Aboard HMCS Winnipeg

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

The author aboard the HMCS Winnipeg (Royal Canadian Navy)


By Colin Robertson

POLICY MAGAZINE August 4, 2023

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The sleeping quarters before we made our beds (author)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NATO Vilnius summit: What Happened

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

Colin Robertson


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yet, Zelensky did not leave Vilnius empty-handed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NATO Vilnius summit

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NATO Meets a World of New Threats

Colin Robertson


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

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

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

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

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

These promises remain largely unfulfilled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Helsinki & Tallinn

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Seeing Russia, and the Arctic, from Helsinki and Tallinn


Colin Robertson

July 2, 2023

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

visit to Hybrid Threats Center

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

1. Current Threats

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

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

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

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

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

2. Arctic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Russia & China

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

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

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

G7 Hiroshima summit: Takeaways

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Out of Hiroshima: Takeaways from the 2023 G7

The G7 leaders meeting in Hiroshima, May 19, 2023/Adam Scotti

Colin Robertson


The G7 leaders met this past weekend in Hiroshima and, in an impressive demonstration of solidarity, agreed to a common approach to tackling Russia, China, economic security and many other significant challenges of our day.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who flew in on a jet provided by France for the final day, secured the leaders’ commitment to ‘support Ukraine for as long as it takes.’ In addition to promises of more arms and money, President Joe Biden said the US would provide training for pilots to operate F-16s.

New sanctions were applied to Russia aimed at hampering its military-industrial defence base. There are additional bans on transfers of western technology and services. The aim is to stop the circumvention and evasion of sanctions and to crack down on the Russian energy and extractive capabilities that are funding Russia’s war.

On China, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak reflected the position of the group when he said China is “increasingly authoritarian at home and abroad” and posed “the greatest challenge of our age“.

The Leaders’ Communiqué explicitly called out “China’s militarization activities” in the Indo-Pacific and its abuse of human rights in Hong Kong and Tibet, as well as in Xinjiang, “where forced labor is of major concern.” The Leaders also told China “not to conduct interference activities aimed at undermining the security and safety of our communities, the integrity of our democratic institutions and our economic prosperity.”

The economies of the G7 and China are inextricably dependent, with China being the first, second or third-biggest trading partner for every G7 member (China is Canada’s second-largest trading partner, or third when trade with the EU-27 as a whole is included).

Recognizing that it is “necessary to cooperate with China”, the communique rejects “decoupling or turning inwards” but adds that “economic resilience requires de-risking and diversifying.”

The leaders’ separate statement on “Economic Resilience and Economic Security” addresses the “disturbing rise” in the “weaponization of economic vulnerabilities”, and cites “economic coercion” as something that will be countered — a definite reference to China. Leaders agreed to a “coordination platform” to counter that coercion and work with emerging economies.

While vague on how this would work, the aim, spelled out in a recent speech by US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, is for affected countries to help each other out by not increasing trade with China at the expense of partners, and by identifying ways to work around any blockages put up by China. The Yellen approach also described ‘friendshoring’ by building reliable and secure critical supply chains, an approach also endorsed by Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland.

The leaders’ separate statement on ‘Economic Resilience and Economic Security’ addresses the ‘disturbing rise’ in the ‘weaponization of economic vulnerabilities’, and cites ‘economic coercion’ as something that will be countered — a definite reference to China.

Supply chains for strategic minerals and semiconductors will be strengthened. So will digital infrastructure to prevent hacking and the stealing of technology. Trade ministers are tasked with curbing “inappropriate transfers” of technology shared through research activities.

Multilateral export controls are back in force, particularly for technologies used in military and intelligence, so as “to counter malicious practices in the digital sphere to protect global value and supply chains from illegitimate influence, espionage, illicit knowledge leakage, and sabotage.” The US, with support from Japan and the Netherlands, has already banned exports of chips and chip technology to China.

In its response to the Hiroshima meeting, China accused the G7 of “smearing and attacking” it, calling on partner countries to “stop ganging up to form exclusive blocs” and “containing and bludgeoning other countries” and, in more classic projection, to avoid becoming accomplices to the US “economic coercion”. Russia was equally critical and the two nations are strengthening their economic ties.

Hiroshima, the home riding of host Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, is, of course, better known as the site of the first atomic bombing in 1945. In their ‘Hiroshima Vision’, the first G7 Leaders’ document to focus on nuclear disarmament, they vowed to achieve “a world without nuclear weapons with undiminished security for all.”

Having prioritized climate, food and energy security and Canada’s capacity in critical minerals, Justin Trudeau’s objectives were contained in the G7 Clean Energy Economy Action Plan and the Hiroshima Action Statement for Resilient Global Food Security. There was explicit recognition that critical minerals are essential to the transition to clean energy. Like other leaders, Trudeau made a series of funding announcements on food and climate security, as well as to support continued monitoring of North Korean weapons of mass destruction and Iran’s nuclear activities. Trudeau also announced the establishment of diplomatic relations with the Cook Islands to underline the government’s commitment to its new Indo-Pacific strategy.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky meeting with prime Minister Justin Trudeau on the sidelines of the Hiroshima G7, May 21, 2023/Adam Scotti

The G7 Communiqué runs to just over 19,000 words with accompanying statements lifting that word count to 30,000. As with all summit communiqués, mostly assembled over months in advance, it is a dauntingly dense and often turgid read. But what comes through is the policy discussions, deep and comprehensive, covering the waterfront of issues. This is practical multilateralism at work for shared purpose among the democracies.

The G7 — comprising the leaders of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, United Kingdom, and the United States — is an annual process of ongoing meetings of officials and ministers on a multitude of issues, that culminates in the annual summit. In addition to the presidents of the European Commission and European Council, in recent years it has included invited partners as well as the heads of the principal multilateral organizations. This year, Japan invited Australia, Brazil, Comoros, Cook Islands, India, Indonesia, Vietnam, and the Republic of Korea.

It’s an organigram far larger than the group in the annual class photos and it makes the G7 a multilateral jamboree whose value goes beyond the set-piece meetings. This year it also included a meeting of the Quad (US, Australia, India and Japan), a trilateral between the US, Japan and Korea as well as multiple bilateral meetings (12 for Trudeau, according to PMO) and pull-asides.

With a rotating chair (Italy will host next year and Canada will host in 2025), its revolving bureaucratic structure can be uneven but it works. After 49 summits (the G7 did not meet in 2020) there is continuity and follow-through in managing shared issues. Given their collective weight, when the G7 reaches a consensus, their decisions influence global direction.

As if to illustrate the alternative, while the G7 met in Hiroshima, the Arab League was counter-programming with the authoritarian spectacle of re-admitted Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad being greeted by his Saudi host, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, with a warm embrace.

But democracy and the democracies remain, as it has been for most of this century, under siege. According to Freedom House, while global freedom declined for the 17th consecutive year, the good news is that the gap between the number of countries that registered overall improvements in political rights and civil liberties and those that registered overall declines for 2022 was the narrowest it has been since that decline began. The Economist’s Democracy Index for 2022 reported that, despite expectations of a post-pandemic rebound, the state of human freedom remained essentially unchanged.

As if to illustrate the alternative, while the G7 met in Hiroshima, the 22-nation Arab League was counter-programming with the authoritarian spectacle of re-admitted Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad being greeted by his Saudi host, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, with a warm embrace.  Meanwhile, in Xian, Chinese President Xi Jinping hosted the leaders of five Central Asian nations, underlining Beijing’s growing influence in the region. China is already their largest trading partner and they are all participants in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the massive infrastructure plan launched in 2013 that has expanded China’s economic and political influence, fuelled the decline of democracy in participating countries and prompted the aforementioned references to economic coercion.

To counter the Belt and Road, the G7 last year created its Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment. By 2027 it should mobilize up to $600 billion for projects such as railways, clean energy and telecommunications in developing nations. The addition of partner countries at their summits is a recognition by the G7 that they need to broaden their outreach to the Global South. Immediately after the G7 meeting, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken headed to Papua New Guinea and a forum of Pacific Islands leaders to strengthen trade and security links.

Since its creation in 1975 in the wake of the oil shock crisis, the G7 has had two overriding priorities: strengthening the global economy and bolstering the rules-based order. Even if its economic weight has shrunk – where once it accounted for close to 70 percent of global GDP, today it is closer to 40 percent — when it acts collectively and in alignment with NATO on security and the EU on economics, its decisions can influence global norms and outcomes.

While their politics and personalities vary, G7 leadership usually share a commitment to fundamental democratic norms and values, unlike the G20, to which all G7 members belong. While the economic weight of the G20 accounts for almost 80 percent of global GDP, its members are truly disparate, with autocrats outnumbering the democrats.

Face-to-face diplomacy is essential to deal with the various and intersecting global crises: an assertive and often aggressive China; the Russian invasion of Ukraine; conflicts in the Middle East, Asia, Africa and the Americas; climate change; food and energy insecurity aggravated by inflation; more displaced persons than we’ve seen since the Second World War; the potential for more pandemics; and now the uncertainties posed by technological innovation, especially artificial intelligence.

If we are to avoid the worst, as the top diplomatic table for the wealthy democracies, the G7 has its work cut out for it. It is not global government but a collective that represents democratic values that are under assault. Given the times and the intense pressures facing us, complacency is not an option. We need a muscular and robust G7.

CTV piece May 22 !https://www.ctvnews.ca/video?clipId=2691472

CBC piece May 20 https://cbchls.akamaized.net/delivery/news/2023/05/19/Colin-Robertson-NN-INT-14-26-39/Colin-Robertson-NN-INT_5000kbps.mp4

Budget cuts at Global Affair

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The 2023 budget aims for public service travel cuts to compose a ‘portion’ of a 15 per cent reduction in professional services and travel

BY NEIL MOSS | April 12, 2023 HILL TIMES

As the federal government seeks to slash travel costs, there is hope that it will take a “common sense” approach to avoid harming the work of departments that rely on international engagement to conduct their day-to-day operations.

The March 28 budget pledged it would cut consulting, professional services, and travel by “roughly” 15 per cent, noting that the target of the reductions will “focus” on “professional services, particularly management consulting.” The cuts are expected to save $7.1-billion over five years.

Treasury Board Secretariat spokesperson Barb Couperus said reductions in travel will make up a “portion” of the 15 per cent cut.

“The details around how these reductions will be applied across departments are being developed and will be communicated to departments in the coming months,” Couperus said.

The Department of National Defence travels the most of any federal department. Its travel totalled around $190-million in the 2021-22 fiscal year (which includes hospitality and conference fees), up from around $85-million in the pandemic-affected fiscal year of 2020-21, but down from around $376-million in 2018-2019.

Global Affairs Canada is also among the departments with the largest travel expenditures, totalling more than $29-million in 2021-22—an increase from around $12-million in 2020-21, but down from $100-million in 2018-19. That $100-million figure was also boosted by Canada hosting the G7 summit in Charlevoix, Que., in June 2018, as well as increased engagement with the United States amid the rocky renegotiations of NAFTA.

Other departments with substantial travel expenditures include the Canada Border Services Agency, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and Statistics Canada.The recent budget pledge is the second time in three years the government has indicated it will curtail trip expenditures. In the 2021 financial plan, the operating budgets of governmental departments and agencies were cut to save $1.1-billion over five years.

With technological improvements allowing for increased use of virtual platforms to engage internationally in lieu of travel, some caution against the federal government relying too much on Zoom diplomacy.

David Perry, president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, told The Hill Times that the pledge to cut public service travel is a concern for the rollout of Canada’s foreign policy.

“What you’ve seen in the last three years, there’s lots you can do with virtual meetings … to meet remotely, it doesn’t 100 per cent replace face-to-face interactions,” he said. “We’ve suffered through, I think, three years of having far too few face-to-face interactions with people.

Perry said there is an added concern if the travel reductions will be based on spending in recent years that was already truncated due to the pandemic.

“I do have a lot of concern because you are basically cutting from a base that was already, I think, insufficient in terms of how much the people that implement Canada’s international policy are able to actually go out and meet with real humans in real life,” he said.

Perry said that public service travel cuts will have an oversized effect on internationally engaged departments, as they are the ones with a disproportionate travel budget.

Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers (PAFSO) president Pamela Isfeld said she is puzzled about why travel reductions were attached to cuts on professional services.“Why are those lumped together? I don’t understand,” she said.

The union represents more than 2,000 foreign service officers.

“There are some people—maybe in departments … where they don’t get to travel so much—that travel is seen as a luxury, but it’s not a luxury if your job is to maintain a relationship with foreign partners or to represent Canada at international meetings and be the expert on international files,” Isfeld added.

“We just hope that common sense is applied in this and that there are good, solid distinctions in when something is discretionary versus when it is essential,” she said.

While there is an advantage to meeting in person, Isfeld said it is a “double-edged sword” as diplomats don’t want to be constantly on a plane, but noted in-person meetings will “always be necessary” even if virtual options allow “more flexibility.”

She said while the union is keeping its eye on the budget pledge, it isn’t yet overly concerned that it will have a direct material impact on operations.

Isfeld also said that PAFSO will keep a watchful eye that foreign service officers won’t be forced into taking a “convoluted route” with a multitude of layovers that turns a day trip into a multi-day trek so the government can save money.

Former Liberal staffer Elliot Hughes, who served as policy director to then-defence minister Harjit Sajjan (Vancouver South, B.C.), said now isn’t the time to reduce Canada’s global presence.

“I really do hope that the government takes a smart approach to this,” said Hughes, now a senior associate at Summa Strategies. “This is not the time for the government to be pulling back from its international engagements, whether that be on the diplomatic side or the defence side.”

“Post-COVID, people are meeting more and more in person and Canada needs to be at those discussions and those tables,” he said.

“Those are delicate issues [and] ones that are best communicated face-to-face. We certainly shouldn’t be relying on the ability to simply Zoom with other ministers around the world as a replacement to meeting them face-to-face—there’s nothing that can beat that,” he said. “We can’t find ourselves relying on the technology just because we used it for a couple of years during the pandemic.”

He said Canada has to make sure that it isn’t being left out of discussions due to relying on virtual means.

“I do hope that we don’t rest on our laurels and get used to the world from the pandemic and avoid going to the meetings and seeing people face-to-face, shaking those hands, being able to have those candid, necessary discussions in person. That’s irreplaceable,” he said, while noting there are options to ensure that undue expenditures are kept under control.

Former diplomat Colin Robertson, who served as Canada’s consul general in Los Angeles during a 33-year career in the foreign service, said travel cuts are a fact of life for Canadian diplomats.

“Travel cuts have always been a part of life of Global Affairs,” he said, noting that closer to the end of the fiscal year, there is always a tightening of the wallet.

Roberson said he doesn’t think the travel cuts would hamper the department’s work, remarking that he foresees the necessary travel still taking place.

“But we’re into a different paradigm,” he said, with the introduction of the various virtual platforms to conduct meetings.

“I do think travel is one area where reassessment has gone on as a result of technology and what we have learned from the pandemic,” he said.

But travel within a country will remain important for diplomats posted abroad, Robertson said, noting that the capacity to resolve an issue is “significantly higher” if a diplomat has met the person they are dealing with in real life.

“Those budgets have been pared back in recent years [so] that really the only person that travels is the head of mission,” he said.

The former diplomat said that despite the technology, there is “great value” for in-person meetings, as it is essential to grow a foreign service officer’s network.

“But if it’s somebody you know well, then you can often achieve the same purpose by telephone or through Zoom,” he said.


Biden Visit: What Happened

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Mr. Biden Came to Canada: Takeaways from the Visit

Colin Robertson

POLICY MAGAZINE March 30, 2023

As presidential visits go, the nearly 30 hours that Joe Biden and Dr. Jill Biden spent in Ottawa last week was as good as it gets. And while the optics were so exuberant and the mood so jubilant that it may actually go down in history as the “Fun Summit”, the substantive takeaways attest to both the real value and practical implications of bilateral harmony.

The stagecraft — the presence of the ‘Two Michaels’, the steelworker and Ukrainian refugee in the gallery of the House of Commons — lifted a page from presidential State of the Union addresses, while the gala dinner was done with Hollywood glitz with the help of star-spangled Canadians Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Eric McCormack and Hayden Christensen.

At the dinner, Biden toasted “to family, to Canada, and to the United States” the natural segue from his speech to Parliament, declaring that that “Americans and Canadians are two people, two countries … sharing one heart.”

The leaders’ 2700-word Joint Statement covers the waterfront, validating the hours and hours that teams of officials have spent fleshing out the detailed February 2021 Roadmap for a Renewed North American Partnership.

A presidential visit has a natural forcing function with the National Security Council’s inter-agency scrutiny and a similar process on the Canadian side led by the PMO and PCO. The top-level direction is the catalyst forcing deliverables and the dollars that go with them.

For Canada, the US process unlocked US approval of the extension to the Safe Third Country Agreement. It closes the loophole that last year saw 40,000 asylum seekers cross into Quebec from New York through Roxham Road, south of Montreal. In return, Canada will welcome 15,000 more refugees from the western hemisphere.

For Trudeau, it solves a problem with Quebec while the US gets another example of ‘legal pathways’ as it grapples with the migrant flow on its southern border. With an unprecedented 100 million displaced persons globally, including more than five million in the Americas, the challenge is how to implement safe and orderly migration.

Other border measures included more intelligence sharing, renewed focus on the U.S.-Canada Opioids Action Plan, and Canada joining the global coalition against synthetic drugs.

On trade, Biden told parliamentarians that the Inflation Reduction Act “explicitly… includes tax credits for electric vehicles assembled in Canada…recognizing how interconnected our auto industries are and our workers are.”

On defence and security, the two leaders maintained their ‘unwavering support for Ukraine for as long as it takes’ and this week’s budget the Trudeau government committed $CAD 2.45 billion in loans to the Ukrainian Government.

Clean energy collaboration got a boost with agreement to “harmonize charging standards and develop cross-border alternative-fuel corridors.” The new network of electric vehicle fast chargers will draw on USD $7.5 billion and CAD $1.2 billion. Both countries re-committed to achieving net-zero power grids by 2035.

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland and White House Special Presidential Coordinator for Global Infrastructure Amos Hochstein will lead an Energy Transformation Task Force to “advance our collective energy security.” It will report within a year on “renewable energy and electric vehicle supply chains, critical minerals and rare earths, grid integration and resilience, nuclear energy.”

One goal is to develop reliable North American nuclear fuel supply chains. Canada will join the Foundational Infrastructure for Responsible Use of Small Modular Reactor Technology program. An Advanced Technology Data and Security Dialogue will collaborate on shared priorities in quantum information science and technology.

Canadian companies are eligible for US Defense Production Act funding in “identifying, securing, and developing critical minerals extraction, processing, manufacturing, and recycling opportunities.” The 2023 federal budget provides funding incentives but, as panelists at this week’s CGAI annual Trade Policy Conference underlined, the real challenge in Canada is not funding but a regulatory process that is complex, confused, and takes forever.

Canadian companies will also be eligible for US funding “to advance packaging for semiconductors and printed circuit boards”. A cross-border packaging corridor is established beginning with the IBM facility in Bromont, Quebec.

On defence and security, the two leaders maintained their “unwavering support for Ukraine for as long as it takes” and this week’s budget the Trudeau government committed $CAD 2.45 billion in loans to the Ukrainian Government.

Biden said that in Canada, America could “find no better partner, no more reliable ally, no more steady friend.” It surprised those expecting the kind of gentle chiding parliamentarians received from Barack Obama in 2016 when he told them “NATO needs more Canada.

Spending just 1.27 precent of GDP on defence, Canada is far from meeting the 2024 NATO goal of 2 percent set in 2014.

The US wanted Canada to lead a peace operations mission in Haiti. Trudeau declined, saying that Haitians themselves had to take the lead and instead pledged CAD $100 million to support Haitian police. Chief of Defence Staff Wayne Eyre had earlier explained that Canadian Armed Forces capacity is strained coping with myriad operational challenges including recruitment, retainment and culture change. In February, Canada deployed two naval ships to patrol off Port-au-Prince as part of a multimillion-dollar assistance package announced at the Nassau CARICOM Summit.

NORAD modernization got more money: CAD $6.96 billion for two next generation Over-the-Horizon Radar systems to complement CAD $7.3 billion for northern forward operating locations for the 88 new F-35 aircraft costing CAD $19 billion.  here was no reference to new submarines or future naval bases in the Arctic. Presumably these, and more on missile defence, will be included in the anticipated, if delayed, update, announced in Budget 2022, to the 2017 defence strategy ‘Strong, Secure and Engaged’.

Leaders reconfirmed collaboration on cybersecurity and the resiliency of critical infrastructure, especially pipelines and power grids.

Trudeau specifically identified China, Russia and Iran as perpetrators of foreign interference and subterfuge as both leaders committed to defend democracies. At this week’s second Summit for Democracy the US pledged to make ‘technology work for, and not against, democracy.’ Participating by video, Trudeau announced over $CAD 50 million for initiatives that promote and protect democracy at home and abroad.

The Great Lakes, the world’s largest freshwater eco-system, are an example of over a century of joint Canada-US environmental stewardship. They will benefit from USD $1 billion and CAD $420 million over the next decade for cleanup, restoration and conservation.

Ongoing renegotiations of the 1964 Columbia River Treaty get a boost, with negotiators instructed to reach agreement in principle by this summer on mitigating water pollution in the Elk-Kootenai watershed that feeds into Idaho, Montana and British Columbia.

In another example of our deep diplomatic collaboration, Canada joins the US-initiated Americas Partnership for Economic Prosperity and intends to join the companion Indo-Pacific Economic Framework that will complement the US-Canada Indo-Pacific Dialogue.

Despite the March weather, the Bidens’ visit was a love-in from wheels down to wheels up.

As President Biden pointed out, the American embrace reflects the numbers in a new Gallup poll showing Canada as America’s favourite country, with a rating of 88 percent favorability. Meanwhile, more than half of Canadians, per an EKOS poll published March 24th, now describe the U.S.-Canada relationship as good — a twofold increase since the final months of Donald Trump’s presidency.

Making the case for keeping Canada within the US economic perimeter must continue. This requires an active business and labour outreach as well as engagement at all levels of government, in what must be a permanent campaign.

But Canadians cannot be complacent. While Americans may like us, protectionism and the appeal of “Buy American” policies are a permanent presence in our relationship.

For Canada, the Joint Statement, effectively updating the 2021 Roadmap, offers a lot of potential opportunity, most immediately around the clean energy task force.

Examining ‘green steel and aluminum’ presumably opens the door to Canada joining the EU-US arrangement. The task force should also look at a carbon border adjustment tax. The EU is well down this road. Given the deep integration of the Canadian and US economies a joint approach makes sense.

Our European allies and Japan need new energy supplies in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. President Biden recently approved drilling for oil and gas in the Arctic. Freeland should press the US for a fresh look at Keystone and Line 5 and, within Canada, at supplying LNG from our East coast.

President Biden has embraced industrial policy and tied it to the seismic shift to green energy that comes replete with major tax credits and incentives contained in the IRA, CHIPs and Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. It will require us to rethink our trade policy. Where it was once based on freer trade and reducing protectionism, we now have to shift to one recognizing greater government intervention. This means incorporating climate and labour standards with border taxes and tariffs as well as industrial incentives including subsidies and tax credits.

Making the case for keeping Canada within the US economic perimeter must continue. This requires an active business and labour outreach as well as engagement at all levels of government, in what must be a permanent campaign.

While we seek alignment with the US, we need to work with like-minded partners – Australia, Korea, Japan, Mexico, the EU – in a collective approach to disciplines on subsidies and border measures, rather than just swallow what the US decides.

For middle powers like Canada, the rules-based system is how we level the playing field against the arbitrary weight of great powers.

That this order is imperiled was again demonstrated last week in Moscow, where Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin issued their Joint Statement “deepening the comprehensive strategic partnership” and accusing the West of  “damaging acts of hegemony, domination and bullying.” Bidding farewell to Putin, Xi delivered a propaganda message meant more for Western audiences than for his interlocutor:“Right now there are changes – the likes of which we haven’t seen for 100 years – and we are the ones driving these changes together.”

As the US president has said repeatedly, the threat to democracy from authoritarians is the challenge of our time.

Last week, Biden told Canadian parliamentarians that when Xi Jinping asked him to define America in one word, he responded: “Possibilities…Nothing is beyond our capacity…And I could’ve said the same thing if he asked about Canada.”

The capacities that provide capabilities require continuing investments. It’s how we earned our place at the table setting up our rules-based order in the aftermath of the Second World War.

In recent years, successive Canadian governments have skimped and pared on investments in diplomacy; defence, including peace operations; development; and in funding for the resettlement of the displaced. We have work to do if we are to be included at the table updating the world order for a new century.

Policy Contributing Writer Colin Robertson, a former career diplomat who served extensively in the United States, is a Fellow and Senior Adviser with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute in Ottawa.

Hal Brands Twilight Struggle

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The Twilight Struggle’: Competition Between the Sunshine of Peace and the Darkness of War

The Twilight Struggle: What the Cold War Teaches Us About Great-Power Rivalry Today

By Hal Brands

Yale University Press, 2023

Reviewed by Colin Robertson   

POLICY MAGAZINE February 19, 2023

Is the world slipping into a new Cold War? And, if so, what can we learn from the last one? Hal Brands gives us much to consider in The Twilight Struggle: What the Cold War Teaches Us about Great-Power Rivalry Today

A prolific essayist and author on US foreign policy and diplomacy, Hal Brands is the Henry Kissinger Professor of Global Affairs at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

While the Cold War of 1945 to 1990 was the first to feature nuclear weapons, it is, says Brands, only the most recent in great-power competitions dating back to those recorded by Thucydides, Tacitus and earlier historians.

The Cold War is still part of our collective memory. It provides relevant experience for the US and its allies when it comes to blending cooperation with competition, marshaling a diverse and often fractured coalition, and thinking about long-term strategy while dealing with short-term shocks.

The Cold War, writes Brands, “was never strictly a debate of hard power or ‘geopolitical interests’” but “the larger principles—self-determination, democracy, human rights—that Americans had shed so much blood to defend.” Brands draws out key lessons, including the advantage of strategic patience, the focus on sustaining alliances, and the value of aligning grand strategy with national values.

If the Soviet Union was the principal antagonist for the West in the Cold War, this time it is a rising China. As led by Xi Jinping, China is determined to displace the USA in the Indo-Pacific and Eurasia while simultaneously undermining the rules-based international institutions and subverting democracies everywhere including, as CSIS reveals, in Canada.

Vladimir Putin’s Russia is also a threat, largely because of its arsenal of nuclear weapons and cyber capability. Putin wants to restore the sphere of influence once enjoyed by the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe, while sabotaging NATO and the European Union, and destabilizing world order generally.

Future historians will likely point to February 2022, and the signature of the Russo-Chinese “no limits” friendship on the eve of the Beijing winter Olympics and then the Russian invasion of Ukraine as the start of the new great power confrontation that, in this iteration, pits democracy against autocracy. Brands says we can expect a series of long and grinding contests most of which will be “twilight struggles”  — hence the book’s title — because they happen “between the sunshine of peace and the darkness of war.”

In response, argues Brands, the US and its allies must build robust democracies at home and develop military deterrent capability.

Sustaining democracy at home is essential, says Brands, because this is an ideological struggle. A free, open and diverse society is a proven magnet to business, students and tourists, and refugees and migrants from every corner of the world.

Entrepreneurial by instinct, newcomers join the innovators and discoverers that give the West its edge. This was instilled in me by former Secretary of State George Shultz who decried the attempts after 9-11 by then-Vice President Dick Cheney to ban migration from Muslim nations.

But openness must also be accompanied by military strength, including cyber-deterrence, intelligence capacity, and informational capability, given the pervasive reach of social media and mis/disinformation. While avoiding backing a “desperate, nuclear-armed regime” into a corner, there is “no path to success that doesn’t involve making China and Russia pay exorbitantly for aggressive policies.”

Ukraine is an alarm bell for NATO allies to meet their commitments. The Cold War framework — the hub and spoke alliances, the multilateral institutions — has endured although it now needs reform and reinvigoration. It means allies must meet the NATO commitment of spending 2 percent of GDP on defence by 2024. Canada currently spends 1.3 percent. Only when our arms are sufficient beyond doubt, declared John F. Kennedy in his 1961 inaugural address, can we be certain beyond doubt that they will never be employed.

The West, writes Brands, must be realistic in its expectations.

The most we can likely hope for is a return to “peaceful co-existence”, in which we can all enjoy the benefits of trade-based reciprocity. “Constructive inconsistency” is how Brands describes working with nations like India, Philippines and Vietnam because, as we are learning in the application of sanctions on Russia, the weight of the “consolidated” democracies – the EU, G7, Korea, Australia, New Zealand and Taiwan – is insufficient.

Dealing with China or Russia, says Brands, will also inevitably involve “relying on expedients, from covert action to outright coercion, it would never sanction at home.” But this is too often tricky and treacherous and, for democracies, a slippery slope as the US learned in the Iran-Contra scandal. Integrating morality into foreign policy is hard. It often involves compromises. But it should always be kept in mind not least because it is in our best interests.

Brands says we can learn much from the strategy and tactics employed during the Cold War. The best starting point is still George F. Kennan’s containment strategy. Spelled out in “The Sources of Soviet Conduct” (Foreign Affairs, July 1947), Kennan argued that the Soviet Union could “be contained by the adroit and vigilant application of counterforce at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points.”

At the time, few thought containment was the best strategy.

Isolationists like Herbert Hoover and Joseph Kennedy called for Washington to abandon its allies and withdraw to the Western Hemisphere. Kennedy, writes Brands, argued the US must “conserve American lives for American ends, not waste them in the freezing hills of Korea or on the battle-scarred plains of Western Germany.” Walter Lippmann, the leading American columnist of the day labeled containment a “strategic monstrosity” that would force unending interventions on behalf of “satellites, puppets, clients, agents about who we know very little.”

For now, the competitions with China and Russia have remained below the threshold of direct and open conflict, although daily cyber-intrusion is a gray zone and the necessary provision of Western arms to Ukraine is making it a proxy war.

Kennan’s view of the Soviet Union was that Stalin was incapable of good relations with the West because the combination of traditional Russian insecurity and expansionism, Communist ideology and Stalinist paranoia meant that it could never trust the capitalist world. But Stalin was not Hitler and he was in no particular hurry, so when he ran up against resistance he would recoil. Thus, the policy of containment. That Kennan lost faith in his own prescriptions because he put the emphasis on statecraft rather than military buildup is another story.

While strategy needs clear direction with conceptual guardrails, the vagueness of containment on specific tactics, says Brands, was also its strength because it allowed continuous adaptation to circumstances. Thus, the creation of institutions at home, like the National Security Council. Abroad, it resulted in NATO and the alliance system.

The “fusing of geopolitics and ideology”, Brands argues, “was necessary to create a Cold War consensus.” It furnished an overarching strategic theme: support for democracy. While anticipating the internal collapse of the Soviet system, it encouraged strategic patience.

Brands is ambivalent about détente. While engagement and statecraft are essential, the danger for the West is to ascribe our hopes to our adversaries when in fact our enemies are our enemies and they will exploit our piety. Ronald Reagan was right to employ the old Russian maxim “trust but verify”, with the emphasis on verification.

For now, the competitions with China and Russia have remained below the threshold of direct and open conflict, although daily cyber-intrusion is a gray zone and the necessary provision of Western arms to Ukraine is making it a proxy war. While history does not repeat itself there are similar rhythms of Cold War history that we need to study and learn from. That means preventing competition from turning into conflict.

Brands says much of Cold War strategy was distinguishing between what was central and what was peripheral. American commitments tended to proliferate and got them into trouble in places like Vietnam. While Ukraine does not qualify under NATO’s Article V, what happens there could well have implications elsewhere. With Taiwan his target, Xi Jinping is watching how the West responds in Ukraine.

There is also the danger of fatalism and ascribing strengths to the adversary that they don’t have. Despite Sputnik, Russia was never technologically or strategically superior to the United States. So, too, with China, which may have certain asymmetric advantages, but faces major demographic, environmental and internal strains at home.

We need to avoid acting precipitously. There were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the justification for invasion. Wishful thinking should never pervert intelligence subjected to critical scrutiny. Action against Afghanistan was necessary because it gave Osama bin Laden his base for 9-11. But as with Iraq, staying on and trying to install democracy turned liberation into the trap of occupation.

The Cold War, writes Brands, fundamentally changed the United States. It was both a national and international security emergency that lasted for decades. It required the US to do things that were without precedent. This included creating a large standing military establishment, a network of global security alliances, commitments to the defence of frontiers half a world away, and a centralized intelligence apparatus. The new challenge is creating cyber capability that was never previously imagined.

It was not the peace envisaged by Churchill and Roosevelt when they met off Newfoundland’s Grand Banks in August 1941 to sign the Atlantic Charter. But it was necessary.

Diplomatic history and grand strategy have gone out of fashion in our universities because they were perceived as too linked with traditionalists and old-school agendas. But understanding history and geography, study abroad and learning languages, is critical to better prepare for the future. As Brands says: “we need to see competition as a way of life” and prepare accordingly.

The Cold War is still part of our memory. We should study it systematically. Hal Brand’s Twilight Struggle is a good starting point.

Bernie Frolic Canada and China

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Canada and China’: The Bilateral Journey, from Trudeau to Trudeau

Canada and China: A Fifty-Year Journey

By B. Michael Frolic

University of Toronto Press/2022


Reviewed by Colin Robertson

POLICY MAGAZINE February 7, 2023

The famous Chinese aphorism attributed to Taoist philosopher Laozi holds that “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” The first step in B. Michael Frolic’s Canada and China: A Fifty-Year Journey begins with Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s recognition of China in 1970 — a diplomatic watershed that predated the Nixon-Kissinger visit to China by more than a year and full US normalization by nine years. The book traces the thousand miles from the senior Trudeau’s breakthrough to Justin Trudeau’s relations with a much different China 50 years later.

Bernie Frolic, as the author is commonly known, is Professor Emeritus at York University and one of Canada’s preeminent China watchers. Frolic was one of the Canadian scholars who served (in his case during the 1970s Cultural Revolution) with the diplomatic rank of first secretary at our Beijing Embassy. He has been to China more than 60 times, visiting almost all of its 31 provinces.

Canada and China draws on those experiences, with excerpts from his personal diary, and his half-century of deep research into accessible government documents (alas, China is opaque on this front) and from teaching thousands of Chinese officials, corporate executives and educators. He has also talked with fellow China watchers and those in the Canadian government, interviewing all fifteen of our ambassadors as well as five prime ministers and ten foreign ministers, business and civil society.

The book is scholarly but readable, and Frolic punctuates his story with personal recollections that started when he “stepped off the train in Beijing in 1965.” It complements Paul Evans’ Engaging China: Myth, Aspiration, and Strategy in Canadian Policy from Trudeau to Harper (University of Toronto Press, 2014) which has been the essential reference on Canada’s relationship with China.

Canada and China describes the evolution of Canadian policy from Trudeau’s recognition in 1970 of the People’s Republic of China through Tiananmen Square, the Chrétien era ‘Team Canada’ missions, the frostiness of the Harper years and then the aftermath of the debacle created by the ‘3Ms’ — Michaels Kovrig and Spavor and Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou – recounted in The Two Michaels: Innocent Canadian Captives and High Stakes Espionage in the US-China Cyber War by Mike Blanchfield and Fen Osler Hampson (and reviewed in these pages).

The last half-century has seen the emergence of China as a dominant regional power. No longer content to ‘bide its time’ it now has global aspirations, presenting itself as an autocratic alternative to our current liberal, rules-based system. As Frolic writes, “how Canada dealt with this changing China is the story of this book.”

Frolic says the relationship has gone through three distinct phases. The first was initiated by Pierre Trudeau, who had twice visited China before becoming prime minister. Trudeau saw recognition of China as both a way to lessen dependence on the United States and to assert a more independent foreign policy that resonated with our domestic economic interests. In the early years after normalization, we were “strangers” seeking to set aside our “substantial differences, political and economic”. As we did so, we mutually saluted our “friendship” and “partnership”.

Tiananmen Square precipitated a second phase, where human rights moved to the forefront. Of Canada, Premier Li Peng, who sent the troops into the Square, told then-Ambassador Earl Drake, “We don’t need you”. Frolic says one Canadian ambassador subsequently told him, “The days of romanticism in our China policy are over. We have to be realists now.”

Things were never quite the same again, although trade flourished and the Chretien ‘Team Canada’ missions worked wonderfully to both increase trade and demonstrate to Canadians that when their first ministers work in tandem, we all benefit.

Under Stephen Harper, says Frolic, Canada-China relations began the third period. Harper treated Beijing as an adversary, receiving the Dalai Lama in his office and making him an honorary Canadian citizen — a clear provocation to a regime that uses foreign treatment of the Buddhist leader as a litmus test for economic and diplomatic relations. Justin Trudeau promised to reset the relationship through closer trade ties but was rebuffed when he wanted to incorporate provisions relating to labor, environmental and human rights. Then came the 3Ms.

Reviving Mao’s favourite epithet for counterrevolutionary lackeys, one Chinese diplomat told me recently, perhaps half in jest, that Beijing sees Canada as a ‘running dog of American imperialism’.

We remain at a low point — most China hands think the lowest since prior to recognition of the PRC. That nadir reflects a global hardening on China in response to Beijing’s anti-democracy activities worldwide, its treatment of Uyghur Muslims, its continued crack-down on Tibet, minorities and dissidents within China, its control of Hong Kong and its belligerent approach to diplomacy, especially towards Taiwan, since the geopolitically disruptive Trump presidency.

At some point a reset will happen. Frolic offers advice noting that our China policy has traditionally focused on three baskets: trade, human rights and people-to-people ties. Now, we also need to add a fourth basket that covers security, including theft of intellectual property, business information and cyberattacks as well as the security of the diaspora and our democracy.

The trade relationship has endured despite the ups and downs of geo-politics. We have food, energy and fertilizer. China needs all three but not at the price of the ‘progressive’ chapters on human rights, labour and the environment that are now part of our trade catechism. If we want to trade, we should do so with eyes wide open and on the basis of reciprocity.

On human rights, Frolic writes, we need to accept that our efforts to change Chinese practices have “consistently failed”.  We also need to recognize that, geopolitically, we are a “marginal partner” for China, “one that the PRC can bypass whenever it wants”. It’s a harsh but realistic assessment. Reviving Mao’s favourite epithet for counterrevolutionary lackeys, one Chinese diplomat told me recently, perhaps half in jest, that Beijing sees Canada as a “running dog of American imperialism”.

Our people-to-people ties are important and continue to grow with immigration and Chinese students and tourists, although the flow has declined with COVID and cooling relations. This is where we have an opportunity to improve relations through public diplomacy, including cultural engagement.

A useful initiative would be to revive the practice of bringing a scholar into our Beijing Embassy for the sort of two-year diplomatic assignment that employed Frolic and others from 1975-2001. Both government and academe benefit from the experience and it will both replenish and reinvigorate our cadre of China experts.

Frolic acknowledges we have to stop China’s “relentless push to gain access to Canadian intellectual property.” Then there are the CCP’s covert activities in Canadian Chinese communities, at our universities, schools and in our municipal, provincial and federal politics. These are well documented by Jonathan Manthorpe in Claws of the Panda: Beijing’s Campaign of Influence and Intimidation in Canada (Cormorant, 2019)

The United States has always been critical to Canada-China relations. As Lester Pearson pithily put it, “Better to have peace with Washington than relations with Beijing.” That our trilateral dynamic comes with baggage was brought home in the Meng Wangzhou/Two Michaels controversy. Washington got us into the fix when they asked us to hold Meng in Vancouver. Did we think through the implications and consequences? The Chinese, who had already declared Canada to be an “American satellite” sanctioned our beef, pork (until they needed it) and canola and took the Michaels hostage. Donald Trump’s comment that he “would certainly intervene if (he) thought it was necessary” to protect US interests in the emerging Sino-US trade war led Canadians and Meng’s defenders to argue that for Trump she was just a ‘bargaining chip’. It was the intervention of another American president, Joe Biden, that brought the Michaels home.

What have we learned over the past half century? For Frolic, it is that China remains unique. It does not follow western norms and values. The challenge for our governments is to develop a policy that can account for these differences, especially on the human rights that matter to Canadians.

It’s no simple challenge. Frolic cites Paul Evans agreeing that “We don’t have a whole-of-Canada approach to China yet, not even a whole government approach.” At this point, that has much to do with timing. China is a power in transition between the fallout from the world’s negative response to its economic, diplomatic and human rights actions in this century and whatever comes next — a story playing out across a number of contexts from Ukraine to the World Trade Organization to the many datelines along its belt and road infrastructure and influence project.

Canada’s Indo-Pacific strategy provides a framework, but it’s not a China strategy. For now, we are left with former Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau’s “eyes wide open” Four Cs: coexist, compete, cooperate and challenge.

In his final chapter, “Resetting Relations”, Frolic observes that “understanding China is an elusive concept.” He concludes that “In the future, Canada’s relations with China will be pragmatic and pedestrian: middle power to big power, democracy to one-party state, without any illusions that they will be particularly special.” It’s a fair assessment.

The prime ministers who understood China the best are Pierre Trudeau, Brian Mulroney and Jean Chrétien. They each invested their personal time and effort into the relationship. Of the three, Pierre Trudeau captured the dilemma best when he told Frolic:

“I never thought it would be easy to work with China. It is an authoritarian state. But after I had been there, I realized China had to become part of the rest of the world, and we needed to know much more about it.”

Pierre Trudeau was right. And Frolic’s Canada and China is a good place to start learning more about China.

Contributing Writer Colin Robertson, a former career diplomat, is a Fellow and Senior Adviser with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute in Ottawa.