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About Colin Robertson

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 »

COVID, Canada, China and Olympics

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Doctors say claim that Beijing’s 1st Omicron case came from Canada isn’t based on scienc

Health minister calls it ‘an extraordinary view’

A man gets a throat swab for the COVID-19 test at a mobile coronavirus testing facility outside a commercial office building in Beijing on Jan. 17, 2022. Beijing’s first reported case of the Omicron variant has prompted stepped-up measures in the nation’s capital, just weeks before it hosts the Winter Olympic Games. (Associated Press)

Doctors say an allegation out of China that Beijing’s first Omicron case may be linked to mail received from Toronto should be treated with deep skepticism.

Chinese health authorities said earlier Monday that a case of Omicron in Beijing may have spread from a package received from Canada. They urged citizens to stop ordering parcels from abroad as the opening of the Winter Olympics approaches.

“I find this to be, let’s say, an extraordinary view,” Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos told a news conference Monday.

“Certainly [it’s] not in accordance with what we have done both internationally and domestically.”

Pang Xinghuo, deputy director of the Beijing Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, said health officials “cannot rule out the possibility” that the patient was infected by goods from overseas carrying the virus.

The centre claims the package in question was routed through the U.S. before arriving in Hong Kong and then its final destination in Beijing.

But medical experts say the theory that such a shipment could spread the virus contradicts what recent studies say about COVID-19’s ability to survive on surfaces.

WATCH | Experts skeptical of China’s claim that Omicron came from Canada package:


China blamed Beijing’s first case of the Omicron variant on a package from Canada, something that experts were quick to say is ‘not based on science.’ 1:38

“I don’t think any of that’s based on science,” said Dr. Anna Banerji, an associate professor of pediatrics and infectious disease at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health.

She said the airborne Omicron variant “would never survive” on an envelope shipped across the world.

The Public Health Agency of Canada says the virus is primarily transmitted through the air.

“While mail may be contaminated, the risk of COVID-19 infection when handling paper mail or cardboard packages, including international mail, is extremely low,” it said in an emailed statement.

“We know that the virus is most frequently transmitted when people are in close contact with others who are infected with the virus (either with or without symptoms).”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say studies show an “inability to detect viable virus within minutes to hours” on porous surfaces, like paper.

An April 2020 study published in The Lancet journal concluded that “no infectious virus could be recovered from printing and tissue papers after a three-hour incubation.”

Epidemiologist Dr. Donald Vinh, a professor with McGill University’s division of experimental medicine, said the chance of such a package actually infecting someone is “very, very low.”

“Is it believable or likely or probable that this has happened? And the answer is no,” he said.

Olympics drawing near

China’s claim comes as it tries to clamp down on cases ahead of the Winter Games, set to open in Beijing on Feb. 4.

The Chinese government has introduced strict pandemic control measures — including frequent lockdowns, universal masking and mass testing — in a bid to drive new transmissions to zero. On Monday, the country announced it won’t be selling Olympics tickets to the general public due to concerns about the virus.

Colin Robertson, a former Canadian diplomat and now vice-president and fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, said he thinks China is getting an excuse ready in case there’s an outbreak during the Olympics.

“If things were to go badly, then they can suggest it came from the outside and not from within China because they’ve made every effort to try and contain, taking a zero tolerance approach, completely shutting down cities up to now,” he said.

Guy St-Jacques, a former Canadian ambassador to China, said he expects to see more finger-pointing if there are outbreaks during the Olympics.

“It is easy for China to blame Canada as there is no way to investigate the issue to say if it is true and if so, did the virus amount really constitute a threat?” he said.

“As China has more and more difficulty with its zero-COVID policy, it will blame foreigners for its predicament.”

The claim about the Canadian parcel comes at a time of heightened tensions between Ottawa and Beijing following China’s imprisonment of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor for nearly three years — an apparent act of retaliation for the RCMP’s arrest of Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou on a U.S. extradition warrant.

Late last month, China’s foreign ministry warned that Beijing’s relations with Canada stand “at a crossroads.”

Robertson said he thinks the Chinese government would like to open up the relationship again.

“But they’re dealing with — in the case of Canada and most western countries — public opinion which has shifted dramatically over the last couple of years and is now highly suspicious of the Chinese, particularly around its human rights record,” he said.

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole called the news reports out of China “comical.”

“Stories like this remind us that from the beginning of the pandemic, some of the news and reporting out of China could not be trusted,” he said.

Changes in Senior Public Service

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Expect continuity in Canada’s foreign policy and national security corridors after DM shuffle: analysts

By Neil Moss      
Trade consultant Eric Miller says David Morrison will bring a new approach as deputy minister of international trade.

While two new principal national security and foreign policy advisers to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau are starting in the Privy Council Office as part of an immense shuffle in the senior civil service, no sharp policy turns are expected.

The shuffle of 18 senior public servants announced on Jan. 5—coupled with the retirement of 10 others—has brought some new and familiar faces to the epicentre of Canada’s foreign policy decision-making world.

Jody Thomas who has spent the last year gripped with the sexual misconduct crisis in the Canadian Armed Forces as the deputy minister of National Defence, becomes Trudeau’s (Papineau, Que.) national security and intelligence adviser. Dan Costello, who was the assistant deputy minister of international security and public affairs at Global Affairs has been tasked to be by Trudeau’s side as his foreign and defence policy adviser.

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Thomas replaces Vincent Rigby who retired last year, while Costello takes the place of David Morrison who has been shuffled back to Global Affairs to be the deputy minister of international trade. Before joining the PCO, Morrison was the associate deputy minister of foreign affairs. He has been Trudeau’s G7 sherpa since 2018—a role he is keeping.

Former diplomat Colin Robertson, vice-president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, said he sees the shuffle not as a change in foreign policy direction, but a continuity.

“It also reflects [interim Privy Council clerk] Janice Charette’s sure grasp of the public service,” he said, but noted that Canada has found itself in an evolving world. “The international order has shifted. The rule of law doesn’t exist internationally anymore.”

Robertson said more emphasis will have to be put on Canada’s diplomatic service and those involved in Canada’s international presence.

“You want people with experience and expertise and that’s what I am seeing in this latest shift,” he said.

Before becoming an assistant deputy minister, Costello was Canada’s ambassador to the European Union from 2015 to 2019. He was also posted abroad as ambassador to Poland from 2009 to 2012.

Robertson said he can bridge the civil servant world to the political arena, as a former chief of staff to then-foreign affairs minister Bill Graham.

“What you want, especially in the senior civil service, are people that understand the politics. That’s often a criticism of civil servants is that they simply don’t appreciate the political perspectives of things. Good public policy is rooted in good public policy, but also in the appreciation of the politics,” he said.

Thomas had been the deputy minister at DND since October 2017. Prior to that, she was the commissioner of the Canadian Coast Guard and a special adviser to the deputy secretary of cabinet operations in the PCO.

Replacing Thomas as the deputy minister of national defence is Bill Matthews who rejoins new Defence Minister Anita Anand (Oakville, Ont.). They were No. 1 and No. 2 at Public Services and Procurement Canada since 2019. The pair will be tasked with confronting the sexual misconduct crisis, as well as consequential defence procurement for naval ships and fighter jets, and confronting extremism in the Armed Forces.

With Morrison taking over as the second in command of the international stage, John Hannaford is being moved to taking over as deputy minister of natural resources—an important role with the Liberal government’s focus on fighting climate change. He has held the trade role since 2019; previously he was Trudeau’s foreign and defence policy adviser. He has also served as Canada’s ambassador to Norway from 2009 to 2012.

Trade consultant Eric Miller, president of Rideau Potomac Strategy Group, said Morrison is “well trusted” and “very smart.”

“He is willing to think differently because he has had a different career trajectory to some extent than many of his peers. With trade diversification back on the agenda, I’d be curious to see how he tackles that issue and whether he’s taking some different approaches than some of his predecessors,” he said.

Before rejoining the civil service in 2013, Morrison was the executive secretary of the United Nations Capital Development Fund.

Miller said keeping the G7 Sherpa role will expand Morrison’s working power in his new role.

“Holding that role is an indication of how much the system trusts him, which is a lot,” he said. “And how effective they think he is in delivering.”

While not having a heavy background in international trade, the role could be seen as a sign that the government needed someone who will approach the role with a different mindset after a litany of trade issues with the Biden administration.

“He is somebody who is well positioned to do that,” he said. “By the fact that he has a broad background that has covered development and national security and foreign policy and multilateral institutions and so on that he’s well positioned to take on this challenge,” he said.

Both the Hannaford and Morrison moves show that the government is going “strength to strength” in two departments they feel that they need to.

At Global Affairs headquarters, Christopher MacLennan is becoming deputy minister of international development and holding onto his role as Trudeau’s G20 Sherpa. He was previously the associate deputy minister of foreign affairs

Taking over for Matthews as second in command at Public Services and Procurement Canada will be Paul Thompson, who was an associate deputy minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development.

Michael Vandergrift is adding the role of deputy secretary to the cabinet for plans and consultations to his position as the deputy minister of intergovernmental affairs.

With Charette continuing to operate as an interim clerk, the shuffle of deputy ministers could be a testing ground for who is next in line to become Canada’s top public servant.

Graham Flack has been tasked with looking over the government’s finances as the secretary of the Treasury Board. He has been the deputy minister of Employment and Social Development since 2018.

Replacing him will be Jean-François Tremblay who was the deputy minister of natural resources after being the deputy minister for Indigenous services, transport, infrastructure, and communities.

Democracy in America

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From Policy Magazine  (and it also appeared in the Financial Post January 6)

American Democracy is Stronger Than its Enemies

Colin Robertson

January 4, 2022

So, is democracy in America done? About to be served out like Thanksgiving turkey?

Much of the slew of commentary around the anniversary of the January 6th storming of the US Capitol takes as its theme, not without elements of smugness and schadenfreude, that the United States is spiraling downwards. But to paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of democracy’s demise in our next door neighbour have been greatly exaggerated.

The declinist case boils down to a lament over America’s political polarization (rancour and division in American politics is as old as the Republic), its dysfunctional government (by design, the founding fathers set up a system of checks and balances to prevent radical change, as well as a federal system that, like Canada’s, relies on a separation of powers), its gun culture (rooted in its revolutionary origins and enshrined in the Second Amendment to the US Constitution) and the nationwide Republican attacks on voting rights (a serious threat that is being contested in the courts by civic groups and the federal Justice Department).

Then there is Trumpism. As historian Jon Meacham argues in his splendid Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels Donald Trump fits into the type of American “loud mouth” that in the last century included Huey Long, Father Coughlin and Joseph McCarthy.

Meacham points out that American history is littered with moments of democratic crisis. This is what comes of trying to create a pluralistic, multi-ethnic democratic republic across a vast expanse of land with an18th century constitution. The goal is not perfection but a more perfect union, something with which Canadians should identify.

For Meacham, five elements – the presidency, Congress, the courts, a free press, and a civic-minded people – really matter. As long as two or three row in the right direction, the American experiment will continue.

As for American decline, consider the following: its military remains the most powerful in the world. The US Navy secures the sealanes that have made possible the globalization that lifted billions, most of them in China and the developed world, out of poverty. When there is an earthquake or tsunami or famine or Ebola outbreak the first and best responders are the men and women of the US Armed Forces.

Its deterrent power, the backbone of collective security alliances like NATO and NORAD, has also preserved the general peace for over 75 years. Americans are tired of playing sheriff but when they retire, as we saw in Afghanistan, we don’t like the result. Think of  Gary Cooper in High Noon for a sense of the lonely life of the sheriff.

The US has lots of flaws: excessive individualism, self-indulgence, racism and inequality. Its primary and secondary schools are under-nourished. But it continues to educate the world’s best. In the latest global rankings seven of the top 10 universities are American. Xi Jinping sent his daughter to Harvard. The list of Canadian leaders who have studied and worked in the US or for US companies is long and distinguished.

When it comes to democracy, the commentariat focuses on politics and its reflection in social media. But for most Americans, the ins and outs of politics are not central to their daily lives.

No other nation comes close in Nobel laureates, especially in the sciences. California alone is home to 10 percent of laureates, part of the reason that the future begins in California, from music and cinema in Hollywood, to the tech and digital world of Silicon Valley.

Then there is American soft power. Its popular culture — in film, music, sports and fashion – has global appeal. To truly appreciate America, you need to immerse yourself in its social history, brilliantly captured, warts and all, in the filmography of Ken Burns.

The classic account of the spirit of America is Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. Written after a tour in the 1830s of the still immature Republic, de Tocqueville described a people who were boisterous, bumptious, and disrespectful know-it-alls. They “seldom take the opinion of their equal, a man like themselves, upon trust” and they doubted “the general notion of…intellectual superiority.” At its worst this trait produced the nativist and racist “Know Nothings” , the Ku Klux Klan, and Donald Trump.

Americans’ saving grace, observed de Tocqueville, in contrast to their European counterparts, is that they are ambitious, creative and forward-thinking. Most of all, they were enthused with democracy and the belief that with hard work and luck anyone could succeed. That hasn’t changed. Americans are still the best at taking an idea, then making it, growing it and marketing it to the world.

This confidence of forward motion has taken a beating in recent years. How to deal with racial and economic inequality is debated daily. When civil protest takes to the streets or Capitol Hill, it is not pretty. To  paraphrase Mark Twain once again, citizenship is what makes a democracy; autocracies can get along without it. What keeps a democracy on its legs is good citizenship.

When it comes to democracy, the commentariat focuses on politics and its reflection in social media. But for most Americans, the ins and outs of politics are not central to their daily lives. Neither is Twitter, As Pew surveys reveal only about one in five Americansuses Twitter. It’s a useful tool for we in the chattering class, but never forget that most tweets come from a small minority of users playing to an echo chamber.

The best definition of American democracy is still the 1943 letter from E. B. White (remembered today as the author of Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little) responding to the Writer’s War Board.

Surely the Board knows what democracy is. It is the line that forms on the right. It is the don’t in don’t shove. It is the hole in the stuffed shirt through which the sawdust slowly trickles; it is the dent in the high hat. Democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half of the time. It is the feeling of privacy in the voting booths, the feeling of communion in the libraries, the feeling of vitality everywhere. Democracy is a letter to the editor. Democracy is the score at the beginning of the ninth. It is an idea which hasn’t been disproved yet, a song the words of which have not gone bad. It’s the mustard on the hot dog and the cream in the rationed coffee.

Over 40 years ago, as a young diplomat in New York, I got to know Alastair Cooke, the legendary BBC correspondent who for over half a century would deliver a weekly letter from America that I first listened to on my father’s shortwave. Cooke had recently hosted a personal history of the United States for PBS.

New York had almost gone broke. Times Square was dirty and dissolute. There were gas lines. Jimmy Carter told us to turn down the heat. I thought then, as others do today, that the US really was falling off the cliff. But Cooke cautioned me with the words that concluded his series: “America is a country in which I see the most persistent idealism and the blandest of cynicism and the race is on between its vitality and its decadence.”

The symptoms of democratic decline in America are readily apparent. But like Cooke, my bet is still on the energy and vitality of the American people and their institutions.

To Rule the Waves

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From Policy Magazine 

To Rule the Waves

By Bruce D. Jones

Simon and Schuster/2021

Reviewed by Colin Robertson

December 14, 2021

If oceans were once the boundaries of our existence, today they constitute the front lines of commerce, climate change and the new geo-strategic rivalries that are shaping the twenty-first century. These themes are all included in Bruce Jones’ To Rule the Waves: How Control of the World’s Oceans Shapes the Fate of the Superpowers.  For Canada, with three oceans to our north, east and west, this new paradigm presents challenges but also opportunities, if we can seize them.

Dr. Jones directs the Project on International Order and Strategy at the Brookings Institution. His book combines history, geography, economics, science and technology and if you enjoyed Patrick O’Brien’s Master and Commander series, you will like To Rule the Waves.

The book is also a travelogue taking us from the Amazon to the Arctic, from the Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific. Jones travels on the Madrid Maersk, the second biggest container ship in the world. He visits a submarine pen in northern Norway, that could be a James Bond set, but that is once again re-occupied by NATO,  There are stops in the world’s biggest ports, including Shanghai, Singapore and Hong Kong, but as Jones notes, the US no longer has a port in the world’s top 10.

When we hear the word “globalization”, writes Jones, it means that 85 percent of global trade moves by sea, and roughly two-thirds of the world’s supply of oil and gas is either found at sea or moves by sea to its final market. Most of it is bound in bulk carriers and mega container ships like the Maersk Madrid and as the pandemic has demonstrated when this complex web is disrupted it plays havoc with supply chains. It’s why you can’t find what you want in the store or on-line.

To give you a sense of how shipping has improved in productivity and efficiency, Jones says Maersk’s founder, Peter Maersk, sailed a cargo ship around the Baltic Sea at the beginning of the 20th century. It held the equivalent of 20 containers worth of goods, and it had a crew of 26. The Maersk Madrid can carry 25,000 containers with a crew of 23.

When we hear the word “globalization”, writes Jones, it means that 85 percent of global trade moves by sea, and roughly two-thirds of the world’s supply of oil and gas is either found at sea or moves by sea to its final market.

The oceans are also vital to telecommunications. Few recognize the relationship of our oceans to the or finance or communications with more than 90 percent of global data flowing through a complex grid of more than four hundred seafloor cables linking every major market in the world. The cables were first laid in the 1850s, at the height of British maritime power and they require continuous replacement and upgrading. In 2017, Microsoft and Facebook collaborated to lay the fastest cable yet  across the Atlantic, capable of transmitting data at a rate of 160 terabits per second. These are vital links, but as former NATO Commander, Admiral James Stavridis and Elliot Ackerman write in their recent thriller 2034: A Novel of the Next World War, it does not take much to disrupt them.

One of the most important features of American power is to provide this global good of freedom of navigation on our oceans.  China depends on the ocean-bound commercial and energy flow and this creates its “Malacca Dilemma”. As China grows, the more dependent it becomes on the US Navy and so, after a five-century gap, China is once again becoming a naval power.

The result, says Jones, is that sealanes in the Yellow Sea, the East China Sea, and the South China Sea are rapidly becoming the most important zone of confrontation between the world’s great military actors—the United States and China – but also Russia, Japan, India, and others. China’s navy is establishing a presence and reach out to the western edges of the Indian Ocean while Russia has bolstered its presence in the Arctic, from where it reaches down into the North Atlantic. So far, writes Jones, we’ve not seen great power tensions rise to the level of direct military confrontation; but the “tidal pull that precedes a tsunami is gaining strength”.

China’s naval fleet is expected to rise from 355 in 2021, to 460 by 2030, as compared with 297 ships currently in the US Navy. China is also expected to surpass the United States in numbers of submarines. The US Defense Department’s latest report on China’s military power, projects that by 2030, Beijing will possess 187 major surface combatants, and 70 attack submarines.

If China continues to expand its reach and ambition, the US will have to forge a kind of “alliance of alliances” that links the capacity of NATO, the EU, the Quad. The US must push its allies to think hard about how they would respond to a Chinese military bid to reclaim Taiwan.

To meet the China challenge, Jones recommends a “multi-geography” response using America’s continuing global reach, and that of its allies, to deter China by creating risks and costs for Beijing far from its shores.

The Allies can take advantage of a new China dilemma—the more its global reach grows, the more it has far-flung vulnerabilities. Putting pressure on vulnerabilities, like its fishing fleet in Angolan waters or its oil interests in the Strait of Hormuz, is likely a lower risk than confronting China in its own maritime backyard. A retooled NATO, writes Jones, can be a useful buttress to American power in the Arctic and the Atlantic. But this will require the allies, including Canada, to augment their sea power.

Fronting on three oceans – the Atlantic, Arctic and Pacific – Canada’s  coastline is the world’s longest. Our oceans are deeply integrated into our lives and our livelihood and if we are to diversify our trade we will depend on the oceans for transportation.

At the end of the Second World War, having helped secure the North Atlantic, Winston Churchill would say of the Battle of the Atlantic, the war’s longest campaign,  that it was the “only thing that ever really frightened me during the war”. By war’s end, Canada had the fourth largest navy in the world with 95,000 sailors and 434 commissioned vessels. Today, Canada has around 15,000 sailors with twelve frigates and four submarines. The first of our new offshore patrol ships, HMCS Harry DeWolfe, recently sailed through the North West Passage. Our15 new surface combatants, are expected in the 2030s.

Climate is a peril to our oceans and it is visibly changing our Arctic. Sea level has never risen as fast as it is rising now. Approximately 680 million people (nearly 10 percent of the 2010 global population) live on coastal land that is less than 33 feet above sea level.

The AUKUS agreement that will see the US share its nuclear submarine technology with Australia. Canada turned down the opportunity for nuclear submarines during the Mulroney government, mostly for reasons of cost, but as we look re-evaluate our own commitments in the Indo-Pacific, we should, at a minimum, seek admission to the technology discussions of both AUKUS and the Quad. We should also build a security relationship with India and continue to enhance the defence partnership with Japan especially as we look to our next generation of submarines.

We think of the South China Sea as a trade route but it is also a source of fish stocks, with several hundred million Chinese and South Asians looking to it as their source of protein. Globally, industrial-scale fishing has depleted an estimated 90 percent of open-water fish stocks.

Climate is a peril to our oceans and it is visibly changing our Arctic. Sea level has never risen as fast as it is rising now. Approximately 680 million people (nearly 10 percent of the 2010 global population) live on coastal land that is less than 33 feet above sea level. This number is projected to reach more than 1 billion by 2050 because the world’s ice sheets and glaciers are losing large amounts of ice. The resulting water flows into the oceans. At the same time, ocean temperatures are rising, and warmer water expands and takes up more space than cold water.

We face the triple dilemmas of inequities caused by globalization, the naval arms race, and climate change all of which profoundly affect Canada. Deglobalization, says Jones, is not the answer Instead the US and its allies should “reanimate their engagement with globalization”. The benefits of globalization, writes Jones, and the cost of reversing it, combined with the “reality that all countries’ fates are tied together, make it tempting to hope that logic rather than fear will prevail” not just for inequity and also for climate change, where we can also apply technology, one area where the US and West have an advantage. As for the arms race, Jones says we must rely on diplomacy.

To Rule the Waves is a compelling read: lucid, illuminating and sobering. The Canadian code of arms bears the motto ‘A Mari Usque ad Mare’ – from sea to sea, to which we must now add another sea. Once aspirational, it now reflects a reality that Canadians must appreciate if we are to sustain our livelihood, our climate, and our security.

Two Michaels

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The Two Michaels’: Dissecting a Diplomatic Drama

The Two Michaels: Innocent Canadian Captives and High Stakes Espionage in the US-China Cyber War

By Mike Blanchfield and Fen Osler Hampson

Sutherland House Publishing/November, 2021

Reviewed by Colin Robertson

December 1, 2021

Over their thousand days in captivity, the plight of the Canadian hostages known as “The Two Michaels” increasingly dominated public Canadian conversations about China. Now, we have a telling of the concurrent story that was unfolding behind the headlines in theTwo Michaels:  Innocent Canadian Captives and High Stakes Espionage in the US-China Cyber War.

For authors Mike Blanchfield and Fen Hampson, the book is their “letter” to Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor. Blanchfield and Hampson have succeeded in their joint effort to “gain some insight into the broad geopolitical reason behind their imprisonment” and “what so many were doing to win their freedom.”

Mike Blanchfield writes on foreign affairs for Canadian Press and his journalist’s skill keeps this 260-page, 23-chapter account brisk and factual. Fen Hampson, Chancellor’s Professor and Professor of International Affairs at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, is one of Canada’s foremost political scholars. His books, notably his superb account of Brian Mulroney’s foreign policy, are rare examples of making academic research accessible and readable to the wider community. In this book, Hampson and Blanchfield draw on reportage — Canadian and international — as well as submissions and testimony from the Meng Wanzhou extradition hearings, among other sources. The book also benefits from their interviews with eminent Canadians including Mulroney, former UN Ambassador Allan Rock, respected attorney Brian Greenspan, longtime diplomat and former hostage Robert Fowler, as well as Vina Najibullah, whose articulate and passionate support for her husband, Michael Kovrig, did much to build public support.

The Two Michaels begins with the Trudeau government’s decision in December 2018 to proceed with the US extradition request for Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou and follows through the many efforts of governments, legislators, diplomats, lawyers, eminent persons and civil society that ultimately helped secure their release in late September.

Reading The Two Michaels left me with three main observations and a recommendation:

First, Canadian governments need to proceed with great care and circumspection when it comes to extradition requests because they can blow up in your face. Mr. Trudeau’s admission that he was well aware of the US request infuriated Beijing and led to the seizing of the two Michaels as hostages as well as the application of various economic measures designed to coerce Canadian compliance.

Did those advising Mr. Trudeau think through the implications of our actions? Other nations were also approached to arrest Meng as she traveled through Asia and Europe in late 2018, but demurred. We did not and came out looking like chumps. Better to have followed John Manley’s advice to have shown some ‘creative incompetence’ at the Vancouver Airport an let her continue with her onward flight to Mexico.

Having seized Meng Wanzhou, the Trudeau government then doubled down, cloaking itself with their interpretation of ‘the rule of law’. This left no room for maneuver, a cardinal sin in diplomacy. For Beijing, this reinforced the argument that Canada was simply a  puppet of the United States. As Blanchfield and Hampson relate, there was considerable legal counsel, including that of eminent defence lawyers and former Supreme Court justices, to cast doubt on the government’s high-mindedness.  It did not help that our then Canadian ambassador to China, John MacCallum, a former Trudeau minister publicly shared his misgivings in contradiction to the government line.

If the two Michaels are the heroes of the book, the villains are Donald Trump and Xi Jinping.

The second observation is that the two Michaels behaved with grace and courage throughout their ordeal. And it was an ordeal. Having visited Chinese jails as a consular officer I can tell you they are not a place in which you’d want to spend any time. Kovrig and Spavor found solace in exercise, meditation and, when they were finally permitted, the luxury of reading. The choice of Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning is poignant. One of my father’s favourite books, it recounts Frankl’s survival through the Holocaust and life in Auschwitz based on this principle: “The one thing you can’t take away from me is the way I choose to respond to what you do to me. The last of one’s freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance.”

A third observation: If the two Michaels are the heroes of the book, the villains are Donald Trump and Xi Jinping. As President Trump told John Bolton, his then national security advisor, Meng Wanzhou was the “the Ivanka Trump of China.” In the looming Sino-US confrontation, she would be parlayed in exchange for unspecified Chinese concessions in the battlefield over technological supremacy. If Mr. Trump got Canada into this mess, then Joe Biden got us out by making it clear to Xi Jinping that to continue holding the two MIchaels would be an impediment to any improved relationship. The swap would never have occurred without American pressure. It was baffling that anyone described the timing of the joint departures — Kovrig and Spavor to Canada and Meng Wanzhou to China — as coincidence.

The dramatic plunge in how Canadians and our western allies now view China is due to a number of factors; concerns over human rights in Xinjiang, the crackdown in Hong Kong (home to over 3000,000 Canadians), its aggressive behaviour with Taiwan and towards its neighbours in the South China Sea. Then there is its wolf warrior diplomacy of which Canadians have had more than a taste. While we can debate whether China is a superpower, it eclipses India and Japan  as a dominant Asian power according to the Lowy Institute’s Power Index. Xi has abandoned Deng Xiaoping’s advice to “Hide your strength, bide your time, never take the lead.”  For Xi , “The East is rising and the West is in decline.” Xi’s answer to those who refuse to kowtow is to apply coercive diplomacy as punishment. It also serves as a deterrent. As the old Chinese idiom goes, “kill a chicken to scare the monkeys”.

The best advice on handling Xi Jinping and his coterie in the Chinese Communist Party comes from former Canadian ambassador Rob Wright and is referenced in the Two Michaels. Wright, who also served as our ambassador to China and deputy minister of International Trade, told the House of Commons special committee on China that, “To the extent that we can influence the government of China on their form of detention, we [should] do so.” As to the best way to deal with China, Wright observes:

“My own view is that little is achieved by shouting publicly, loudly, at the Chinese on these issue… What helped was deliberate, ongoing, diplomatic contact with Chinese officials, working with them to ensure that Canadian citizens were treated fairly, that we had access to them, and that they were given a fair hearing under Chinese law to the extent possible…we need to maintain a strong diplomatic presence there and a deliberate context, but to the extent possible, not turn these into public issues that made them, in some cases, more difficult to manage.”

Managing an aggressive China is the challenge of our times. The Declaration on Arbitrary Detentions is a positive step. Now endorsed by 66 nations and the European Union, it brings to bear the power of multilateralism. But now we need to add teeth to the Declaration, likely drawing on the Magnitsky laws now on the books of many western nations. They target the individual perpetrators of human rights abuses by hitting them and their families in their ability to bank, travel and reside in democracies.

As this book attests, we’ve got to expunge hostage diplomacy as a tool of statecraft. We owe it to the two Michaels.


NATO Climate and Security Center

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Climate change isn’t just an environmental issue – it’s also a national security threat. Canada has offered to create a NATO centre of excellence on climate and security, which the alliance should move on with alacrity.

Describing climate change as “one of the defining challenges of our times,” NATO leaders at their June summit endorsed a Climate Change and Security Action Plan. It aimed to incorporate climate change considerations into defence planning, training and exercises, disaster response, and its procurement practices.

The plan intended to develop a “mapping and analytical methodology” for greenhouse gas emissions from military activities and installations. Data on energy demand and consumption would be used to inform operational planning, investment decisions and to implement innovative energy efficient technologies. NATO agreed to increase climate awareness among its members, do an annual climate change and security impact assessment, and collaborate with international and regional organizations such as the United Nations and European Union.

In support of the initiative, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told fellow leaders in June that Canada is ready to establish the NATO Centre of Excellence on Climate and Security to pool the alliance’s knowledge, initiate research and develop practical applications for climate mitigation.

The alliance members are rallying to the idea. Following Mr. Trudeau’s recent speech to the Netherlands parliament, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte agreed that “Canada would be the perfect home for this platform,” given its commitment to the issue.

The NATO Centres of Excellence (CoE) grew out of the recognition in 2002 that the alliance needed new civil-military mechanisms – a combination of think tank and an applied technology centre – as it adapts to new threats and challenges. The first NATO CoE, on air power, began its work in 2005. Today, its 27 CoEs cover a range of threats, including cyber defence, strategic communications, naval mine warfare, terrorism and cold weather operations. Recognized for their technical expertise, they constitute a network of transformational support for the alliance.

With buy-in from alliance members, which means money and expertise, the Canadian-based climate and security CoE could be up and running by 2023.

American participation will be critical. The Pentagon, which is the world’s largest single energy consumer, invests billions to reduce its carbon footprint and prepare facilities against the effects of climate change. The Pentagon wants all non-combat vehicles to be electric by 2030. Renewable sources, mostly solar and wind, currently generate two-thirds of the energy powering U.S. naval bases. As the internet has proven, where the military goes, the civilian world often follows.

As a model for industry participation that will be vital to the success of the new CoE, we should look at Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance. Since its launch in 2012, with its focus on greenhouse gases, land, water and tailings, this remarkable collaboration of companies has shared best practices and intellectual property to significantly reduce their carbon footprint and water use.

The location of the CoE will be a political call, but Winnipeg has a central location and anyone who has experienced its winters has certainly spent some time pondering climate. Importantly, Winnipeg is the Canadian home for NORAD, the Canada-U.S. continental alliance. Winnipeg also hosts the International Institute for Sustainable Development, has three universities and is home to the University of Manitoba’s excellent Centre for Defence and Security Studies.

In their June communiqué, NATO leaders described climate change as a “threat multiplier.” Droughts and floods in conflict-prone regions exacerbate water and food shortages, contributing to the displacement of peoples that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees now estimates is at 82.4 million. Rising sea levels threaten hundreds of millions of people globally. Melting arctic ice opens new avenues to potential conflict.

There are no easy answers to these problems, but our citizens expect action. Pew surveys of advanced economies put climate change as one of the top international threats. The challenge for the CoE will be focus. Rather than boil the ocean, as they say, it should concentrate on coming up with practices and innovations enabling NATO forces to mitigate their carbon footprints and adapt to our changing climate. Mitigate climate change and you mitigate the threat of conflict.

Melanie Joly named Foreign MInister

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Justin Trudeau drops Marc Garneau from cabinet, but won’t say why

OTTAWA—He is a former astronaut and naval officer with high schools named after him, a front-line government minister who was just re-elected by the people of Notre-Dame-de-Grace—Westmount.

And now he’s out of a cabinet job.

On Tuesday morning, as a parade of Liberal MPs strode through the pounding rain to get sworn in as cabinet ministers at Rideau Hall, Marc Garneau was nowhere to be found.

After just nine months on the job, Garneau was replaced as Canada’s foreign affairs minister by Mélanie Joly, a fellow Montreal MP who took over the role in a major political promotion.

Garneau, 72, is one of three ministers who were re-elected in last month’s federal election but not named by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to the new cabinet that will lead his government in its third mandate in Parliament since the Liberals came to power in 2015. The others — Waterloo MP Bardish Chagger and Manitoba’s Jim Carr — held relatively junior portfolios.

But Garneau was Canada’s minister of Global Affairs, a front-bench role at the heart of cabinet from which he directed the country’s foreign policy and relations with other countries.

Trudeau dodged the question when he was asked Tuesday why he’d excluded Garneau from his new cabinet, instead thanking Garneau and saying he is happy that Garneau is still a Liberal MP. But he added that he is glad to showcase new cabinet members who can tackle the challenges Canada faces.

“It’s never easy to assemble the right cabinet for the moment, but I find the team that is around me today is the right one for the situation and for the years to come,” Trudeau said in French.

In a written statement to the Star, Garneau said it was “an honour and a privilege to serve my country” as a cabinet minister since 2015, and thanked his Liberal colleagues, staff and public servants who worked with him, family and the constituents in his Montreal riding.

One senior government official, who spoke on the condition that they not be identified, said Trudeau’s decision to remove Garneau must have been “tough” because he did an “unbelievable job” as foreign minister. Garneau was credited with helping secure the release of the two Canadians imprisoned in China after the arrest in Vancouver of Chinese executive Meng Wanzhou, and quarterbacked an international declaration against arbitrary detentions that was signed by more than 60 countries.

He also had a “smooth” relationship with the Prime Minister’s Office, the official said.

“I don’t see it as a knock on his performance or anything,” the official said. “I know he was great at his job.”

Before he entered politics, Garneau had a distinguished and high-profile career that saw him become the first Canadian in space when he was selected to join a crew of the U.S. space shuttle in 1984. He later became an astronaut training specialist for NASA and went back to space in 1996 and 2000.

Garneau was first elected as a Liberal MP in 2008, when the party was in opposition. He ran against Trudeau for the Liberal leadership but dropped out of the race a month before it ended in the spring of 2013, calling it a “fait accompli” that his main rival would win.

When Trudeau became prime minister two years later, he named Garneau to his first cabinet as transport minister, a role he remained in until January 2021, when he was shuffled to foreign affairs.

Colin Robertson, a former career diplomat and vice-president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, said it makes sense to replace Garneau with Joly, who he described as a “new face” who can take a fresh crack at fulfilling Trudeau’s vision for Canada to play a larger role on the world stage.

Robertson also noted that Garneau is from a different generation than Trudeau, while Joly might have skills that mesh more with the direction the prime minister wants to take on major international issues.

“I think Trudeau wanted somebody who’s more reflective of how he sees Canada in the world,” Robertson said. “The prime minister has to be comfortable with his ministers.”

Yet Joly becomes Trudeau’s fifth foreign minister in just six years, which is “an issue” for a cabinet position that benefits from continuity and deep knowledge of complex global issues, said Roland Paris, a former foreign policy adviser to Trudeau and professor of international affairs at the University of Ottawa.

“Canada faces very significant and complicated challenges,” Paris said, “and the leadership of that department needs to have a firm hand on the tiller. And it is a complex set of issues that takes a while to absorb.”

Both Paris and Robertson noted that Joly will quickly face key challenges in the job, including navigating a dispute with the U.S. state of Michigan over the threatened closure of Line 5, a vital oil pipeline that supplies central Canada, as well as crafting a new strategy to deal with China and other countries in the Pacific region.

G20 Rome summit

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from Policy Magazine  

The Rome G20: Multilateral Stress Test or Last Call at the Star Wars Cantina?

Colin Robertson

October 26, 2021

This weekend’s G20 summit in Rome is important on a number of counts: as part of the international community’s ongoing pandemic and economic recovery response; in setting the tone for the COP26 Glasgow climate summit that immediately follows it; as well as for the World Trade Organization (WTO) ministerial in Geneva at the end of November. More important, Rome is a stress test of multilateralism. Amid levels of geopolitical tension not seen in half a century, can diverse nations act on behalf of the common good?

It does not help that key players including China’s Xi Jinping, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Japan’s Fumio Kishida and Mexico’s Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador will not be there.

Nor that the extraordinary G20 summit on Afghanistan earlier this month failed to meet expectations. It could not even come up with a communiqué. Instead, thechair’s summary said safe passage should be given to those Afghans who wished to leave the country, that future humanitarian programs should focus on women and girls and the Taliban should contain militant groups operating out of the country. Neither Xi nor Putin dialed into the call.

Rome is about getting straight answers to two key questions.

On COVID, how soon will the world be sufficiently vaccinated? Vaccine production has increased but distribution remains a problem, especially in Africa. Will we learn the lessons from COVID to be prepared for the next pandemic?

In terms of economic recovery, can the G20 nations nurture and support economic growth while avoiding inflationary pressures? Can the developing nations cope with debt and the social pressures created by COVID? Importantly, will the rich help the poor?

With the Glasgow climate summit just days away, Rome will also give a sense of the answer to a third question. Will leaders make the required national commitments and will developed nations come up with the funding to mitigate climate change for developing nations?

As to climate, Queen Elizabeth put it best when she was picked up by a hot mic saying of COP and political rhetoric that it is “irritating” when “they talk, but they don’t do.” Bookend the 95 year-old monarch’s icy assessment with that of 18-year-old Greta Thunberg’s excoriating world leaders for their “blah, blah, blah” and you get a sense of intergenerational frustration over the existential threat of climate change. G20 nations account for almost three-quarters of global greenhouse gas emissions.

In his remarks at the UN General Assembly in September, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres warned that the world is “on the edge of an abyss and moving in the wrong direction.” Can the leading nations come together to deal with the pressing issues of our time: the pandemic and getting the world vaccinated; setting a course for sustainable economic recovery that also addresses inequality at home and internationally.

For Guterres, Rome will be the latest in a continuing series of tests of the current multilateral system: “On the one hand, we see the vaccines developed in record time — a victory of science and human ingenuity. On the other hand, we see that triumph undone by the tragedy of a lack of political will, selfishness and mistrust… This is a moral indictment of the state of our world. It is an obscenity. We passed the science test. But we are getting an F in ethics.” Guterres concluded, “The problems we have created are problems we can solve.”

To meet the World Health Organization (WHO) goal of fully vaccinating at least 40 per cent of the population in every country by year’s end and 70 per cent by mid-2022, high-income countries need to fulfill existing vaccine dose donation pledges, coordinate with manufacturers to prioritize deliveries to COVAX in the near-term and remove trade restrictions on the flow of vaccines and their inputs.

For Prime Minister Justin Trudeau it will be his first chance for face-to-face meetings with his fellow leaders since the September 20 election. He has now won three elections and with the impending retirement of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, he becomes the senior member of the G7. This gives him place and standing. His father, Pierre Trudeau, put a lot of effort into bridge-building between North and South and then into the East-West divide, culminating in his farewell peace initiative. What will Justin Trudeau leave as his global legacy?

In Rome, we can expect Trudeau to support the global tax reform package generated by Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland and her counterparts. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) estimates that when implemented, the reforms have the potential to yield around $150 billion in additional global tax revenues annually. But national governments must now pass implementing legislation and, given the polarized US Congress, passage is no sure thing.

Trudeau will also press his fellow leaders to contribute to the annual $100 billion finance mitigation fund for developing nations, a process led by Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson and his German counterpart, State Secretary Jochen Flasbarth, in advance of COP.

It’s hard to imagine a more disparate set of leaders — with the authoritarians now outnumbering the liberal internationalists around the table. It includes flakes and gangsters reminiscent of the original Star Wars scene when Han Solo is confronted by the bounty hunter Greedo in the Mos Eisley cantina.

It was financial crises – the Asian and dot.com crashes at the turn of the millennium – that gave the G20 its birth. Its architects, Canadian Paul Martin and American Larry Sommers, designed it to be the financial fire brigade: bringing together the leading economies’ finance ministers and central bankers and, since the 2008 crisis, heads of government. Through 2008-09, the empowered G20 acted as the global economic management board to address what we now call the Great Recession. The G20 was to be the catalyst to better incorporating China and the big developing economies into the IMF and WTO and while also driving the IMF and OECD agendas to revive trade negotiations and stimulate global tax reform. The G20 of 2008-09 got things done and coordinated global economic recovery.

Since then, China’s “peaceful rise” has given way to a more aggressive push for superpower status. But with power comes responsibility. As then-US deputy secretary of state, later World Bank President Robert Zoellick warned in his 2005 speech to the National Committee on US-China Relations, China needs to assume “a responsibility to strengthen the international system that has enabled its success.” This includes working constructively on non-proliferation, pandemics, trade and technology, as well as climate.

Today, the G20 is more a caucus than a cabinet. There is always a tendency for communiqués to resort to bromides and weasel words to camouflage their inability to agree. It’s hard to imagine a more disparate set of leaders — with the authoritarians now outnumbering the liberal internationalists around the table. It includes flakes and gangsters reminiscent of the original Star Wars scene when Han Solo is confronted by the bounty hunter Greedo in the Mos Eisley cantina. In that sense the G20 reflects the realities of contemporary world geo-economic politics. It’s a meaner and messier world made more complicated by existential challenges like pandemics and climate change.

The world is beset by labour and supply chain problems, and there are already fears that there will be fewer presents under the tree this Christmas because the goods are still sitting in a ship somewhere. With the US looking to ‘decouple’ from China and China pursuing ‘dual circulation’, globalization as we knew it is entering a new phase where the emphasis will be on secure and resilient supply chains that protect production and transportation with ‘trusted’ partners.

Then there are worries about rising inflation. The assumption that we could all borrow trillions of dollars in newly printed cash was premised on a quick bounce-back and only a short burst of inflation. Now bankers and finance ministers are trying to figure out if we all borrowed too much and if so what to do about it.

Debt relief for emerging economies is essential. Many of their citizens remain unvaccinated and the IMF estimates 65–75 million more people will fall into poverty. Borrowing costs are increasing, and their central banks are raising interest rates to stave off inflation. The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) assesses that the damage from the pandemic has exceeded that of the Great Recession in most parts of the global economy, but has been particularly draining on the developing world.

The G20 should lead. The recent issue of US$456 billion of Special Drawing Rights (SDRs) to IMF member countries, creating additional international reserve assets, is a first step that should be followed by the developed economies and China passing their new SDRs to the world’s poorest countries.

While protectionism prevailed across the board with the onset of the pandemic, the WTO’s June Trade Monitoring Report says trade policy restraint by G20 economies prevented a destructive acceleration of protectionist trade measures that would have further hurt the world economy.

It’s a start but much more needs to be done.

It’s been 20 years since the current round of global trade negotiations began at Doha in November, 2001. The United States continues to block the appointment of new judges on WTO panels despite efforts by Canada and like-minded nations. The WTO’s dispute-settlement process is now stalled.

US Trade Representative Katherine Tai spoke recently in Geneva, reaffirming US support for the WTO without identifying what changes Washington wants. In a recent Foreign Affairs piece, Peterson Institute CEO Adam Posen says the inward trade policy practiced by recent administrations is doing immense harm to American workers and the American economy.  But the world does not stop and wait for the US to get its house in order.

For Canada and its kindred democracies, multilateralism is an article of faith and a cornerstone of our respective foreign policies that has helped preserve peace and create a prosperity our ancestors could only dream about. Failure to act multilaterally will make for a meaner, poorer and more dangerous world. Our children and grandchildren will wonder how we could so blow it.

For more on G20 see  this G20 PRIMER


Table of Contents

Recognize the Taliban

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The federal government should recognize the Taliban as the new government in Afghanistan while making safe passage out for those we left behind a part of the deal.

Shunning the Taliban as retribution for the West’s defeat would be a mistake. That the Taliban include drug-dealing, misogynist killers as members is beside the point. Diplomatic recognition should not be considered a seal of approval, but rather as the means by which a given country represents and advances the interests of its citizens.

That’s why, despite the blood of millions on Mao Zedong’s hands, we recognized the People’s Republic of China in 1970; Pierre Trudeau recognized that we could not be a responsible player in global affairs if we ignored one-quarter of the global community.

That’s why a group that was once deemed a terrorist organization – Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress – became the government in South Africa. The steadfast support from the governments of Brian Mulroney and Jean Chrétien is still remembered, although these days, we don’t pay enough attention to the continent.

That’s why Canada keeps an embassy in Havana, which has helped our relations with Washington, as they rely on our reports.

While Canada’s evacuation from Kabul airport has officially ended, we still have both history and vital interests in Afghanistan. More than 40,000 Canadians served in Afghanistan, with 158 killed between 2001 and 2014. Since 2001, Canada has provided more than $3.6-billion in international assistance for security, education, health and the rights of women and girls. Even if half of Canadians think we’ve done enough, we need to look after the Canadians left behind, the Afghans who helped us when we were there, those with family ties to Canada, and those with a well-founded fear of persecution from the Taliban.

International support, mostly from the West, sustained Afghanistan for the last 20 years, and while Russia or China will want to fill this void, it comes with a price (as Russia will well remember). Humanitarian assistance – Canada pledged $50-million through the United Nations and Red Cross last week – gives us leverage that Western governments should apply collectively to ensure the Taliban follow through on “assurances” that those who want out will “be allowed to proceed in a safe and orderly manner.” In mid-August, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised to resettle 20,000 Afghans in addition to the government’s prior commitment to those who helped Canada. Those numbers will likely increase, as we saw when Ottawa made a similar promise to Syrians; whichever party forms the next government should also encourage private sponsorships.

That’s a start, but defending democracy is going to require once-complacent U.S. allies to step up and share the burden in terms of defence and security, diplomacy and development. China may be pressing its alternative to our liberal rules-based system, but the West’s real challenge is less about constraining China than preventing the U.S. from slipping further into isolationism. As we learned during the Trump administration, the system of liberal democracy withers without U.S. leadership and participation.

Middle powers such as Canada must step into the breach, starting with the reform of our creaky multilateral institutions. Our allies, including Norway, the United Kingdom and Germany, have produced thoughtful research on how to achieve it, and Canada’s next government should do the same. Canadians pride ourselves on being helpful fixers, but in reality we fall short in our capacity to even punch our weight; as scholar Adam Chapnick writes, the catchphrase “Canada is back” is humbug

A global Canada is more than a choice: It’s a necessity. Trade generates more than 60 per cent of our GDP. One in five Canadians was born abroad. Immigration accounts for about two-thirds of Canada’s population growth. In an election campaign called on the day that Kabul fell to the Taliban, our party leaders should be debating how they will reinvest in our diplomatic service, our armed forces and development, and recommit to the understanding that doing diplomacy means “being there,” no matter how unpleasant.

If we are to bring a Canadian perspective to the world stage, we need a presence on the ground to appreciate histories, geographies and cultures, and to gain insights into other governments. Indeed, recognizing the Taliban in Afghanistan should be followed by reopening our embassy in Iran and re-establishing a diplomatic presence in Pyongyang.

The world is a messy place, and it’s only getting messier. To help fix it, we need to be actively engaged with our allies – and, yes, with those we don’t like or trust. After all, that’s what diplomacy is all about: We practise it not just for the collective good, but because it is how we advance Canadian interests.

Carter Malkasian: American War in Afghanistan

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What Happened in Afghanistan and What Does it Mean for Canada?

Colin Robertson

August 25, 2021

On the advice of an American friend – one of the many American foreign service officers who had served in both Iraq and Afghanistan – I’d started reading Carter Malkasian’s The American War in Afghanistan: A History. It was early July and President Joe Biden had just given a news conference at the White House saying, “We did not go to Afghanistan to nation build. It’s the right and the responsibility of Afghan people alone to decide their future and how they want to run their country.”

No one thought then that by mid-August the Taliban would be in Kabul. For Malkasian, however, the war was already lost long ago. Having travelled the country in 2009, Malkasian saw that in “battle after battle, numerically superior and better-supplied soldiers and police were being defeated by poorly resourced and unexceptionally led Taliban.” That America could not have done much more, writes Malkasian, than “muddle along for years in the face of a relentless enemy is the unsatisfying, sometimes frustrating coda to our longest war.”

A Taliban religious scholar told Malkasian “The Taliban fight for belief, for janat (heaven) and ghazi (killing infidels). … The army and police fight for money…The Taliban are willing to lose their head to fight. … How can the army and police compete.” Besides, writes Malkasian, “the police and soldiers did not want to put their lives on the line for a government that was corrupt and prone to neglect them.” Even the better-trained Afghan special forces, “still had great difficulty fighting without U.S. air support and advisers.” So, while the world was shocked at the suddenness of the Afghan forces’ retreat, that they folded was not a surprise.

The Taliban’s ability to link their cause to the very meaning of being Afghan, writes Malkasian, was a crucial factor in America’s defeat. For Afghans, jihad, better translated as “resistance” or “struggle”, has historically been a means of defense against oppression by outsiders, part of their endurance against invader after invader since the time of Alexander the Great. In more recent times, they have first exhausted, then repelled the British, the Soviets and now the Americans.

Malkasian writes as a scholar having done his doctorate at Oxford in military history and then taught. He is also a practitioner, having served as a civilian advisor in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Later he was the senior advisor to General Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, from 2015 to 2019.

The American War in Afghanistan is Malkasian’s third book. It builds on his War Comes to Garmser: Thirty Years of Conflict on the Afghan Frontier (2013), and Illusions of Victory: The Anbar Awakening and the Rise of the Islamic State (2017). As source material for this big book, Malkasian draws from the documents collected by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. He also interviewed Taliban leadership and digested Taliban texts in Pashto.

Afghanistan has spawned a cottage industry of narratives and memoirs and Malkasian’s book deserves a place alongside the Sarah Chayes classic The Punishment of Virtue (2006), Dexter Filkins’ The Forever War (2008), Sebastian Junger’s War (2010) and General Stanley McCrystal’s My Share of the Task (2013).

Malkasian begins his story in a rural village surrounded by mounds of gray rocks each planted with a flag — “a strip of cloth tied to a long bamboo pole.” It is illustrative of Malkasian’s fluidly readable prose, essential because the book, like the war itself, is long: 21 chapters at 577 pages. It begins with a sketch of Afghanistan geography and demography, culture and society, then moves to the US invasion and the early years of Hamid Karzai and the Bush administration. Then comes the fighting, including the Canadian experience in Kandahar (2007-9), followed by the surge (2009-11) and the height of the American military experience. The latter third looks at the American efforts at drawdown and the on-again, off- again negotiations with the rotating Taliban and Afghan leadership, and the unity government of 2014. It concludes with the Trump administration, why the US failed, what opportunities existed for a better ending, and why America “never just got out.”

Afghanistan, as President Biden put it recently, has earned the sobriquet ‘the graveyard of empires’, sadly proving ‘that no amount of military force would ever deliver a stable, united, and secure Afghanistan’.

Some good, Malkasian acknowledges, came from the American occupation: better infrastructure, women’s rights and freedom of the press. How much of that will endure? The last time the Taliban ruled, extremism spread, the Islamic State appeared and, writes Malkasian, “Sacrifice, suicide, revenge, and killing ascended as values. Violence begat violence… Worst of all, the war twisted the Afghan people.”

In 1990, as the Soviets were pulling out of Afghanistan, I travelled up the Khyber Pass with a friend serving at our Embassy in Islamabad. Our escort in the jeep that took us through the mountainous pass was a member of the Khyber Rifles, whose fame dated back to Kipling’s time. He wore running shoes and carried a Lee-Enfield rifle but his talisman against harm and our real protection was his Khyber Rifles beret that could easily be seen by those in the Pass. It was a hot, bleak and happily uneventful trip with the only distraction the crests of British regiments that had once served on the frontier. We got to Landi Kotal and then Michni, close to the Afghan border. In the distance, what I thought were clouds was the smoke from the Mujahadeen shelling the retreating Soviets. We stopped at a refugee camp and watched a buzkashi game — a kind of polo but played with a goat’s head or when played across the border, as I was told by one participant, with the head of a Soviet “invader”. We bought tribal prayer rugs decorated with Kalashnikovs and the spiked grenades that the Afghans hated because they had maimed too many of their children.

Afghanistan, as President Biden put it recently, has earned the sobriquet ‘the graveyard of empires’, sadly proving “that no amount of military force would ever deliver a stable, united, and secure Afghanistan.”

The ‘forever war’ for Americans was also a long war for Canadians. Nick Burns, then the US ambassador to NATO (and now President Biden’s nominee to go to Beijing) told me on several occasions that the NATO decision to invoke, for the first time, the collective security provisions of Article Five — that an attack on one is an attack on all — was the initiative of our then-NATO ambassador David Wright. That decision launched the US-led NATO intervention that is only now concluding.

More than 40,000 Canadians served in Afghanistan with 158 killed between 2001 and 2014, including my foreign service colleague Glyn Berry (2006). More came home injured or psychologically wounded, and the Canadian Armed Forces report that 191 veterans have taken their own lives since 2011.

John Manley captured the dilemma for Canadians in the Independent Panel on Canada’s Future Role in Afghanistan report (2008) prepared for then-prime minister Stephen Harper. Manley wrote, “If I learned one thing from this enquiry, it is that there is no obvious answer to the question of Canada’s future role in Afghanistan. But our presence in that distant land does matter… because it concerns global and Canadian security, Canada’s international reputation, and the well-being of some of the world’s most impoverished and vulnerable people.” Our commitment is important, continued Manley, “because it has already involved the sacrifice of Canadian lives.” The report concluded with a prescient warning: “The war in Afghanistan is complicated. The future there is dangerous and can frustrate the most confident plan or prediction.”

Stephen Harper concluded that to suggest victory was the complete defeat of the insurgency and the replacement of a failed state in Afghanistan with a modern liberal democracy was not realistic: “I think what we should be aiming for in Afghanistan is a viable state that respects…some democratic norms, but I think ultimately the insurgency will last a long time. Afghanistan, through most of its history, has been an untamed country…the idea we’re going to wipe out an insurgency is completely unrealistic.”

For Canada, the Maple Leaf in Kandahar came down in 2011.

In a recent CGAI essay on the lessons of Afghanistan, longtime World Bank official and former North-Institute President Joe Ingram concludes that international support going forward needs to help “internal actors build a core set of governance institutions and systems that would be able to mobilize and effectively spend state revenue in accordance with accountability systems and transparency requirements, thereby reducing corruption and state capture while diminishing the state’s reliance on foreign aid.”

The Afghan experience is a cautionary tale for future international interventions. The defeat has created a palpable fatigue with nation-building. How will this square with Joe Biden’s determination to promote and support democracy, especially as the divide between open and closed systems widens?

The US is the one nation with the capacity and capability to truly make a difference. No American ally can take comfort in what happened in Afghanistan. American presidents and their Congress will be chary about any sort of security assistance, especially when it requires boots on the ground. The US will also expect more of the allies. Even then, when push comes to shove, can the allies depend on the US?

The western experience in Afghanistan obliges policy-makers to think hard about future interventions. “We believed things were possible in Afghanistan” observes Malkasian, “defeat of the Taliban or enabling the Afghan government to stand on its own — that probably were not.” Without an appreciation of the history, culture, geography and local politics, we may win battles but we lose the war.