs, bacon, beans and French toast at 0700, ‘soup’ at 1000, a hot meal or salad bar at noon and then a hot supper at 1800. The fare is the same whether you eat in the crew’s cafeteria, the chiefs’ and petty officers’ mess or the officers’ wardroom.

The sleeping quarters before we made our beds (author)

Our berths were spartan: six to a room with hallway lockers and the washrooms — the ‘heads’ — a couple of corridors away. Day began at 0630 or 0700 but if you wanted a shower – three minutes maximum — and breakfast, you needed to be up well before the ‘wakey-wakey’ announcement.

On our final night we enjoyed a ‘Banyan’ – a barbecue dinner on the flight deck with the ship’s crew to celebrate the end of a deployment that had begun in June on exercise with allied navies, then continued its focus on training.

We returned to shore in a Zodiac – the ride is like a roller coaster on water and you need to hang onto your cap. Mine sailed into the drink where, to my good fortune, a sailor retrieved it.

On shore, we visited the Damage Control station where they create fires to improve skills. We met with the diving team, who defuse mines under water and also on land. It’s dangerous work. Sadly it took the life of navy diver Craig Blake in 2010 while he was defusing an IED outside Kandahar during the Afghan campaign.

HMCS Winnipeg is one of twelve all-purpose frigates that bear the names of cities from Vancouver to St. John’s. Built starting in the late eighties by Irving shipyard in Halifax and Davie in Quebec City, they were commissioned between1992-96 as our primary warship.

A CH-148 Cyclone conducting a sea rescue exercise/Phil Bates

With crews of between 180-240, their anti-submarine warfare capacity is complemented by helicopters, originally the venerable Sea King, and since 2018, the Cyclones. We watched a Cyclone perform a sea rescue exercise.

Designed for the Cold War, our frigates have served Canada well thanks to those who keep them afloat. They will be replaced by fifteen surface combatants to be built after the six new offshore patrol ships are completed in 2025. Our four submarines, bought from the British in the 1990s, also need to be replaced. The navy would like to buy a dozen ‘off-the-shelf’ from an ally who makes them. Potential suppliers include Japan, Korea, France, Germany, Spain, and Sweden. Nuclear submarines such as those the Australians are building with the US and UK would do the job, especially under ice. The price-tag – estimates for the Australian submarines approach a trillion dollars —  is beyond what our governments would countenance, although it would surely raise our defence spending from its current 1.3 percent to that elusive 2 percent of GDP with (20 percent spent on equipment and research and development) that NATO leaders re-committed to at the July Vilnius summit.

Navies traditionally fulfill three roles. A constabulary function: working with our Coast Guard in preserving law and order and performing search and rescue in our territorial waters is well understood. So is its military role in securing freedom of navigation on the high seas, and providing deterrence against piracy and rogue actors, often as part of, or as the lead in a multinational naval task force.

The RCN’s diplomatic role is not always understood or appreciated even by those who go to sea. Diplomacy is about creating contacts and networks for information, for persuasion and for negotiations that achieve and advance Canadian interests. This is why our navy figures prominently in the government’s new Indo-Pacific strategy.

Throughout my diplomatic career, I saw time and again the value of port visits by our warships, and especially the onboard events as an opportunity to enlarge our networks, cultivate our contacts and advance our trade and political objectives. We launched our office in San Diego aboard HMCS Regina as she returned from piracy and terrorist interdiction in the Gulf. It drew the local congressman, who chaired the House Armed Services committee, the mayor, the commanding US admiral, and significantly amplified our outreach.

In his message to the Department of National Defence, Canada’s new defence minister, Bill Blair, identified his top priorities as the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Chinese sabre-rattling in the Indo-Pacific and our need to exercise sovereignty in our Arctic. That includes NORAD modernization, delivering new equipment and the need to “take new, innovative measures to recruit and retain even more talented Canadians” to our Forces, while at the same time transforming military culture “to ensure that all of our people in uniform feel protected, respected, and empowered to serve.”

The navy needs help with recruitment. Its new one-year Navy Experience program, which includes time at sea, is a good initiative and should be attractive to those contemplating a ‘gap’ year. But it needs marketing. Parliamentarians should publicize it in their constituency householders. And, as I learned from the educators on this trip, there are synergies to be developed with colleges and technical institutions both in recruitment and training for the trades that are essential to our navy.

For a country with three oceans, the longest coastline in the world and an economy that increasingly relies on salt water for its exports and imports, our navy is indispensable.

HMCS Harry DeWolf on ice-breaking duty in the Northwest passage/US Navy photo

The sovereign territory it must defend is vast. Climate change is turning ice to water in our Arctic and there is now a pressing requirement to exercise the sovereignty we declare. Our new threat environment includes Russian submarines off the east coast and Chinese surveillance sonars in our Arctic.

The distance from Esquimalt to Nanisivik, the proposed new naval base in the Arctic, is about the same distance as from Esquimalt to Japan. To go from Halifax to Nanisivik is about the same distance as going from Halifax to London.

Our navy is also expected to sail the seven seas, with active operations as part of NATO in the Atlantic and Mediterranean, anti-piracy and terrorism in the Gulf, drug interdiction in the Caribbean and Pacific coast and now a greater presence in the Indo-Pacific. All in support of Canadian objectives. Yet with just 8400 personnel, the RCN is the smallest service in our Armed Forces.

Five years ago, appearing before the House of Commons Standing Committee on National Defence, the then Commander of the Royal Canadian Navy, Vice Admiral Ron Lloyd, posed to parliamentarians the following questions:

  • Does Canada understand that its navy is one of its most flexible and persistent instruments of national power—in effect, our nation’s first responders?
  • What kind of leadership role does Canada seek in contributing to global defence and security?
  • Does Canada fully appreciate the range of threats that exists in the world today?
  • Are the resources assigned to our armed forces well balanced to support Canada’s defence and foreign policy objectives?
  • Finally, how much risk is Canada willing to accept when balancing resources and capabilities?

These questions have lost none of their relevance. They should be a starting point in the much-anticipated Defence Policy Update that Mr. Blair promises “in the coming months”.

Those who serve in our Navy are ‘ready, aye, ready’. But after decades of scrimping by successive governments, can we say the same of our political leadership?

Contributing Writer Colin Robertson, a former career diplomat, is a fellow and host of the Global Exchange podcast with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute in Ottawa. He is also an Honorary Captain in the Royal Canadian Navy.

NATO Vilnius summit: What Happened

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The NATO Vilnius Takeaway: Managing the Perils of a Small World

Colin Robertson


Alliances are hard things to keep together, especially when they work on the consensus principle. Four years ago, President Emmanuel Macron accused the North Atlantic Treaty Organization of being  “brain dead”. Then came the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Suddenly, the Alliance, first set up in 1949 “to keep the Soviet Union out, the Americans in, and the Germans down”, became relevant again.

This week in Vilnius, just 40 kilometres from the Belarusian border, NATO leaders reaffirmed “Ukraine’s future is in NATO…when Allies agree and conditions are met.“

Leaders also spelled out the ‘how and when’ of commitments made at last year’s Madrid summit. Other new security concerns, ranging from protecting undersea infrastructure to security challenges in the Arctic, were discussed.

Leaders endorsed a Defence Production Action Plan with the emphasis on readiness allowing for “deployability, interoperability, standardisation, responsiveness, force integration and support of our forces in order to conduct and sustain high intensity operations, including crisis response operations, in demanding environments.” The test, as always, will be in individual nations delivering on their action items.

China was also a focus. The communiqué accused China of deploying a “broad range of political, economic, and military tools to increase its global footprint and project power, while remaining opaque about its strategy, intentions and military build-up.” Noting the “deepening strategic partnership” between Beijing and Moscow and their “mutually reinforcing attempts to undercut the rules-based international order,” it called on Beijing “to abstain from supporting Russia’s war effort in any way.” “That said, the alliance remains “open to constructive engagement” with China.

The participation of leaders from Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea for a second year pointed to the organization’s evolving strategic direction around the growing recognition of China as a “security challenge”.  Cooperation with the Indo-Pacific partners, especially on tackling hybrid operations, cyber defence and technology innovation will only increase.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan/Adam Scotti

After months of rancorous delay, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan agreed to clear the way for Sweden to become the Alliance’s 32nd member. In company with Finland, which joined in April, NATO’s presence in the Baltic and high North is much more robust. The US said Ankara’s request for US-made F-16 fighter jets was not involved in Erdoğan’s changed position. Maybe. Erdoğan exercised his leverage and if that is the price of keeping Türkiye engaged and in the Alliance, then it’s a small price.

NATO is built around mutual security guarantees such that, per Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, an attack on one is an attack on all. It means that as long as the war goes on, Ukrainian membership would effectively put Canada and the rest of NATO at war with Russia. As President Joe Biden said, this is not going to happen.

President Volodymyr Zelensky was irked by the lack of immediate membership. It’s been 15 years since NATO leaders first pledged that Ukraine will become a member. Ukraine also has reason to be wary about guarantees. In 1994, the US, UK and Russia agreed to the Budapest Memorandum commiting them to keep Ukraine safe in exchange for Kyiv giving up its Soviet-era nuclear arms.

Yet, Zelensky did not leave Vilnius empty-handed.

According to the Kiel Institute, NATO members and partners had already committed in support of Kyiv about €165 billion; almost €9 billion for military aid.

Promising to support Ukraine “as long as it takes”, the G7 leaders at Vilnius pledged “specific, bilateral, long-term security commitments and arrangements” and other nations are encouraged to make their own bilateral guarantees.

A coalition of 11 nations, including Canada, will start training Ukrainian pilots to fly F-16 fighter jets. France joins Britain in supplying Ukraine with long-range cruise missiles. Germany finalized a 700 million-euro military aid package and the Alliance will continue with its Comprehensive Assistance Package. The new NATO-Ukraine Council held its first session.

Canada continues to give Ukraine significant support. We have welcomed more than 165,000 Ukrainians since the initial Russian invasion in 2014. Sanctions have been imposed on more than 2,500 individuals and entities in Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova. In return, Russia has sanctioned hundreds of Canadians. Since 2015, the Canadian armed forces have trained over 37,000 Ukrainian military. Since the February 2022 invasion, Canada has committed over $1.5 billion in military assistance to Ukraine, including eight Leopard tanks.

There had been talk of setting a 2 percent floor for NATO members’ defence spending. This will await the 2024 summit, the date set at the Wales summit in 2014 by which the 2 percent target is to be achieved. Eleven nations already meet the benchmark. Collectively, the Alliance recorded an 8.3 percent real terms increase in their defence budgets in 2023, the largest increase in decades.

Perhaps NATO finance ministers should join the regular meetings of foreign and defence ministers. Their goal should be fulfilling the obligations set out in Article 3 of NATO’s charter in which members commit “separately and jointly, by means of continuous and effective self-help and mutual aid” to “maintain and develop their individual and collective capacity to resist armed attack.”

The US continues to carry the burden, covering two-thirds of NATO’s military spending. Observing that the “world has shrunk”  Echoing themes of his February Warsaw speech, Joe Biden told students at Vilnius university that the Alliance has to step up together and build the broadest and deepest coalition “to strengthen and defend the basic rules of the road, to preserve all the extraordinary benefits that stem from the international system grounded in the rule of law.”

While Canada is not going to meet the 2 percent target, the PMO says we are on track to reach 32 percent of spending on equipment (the NATO target is 20 percent). Over the past year, Canada has committed more than $66 billion to national defence (a big chunk of this is for NORAD investments for continental defence).

Canada has led the eleven-nation NATO forward battle group in Latvia since 2017. Just before the Vilnius summit, Trudeau announced in Riga that, in line with commitments made at last year’s Madrid summit, Canada will double its troop deployment over the next three years to 2200 with 15 Leopard 2 A4M tanks and “procure and pre-position critical weapon systems, enablers, supplies and support intelligence, cyber, and space activities.” The Government has set aside $2.6 billion for what is Canada’s largest overseas mission. How this will affect the already-stretched capacity of our Armed Forces is to be determined.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau with President Joe Biden in Vilnius/Adam Scotti

The American decision to provide cluster bombs got a lot of media attention but did not feature in the 11,000-word communiqué. Since 2008, more than 100 countries, including Canada, have signed the UN Convention on Cluster Munitions, which bans the use, stockpiling, and production of these arms. Neither the US, Russia, nor Ukraine are signatories to the treaty, and the weapons have already been used by both sides during the ongoing war.

In authorizing the delivery of the weapon to Ukraine, President Joe Biden told Fareed Zakaria: “It took me a while to be convinced to do it. But the main thing is, they either have the weapons to stop the Russians now … or they don’t. And I think they needed them.”

Under Biden, US leadership has revitalized the Alliance. Russia and China are threats but for the allies, including Canada, their abiding fear is a return of Donald Trump in next year’s presidential election. Trump has threatened to leave NATO and end the war “in 24 hours”.

Alliance members have wrestled with the morality of providing weapons to Ukraine from the outset. The wrestling, now over fighter jets, will continue. It’s a reflection of western values that do not trouble the autocrats.

Alliances of democracies are difficult. Division in opinion is natural, if frustrating. They are slow to act especially when consensus is the operating norm. But as we saw at Vilnius, they are capable of decisions that will strengthen the deterrence that is vital to our security.

For Putin, Vilnius was a setback. The argument that Putin has an incentive to keep fighting now that he knows that Ukraine stays out of NATO as long the conflict continues is weak. Ukraine is fortified and will remain so “as long as it takes”. The Alliance is not only stronger than ever, but Putin’s actions brought Finland and Sweden into the fold.

Nor can Xi Jinping take any comfort from Vilnius. Chinese aggression is called out yet again. The principles of mutual collaboration to deter aggression that is at the root of NATO now extends to the Indo-Pacific as Australia, Japan, Korea and New Zealand give meaning to NATO ‘partner’ nations.

For Canada, NATO remains a cornerstone of our foreign policy. It represents the muscular side of our avowed commitment to the multilateralism that has been the counter-balance since the Second World War to the predominance of our bilateral relationship with the United States. But just as membership brings privileges, it also comes with a membership fee that consecutive governments have shirked.

The meeting in Vilnius should remind us that we live in the world as it is not as we would wish it. As the Irish poet John Boyle O’Reilly observed:

The world is large when its weary leagues two loving hearts divide, but the world is small when your enemy is loose on the other side. 

Contributing Writer Colin Robertson, a former career diplomat, is a fellow and host of the Global Exchange podcast with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute in Ottawa.

NATO Vilnius summit

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NATO Meets a World of New Threats

Colin Robertson


The NATO leaders meeting in Vilnius, Lithuania next Tuesday and Wednesday (July 11-12) is a test of Alliance support for Ukraine in its ongoing war with Russia. It is also a test of whether NATO leaders are prepared to back up their rhetoric with the money, the forces and the kit necessary to ensure continued deterrence against our changed geo-political situation.

After the Oslo meeting (May 31-June 1) of foreign ministers leading up to the Vilnius summit, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said leaders need to figure out how Ukraine can be brought closer to NATO “where it belongs.” Stoltenberg, a former Norwegian prime minister whose term as secretary general has been extended for another year, said that the Alliance is working on a multi-year package of support for Ukraine. This could include language on security guarantees but neither an Article 5 commitment nor a definitive timeline for membership. With the outcome of the war unknown, the  Biden administration is not ready to commit to American boots on the ground in Ukraine.

The recent recovery conference in London netted significant funding pledges of support for Ukraine from the US, EU and Canada and a recognition that the massive rebuilding project will require significant private sector involvement.

Last year’s Madrid NATO summit adopted a new Strategic Concept, its roadmap for the Alliance in the coming years. It defines Russia as the “most significant and direct threat” to NATO Allies’ security. China is explicitly called out as challenging “our interests, security, and values and seek to undermine the rules-based international order.” The Strategic Concept also states that climate change is “a defining challenge of our time”.

Leaders also agreed to further reinforce NATO’s deterrence and defence, including a digital backbone and enhanced cyber-capacity. It means fulfilling the multi-domain new force model and enhancing regional, forward forces. This means strengthening eastern defenses, including by expanding NATO’s high-readiness forces nearly tenfold and expanding multinational battle groups deployed in Poland and the Baltic states into brigade-sized formations (an increase from about 1,500 to 5,000 troops in each location).

These promises remain largely unfulfilled.

Canada leads the 10-nation battlegroup in Latvia and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will visit Riga before the summit to meet with Latvian Prime Minister Krišjānis Kariņš. Our Latvian presence is Canada’s largest overseas mission. Its expansion to brigade level will require both a tripling (from 700 to 2100) and permanent deployment of troops with 15 Leopard tanks. By comparison, the United States has increased its troop presence in eastern Europe from 5,000 to about 24,000.

Leaders at Vilnius will be asked to commit to a new Defence Investment Pledge, with 2 percent of GDP on defence spending as the minimum rather than just a target. Only about 1/4 of the 32 members have achieved the 2 percent target set for 2024 at the 2014 Wales summit.

NATO conducts an annual survey in member countries. The most recent (November 2022) indicates that 74 per cent of Allied citizens support maintaining or increasing defence spending. A Nanos survey (May 2022) of Canadians showed that 79 per cent of Canadians hold mostly favourable views of NATO.

Canada spends about 1.3 percent of GDP on defence. According to the leaked ‘Discord’ documents’, Trudeau told NATO officials he will not commit to 2 percent although in announcing his participation at the Vilnius summit, Trudeau acknowledged that we areexperiencing “multiple global challenges: Russia’s war against Ukraine, which is also causing food and energy insecurity around the world, other armed conflicts … threats to human rights and … the impacts of climate change.”

Trudeau said his objective at Vilnius is to continue “working with NATO Allies to reaffirm our unwavering support for Ukraine while addressing multiple challenges facing the world and making life better for people.”

Any NATO defence production plan will require member nations to address their defence industrial capacity, including multi-year procurement. According to the Kiel Institute, Ukraine has received more than $70 billion in military aid since Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022. The Ukraine war has highlighted the shortfalls in ammunition and armaments within the Alliance. Restocking will require closer collaboration between industry and governments.

NATO marks its 75th anniversary next year. The trans-Atlantic alliance has ensured collective security since 1949. As Trudeau recognizes, we face more and different threats.

As part of NATO’s 360-degree approach, there will be discussion of challenges in Africa and about deepening partnerships in the Indo-Pacific region. HMCS Montreal recently participated in a freedom of navigation transit through the Taiwan Straits in which a Chinese warship cut across its path. Canada’s recent Indo-Pacific strategy promises a greater Canadian presence in the region but this must include more attention to security and defence. Announcing the timetable for acquisition of new submarines would make a difference. As Helmut Schmidt once told Pierre Trudeau “No tanks, no trade”, whom Trudeau sought more trade with Europe but planned to reduce the Canadian forces based in Germany.

NATO discussions now consider security in the Arctic. A series of recent reports, including from the Canadian Senate and the NATO/EU Hybrid Threats Center have underlined the changed environment.

The Center’s May report specifically looks at Chinese and Russian activity concluding that “hybrid threats from China, in particular, are emerging at the gaps and seams of these vulnerabilities, undermining both Arctic security and Canadian strategic interests.”

The June report of the Senate committee on National Security, Defence and Veterans Affairs declares, “Canada’s North is militarily exposed, economically underdeveloped and threatened by climate change — while world powers covet its rich resources and Arctic waterways.”

In the past, Canada has resisted NATO involvement in the Arctic. In August 2022, Mr. Trudeau accompanied Secretary General Stoltenberg who spent three days to “underline the High North’s strategic importance for Euro-Atlantic security.”

The Americans are keen to see more Canadian action in the North and they regard the announced funding for NORAD modernization and continental defence as simply a down payment. Successive Canadian governments have declared sovereignty. Now we are expected to exercise it.

Presumably, NATO’s role in the North will be addressed in the Defence Policy Update to the 2017 Strong, Secure, Engaged policy document. Originally anticipated for release last year, the Update should also address missile defence and much needed improvements to infrastructure as well as procurement reform.

When asked in January whether Canada’s armed forces were ready for the challenges ahead, Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Wayne Eyre, replied ‘no’, later telling the CDAI annual defence conference in March that force readiness is “one of the things that keeps me awake at night”.

The Alliance expanded to 31 nations this year with the addition of Finland in April. Sweden applied concurrently with Finland but admission requires unanimous approval and both Hungary and Turkiye have withheld assent. Ankara cites what it deems Swedish leniency toward members of the Kurdish independence group the PKK, which Turkiye labels a terrorist entity, living in Sweden. For now, the Swedes are effectively participating in NATO exercises.

However unfortunate and frustrating, the impasse reflects the NATO principle of consensus in a collective alliance. As a Chinese PLA colonel once told me, China envies the Western alliance: “The US has allies, we do not.” Alliances are difficult but as Winston Churchill observed “there is only one thing worse than fighting with allies – and that is fighting without them.”

Vilnius takes place against the backdrop of the Ukrainian counter-offensive and the evolving fallout from the abortive putsch within Russia by Yevgeny Prigozhin and his Wagner group.

The counter-offensive is going slowly but as President Zelensky told the London Recovery conference, it is not a “Hollywood movie” and given the Russian defenses, including the heavily-mined battlefields, progress is incremental at best because “What’s at stake is people’s lives.”

The Russians continue to threaten the use of nuclear weapons. Strategists also say the Russians may try to shut down the port of Odessa and interrupt the lifeline of armaments through Poland or launch an offensive from Belarus. There is also concern they could wreak the kind of havoc at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant that they did with the Kakhovka dam.

NATO marks its 75th anniversary next year. The trans-Atlantic alliance has ensured collective security since 1949. As Trudeau recognizes, we face more and different threats. Just as personal insurance costs have gone up, so are the fees we need to spend to protect and preserve our sovereignty – with three oceans, we have the world’s longest coastline — and to ensure deterrence against aggression.

Spending on defence, diplomacy and development is an investment against chaos. Doing it collectively through multilateral institutions such as NATO is a force-multiplier. It is money well spent. And if the Ukraine experience teaches us anything, it is that we need to invest now if we are to be prepared.

Contributing Writer Colin Robertson, a former career diplomat, is a fellow and host of the Global Exchange podcast with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute in Ottawa.

Helsinki & Tallinn

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Seeing Russia, and the Arctic, from Helsinki and Tallinn


Colin Robertson

July 2, 2023

It’s been my experience that the best way to adapt to a new time zone is to get outside, walk for as long as possible in daylight, then try to stay up until the local bedtime.

But from Ottawa, it’s at least two connections – for us Montreal and Copenhagen – meaning travel time of at least 14 hours, before you arrive in Helsinki. So, it was not without some grumbling from those who wanted a nap that we explored Helsinki’s leafy Esplanade with its shops, bars, restaurants, Market Square and the majestic City Hall that adorn the heart of Finland’s capital.

It seemed that most of the city’s 631,000 citizens were out enjoying the warm June weather and — because Helsinki lies at 60 degrees north latitude (about the same as Whitehorse) — the daily twenty hours of sunshine. Sampling the reindeer sausage met with a mixed response: how could one eat Rudolph? Instead, we enjoyed the ubiquitous salmon soup.

L to R, Dominique Lanctôt, Colin Robertson, Maureen Boyd and Paul Setlakwe in Old Town, Tallinn.

Colin Robertson and clockwise to Maureen Boyd, Paul Setlakwe and Dominique Lanctôt and either Old Town,Tallinn or Tallinn or Olde Hansa, Tallinn.

Flanked on either side by linden trees, the Esplanade runs parallel to the old harbour. Revived by the crowds and sunshine, we took a boat tour of the harbour, which also features the Suomenlinna sea fortress. Built in the mid-18th century during the Swedish era, the fortress is now a UNESCO World Heritage site and popular picnic spot for day-trippers.

Leaving our harbour cruise, we were met by a parade down the Esplanade — costumes, balloons, confetti, glitter, paper streamers, noise, music and dance. Such festivities are common during the short Finnish summer, which begins with ‘Vappu’, celebrated May 1st to mark the arrival of spring.

In a nation where 5.5m million people borrow close to 68m books a year from public libraries, Oodi, (“ode” in English, as in an ode to literacy) Helsinki’s new library, is the model of what a contemporary community centre should be: accessible, light, open with studios and workshops and a complement to thecultural and media hub formed by Helsinki Music Centre, Finlandia Hall, Sanoma House and the Museum of Contemporary Art, all across the street from the Finnish Parliament. Ottawa would be the better if we simply cloned Oodi.

Helsinki’s new national library, the Oodi/Wikimedia-Bahnfrend

Helsinki is also a global design center, with two museums and a design district that includes its iconic Marimekko brand.

We enjoyed the hospitality of our ambassador, Jeanette Stovel,  at a reception in the new Canadian Residence, walking distance from Esplanade. The spacious apartment replaces the garret-like quarters her predecessors endured after the Harper era sell-off of official residences. As Jean Chretien aptly observed “you don’t do diplomacy out of a basement”.

The Finns are regularly judged — six years in a row now — the ‘happiest’ people in the world. Researchers believe that Finland’s top ranking is due to the quality of institutions that boast rule of law, freedom and low corruption, its welfare benefits that provide education and health care, its trust in institutions and people and Finns’ freedom to make life choices.

The world’s biggest archipelago, three-quarters of Finland’s land is covered by forests and it possesses Europe’s largest lake district. Slightly smaller than Yukon, Finland’s 5.5 million population is just a bit higher than British Columbia’s.

On the recommendation of Finnish friends, we enjoyed day-trips to Porvoo and Tallinn.

The postcard-picturesque Porvoo is an hour from Helsinki if you take the direct double-decker from the main bus station. A late start and poor orienteering meant we rode for an extra half on the local bus.

Colonized by the Swedes in the 13th century, almost a third of Porvoo residents still speak Swedish, Finland’s other official language. Porvoo’s Lutheran Cathedral dates back to medieval times. Finland has two national churches (there is no state church): the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the primary religion representing two thirds of the population, and the one percent who belong to the Finnish Orthodox Church.

We caught the early-morning ferry crossing the Baltic to Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, an 80-km trip that traders have made for centuries. Tallinn and Helsinki were key ports in the Hanseatic League of trading cities that dominated commercial activity in northern and central Europe from the 13th to the 15th century.  Free trade continues, as we saw on the return trip, with passengers stocking up on alcohol, including cases and cases of duty free beer.

The 500-year-old cannon tower in Tallinn known as ‘Fat Margaret’/Wikimedia-Hajotthu

Tallinn is very walkable and we began with the Estonian Maritime Museum located in the 500-year-old Fat Margaret tower (“fat” being the size-ist label for the cannon tower’s rotund shape, “Margaret” for reasons no-one knows for sure) in Tallinn’s Old Town. With its artefacts and diorama, it’s well worth the visit. After a lunch of medieval mead, cheese, salmon, grainy bread and cured meats at Olde Hansa, we joined a free city-provided tour. The guide was excellent, providing a capsule cultural history of Tallinn and Estonia.

Estonian history is a story of occupation by neighbouring Danes, Swedes, Poles, Lithuanians, Russians and Germans. The Treaty of Versailles ending the First World War ushered in two decades of independence (1919-39) before invasion by the Soviets, then Nazi Germany, and then Soviet occupation until 1991. As our guide put it: during the last thousand years Estonia has only enjoyed independence for a half century. This helps explain Estonian commitment to collective security through NATO and its determination to support Ukraine.

Russians, as a result of immigration, now comprise about 1/5 of Estonia’s population, most of whom live in or around Tallinn. It means that Tallinn is a front line in the intelligence war between Europe and Russia. Hybrid warfare, including espionage, cyber-intrusions, disinformation and misinformation, has been daily Russian fare in recent years. Earlier this year, Estonia expelled 21 Russian embassy staffers, saying those remaining diplomats would now match Estonia’s team of eight in Moscow.

Estonia, like its fellow Baltic republics, Lithuania and Latvia, has advocated for military support to Kyiv with a no-compromise approach to negotiating with the Kremlin. Estonia’s 46-year-old prime minister, Kaja Kallas, was re-elected in March vowing to continue the hard line. Her stance has earned her the sobriquet of Eastern Europe’s ‘Margaret Thatcher’. Some see her as a potential successor to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.

Finland’s National Museum is a good place to grasp its past. Crusade, conquest and colonization meant that from around 1150, Finland was ruled by Sweden and the relationship with Sweden remains close, especially around security and defence, with both nations making applications last May to join NATO. Finland is now a member, with Sweden’s accession still delayed at this writing by Hungarian mischief-making but mostly by Turkey’s continued recalcitrance.

Following the Napoleonic wars, Finland became a principality of Russia (1809) for a century, until it declared independence during the Russian Revolution (1917). Finns turned back Russian invaders in the Winter War (1939-40) but the later campaign (1941-5) resulted in Finland having to pay reparations, cede chunks of its eastern territory to Russia, and resettle several hundred thousand of its citizens displaced by the loss of territory.

The Finns share a 1340 km land border with Russia that helps explain why, with a revanchist Russian neighbour, they decided to exchange neutrality for membership in NATO. Their orientation has always been with the West, and a Finnish ambassador once gently lectured me that ‘Finlandization’, a pejorative term for supineness to a great power in exchange for independence, was a common but false understanding of Finnish foreign policy.

Finland can rapidly mobilize a fighting reserve of 280,000, almost three times the 100,000 in Canada’s Armed Forces. Conscription for men means most Finns have done military service, bringing up the total reserve force to 870,000. There is popular talk of extending conscription to women.

For Finns, the relationship with Russia is existential. During and after my diplomatic career, I found that Nordic diplomats, especially the Finns, possess a clear-eyed perspective on Russia.

While the following observations are not original, they bear repeating.

  • The first principle with Russia is to be prepared for sudden turns and developments. It is the common thread of Finnish Russia policy — to be underlined as a first thing, and after the analysis, repeat it in conclusion.
  • A key influence on Russian behaviour is its persistent quest for great power status in a system with recognized spheres of influence. Expansionism plays a central role for geopolitical and symbolic reasons.
  • Russia views the West as a military threat but it is more than that. For Putin, the West presents an existential threat that is cultural, civilizational, and political. The military-technology and economic advantages possessed by the West feed their feelings of insecurity.

When I asked the Foreign Ministry if they had an ‘ask’ of Canada, they said it was to secure Canadian participation in the Far North Fiber underwater cable system. An attraction for Canada would be its ability to provide connectivity to northern communities.

Running from Finland and around Iceland and Greenland and then through the seabed of Canada’s Northwest Passage to Alaska and then to Japan, it is designed to increase the security and resiliency of digital connectivity. With the backing of Japan, the US, Norway and Iceland, the project is in part a response to increasing Russian intrusions in Nordic watersaround underwater cabling.

The Arctic is also a focus of the European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats, one of the centres of excellence that cooperate closely with NATO and the EU. Canada is an active member and it is a good investment in practical multilateralism.

It has produced a series of reports on the Arctic, including its most recent, focused specifically on the Canadian Arctic. It warns of vulnerabilities, lack of critical infrastructure and socio-economic inequalities. It also points out that “China, in particular, through hybrid tactics combining military and non-military actions, poses a threat to Canada’s Arctic and could exploit regional vulnerabilities to advance its interests to the detriment of Canada’s own.” Its observations complement those of the recent Canadian Senate report, Arctic Security Under Threat: Urgent needs in a changing geopolitical and environmental landscape.

Canadians like to think of ourselves as a people of the North. It’s a romantic notion although few of us ever venture north of the 60th parallel. Climate, economics and security concerns are rapidly changing this lackadaisical approach.

The Nordic nations, including Finland, take their North seriously. There is much we can learn from their experience. A visit to Helsinki is a good place to begin.

Contributing Writer Colin Robertson, a former career diplomat, is a fellow and host of the Global Exchange podcast with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute in Ottawa.

visit to Hybrid Threats Center

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Summary: I recently visited the Helsinki-based NATO/EU Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats (CoE), meeting with its Head of International Relations Rasmus Hindren and analyst  Rahua-Maija Rannikko. I also had meetings with the Finnish Foreign Ministry. Established in 2017, the CoE has 33 partner nations with a staff of 80 drawn from various partners, including Canada, it operates as an autonomous network connecting to other agencies, especially its counterpart Strategic Communications CoE in Riga, Latvia and Cooperative Cyber Defence CoE in Tallinn Estonia.

1. Current Threats

The overarching objectives of hybrid warfare, said the CoE, is to undermine public trust in democratic institutions, deepen unhealthy polarization both nationally and internationally, challenge the core values of democratic societies, gain geopolitical influence and power through harming and undermining others, and affect the decision-making capability of political leaders.

While hybrid threats are seen as ‘new’, the CoE point out they  are as old as conflict and warfare. Repackaged and empowered by changing security environment dynamics, they use new tools, concepts and technologies targeting vulnerabilities in several domains. What is important is the trends and trend line and the CoE is actively monitoring the following:

  • hacking of Western governments’ and parliaments information systems
  • Polarization driven by disinformation
  • Increasing foreign ownership of Western critical infrastructures
  • Enlarging forms of non-state actors (private military companies, religious communities etc.) used as proxies
  • Increasing use of ’lawfare’
  • Weaponizing commodities and dependencies (energy, migration etc.)
  • Economic coercion
  • Disturbances in critical infrastructure
  • Leveraging and normalizing use of military means
  • Individuals as targets/tools

The CoE have developed a thorough methodological schematic that the conceptually-minded may find useful. It is premised on the belief that an actor selects a combination of tools to achieve strategic objectives.

Each tool targets one or multiple domains or the seams between them. Tools can exploit, or even create a vulnerability in one or more domains, or take advantage of an opportunity. The objective can be achieved either by the direct effect of the tool on the domain or due to cascade effects.

2. Arctic

A main output of the CoE is their reports, including a  quintet on the Arctic, the most recent of which looks at Vulnerabilities and hybrid threats in the Canadian Arctic (May, 2023)

It argues that “China, in particular, through hybrid tactics combining military and non-military actions, poses a threat to Canada’s Arctic and could exploit regional vulnerabilities to advance its interests to the detriment of Canada’s own.”

It acknowledges the recent Canadian commitment to NORAD modernization but points out “it does not account for the non-military and hybrid threats that can also challenge the country’s north. Gaps in surveillance and monitoring capabilities certainly constitute important vulnerabilities that can be exploited by foreign actors, but lack of critical infrastructure and socio-economic inequalities in the Canadian Arctic also leave Canadians vulnerable to hostile action by rival states.”

The report observes that resilience in the face of hybrid threats starts with “a comprehensive understanding of the complexity and vulnerability of the Arctic environment”. It says efforts should address upstream vulnerabilities to fill the gaps and seams presented by hybrid threats. This means breaking down silos not only across government, especially between defence and national security agencies and other departments overseeing socio-economic affairs, but also across levels of government and with other sectors of society. The authors conclude:

“If the devil is often in the details and multi-layered governance is itself a vulnerability, coordination and cooperation across Arctic stakeholders remain essential to reduce susceptibility to harm, deter hybrid threats through enhanced resilience, and counter such threats as required.”

The Arctic is always on the agenda of the Finnish Foreign Ministry.

They want Canadian participation in the Far North Fiber underwater cable system. Running from Finland and around Iceland and Greenland and then through Canada’s North West passage waters to Alaska and then down to Japan it is designed to increase the security and resiliency of digital connectivity. The attraction for Canada would be its ability to provide connectivity to northern communities. The project has secured US, Japanese and Norwegian as well as Finnish backing; The Finns  noted stepped- up Russian submarine and surface ship activity in Nordic waters around cables.

3. Russia & China

Based on my discussions and, in particular, the CoE report Russia and China as hybrid threat actors: The shared self-other dynamics (March 2023), while none of the following observation are especially original, they bear repeating:

  • The first principle with Russia is to be prepared for sudden turns and developments. It is the common thread of Finnish Russia policy to be underlined as a first thing, and after the analysis repeat it in conclusion.
  • A key influence on Russian behaviour is their persistent quest for great power status in a system with recognized spheres of influence. Expansionism plays a central role for geopolitical and symbolic reasons.
  • While both China and Russia view the West as a military threat it is more than that. For them the West presents an existential threat that is cultural, civilizational, and political. Despite having benefitted from globalization, they see it as ‘western’/ The military-technology and economic advantages possessed by the West feeds their feelings of insecurity. They will try to change globalization’s current operating norms to their advantage.
  • International recognition through diplomacy is important to Russian and Chinese leadership but it is supplemented through espionage, mercenaries and coercion, economic and political.
  • That said, neither has any commitment to what they perceive as an essentially zero-sum system where the rules are made by, and for, the ‘West’. The Chinese have been more adroit than the Russians, especially within the UN,  at working the system to achieve leadership positions from which to work the system on their own behalf.
  • Both Russia and China employ gray zone tactics including disinformation and fake news and apply psychological pressures. If the Russians are inclined to act quickly, the Chinese are more circumspect.

Both China and Russia use post-colonial narratives to underline their grievances. They cultivate a shared sense of victimhood with nations in the Global South to widen the gulf with the West. Their arguments about a still imperial West helps legitimize authoritarian rule domestically and the use of coercive measures internationally as a defensive mechanism.