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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 »

D DAY 80 years on

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Lessons from D-Day for a World Order in Peril

Infantrymen going ashore from the HMCS Prince Henry, June 6th, 1944/PO Dennis Sullivan-LAC

By Colin Robertson

Policy Magazine May 31, 2024

Lessons from D-Day for a World Order in Peril

June 6, 1944 changed the course of the Second World War. Even Josef Stalin, who had long complained about the West’s failure to launch the second front, was moved to remark of D-Day, “The history of war has never witnessed such a grandiose operation. Napoleon himself never attempted it.”

Early on that Tuesday morning, Allied troops from 13 nations swam, ran and leopard-crawled their way onto the sand and stones. For more than 14,000 Canadian soldiers, their objective was securing a 10-kilometre stretch of Normandy beach that the Allied command called Juno.

Supporting them offshore was the greatest armada in world history, including Canada’s contribution of 10,000 sailors and 124 warships of the Royal Canadian Navy, including HMCS Haida, ‘the fightingnest ship’ in our navy. Amphibious landings are the most complex and risky of military and naval combined operations and for weeks allied navies were the cord connecting the fighting troops to the food, ammunition and armaments conveyed across the Channel.

Flying overhead were bombers, fighters and gliders, including 39 fighter and fighter-bomber squadrons of the Royal Canadian Air Force. They would also drop 450 Canadian paratroopers.

By the end of the ‘Longest Day’, 359 Canadians had been killed, among 1,084 Canadian casualties. By the end of the Normandy campaign, more than 5,000 had died. By war’s end, more than one million Canadians wore a unform and more than 43,000 were killed. For a nation of just under 12 million, it was a consequential sacrifice.

The Canadian War Cemetery at Bény-sur-Mer/Commonwealth War Graves Commission

Many of those who died in the Normandy campaign are buried in the Bény-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery that I visited in 2007. Touring the beach, the bocage and then visiting the cemetery left me in awe of the Allied effort and filled me with pride in the Canadian contribution.

I toured the battlefields with Canadian historian Terry Copp as part of an expedition organized for schoolteachers by Historica Canada. Supported by Veterans Affairs, it was a modest but useful investment ensuring that future generations of Canadian students would learn and remember a time of Canadian heroism and sacrifice – the price of keeping our liberties.

While we now take the victory for granted, it was an extraordinary feat of planning and execution. As Copp explains:

“The seemingly impossible victory was the product of Allied success and German failure at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels. There is not much controversy about strategy. The German generals as well as Hitler persuaded themselves, with some help from Allied deception schemes, that the main Allied attack would take place in the Pas de Calais and they held to the view until late July-early August, forcing a limited number of German infantry divisions to fight an attritional battle with diminishing resources…At the operational level, the Allies devised an approach to battle that minimized their weaknesses and maximized their strengths…At the tactical level, the German doctrinal commitment to the immediate counterattack by whatever forces were available allowed the Allies to plan brigade- and battalion-level actions in the sure and certain knowledge that the enemy would come at them as soon as possible.”

If the United States was the ‘arsenal of democracy’ then Canada, said Franklin Roosevelt, was its ‘aerodrome’, training more than 130,000 Commonwealth and allied aviators at bases across the nation.

Our merchant mariners and the Royal Canadian Navy were instrumental in winning the longest battle of the war, that in the North Atlantic, shepherding convoys of food, fuel, men and armaments to beleaguered Britain. It was the situation that most troubled Winston Churchill. By war’s end, Canada possessed the third largest navy, a tribute to our shipbuilders and recruitment capacity, and a reputation for having acquitted ourselves admirably in battle.

Our hard-power prowess earned us a voice and a seat at the tables designing the post-war order. Our diplomats understood the relationship between hard and soft power and leveraged both accordingly. Having lived through two world wars, experiencing the collapse of order, they did so conscious that war is the decider in international politics.

Canadian Foreign Minister Lester Pearson (L) at Germany’s accession to NATO/NATO archive

Their vision of Canada was that of a middle power – a bridge and helpful fixer – but it was premised on a strong military capacity. In practise, this meant a strong contribution to NATO and a strong contribution to NORAD. They recognized that the world is a brutal and violent place.

They became the diplomatic engineers to the American architects, in creating the multilateral institutions: the United Nations in San Francisco and the IMF and World Bank at Bretton Woods and then the alphabet soup of functional agencies that continue to serve humanity. They practised diplomacy but they knew that the deterrent force created through the NATO alliance was essential.

Remembering and learning about the past matters. It gives us context for what is happening today and  a sense of how to prepare for tomorrow. History does not repeat itself but there are rhythms to human behaviour.

In scale, in destruction and in the huge number of casualties, the Second World War is once again a historical reference point. After it was over, we said ‘Never Again’.

Yet, once again, we are engaged in a war in Europe. The international situation is in turmoil. Revisionist and revanchist forces would return us to a world of spheres of influence where might makes right. We know from history that this will not work for us.

This is why it is vital to study and remember lessons of past experience, including the old Roman adage: “If you want peace prepare for war.”

While the tide of freedom is ebbing, we now recognize we cannot export democracy. But where we see people prepared to fight to be free, as in Ukraine, we should help, just as we did 80 years ago. And we need to keep doing it.

We need to remember that the Canadian tradition in global affairs is not just being the honest broker, the multilateralist convenor and everyone’s best friend. In 1939 Canada stood up. We put real military power on the line. It’s a reality that we haven’t faced for 80 years. But it is here again.

So, as we remember, we also need to act.

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.

Canada Alone Kim Nossal

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‘Canada Alone’: A Stark Warning About a Very Different Future

Canada Alone: Navigating the Post-American World

By Kim Richard Nossal

Dundurn Press/September 2023

Reviewed by Colin Robertson


‘Canada Alone’: A Stark Warning About a Very Different Future

There is a stark message in Canada Alone: Navigating the Post-American World. Should Donald Trump regain the US presidency, warns Kim Richard Nossal, we should be prepared for him to abandon America’s role as leader of the West. Without American leadership of the rules-based order, Canada would be “for the first time in its modern history, alone in the world.”

To assume that “Trump or Trumpism is behind us”, warns Nossal, professor emeritus at Queens University, ignores what is happening in the United States. The shifts in American politics are likely to persist beyond Trump. Moreover, says Nossal, the political dysfunctions in the United States will have a northward impact, reshaping politics in our country.

One immediate effect, says Nossal, is that Canada’s insurance premiums for defence and security will rise exponentially. This has as much to do with changing geopolitics as with US politics and the already-apparent consequences of climate change. Both have had, and will have, particular impact on our Arctic.

With both Democrats and Republicans now committed protectionists, our preferred market access to the United States is at risk. The US remains the number one market for Canadian companies, big, medium and small. Diversifying our dependence makes sense but it hasn’t happened despite efforts by successive governments.

The Trudeau government’s ‘Team Canada’ outreach campaign to inform Americans of our mutually beneficial trade relationship and protect our preferred access is the right step, but it needs to go beyond its current commercial focus to incorporate American defence and security concerns.

As Nossal reminds us, Trump believes countries like Canada are “just pretending to be friends and allies while eagerly ripping off long-suffering Americans through unfair trading practices and refusing to spend enough on defence.”

Within the U.S. conservative-nationalist movement, writes Nossal, there is “a persistent skepticism about international institutions” that means “seeking to ‘win’ …never yielding to adversaries, always rejecting concessions to others.”

For Canada, writes Nossal, “clubs are trump” but he warns that multilateralism, the balance to our preponderant US relationship will come under severe strain. If Trump returns to power we would have “a global system dominated by three great powers, none of whom think of smaller powers as having an appropriate role.”

To prepare, we should be rebuilding our relationships with like-minded democratic states, starting with our Nordic neighbours who have a shared interest in the Arctic, with our NAFTA partner Mexico and our neighbours in Latin America, and with Japan, Korea and ASEAN nations with whom we want to expand trade.

A ‘Canada alone’ is not inevitable. This book is, however, an articulate warning, based on scholarly research, of what could be.

More dangerous for Canada is “if we have an administration in Washington that is committed to prevail in every single conflict that it comes across, then all of a sudden that level playing field that was there for so much of the 20th century is simply not going to be in place.” Canada got a taste of this when Trump’s Commerce Secretary, Wilbur Ross, declared at the outset of the NAFTA renegotiations that it was for Mexico and Canada to give and the US to get.

Canada occupies valuable real estate. We possess energy, food, water and the minerals critical to the green transition. But we are vulnerable without American protection. Virtue-signalling won’t stop our current drift and the risk of eventual disintegration. If we are to avoid irrelevance, Nossal says, we will need to be creative in our thinking, reinvigorate our diplomatic skills, replenish our development assistance, and invest more in hard power.

So, we face some hard decisions. We can try to actively diversify our trade while building new relationships with like-minded democracies. This will require investing significantly more in defence, diplomacy and development. As Nossal told me in a recent interview, it is also “being willing to belly up to the bar with actual resources, to do things that are useful to friends and allies.”

A ‘Canada alone’ is not inevitable. This book is, however, an articulate warning, based on scholarly research, of what could be. Sobering in its analysis, Canada Alone should be read by policymakers and those concerned about what a post-American led world will mean for Canada and Canadians.

Nossal acknowledges that the inspiration for Canada Alone came from a speech given in 2020 by the University of Ottawa’s Roland Paris. Over the course of his distinguished career, Nossal has established a reputation as a scholar who aimed to produce research that was useful and relevant. Canada Alone achieves this objective.

We would benefit from more such studies.

Unlike their American counterparts, Canada’s scholarly community has never achieved the ease of movement in and out of government. It’s too bad, as our current circumstance requires that we take full advantage of our best minds in developing research with practical application.

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.

‘Our North’ Defence Policy

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A Defence Policy for Uncertain Times

From Our North, Strong and Free/DND

By Colin Robertson

POLICY MAGAZINE April 11, 2024


An ambassador from a NATO nation, having served in Canada for several years, recently made the following observation to me: That for a country with immense landmass – second only to Russia – the longest coastline fronting three oceans, and the tenth-biggest global economy, Canada carries a remarkably small stick when it comes to defence. “Are you that certain of the American security umbrella?” asked the ambassador.

It’s a good question but not one our new defence policy wants to address, at least not head-on.

So instead, after the ritual identification of the threats posed by Russia, China and climate change, the new policy says that “The most urgent and important task we face is in asserting Canada’s sovereignty in the Arctic.”

Promising more attention to our Arctic and High North is something successive American administrations have encouraged Ottawa to do. Indeed, US Ambassador David Cohen quickly and formally endorsed the new policy. Perhaps this is sufficient affirmation of continued American protection. But what if, come January 20, Donald Trump once again takes the oath of office?

While the instinctive reflex to this scenario is to fixate on our southern neighbour, it is easier and probably more politically astute to focus for now on our North, especially given our romantic attachment to it.

The Trudeau government has already made a down payment in renewed northern security with its 2022 promise of a $38.6 billion plan to modernize North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), including Arctic and Polar Over-the-Horizon Radar systems over the next two decades.

In that sense Our North, Strong and Free is much more than an update to the 2017 Strong, Secure, Engaged defence policy. ‘Our North’ commits $8.1 billion over five years and promises another $73 billion over 20 years. If implemented, it will increase defence spending from 1.33 percent to 1.76 percent of GDP by 2029-30.

It’s not the 2 percent we agreed to at NATO’s Wales summit in 2014 and which has become such a point of contention in defence-spending debates but, as Prime Minister Stephen Harper said at the time, that 2 percent was ‘aspirational’. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recommitted to the 2 percent again at last year’s Vilnius summit and we remain committed to get there. Eventually.

To put it in perspective: NATO figures show defence spending as a percentage of GDP for NATO Arctic Council nations as: US 3.24; Finland 2.46; Finland 2.3; Denmark 2.0; Norway 1.8; and Canada 1.33. By contrast, Russia spends 6 percent of GDP on its military. China, an observer to the Council, spends 1.7 percent.

As its subtitle proclaims, ‘Our North’ is ‘a renewed vision for Canadian defence’. However, as with the 2022 announcement, the real or ‘cash’ money is much less than the promised funding. The future funding is a promissory note for future governments to honour (or not).

Past investments by the Harper and Trudeau governments mean we now have some of our new offshore patrol ships at sea, our new maritime patrol aircraft are in production, our new surface combatants are approaching production and components for our new fighter jets are being manufactured. And there is money to ensure, in the meantime, that our aging frigates and submarines remain seaworthy. Our run-down bases will receive $10.2 billion over the next 20 years for repair and refurbishment.

We are also to get maritime sensors for ocean surveillance, tactical helicopter capability, northern operational support hubs, and airborne early warning aircraft. This is all necessary kit.

It also underlines the commitment to invest in our defence production industries, with $9.5 billion allotted to ‘made-in-Canada’ artillery ammunition and $9 billion to sustain military equipment.

Procurement is to get another review and money for more staff to speed up the process, something long advocated by the Canadian Association of Defence and Security Industries.

There is money to support the doubling of our NATO troop commitment in Latvia and for our participation in annual NATO exercises. The previously announced Halifax-based NATO Defence Innovation Accelerator for the North Atlantic is also to be funded.

While our NATO allies and partner nations in the Indo-Pacific who are leery of China will privately grumble about the Canadian inability to get to 2 percent, they understand that politics is the art of the possible.

We will also acquire a comprehensive worldwide satellite communication capability and establish a Forces and Communications Security Establishment joint cyberoperations capability. Cybersecurity is generally a no-brainer, especially given the disturbing revelations coming out of the inquiry into foreign interference.

Investment in the people of our Forces has been long overdue. Our recruitment and retention crisis means there is shortage of over 15,780 in a Force of 71,500 – more than 20%. There is money for housing and child care and a promise to look at the terms and conditions of service. ‘Culture change’, once set as the top priority, is now secondary to Forces readiness and operational capacity.

There is a promise (but no banked money) to explore options for a new fleet of submarines.  Mr. Trudeau seems to suggest nuclear-powered submarines may be an option but, at an estimated $8 billion apiece, any future government will likely reach the same decision as the Mulroney government did in 1988-89 when we last explored this option with the Americans. While we may have AUKUS envy, technological collaboration on AI and other areas is probably the easier way into that tent.

While our NATO allies and partner nations in the Indo-Pacific who are leery about China will privately grumble about the Canadian inability to get to 2 percent, they understand that politics is the art of the possible. For the Trudeau government, its priority from the get-go has been social justice – $10 a day child care, doubling of money for Indigenous reconciliation, dental care, school food programs, and money for a range of housing-crisis fixes.

Defence spending has never been a Trudeau government priority. So, getting what we got is a testament to that minority of ministers – Anand, Blair, Champagne, Freeland, and Joly – who recognize the requirement for hard power, and a Chief of Defence Staff and service chiefs who speak truth to power. They are aided by dedicated civil servants as well as editorials and a series of recent public opinion polls that demonstrate ordinary Canadians also recognize the changing threat environment. All of this combined with increasingly less subtle pressure from the US and other allies helped to get the new policy and funding over the line.

Given the effort that went into defending our north, it is surprising, especially given this government’s commitment to a ‘whole of government’ approach, that we did not also see a more comprehensive strategy for the North. While our Arctic Council NATO partners have comprehensive strategies for their north, we are still waiting for the Arctic and Northern Policy Framework, announced just prior to the 2019 election, to be fleshed out.

Going forward, the government pledges to update the defence policy every four years (the normal life of a government) in “a more regular cycle of review and investment” and to bring forth a national security strategy with threat assessments. It would be the first since 2004 and it would bring us into alignment with our allies.

Notably missing from the 2017 defence policy was anything on ballistic missile defence. Now, we face the threat of hypersonic missiles. ‘Our North’ simply says “more work is needed to defend Canada and Canadians against growing air and missile threats.”

Peacekeeping, that many thought would be the hallmark of ‘Canada is back’ after the 2015 election, gets a totemic mention in reference to the 2017 Vancouver Principles on Peacekeeping.

This is unfortunate, as we could have opened the door to a re-endorsement of the 2005 adoption at the UN World Summit of ‘Responsibility to Protect’, or “R2P”, a very Canadian creation that complemented the Chrétien government’s magnificent Human Security Agenda (Land Mines Treaty, Child Soldiers Convention, and International Criminal Court).

But that was a time of muscular, Pearsonian initiative, led by a committed prime minister and skilled ministers, prepared to invest time and capital in initiatives aimed at prevention and mitigation of conflict. They also invested in relationships built through a robust development assistance program and a motivated, activist diplomatic service. A future government should once again champion human security and responsibility to protect, now more necessary than ever. That would signal ‘Canada is back’.

‘Our North’ is a transactional start in rearmament. While timid in ambition, lacking in urgency and quick to put off until tomorrow what should be done today, there is at least greater realism in its appreciation of our defence and security situation.

Geopolitics and climate could change for the better. The world could become kinder and gentler. And pigs may take flight. But in the meantime, more investment in defence bolsters deterrence and is our insurance against calamity.

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 75 & Canada

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NATO at 75 and Canada’s New Defence Reality


The 2023 NATO Vilnius Summit/NATO

By Colin Robertson


NATO, the longest-enduring alliance of democracies, turns 75 on April 4. The formal celebrations will take place in June when the leaders meet in Washington. The most welcome tribute from Canada would be for Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland to lay out in the April 16 budget Canada’s plan to meet the 2 percent-of-GDP defence spending commitment. The government’s long-promised defence policy update can spell out the specifics.

NATO embodies the two basic pillars of Canada’s global policy: our relationship with the United States and multilateralism. Canada was instrumental in the design and creation of NATO and it remains a cornerstone of our defence and foreign policy.  NATO’s Article 2, which commits members to “strengthening their free institutions” and seeking to “encourage economic collaboration”, is known as the ‘Canadian Article’.

Source: NATO Defence expenditures and NATO’s 2% guideline March, 2024

Today, Canada is alone among the 32 NATO allies in not meeting the 2 percent spending bar and the requirement to spend 20 percent of that expenditure on equipment.

We are, says Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Wayne Eyre, “in a time of profound change”.  With Russia and China not differentiating “between peace and war”, the world is “more chaotic and dangerous than at any time since the end of the Cold War”.  Eyre, who retires this summer, told members of parliament that Canada’s control of its Arctic is “tenuous” and “there’s just not enough Canadian Forces to be able to do everything.”

The Trudeau government committed significant investments as part of its 2017 defence policy and the 2022 NORAD modernization to pay for new ships and fighter aircraft. But defence preparedness requires more investment in weapons, submarines, defence production, and in our Forces. We also need the kind of creative involvement Canadian leaders demonstrated at NATO’s inception.

The public gets it. By a two-to-one margin Abacus says Canadians want their government “working with allies to promote and defend democracy.” Angus Reid says the percentage of Canadians prioritizing military preparedness has more than doubled over the past decade while EKOS says 66 percent say more dollars should be going to defence.

The public support is there but where is the political will to make it happen? A start would be for the 95 members and senators of our NATO Parliamentary Association to demand action within their respective caucuses.

NATO’s first secretary general, Lord Lionel ‘Pug’ Ismay, famously quipped that NATO was created “to keep the Soviet Union out, the Americans in and the Germans down.”

A defensive alliance, its members were sworn to stand together against aggression. Codified in NATO’s Article 5, an attack against one would be an attack against all. The only time that Article 5 has been invoked was after 9-11. US NATO ambassador Nicholas Burns told me it was Canadian ambassador David Wright who took the lead in mobilizing NATO council members.

NATO’s original fourteen member nations have expanded to 32, adding Finland last year and Sweden in March. Leaders from key ‘partner nations’ – Australia, Japan, Korea and New Zealand – are now regularly invited to the leaders’ summits, giving the Alliance an optic on the Indo-Pacific.

Overall, NATO has succeeded: weathering German rearmament in the 50s; President Charles de Gaulle’s partial French withdrawal in 1966; the placement of intermediate nuclear weapons during the 70s and 80s; the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991; interventions in the Balkans (1992-2004), Afghanistan (2001-21), Libya (2011), and now the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

NATO is returning to collective territorial defense.  At last year’s Vilnius summit, the leaders’ communique identified the direct threat of Russia and the vital importance of supporting Ukraine, the asymmetric threat of terrorism, and the ‘ambitions and coercive policies’ of China.

National service is enjoying a revival. The Baltics and Nordics are already on board and the Germans and British are now debating it. So should Canada, especially given the crisis facing our Forces in recruitment and retention.

When they meet in Washington this June, the allies will reaffirm the Harmel principles (1967) ensuring defence and deterrence, with confidence-building and cooperation when adversaries demonstrate that they are willing to abide by the basic principles of the UN Charter.

NATO is growing its response force by eightfold and working to establish collaborative defence procurement with resilient supply chains. Canada will continue to lead and double our troops in our enhanced forward-deployment NATO mission in Latvia.

NATO is also revamping its procedures and systems. To help this process, the Alphen Group of strategists has just released its ‘Trans-Atlantic Compact’ with specific capacity benchmarks, metrics and a roadmap. Its recommendations include a European-led NATO Allied Command Operations Heavy Mobile Force consolidating all Allied Rapid Response Forces into one single pool of forces. It would also strengthen operational capacity by combining multidomain conventional forces, missile defenses, nuclear deterrence, space support, cyber defenses, and protection against multi-form hybrid threats.

The way the alliance spends money is problematic, especially when it comes to duplication, readiness, and a lack of deployability. These will be top internal priorities for Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg’s successor as he steps down in October 2024 after 10 years.

Inevitably, the US election and a return of Donald Trump will be the elephant in the room. Here, the contrast between Joe Biden, an Atlanticist to his core who rallied the alliance over Ukraine, could not be more stark with Trump, who looks at alliances as a protection racket.

For Europeans and Canada, who have relied for 75 years on the US security umbrella, the implications of any American withdrawal or retreat from NATO would be profound. At a minimum, it would ignite debate in Germany, Japan and Korea about acquiring nuclear weapons.

European leadership is increasingly convinced, in a way they weren’t before the war, that Russia is a military danger to them. Between Ukraine and Trump, this means more self-reliance and more equitable burden-sharing and arecognition that 2 percent is just a floor. Our allies in Eastern Europe are now spending even more, recognizing the continuing relevance of the Roman adage: “If you want peace, prepare for war.”

This means more defence investments, in line with NATO’s 2030 Agenda. Canada should collaborate with European allies in joint defence production.

National service is enjoying a revival. The Baltics and Nordics are already on board and the Germans and Britishare now debating it. So should Canada, especially given the crisis facing our Forces in recruitment and retention.

After two world wars, Canadian leadership vowed “never again”. We were a key partner in creating NATO because a multilateral alliance of democracies based on collective security was the most cost-effective means of ensuring Canadian security and advancing our values. When the Cold War ended, Canada, like other allies, took the peace dividend. But global geopolitics has changed. The world is more dangerous. Now we need to rearm and reinvest in defence.

We should push for, not against, NATO involvement in the Arctic (all Arctic Council members but Russia are NATO members) and more closely align NORAD with NATO. NATO is also the best way to broaden our security partnerships as a hedge against unpredictability in the US.

The argument for NATO remains as valid today as it was in 1949. Canadian leadership needs to wake up. Complacency is not an option. On April 16, Finance Minister Chyrstia Freeland needs to set forth the plan by which Canada will meet its NATO commitments and actively re-engage in NATO renewal.

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.

Joe Nye and the American Century

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A Life in the American Century

By Joseph S. Nye Jr.

Polity Books/2024

Reviewed by Colin Robertson

POLICY MAGAZINE March 15, 2024

Joe Nye and the American Century

While the scholar-practitioner model for harnessing intellectual capital for public purpose is not uniquely American, no country does it better than the United States.

Since Franklin Roosevelt brought his “brains trust” (it evolved into “brain trust”) to Washington in 1932, successive administrations have called on their “best and brightest” to translate ideas into practical policy. And few have done it better over the decades than Joe Nye, as he chronicles in his memoir, A Life in the American Century

Nye, now 87, was four years old when Henry Luce famously proclaimed the start of the ‘American century’ in a Life Magazine editorial in February 1941. Luce urged Americans to forsake isolationism and embrace the role of ‘Good Samaritan’ in promoting democracy at home and abroad.

Nye — as part of that cohort of American thinkers that ruled the world intellectually after the ‘greatest generation’ took off their uniforms and came home to find their country was now a superpower — has personally lived up to that aspiration but without Luce’s missionary zeal.

Schooled at Princeton, Oxford (as a Rhodes scholar in 1958), and Harvard, Nye inherited Henry Kissinger’s Harvard office (but not his politics), eventually becoming dean of the Kennedy School. Author or contributor to dozens of important books and an equal number of studies, he continues to be an active commentator in print and in person.

As a leading proponent, with Robert Keohane, of neoliberalism in international affairs, their Power and Interdependence: World Politics in Transition (1977) maintains that environmental and economic issues deserve commensurate attention with military might in a globalized world. They also argued presciently that while states matter, transnational actors such as multinational corporations, foundations, terrorists, religious groups, and nongovernmental organizations must also be fitted into the equation.

Nye’s memoir describes his own activities in support of democratic internationalism as both scholar and practitioner. The Nye ‘method’ — developing a superb network that crossed party and international lines — comes through in almost every page. So does his cultivation of his many contacts and connections to develop public policy that served Americans and the global community, beginning with his postgraduate work in East Africa.

Nye is perhaps best known for his work in defining ‘power’ as more than military might. If power is defined as “the capacity to affect others to get what you want, that can be accomplished in three ways: coercion, payment, and attraction.” Given its heterogeneous and merit-driven culture, Nye assessed the US as uniquely placed to persuade others.

In Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power (1990), Nye developed the concept of “soft power”; the ability to influence others through attraction rather than coercion or payment, writing that “If you can get others to want what you want, you can economize on sticks and carrots.” Nye told me, when I questioned him in a forthcoming episode of the Global Exchange podcast on the balance between hard and soft power, that hard power is essential. Middle-power Canada has soft power but it needs to invest more in its hard power.

Nye tested his ideas — notably on the linkage between politics and economics, nuclear non-proliferation and then his formulations on hard, soft and smart power — through his teaching and active participation in associations bringing together the best thinkers and doers of town and gown from the US and around the world.

Given its heterogeneous and merit-driven culture, Nye assessed the US as uniquely placed to persuade others.

Nye played a leading role and remains active in groups such as the Trilateral CommissionAspen Strategy GroupCouncil on Foreign Relations, the American Ditchley Foundation, as well as the Global Commission on Internet Governance and the Global Commission on the Stability of Cyberspace. His memoir provides snippets of their conversations, debates and discussions, drawing from his diaries and reports.

But Nye acknowledges that the views and advice of the scholarly community only go so far. “Launching policy ideas from outside government is like dropping pennies into a deep well. Sometimes you hear a splash; sometimes you think you hear it but are just fooling yourself.” So, says Nye, you settle for indirect influence through your students, or as a public intellectual; or, you get into the ring of politics and governance.

Nye stepped into the ring, providing foreign policy advice to various Democrats and doing real jobs within government, observing that “government differs from academia in its enormous pressure on time and the power of being able to make decisions. It is intense but narrow. University life is less directly concerned with time and power, and that allows one’s curiosity to range more broadly and provides a chance to ask deeper questions.”

Nye served in the State Department during the Carter administration as Undersecretary of Security, Science and Technology, and chaired the National Security Council Group on Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons. He found practical ways to contain nuclear proliferation, and non-proliferation remains one of his continuing pursuits.

Nye differentiates among hawks, doves and owls, arguing that neither the “hawk’s position of peace through strength and military build-up nor the dove’s position of peace through disarmament was sufficiently stable, and both involved great risks.” Instead, Nye came down with the owls, focusing on risk reduction rather than the number of armaments or weapons, and suggested a practical list of “dos and don’ts”.

In the Clinton administration, Nye was chair of the National Intelligence Council (NIC) and then at the Assistant Secretary of Defence for International Security Policy. During the Obama administration, he sat on the Defense Policy Board and the State Department’s Policy Advisory Committee. While Nye’s name was not as widely known beyond the political or diplomatic spheres as Henry Kissinger or Richard Holbrooke (Nye recognized it was better for his family and himself living in New England than the hothouse of Washington), it has been a measure of his influence that every Democratic president from Carter onward invariably sought the advice of Joe Nye.

Nye’s observations on policy versus operations are trenchant: “It was like choosing between the temptations of omnipotence and omniscience. In policy, you have your hands on the levers but lack the time to see the broad perspective; in intelligence, you can see everything but are not supposed to touch the policy levers.”

As NIC chair, Nye set about improving the quality of intelligence estimates with better procedures for warning and planning, including basic economic reasoning, bringing in outsiders, including women, from the research community and other government agencies, and better use of sources outside the intelligence community, including open source intelligence that he likened to “the picture on the cover of the box of a jigsaw puzzle.”

This result was shorter, sharper NIC reports, with brief summaries and assessments in a box of the probabilities that they thought might unfold outlining possible conditions that might make the analysis wrong. But still, there were frustrations because in important meetings “Intelligence officials are supposed to behave like good Victorian children, seen but not heard unless asked.”

Nye was particularly interested in Japan (and was offered the job of US ambassador in the Obama administration) China and the rise of the Indo-Pacific.

Is the American Century over? It is a question that Nye has reflected on throughout much of his career and when I posed it to him recently, he said the US is ‘in a trough’…but his current assessment is still ‘No’.

Structuring the chapters of his memoir around presidential administrations, Nye provides portraits of successive presidents.

Initially intensely critical of Richard Nixon, who “destroyed any residual faith” he had “in the Republican party”, Nye now sees him as having “redeeming features as a thoughtful and perceptive analyst of international relations. Pure evil and pure good are rare in this world.”

Of Carter, he concludes his “failure to articulate his larger strategy gave an impression of inconsistency” but “If Carter’s foreign policy were a stock, we might predict its price among historians to rise over time.”

Nye describes Clinton as a “B+” president who could have been an “A” if he had had more self-restraint but acknowledges his friend David Gergen’s response that, if so, “Then he would not have been president in the first place.”

If George H.W. Bush had one of “best foreign policies of the 20thcentury” then for Nye, George W. Bush “had one of the worst” with no experience and advisors who “failed to understand the limits of American power” and “succumbed to hubris”.

Obama, writes Nye, “promised youth, vitality, and progress on race relations–all good for American soft power” but the Nobel Peace Prize award to Obama, as the recipient himself noted, was “premature.” But Obama, who possessed perhaps the best emotional intelligence of recent presidents, “respected truth, and broadened moral discourse at home and abroad on major global issues.”

By contrast, Trump was a “difficult president because of his low contextual intelligence regarding international affairs and a high level of narcissism that limited his emotional intelligence.” But, writes Nye, Trump “intuited and mobilized a populist discontent about the uneven economic effects of global trade on parts of the country, and resentment of immigration and cultural changes, particularly among older non-college white males.”

Is the American Century over? It is a question that Nye has reflected on throughout much of his career and when I posed it to him recently, he said the US is “in a trough” that he called a “slough of despair”. But his current assessment is still ‘No’, because, he says, the United States consistently demonstrates remarkable resilience. He points to five key American advantages: its geography, i.e., absence of belligerent neighbours (due in part to Canada); its energy self-sufficiency (due in part to Canada); its large, transnational financial institutions and the international role of the dollar; its demographics thanks in part to immigration; and its lead in key technologies (bio, nano, and information) thanks to its universities.

Seen from Europe, writes Nye, the American century is a mixed blessing, with Europeans anxious about American economic domination but wanting American military protection through NATO.

Nye warns that American primacy in the 21st century will not look like that of the 20th century. He repeats what he wrote in 2015: “The greatest danger we face is not that China will surpass us, but that the diffusion of power will produce entropy, or the inability to get anything done.”

Looking to the future after a lifetime of advancing new ideas and sustaining networks to reinforce democratic alliances, Nye offers “guarded optimism” for the future. A sobering assessment, and like the man himself, it is fair and realistic.

A Life in the American Century deserves a place on the shelves of those involved or interested in policy formation and implementation.  Importantly, Nye’s memoir is a testimony to the American system’s superior capacity to bring its talented scholars into government. Its universities reward them when they return, recognizing the tremendous value of their practical experience for their students and their research. Canada should do the same.

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.

Brian Mulroney

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With Mulroney in Hollywood: A Lesson in Diplomacy from the Great Networker

Colin Robertson

POLICY  MAGAZINE March 3, 2024

The flow of tributes to Brian Mulroney from foreign leaders, past and present, highlights one of the former prime minister’s many talents — his ability to personally cultivate and sustain international relationships to the benefit of Canada.

Diplomacy relies on relationships. Watching Mulroney in action was a lesson in the art of making connections and creating networks. As my diplomatic colleagues and I can also attest, he was only too happy to share these relationships knowing that for diplomats, as in politics, it’s about who you know and can reach out to.

In March 2001, Mulroney came to Los Angeles, where I was just months into my assignment as consul general. He was to give the annual Lincoln Address at the California Club.

I’d met Prime Minister Mulroney several times: during the negotiations of the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement, when I was part of the negotiating team originally assembled by Derek Burney and then led by Simon Reisman, with Derek having become Chief of Staff to Mulroney. My colleagues Michael Hart, Bill Dymond and I later wrote Decision at Midnight, about the negotiations, and Mulroney had generously endorsed it at the tenth anniversary tribute held in Montreal.

He and Mila had also come to Hong Kong during my posting to support our democracy rights initiatives after Tiananmen Square. It was tropically hot but Mulroney always looked fresh, impressing Hong Kongers. I later learned the briefcase carried by his aide contained three identical white shirts, changed strategically throughout the day-long visit.

I’d learned of his visit to Los Angeles when actor John Gavin, a fifth-generation Angeleno who had been president of the Screen Actors Guild and served as ambassador to Mexico under Ronald Reagan, invited Maureen and me to join him and his wife, Connie Towers, at the Lincoln Dinner. The Lincoln Dinner is the Republican equivalent of the Democrats’ Jefferson-Jackson dinner — the party’s major annual fundraiser.

Former prime ministers are due basic courtesies and I’d sent an email to Mulroney’s Montreal law office. About an hour later (and it was late afternoon in Montreal) my phone rang and a mellifluous voice said “Hello Colin, this is Brian Mulroney.”

He asked me how I enjoyed the job, reminiscing about visiting “that splendid residence” when Joan Price-Winser, the grande dame from Montreal whom he had appointed as consul general, hosted events in Hancock Park. He invited us to come to the private reception before his speech and quizzed me on what was going on in Los Angeles and California. I reminded him we did more trade with California than the European Union and that if California were a country, it would be G5.

Mulroney’s appreciation of Hollywood and its film culture, which had informed and enhanced his famous friendship with Ronald Reagan, was on full display. He seemed in his element.

Located in downtown Los Angeles, the California Club is the premier social club for business and the dinner for four hundred was sold out. John and Connie Gavin knew who was who, and Mulroney, clad in a double-breasted tux and black tie punctuated with his Order of Canada snowflake pin, enjoyed their company. He remembered Connie from her appearances in Perry Mason and he laughed when Gavin told us his story of when you know you are past your best-before date as an actor: in the 70s the girls who came up to speak to him remarked how much their mothers had admired him, but “today it’s their grandmothers”.

Mulroney’s appreciation of Hollywood and its film culture, which had informed and enhanced his famous friendship with Ronald Reagan, was on full display. He seemed in his element.

The former prime minister had just come from meetings in Washington, where he had met President George W. Bush, Secretary of State Colin Powell, Bush advisor Karl Rove and US Trade Representative Bob Zoellick. He told me that both Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox, whom he’d seen recently, wanted to use the upcoming Summit of the Americas in Quebec City to push the idea of a trilateral energy accord.

We moved to the dining room, where Mulroney took his place beside the host in the receiving line. When I moved towards the cocktails, he grabbed my arm and said, “You stand beside me…these are people you want to meet…bring lots of cards?” I had, and over the next twenty minutes, I met the elite of Los Angeles.

According to Mulroney, I had been instrumental in the negotiation of the free trade agreement and had his full support as Canada’s representative in Los Angeles. I met more movers and shakers that evening — former Governor Pete Wilson and California First Lady Sharon Davis — than at any other event during my time in L.A., including at those around the Oscars and Emmys.

There were thirty of us at the head table and when the time came to sit, I’d moved from the far fringe to the seat to the left of Mulroney, at his insistence. Fittingly enough for Hollywood, it was like having my own high-powered agent.

Mulroney’s speech – which he had clearly worked on himself as I could see his long and easy-to-read handwriting on the pages of his text – was about  the Canadian-American relationship, California’s place in the equation and the benefits of free trade, as well as Lincoln and leadership. Every few pages, there were lines scrawled in the margins where he would riff from the prepared text with an anecdote.

As I wrote in my journal: “He had the speech in four sections, which he moved with ease off the podium and onto the table. He is a superb raconteur and his delivery is polished and poised and he had the audience on their feet several times in applause. Like a great actor, he can sense his audience, draw from them and to them. He uses his reading glasses and the water glass to effect – pausing, drawing emphasis, shifting between a stage whisper and the deep baritone. It is clear that he still feels un-honoured in his own land and part of the speech talked about leaders like Truman and Eisenhower, who are only now being recognized for their leadership.”

For Mulroney, the telephone was his Stradivarius. He enjoyed conversation; discussing ideas and exchanging intelligence, both high and low. Most of all, he listened and learned.

Afterwards, he suggested I might want to send those whom I’d met a copy of his speech to further cement the introductions. “And those you really want to get to know — send them a hard copy using your stationery with the gold crest.” It was good advice — statecraft combined with stagecraft — and earned me vital meetings to advance our interests.

On our way home that night, Maureen teasingly remarked that she never knew I’d played such a seminal role in the FTA negotiations. We laughed at the blarney, but appreciated that it was blarney in the service of Canada, and that Mulroney generously knew would help me.

Brian Mulroney was a powerful speaker and superb raconteur — even before an audience with no shortage of professional actors, he had no problem holding the spotlight. He revelled in meeting people and if he couldn’t meet them, he called them. For Mulroney, the telephone was his Stradivarius. He enjoyed conversation; discussing ideas and exchanging intelligence, both high and low. Most of all, he listened and learned.

Mulroney may have come to office promising ‘pink slips and running shoes’ to a foreign service that some of his partisans thought Grit-ridden. But within a couple of years, his chief of staff and many of his key aides were foreign service officers and they served him well. Mulroney used the Foreign Service with effect in his diplomatic initiatives – North/South, East/West and especially with the United States. Working with, not against, the Foreign Service, he enhanced Canada’s place and standing in the international community.

As a former international businessman and long-time student of political history, Brian Mulroney came into office with a global vision, with Canada as his nexus of interest at the very centre of it. His appreciation of the diplomatic corps became an extension of that vision. I like to think the foreign service served him well. He certainly served and advanced Canadian interests globally, both during his prime ministership and beyond.

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.

Managing Canada-US Relations

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1,000 Points of Contact: Managing Change in Our Relationship with the US

By Colin Robertson

POLICY MAGAZINE February 27, 2024

Whatever the outcome of the US election in November, Canada needs to be ready for a changing relationship with a changing America.

Ramping up our trade advocacy campaign in a Team Canada effort is a first step. But the playbook extolling our mutually beneficial economic relationship, which worked for us in the NAFTA renegotiations, won’t be enough this time around.

A broader effort is necessary: well organized, well financed and more strategic, with an equal focus on security as well as trade. It starts by looking at the US agenda and identifying where we can also advance our own interests. Our narrative must blend both, impressing upon Americans that Canada is a vital and necessary partner in making America (and Canada) prosperous and secure.

We need to go beyond incrementalism by being bold and innovative in managing our most vital relationship.

The prime minister should convene the premiers for a First Ministers Meeting on the Canada-US Relationship. It should include political opposition leaders, business and labor, and be closed-door to avoid political grandstanding. Participants need to agree on an action plan focusing on three broad baskets: trade, investment and the border; defence and security; climate, energy and the environment. The goal should be to achieve consensus on the following questions:

  • What do we want the premiers and legislators to achieve in their various regional annual governors-and-premiers and bilateral legislative conferences? The relationships between legislators, and especially those of governors and premiers, are essential to get across our message of mutually beneficial interdependence whether talking about the economy, energy and environment, or defence and security.
  • How should Canadian unions reach out to their American counterparts, especially with brethren like the Steelworkers who lead ‘Buy American’ efforts? Recognizing the mutual benefits of our longstanding supply chain arrangements, our objective is to continually ensure there is no discrimination against that which is made in, or serviced from, Canada.
  • What are the cross-border business communities’ priorities for joint action? Their efforts have been key since the negotiation of freer trade in the 1980s.
  • What research do we need from our think tanks and scholars to help better understand American priorities and the implications of increasingly defensive and protectionist American economic policies? The model should be the landmark Macdonald Commission on the economy which, within three years in the early 1980s, produced over 70 research volumes and provided the intellectual capital for free trade and regulatory reforms.
  • What are the tactical implementation responsibilities and deliverables for each participant?

The border deserves special attention. We should create a binational Canada-US Border Authority.  Drawing inspiration from our NORAD experience, a binational Canada-US border authority could be a bilateral-security game-changer. Get the northern border service right and it could eventually have application for the US southern border. The danger of our passivity is that a future US administration will apply whatever draconian measures designed for their Mexican border to the northern border.

The pandemic underlined the vulnerabilities of supply chains. Geopolitical tension is accelerating the shift to friend- and ally-shoring. We are committed to joint cross-border energy and semi-conductor corridors and the development and processing of our strategic minerals. The Future Borders Coalition has developed a series of recommendations designed to expedite the flow of people and goods across our shared border.

This multi-stakeholder summit should also launch the specific ‘Team Canada’ effort necessary to ready ourselves for the 2026 review of our continental trade arrangement.

We have a serious productivity problem and much of it has to do with insufficient competition in key economic sectors. We should use the next two years to open up to competition in key sectors of our economy where oligopolies exist.

Premiers should tackle and eliminate interprovincial trade barriers; the unfinished economic business of Confederation.

It’s also time to abandon our supply management system, which protects a declining domestic market but prevents Canadian dairy producers from exporting to the growing global marketplace. This is Canadian trade policy gone awry. Our grains, beef and pork industries are globally competitive; so could be our dairy industry and our world-class cheeses.

With these measures, we would go into the 2026 review with a fully open market available to any company based in a country with whom we have a fully functioning trade agreement. This would immediately put multiple key sectors in the US on our side in pushing the administration not to disrupt our deal.

Our planning coming out of the summit needs to be explicit with precise implementation directed through a secretariat, or war room, with full-time, dedicated expertise and talent. It should be bipartisan and include political and communications professionals used to running successful campaigns and branding and promotional programs. The campaign needs a “hearts and minds” component, building on the considerable legacy of good will between the two countries.

It also needs to be brutally practical, including bilateral channels from industry group to industry group. Recreate, based on their success in our Canada-US FTA and NAFTA experiences, the International Trade Advisory Committee and sectoral advisory groups. Take a page from the Smart Border experience and create a website tracking progress. It serves to motivate both ministers and mandarins.

When we go to the Americans with ideas and solutions rather than complaints, we significantly raise the likelihood of getting what we want. Our enduring binational institutions – the International Joint Commission managing our shared waterways and NORAD ensuring our continental defence – prove we can level the playing field to mutual benefit and satisfaction.

We must also move on defence and security. We live in a world of conflict and increasing insecurity. We need to pay higher premiums for both collective security and greater self-reliance. With defence spending now at approximately 1.4 percent of GDP we fail to meet the NATO two percent commitment and the funding necessary for NORAD modernization.

When we go to the Americans with ideas and solutions rather than complaints, we significantly raise the likelihood of getting what we want.

We became so accustomed to a world structured by American power that we forget what a more insular US would mean for Canada and the alliance. The ‘forever wars’ in Iraq and Afghanistan have had a chilling effect with Americans now less willing, as John F. Kennedy famously declared in his inaugural address, to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

More spending on defence and security is necessary, especially if we are to exercise sovereignty in our North, an action that would also align with US objectives. This must be a cross-party priority.

Our Forces senior command worry about our readiness. We have not met recruitment targets for over a decade. We have yet to deliver on promises made by both the Harper and Trudeau governments when it comes to icebreakers, bases and infrastructure. The Arctic framework, with its yet-to-be defined “long-term vision”, dates to before the 2019 election. The Defence Policy Update is months overdue.

Our joint defence production agreements date back to the Second World War and they have sustained and created Canadian jobs and technological innovation. They also put us mostly within Buy American procurement qualifications, with the result that there is Canadian content in purchases such as the F-35 and surveillance aircraft.

Climate change needs to be processed as a security issue. Limiting fossil fuel production without taking into consideration that global consumption of fossil fuelscontinues to increase would benefit our adversaries. We should be working with the US and our allies to have secure supply chains for the renewables that exist today and be committed to taking some of the revenues that we derive from fossil fuels to working together on new technologies that will provide the world with affordable, low-emissions energy.

President Biden’s recent decision to freeze new LNG export approvals means our allies will be looking to other sources. Here, we can be helpful while serving our own interests. Germany, Japan and the EU have all come knocking at our door, giving us a “second chance” to harness our capacities and serve the collective energy security requirements of our democratic partners.

Whoever wins in November, we need to prepare for more American protectionism whether we are the direct target or, more typically, collateral damage.

And, before the election, political leaders must avoid the temptation to demonize Donald Trump to suit domestic politics. Even if Trump loses, his many supporters in Congress and in the states will not forget and if Trump does win he makes no bones about his desire for retribution.

The ‘secret sauce’ to successful relations is the ability of Canadian prime ministers to be constructive and active partners with US presidents on most big global challenges, because our interests and principles align. The Oval Office is also our best entrée into the cacophonous American system and our standing with the White House is a fair barometer of our ability to wield influence internationally.

We always need to remember that ours is an asymmetrical relationship. We depend on the US for our market and security. The US accounts for about 3/4 of our exports while we account for about 1/6 of theirs. Between a quarter and a third of our economy is generated through our US connections.

This economic interdependence, coupled with our security status as a contiguous neighbour, puts Canada in a political context unique among G7 countries. Washington is closer to Ottawa than it is to Chicago; this creates an imperative for public pragmatism and diplomatic creativity in dealing with the unprecedented political developments south of the border, as was so successfully evidenced in the NAFTA re-negotiation.

‘Business as usual’ never really characterized Canada-US relations because of our need to keep pace with American dynamism. So, we need to be bold, innovative, and then get it done.

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.

Canadians in IndoChina

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The Quiet Canadians: Stories from Two Decades of Diplomacy in Indochina

Supervising a Peace that Never Was: Recollections of Canadian Personnel in Indochina, 1954-1973

Edited by Helen Lansdowne, Nick Etheridge & Phil Calvert

University of Victoria Centre for Asia-Pacific Initiatives/2023

Reviewed by Colin Robertson

February 11, 2024

Supervising a Peace that Never Was: Recollections of Canadian Diplomatic Personnel in Indochina, 1954-73 recounts life in what is now a mostly forgotten chapter of the kind of quiet diplomacy and ‘helpful fixing’ that once characterized Canadian foreign policy, in this case over the two decades when a third of Canada’s foreign service and almost 2000 troops served on the International Commission for Supervision and Control (ICSC-Vietnam) and its successor, the International Commission of Control and Supervision (ICCS).

Published open source (download for free) by the Centre for Asia-Pacific Initiatives (CAPI) at the University of Victoria, Supervising a Peace that Never Was is co-edited by CAPI Associate Director Helen Lansdowne, and former foreign service officers Nick Etheridge and Phil Calvert, who both served in multiple postings in Southeast Asia.

In this mix of diaries, reminiscences and transcriptions from oral interviews, the thirteen contributors are by turns funny, poignant and engaging in their reflection of everyday diplomatic life during the tumult of the long conflict in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.

In keeping with the famously fictionalized political complexity and diplomatic intrigue of the place and time, some of these tales read like a cross between Somerset Maugham and Graham Greene.

Nick Etheridge by the unusable Hanoi Villa bomb shelter, December 1972

Nick Etheridge, who later served as our representative to Cambodia and as High Commissioner to Bangladesh, tells us about taking shelter in the storied Hanoi Thong Nhat hotel — the re-named Metropole, a local French colonial landmark that housed multiple UN agencies and embassies, now the Sofitel Legend Metropole — with Joan Baez, who would play her guitar to while away the hours during the Christmas bombing in 1973.

For secretary Anne-Marie Bougie who would serve in more than twenty other foreign assignments, it was endless trips to the airport while cycling through myriad states of mind — “laughter, downcast, insomnia, nonchalance, nervousness, nightmares, …loss of appetite” and “cultural shock…that was fortunately short-lived.”

If Hanoi was repressive, Saigon was anything but. David Anderson, who went out in 1963 and would later serve as Canada’s Environment Minister, joined a riding club, water-skied on the Saigon river and dated the niece of US Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge.

Family life with three daughters is evocatively captured by Eva and Fred Bild’s account of their posting in Vientiane, dodging bombs dropped during an abortive Laotian coup. Fred, who would later serve as our ambassador to Thailand and then China, had to be paddled to work on his first day because of flooding on the Mekong.

The backstory to the long Canadian Indochina assignment began at the 1954 Geneva Conference. The Conference aimed to settle issues following the Korean war armistice and the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu that ended France’s empire in Indochina. Supervisory commissions were to be established in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia to monitor the implementation agreements over the departure of the French, including prisoner exchanges. India would chair the commissions, with Poland representing the Soviet Bloc. Canada was asked to represent the West.

As Global Affairs Canada departmental historian Brendan Kelly writes in his erudite introduction to Supervising a Peace that Never Was, the request was “unexpected, unwelcome but unavoidable”.

“Unexpected” because we had marginal interests in French Indochina. Our delegation to the conference, led by External Affairs Minister Lester Pearson, had already left. Our interests were in Korea, where we suffered more than 1500 casualties.

‘Unwelcome’ because with a foreign service of 267, Canada was already stretched meeting the needs created by the proliferation of post-war multilateral organizations. Our Asian presence was slim: Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), India, Indonesia, Japan and Pakistan. The request would add, without notice, three embassies that together were the size of Washington, our largest embassy.

‘Unavoidable’ because of the pressure from our allies – the request came from British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden with support from the US and France. Participation also aligned with the St. Laurent-Pearson sense of multilateralism and our role as a ‘helpful fixer’ in another example of quiet diplomacy.

The first assignment of one Canadian diplomat posted to Paris during the Geneva Conference, writes Kelly, was to “find a good map of Indochina and to send it back to headquarters in Ottawa forthwith.” That lack of knowledge would soon change.

One constant theme is the frustration of the infrequent, inconclusive tripartite deliberations with our Indian and Polish partners on the ICSC. As Si Taylor, who went out in 1955 (and would later serve as deputy minister and ambassador to NATO and Japan) drily observes, “This was not rewarding work”. Still, Taylor’s reminiscences of his time in Vietnam capture the colour of diplomatic life amid living history. “Down the street from the Hotel Metropole, where we lived, was the Canadian mess, and that was a very popular social centre,” he recalls. “We had guests all the time. The most famous guest was Ho Chi Minh, himself. He came in his jungle suit and his sandals made of old rubber tires. Ho had great charm; he was a very sophisticated man.”

The official account of this period will soon be available in forthcoming Documents on Canada’s External Relations covering the Pearson and Pierre Trudeau governments’ Indochina experiences, including the peace missions of Blair Seaborn and Chester Ronning and the visit by Foreign Minister Mitchell Sharp that led to our withdrawal.

Manfred von Nostitz talking to South Vietnamese General Nguyen Van Nghi in Can Tho, 1973

We already had experience in closing up the shop. When Prince Sihanouk tossed the ICSC from Cambodia in 1969, Manfred von Nostitz, who would later serve as Canada’s ambassador to Malaysia and Brunei, Pakistan and Afghanistan, then Thailand, took a sledge hammer to the cipher equipment, loaded it into a boat and dropped it in the Mekong River. He ran out of gas and had to paddle back to Phnom Penh to finish his “idiosyncratic ICSC assignments”.

Was our participation worth it? Opinion among those who served remains divided. We had gone in with few illusions, as the 1954 government statement announcing our participation made clear: “With full knowledge and appreciation of the responsibilities that will go with membership” and “no illusions about the magnitude and complexity of the task.” We suffered casualties. A Canadian diplomat and two members of our Armed Forces were killed when their plane went down, likely by a North Vietnamese missile.

The commission’s investigations were consistently stymied by the Poles, who would do nothing to impugn the Viet Cong or North Vietnamese. The Indians, especially after the 1962 war with China, saw a united Vietnam, even under the Communists, as another hedge against Beijing. So why rock the boat? It is, writes Taylor, “almost impossible to kill an international organization.” When it became apparent that the ICSC’s successor, the International Commission of Control and Supervision (ICCS), set up under the January 1973 Paris accords by which the US pulled its forces from Vietnam, would be as frustrating as its predecessor, Canada withdrew. Seventy years later, Canadians still serve on the United Nations Command (UNC) monitoring the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between two Koreas still technically at war.

The experience left those who served with few illusions about communism. As Taylor also observes, “We were not much for the fashionable ‘Jane Fonda’ view of North Vietnam”. It also created a skepticism about political leadership that espouses “rational, hard-nosed theory” that saw foreign policy as the “foreign extensions of domestic interest”. Taylor and his generation of realists, a good number of whom had also served during World War II, would remind us young officers that while planning was important, middle powers like Canada could never ignore former British prime minister Harold Macmillan’s response to the question from a young journalist of what troubled him most: “Events, dear boy, events.”

The Canadian experience developed deep, firsthand Asian expertise within our foreign service. As von Nostitz points out, this helped Canada develop a “respected Asia-Pacific architecture”, enabling the Canadian breakthrough to recognize China in 1970, becoming a founding dialogue partner of ASEAN, a member of the ASEAN Regional Forum security group, implementing innovative CIDA programs in Asia, establishing the Asia Pacific Foundation, and taking in more Indo-Chinese refugees per capita than any other nation.

That we subsequently let this hard-earned capacity shrivel is why the current government is now trying, through its Indo-Pacific Strategy, to re-establish a significant Canadian presence. To better develop their situational awareness of our earlier experience they would do well to read Supervising a Peace that Never Was.

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.

Hal Brand’s New Makers of Strategy

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The New Makers of Modern Strategy’, Or the Art of War Redux

The New Makers of Modern Strategy: From the Ancient World to the Digital Age

Edited by Hal Brands

Princeton University Press/2023

Reviewed by Colin Robertson

December 26, 2023

War is back. So is the threat of more war. The study of war and of preparations for war remains central to the study of strategy. How do we deter war in order to stop war, especially as the technology of war changes exponentially? Historian Hal Brands and 44 collaborators contributed essays to The New Makers of Modern Strategy: From the Ancient World to the Digital Age.

New Makers of Modern Strategy was completed as Russia’s full-scale 2022 invasion of Ukraine created the largest interstate land war since World War II. As Brands remarks and as the latest explosion of kinetic conflict in the Middle East has reinforced, it is a reminder that “hard power has hardly gone out of style.”

New Makers of Modern Strategy is the third iteration of a collection originally published in 1943. Designed to help those conducting the Allied effort during the Second World and then extensively revised in 1968 to reflect the “nuclear revolution”, it was required reading when I took the introductory course to strategic studies in my second year at the University of Manitoba.

Nuclear arms were a game changer, introducing a decline in great power bellicosity because of the quantum jump in killing capacity. Nuclear doctrine went through various permutations but it ultimately boiled down to making threats to use such weapons as convincing as possible in order to avoid their use. Brands observes: “If strategic studies was a child of hot war, it matured during the Cold War” redefining the relationship between force and diplomacy to emphasize Cold War co-existence.

But war never goes away, and authors cover the intervening years’ rise of small wars, irregular warfare, counterinsurgency and now hybrid warfare.  New Makers of Modern Strategy also includes essays on the classical strategists including Thucydides, Sun Tzu, Machiavelli, Clausewitz, Napoleon, Mahan and Mackinder.Later essays examine Mao Zedong, Qasem Soleimani, Valery Gerasimov and the return of great power competition.

The essays are diverse and, at over a thousand pages, readers should approach New Makers of Modern Strategy as you would a box of Christmas chocolates. Take a bite and, if not to your taste, sample another. Styles differ but each author draws from a deep immersion in history.

Roughly half of the collection deals with events in the twentieth century and later. There is discussion of the gray zones of conflict, the changing technology of AI and cyberwarfare, the impact of social media in spreading disinformation and misinformation, and the application of technology into weapons such as drones.

Brands sets the tone in his introductory essay, arguing that there is no substitute for strategy. Strategy “allows us to act with purpose in a disordered world; it is vital to out-thinking and out-playing our foes.”

Canada’s most recent national security strategy, Securing an Open Society,  was written in 2004. The last foreign policy reviewA Role of Pride and Influence in the World, was published in 2005.  The Trudeau government published its defence policy,  Strong, Secure, Engaged, in 2017 and a promised update is overdue. Both the Center for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) and the University of Ottawa have prepared their own national security reports arguing that their efforts should spur on the government to prepare a new Canadian strategy.

There is a recognition that all strategy is suffused with politics; an ‘incessantly interactive endeavour’ that cannot be reduced to mathematical formulae and that will always remain an imprecise art.

For Brands, the essence of strategy is straightforward: “It is the craft of summoning and using power to achieve our central purposes, amid the friction of global affairs and the resistance of rivals and enemies.” Without strategy, writes Brands, “action is random and devoid of direction; power and advantage are squandered rather than deployed to good effect.”

Professor emeritus of War Studies at King’s College, London, and “dean of British strategic studies” Sir Lawrence Freedman argues that strategy today is “a way of thinking, a habit of mind, an ability to assess vulnerabilities in situations, an appreciation of causes and effects, a capacity to link disparate activities in pursuit of a shared purpose.”

While the 19th-century American naval strategist Alfred Mahan is still read in China, the US Naval War College’s John Maurer notes that Mahan has been dropped from the Naval Operations professional reading list. Too bad. As Maurer writes, Mahan is not for the ‘faint of heart’: his stark realism of global affairs warns that struggles for mastery of the global commons cannot be won on the cheap against determined great-power challengers. It’s something Canadian political leadership should remember as they look to purchase new submarines and the infrastructure necessary to guard the Canadian Arctic and help secure the vital sea lanes in the Indo-Pacific and Atlantic oceans.

National strategies, writes Margaret MacMillan, also reflect location: if the British, Japanese and Americans thought of sea power as crucial for defense and the “projection of power and influence”, the Germans, French, Russians and Austrians, with their vulnerable land borders, had to rely on their armies for security. MacMillan also underlines the dangers of silos within the armed services. She points out that at a 1911 meeting (the last before 1914) of the Committee of Imperial Defence to review Britain’s strategy, the politicians were dismayed to learn that in the event of an attack on France, the army planned to send an expeditionary force to the Continent. The navy, on the other hand, intended to blockade German ports and carry out occasional amphibious raids. Their role did not include carrying the army’s planned expeditionary force to the Continent.

There is a recognition that all strategy is suffused with politics; an “incessantly interactive endeavour” that cannot be reduced to mathematical formulae and that will always remain an imprecise art.

There is also an appreciation that democracies may well do strategy better than autocracies. The concentration of authority in autocracies can produce dexterity and brilliance in the short term, but the requirement for accountability and diffusion of authority in democracies makes for stronger societies and wiser decisions. Still, it is no sure thing.

The most impressive strategies are those that shift the balance of forces by creating advantages and applying pressure in areas where the enemy is vulnerable or sensitive, as Russian and Iranian strategies of irregular warfare have proven. Mao triumphed in the Chinese civil war because he manipulated regional and global conflicts to win a local one.

There is no guarantee that the democracies will prevail, geopolitically or ideologically, in the twenty-first century as they eventually did in the twentieth. If the democracies are to prevail, it requires a minimum deterrence and the re-establishment of a strategic culture that is prepared to answer two questions: Is defence simply a cost or does it have a value? And, if it has a value, how much are we prepared to invest in the value of peace?

While we did not choose it, we in the West are now engaged in a competition with China, a war with Russia and confrontations with North Korea, Iran and Venezuela — all variations on the systemic theme of democracy vs. autocracy. There will be others. The ‘global south’, by no means a homogeneous group, prefers to sit on the fence. They will continue to rely on China for trade and financing until that trap sends them westward for protection. But do not expect gratitude. They don’t like sermonizing from the West on human rights and democracy.

It’s a complex, increasingly multi-centric world complicated by transnational challenges, including pandemics, climate change, dis/misinformation and now artificial intelligence. The West needs a grand strategy with national strategies backed by diplomacy supported by intelligence and military forces skilled in new technology and the tools of our digital age. There is, as Brands observes “a basic logic of strategy that transcends time and space.”

On Henry Kissinger

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By Colin Robertson

POLICY MAGAZINE December 3, 2023

“Canada…Canada… I have dealt with Canada since Vietnam. The word that comes to mind when I think of Canada is ‘self-righteous’. Yes, self-righteous. In Canada you get to do what is desirable. In America we must do what is necessary.”

I was nonplussed. This was not the response I had expected when I introduced myself — as having recently arrived at our Washington Embassy — to Henry Kissinger on that September evening in 2004.

We were at Madison Square Garden, scene of that election year’s Republican National Convention. The formidable former secretary of state had just given a rousing speech on national security to a group of Young Republicans. The friend who had gotten me into the session told me I looked “a bit stunned, but my grin — or was it a grimace? — was diplomatic”.

A decade later, I got a chance to respond.

This time, the setting was the comfortable confines of the 400-acre Greentree estate on Long Island, where the American Ditchley Foundation was hosting a conference on the US role in the world.

The conference was co-chaired by former Kennedy School dean and foreign policy sage Joe Nye and then-Brookings Institution President Strobe Talbott. Kissinger was the most prominent of a group of foreign policy experts that also included Jake Sullivan, now President Biden’s National Security Advisor.

I was rapporteur for the group looking at ‘soft power’, that variation on influence that we Canadians like to think we own, although today we do not invest sufficiently in either ‘soft’ or ‘hard power’. At the break, I re-introduced myself to Kissinger, recalling his words from our earlier exchange. That drew a smile from the man who left a massive footprint in 20th-century international affairs, including via introducing the term “shuttle diplomacy” into the popular vernacular. “That wasn’t very diplomatic of me,” Kissinger said. “You know, I have a lot of Canadian friends.”

He went on to reminisce about his meetings with Pierre Trudeau, saying the Canadian prime minister had made a ‘useful contribution’ to both North/South and East/West relations, and that Trudeau, who recognized China more than a year before Kissinger’s then-boss, Richard Nixon did, had also been helpful on that historic file. Kissinger then ventured that Canada can play a useful role as a bridge, “Or, how do you put it? — a helpful fixer — when you work at it.”

As his biographers have written, when Kissinger, who died on November 29th, wanted to charm, he could charm. I had admired Kissinger ever since reading A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace 1812-1822 (1957), his account of the 1815 Congress of Vienna, when I was an undergraduate.

Kissinger’s famous espousal of realism — the school of international-relations thinking based on the belief that states act in their self-interest and war is inevitable — drew on his ongoing study of history and his experience in dealing with the challenges of the Cold War. For the international system to function best, the realist argument holds, it requires the stability produced when anarchy is offset by the balance of power.

Having fled Germany as a teenager in 1938, Kissinger understood the perils of systemic disruption and the human cost of disorder. He read hisfellow German-Jewish intellectuals Leo Strauss, Hannah Arendt, and Hans Morgenthau, assimilating into his own thinking an appreciation of incrementalism, stability rather than justice, and the less bad rather than the unqualified good.

Even with the best of intentions and efforts, Kissinger was also aware of the ‘inevitability of tragedy’, the phrase Barry Gewen adopted for his The Inevitability of Tragedy: Henry Kissinger and His World (2020). Gewen argues that Kissinger recognized the “realities of power” and that his own “assessment of power” was clearheaded and un-swayed by “high moral principles like self-determination or national sovereignty.”

His diplomatic style was personal and secretive. It depended on relationships that could be developed only through personal contact. This meant being there again, and again and again. Diplomacy, like politics, is ultimately a retail sport.

As Kissinger frequently observed, peace is not the natural condition of humankind and democracy alone will not guarantee global peace and stability. Diplomacy is about the art of the possible. In the wake of the 2014 Russian invasion of Ukraine, Kissinger would write “the test is not absolute satisfaction but balanced dissatisfaction.”These are the underlying premises of what came to be described as Kissingerian realpolitik.

Statecraft for Kissinger involved a close study of history and culture; a clear-eyed analysis of objectives aligned to a realistic appreciation of the possible; and personal relationships cultivated through continuous face-to-face contact, preferably on his opposite’s home turf. For Kissinger, the essentials of diplomacy were: “Knowledge of the history and psychology and psychology of the people I am dealing with. And some human rapport… To have some human relations with the people I am negotiating with…”

His diplomatic style was personal and secretive. It depended on relationships that could be developed only through personal contact. This meant being there again, and again and again. Diplomacy, like politics, is ultimately a retail sport.

The study of history and culture is critical and Kissinger’s erudite grasp of both permeates his own writing through 21 books and a half-century flow of commentaries and speeches.

Perhaps the best accounts of Kissinger’s diplomacy in practice are Margaret MacMillan’s Nixon and Mao: The Week that Changed the World (2007) and Martin Indyk’s Master of the Game: Henry Kissinger and the Art of Middle East Diplomacy (2021). For MacMillan, Kissinger “showed an absolute aptitude for diplomacy and power…an incredible negotiator, a man of incredible stamina, and someone who was fully capable of matching up to Zhou Enlai in what were very difficult and very complicated negotiations.”

For Indyk, it was the “skillful manipulation of the antagonisms of competing forces.” In his appreciation of Kissinger following his death, Indyk wrote that the Kissinger approach – “to avoid bringing too much passion to the pursuit of peace” – continues to have relevance and application, notably to today’s Israel-Hamas war.

Opinion on Henry Kissinger’s legacy is deeply divided. One biographer, historian Niall Ferguson, labeled him an ‘Idealist’ (at least for the first and so-far only volume of his biography, which ends in 1968) while for Ben Rhodes, who served as Barack Obama’s deputy national security advisor, he was a ‘hypocrite’. The Washington Post calls him “One of the most consequential statesmen in US history”. To Rolling Stone, he was a war criminal for his culpability in the overthrow of Chile’s Salvador Allende and role in prosecuting the Vietnam War, yet Kissinger’s peacemaking efforts in Vietnam won him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973.

Whichever side you come down on, Kissinger was a force for realism in internationalism with scant patience for those he regarded as poseurs or moralists. And it is important to understand Kissingerian realpolitik — a major theme of American foreign policy in the last half century and perhaps again in the future — as the United States debates and rethinks its role in the world.