Gaza hospital bombing: Feelings trump facts

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Israel welcomes Canada’s conclusion that Israel didn’t strike hospital in GazaMia Rabson, The Canadian Press
Published  Monday, October 23, 2023 6:14PM EDT

Israel is “pleased” that Canada has joined the United States and France in believing that an explosion at a Gaza City hospital last week was fired by an errant rocket from within the Gaza Strip, the Israeli ambassador in Ottawa said Sunday.

But intelligence and foreign affairs experts say the latest assertions will do little to calm tensions in the region or among supporters of Israel and Palestinians abroad.

On Saturday Canada became the third western ally to back Israel’s assertion that it was not responsible for the rocket blast at the al-Ahli Arab hospital on Oct. 17.\

“Analysis conducted independently by the Canadian Forces Intelligence Command indicates with a high degree of confidence that Israel did not strike the hospital on October 17, 2023,” Defence Minister Bill Blair said in a statement published late Saturday.

“The more likely scenario is that the strike was caused by an errant rocket fired from Gaza. We will continue to provide updates as new information becomes available.”

That followed similar conclusions reached by the United States on Oct. 18 and France on Oct. 20.

Israel’s Canadian ambassador, Iddo Moed, said Sunday he welcomed Canada’s conclusion.

“The loss of life at the al-Ahli Arab hospital was a tragedy that should horrify any human being and it is a reminder of the double war crimes against Palestinians and Israelis that are committed by Hamas and other terrorist groups in Gaza,” Moed said.

But the National Council of Canadian Muslims said Sunday they had reached out to Blair to get more information about what led Canada to draw the conclusion it did.

A statement issued by the council Sunday evening said there are many outstanding questions and also called on Canada to recognize the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court to do an independent ground assessment.

The council also said this is just one hospital that has been hit since the “siege on Gaza” began, along with churches and schools.

“Thus, we are focused around the need for immediate ceasefire,” the council said.

The blast became a new flashpoint in the latest conflict that began more than two weeks ago when hundreds of Hamas militants launched a multi-pronged attack on Israel. Hamas, a group which Canada has labelled a terrorist organization since 2002, launched rocket fire and a ground assault on several sites including at a music festival and at several agricultural collective communities known as kibbutzim.

At least 1,400 Israelis were killed, several thousand injured and more than 200 people — including children — were taken hostage by Hamas, which has controlled the Gaza Strip for 16 years. Six Canadians died in the attack, and it’s believed two remain missing.

Israel responded to the attack with force, cutting off power and supplies to the Gaza Strip and launching its own rocket attacks into the area. It is preparing for a ground assault as well.

As of Sunday, estimates suggest about 4,600 Palestinians have lost their lives in the latest conflict, and the humanitarian impact of Israel’s response is having harsh consequences on the nearly two million people who call Gaza home.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been unequivocal that Canada supports Israel’s right to defend itself but that all sides must follow the law and civilians must be protected.

Canada has called for Hamas to release all hostages and for Israel and Egypt to facilitate aid deliveries to Gaza.

Trudeau repeated those positions Sunday in a phone call with Israeli President Isaac Herzog.

Small amounts of food, fuel and medical supplies were delivered over the weekend, though the suffering in the Gaza Strip remains immense. Residents have reported surviving off dirty water and witnessing fights break out over scarce supplies, while packed hospitals have warned of critical fuel shortages.

The hospital blast upended an already tense situation and furthered the distance between western and Arab countries.

Trudeau faced pressure shortly after the hospital blast to assign blame for it. When asked by a reporter in French about the “Israeli strike” on the hospital, before Israel denied responsibility, Trudeau called the attack “horrific” and “unacceptable.”

A few hours later, after Israel said the rocket wasn’t theirs, Trudeau called for international law to be upheld, but did not point fingers.

“Together, we must determine what happened,” he said. “There must be accountability.”

That same day he tasked Blair with having the military undertake a review and analysis of available evidence so Canada could draw its own conclusions.

On Thursday, a day after U.S. President Joe Biden laid the blame on a rocket from inside Gaza, Trudeau said Canada had seen some preliminary evidence but needed more time to reach “a firm and final conclusion.”

The initial Canadian analysis was completed on Oct. 21, and after Blair was brought up to speed he briefed Trudeau and then released the general finding publicly just before 10 p.m. Canada has not specified what evidence led to its conclusion.

Peter Jones, a professor of public and international affairs at the University of Ottawa, said it’s “fairly normal” for Canada to independently analyze incidents of interest overseas, but that it is less common to put out a statement on its findings.

“Given the enormous media attention and public interest, I guess the government of Canada just felt it couldn’t remain silent,” Jones said in an interview.

“The government was under a certain amount of pressure to declare one way or the other … other allied governments are doing the same thing.”

Jones spent seven years working in intelligence analysis and has himself analyzed incidents of interest to Canada to determine if it agreed with its allies on a particular issue.

“In most events of significance around the world where the Canadian government wants to have its own perspective on what happened and not rely on the analysis of others, Canada’s intelligence community will produce its own analysis,” Jones said.

But Jones said the findings are unlikely to change the minds of those who already believed Israel was at fault.

“In many countries in the Middle East, in many Arab countries, people have already formed their opinion and it’s based upon what Hamas has said and their own anger at what’s been going on and all the rest of it,” said Jones.

Colin Robertson, a former Canadian diplomat and senior fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, said the facts may support Canada’s conclusion but in the current world, facts don’t always matter.

“Alas, we live in a world where feelings trump facts so it won’t change much,” he said.

He also noted we live in a world where people do not always know whose facts to believe.

Evidence from Israel includes satellite images and intercepted conversations between militants. French authorities said an Israeli explosive is much bigger and would have caused a bigger crater. They said this explosive was about five kilograms, which is closer to the type used by Palestinian militants.

It’s also not yet clear how many people were killed when the rocket hit. The Palestinian Health Authority said nearly 500 people died, while U.S. intelligence sources have been cited saying the number is somewhere between 100 and 300.

Israel has pointed the finger at the Palestinian Islamic Jihad for being the source of the rocket. The PIJ is the second-largest armed group in Gaza, whose sole objective is a military victory over Israel to establish an Islamic State across all of Israel, along with the West Bank and Gaza.

American officials told the New York Times their preliminary evidence also pointed to the PIJ. But Canada has not yet specified who it thinks fired the rocket.

“As Canada provides further updates, Israel is assured that other findings uncovered by the Israeli Defense Forces, including the culpability of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, will be identified by Canada as the source of this war crime,” Moed said.

— With files from Lyndsay Armstrong in Halifax.

To win Ukraine needs arms

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Ukraine, Canada and the ‘Call of History’

POLICY MAGAZINE Colin Robertson  October 12, 2023

“It is genocide – what Russian occupiers are doing to Ukraine.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addressing the Canadian Parliament, September 22, 2023

To win the war against Russia and reclaim its territorial sovereignty, Ukraine needs a continuous flow of arms and money from the West. In the longer term, that support must transition to investment in reconstruction, preferably with Ukraine as a member of both the European Union and NATO.

The immediate challenge is arms. It is complicated by two things: Western arsenals are exhausted and armaments are not being produced or delivered quickly enough to support the Ukrainian counteroffensive. NATO leaders are committed to improving force capacity and capability but it requires action now with attention to improving production and supply chain efficiency.

As we have seen in other situations, it is the US, still the ‘arsenal of democracy’, that ends up carrying the burden of leadership, including supplying arms. According to the Kiel Institute’s Ukraine Support Tracker, the United States gives the bulk of military aid (over €42 billion). The EU is paying the bills (over €77 billion) to keep Ukraine operating, although the priority now needs to be on furnishing arms.

The flow of US arms is threatened by dysfunction in the US Congress. Funding for Ukraine is collateral damage in the internecine Republican party struggle that deposed Speaker Kevin McCarthy and could shut down the US government in mid-November if they can’t agree on financing its operations.

The Allies look at the US and echo the concern expressed by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates in Foreign Affairs that “dysfunction has made American power erratic and unreliable, practically inviting risk-prone autocrats to place dangerous bets —with potentially catastrophic effects.”

With US funding for Ukraine uncertain, the rest of NATO — Europe and Canada — need to immediately look to how they can boost their own production to meet the shortfall. The Europeans have long spoken about their desire for ‘strategic autonomy’. It starts with taking ‘strategic responsibility’ of meeting the shortfall arms if American supplies are interrupted.

‘Strategic responsibility’ also means the momentum for Ukrainian membership in the European Union and NATO cannot waver.

If wars teach us anything, it is that all plans tend to end after the first contact or, in the words of combat strategist Mike Tyson, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

For Europe, events on the periphery throughout history have always had an impact. If the war in Ukraine has given new meaning to NATO, bringing in Ukraine continues Europe’s move eastwards, even as it grapples with containing the flow of migrants on its southern frontiers as well as how to decouple from dependence on Russian energy, and how to de-risk from China.

Invoking the “call of history” in her annual address to Parliament in September, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said that Ukraine’s future is “in the Union”. The EU’s 27 foreign ministers met recently in Kyiv to demonstrate, as French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna put it, “our resolute and lasting support for Ukraine, until it can win. It is also a message to Russia”, continued Colonna, “that it should not count on our weariness. We will be there for a long time to come.”

Accession talks could begin as soon as December. Ukraine is required to meet seven conditions laid out by the European Commission, including judicial reforms and anti-corruption measures. In 2022, Transparemcy International scored Ukraine near the bottom in its corruption index, only a couple of points ahead of Russia. Ukraine currently meets only two of the EU conditions. Both financial and technical support from Canada and the allies is essential, especially when it comes to transparency and good governance.

The war in Ukraine is challenging the EU and rekindling debate on core values such as an independent judiciary and a free press while underlining the importance of collective security. It is also pointing to the backsliders — Viktor Orban in Hungary and the Law and Justice government in Poland — that defy these values with little sanction.

I know from conversations with Biden when he was chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that he is an internationalist, committed to American leadership of the alliances. It is baked into his sense of where the US needs to be now and in the future.

Then, there is the cost. Ukraine would be the first new EU member since Croatia joined in 2013. Accession would entitle Ukraine to about €186 billion over seven years, according to internal estimates of the Union’s common budget.

There will be strong pressure from the other states awaiting membership: Turkey (since 1999), North Macedonia (2005), Montenegro (2010), Serbia (2012), Albania (2014), Moldova (2022), and Bosnia and Herzegovina (2022). Georgia also wants in.

Adding all nine would cost €256.8 billion.  “All member states”, the EU studyconcluded, “will have to pay more to and receive less from the EU budget; many member states who are currently net receivers will become net contributors.” As Canadians know, redistribution — or what we call equalization — is controversial, both politically and economically.

Once derided by French president Emmanuel Macron as ‘brain-dead’, NATO is resurrected.

As the addition of Finland and Sweden demonstrates, the debate about how best to manage European defence and security is through NATO. At its Vilnius summit in July, the Alliance’s 31 members committed to investing at least 2% of their GDP annually on defence. More members are following Germany’s U-turn or “zeitenwende” on defence spending but they need to act now so that next year’s NATO summit in Washington is truly a celebration of 75 years of the world’s most enduring collective security pact.

Europeans and Canadians need to keep asking themselves not just how to keep the US fully engaged in NATO, but what they need to do to defend themselves as US strategic focus becomes increasingly Sino-centric.

For Europe, this means taking on far more strategic responsibility for the Middle East and North Africa and closer political-military ties with Asian democracies. For Canadians, this means real attention to meeting our NATO obligations and the resources necessary for NORAD modernization.

The war is also influencing developments in the Indo-Pacific with the US boosting its existing alliances with Japan and Korea, rejuvenating the QUAD, and creating AUKUS. Again, if Canada wants to participate in these forums it needs to increase capacity of our Forces, especially that of our navy.

After the debacle of the 2021 Afghanistan withdrawal that likely encouraged Putin’s adventurism, President Joe Biden is reasserting American leadership within the alliances.

But, as we witness in the congressional debates on funding the war, many in both parties want the priority to be fixing America’s domestic problems such as the cost of living, health care and migration. There is also a debate that the national security focus should be on the threat posed first by China, and then Russia, North Korea and Iran. A messy world – Russia vs. Ukraine and now Hamas vs. Israel — only encourages the insular, if not isolationist, instinct in America.

Biden’s 2024 election strategy is deeply entwined with his success in organizing the West’s response to Putin’s invasion. I know from conversations with Biden when he was chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that he is an internationalist, committed to American leadership of the alliances. It is baked into his sense of where the US needs to be now and in the future. Biden’s vision of the global status quo is as a battle between democracy and autocracy. Ukraine is important but the challenge of China is the defining foreign policy issue of his presidency.

In Russia, a reckless Vladimir Putin is a dangerous Vladimir Putin. He has developed a messianic streak that is driving Russian expansionism. The abortive Prigozhin coup was the most significant challenge since he took power in 1999. The requirement to focus resources on the war has meant a loss of influence elsewhere. For Putin, a loss in Ukraine would be personally catastrophic. Calculating how he can tilt elections in the democracies to suit his interests and do what he can to ensure a Trump victory in 2024 will require constant vigilance and a united push-back on the part of the West.

For a China suffering from a post-COVID economic hangover, the war has brought cheap Russian energy and provided Chinese military planners with intelligence on tactics, sanctions and military capacity. Stoking nationalism at home, Xi continues to ramp up his military, aggressively pushing Beijing’s weight in its neighborhood especially against Taiwan. Ironically, the longer the war goes on, the weaker Russia becomes in Siberia and the Far East, allowing China to increase its influence there.

Canada has done right by Ukraine. Now, we need to think about what we can do to produce more armaments and then what we can bring to the massive reconstruction effort, including expertise in building resilient electrical grids, governance reform, combatting corruption and bolstering democratic institutions.

The goal of Canada and the allies must be to anchor a strong and prosperous Ukraine within a Europe that also provides a barrier against the expansionary impulses that drive Russian foreign policy. This task will take financial and military commitments requiring long-term sacrifice and perseverance. The ultimate goal is a return to a rules-based order not just in Europe but elsewhere. But that requires a Ukrainian victory and, for now, that means getting more arms to Ukraine.

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.

Getting Ready for NAFTA review in 2026

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‘Relitigating’ NAFTA renegotiation could jeopardize ‘opportunity’ of six-year review, says senior trade official.

ent’s North American trade pact in 2026. 

Three years out from a review of Canada’s most important trade deal, the federal government has yet to “put pen to paper” on proposals, as some fear a return to the chaotic days of the NAFTA renegotiation.

Before the mandated review takes place in 2026, all three countries party to the Canada-United States-Mexico Agreement (CUSMA) will go through elections that will lead to at least one new government in place, as Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is term limited and can’t run for re-election. Both Mexico and the U.S. will go to the polls in 2024. Canada will have an election in or before 2025.

A potential return of U.S. president Donald Trump to office has some recalling the turbulence of the rocky NAFTA renegotiations in 2017 and 2018, which the federal government called at the time an “existential threat” to Canada. Concern over what may happen during the first six-year review has some calling on the Canadian government to be proactive.

Senior Global Affairs Canada (GAC) trade official Aaron Fowler indicated it’s too early to lay out proposals for the CUSMA review, but said when the time comes, Canada will have to bring forward those ideas.

“We’ll need specific proposals in certain areas that we’re ready to kind of bring forward. I don’t think, in 2023, we’re really at the stage yet in putting pen to paper on proposals … we will get to that,” said Fowler, associate assistant deputy minister for trade policy and negotiations, at a Sept. 26 panel hosted by the Canadian Global Affairs Institute (CGAI) and Brookings Institution think tanks

“What we are trying to make sure is that we have the structure in place and the people in place and the conditions in place that we can be successful when we get to that point,” he said, remarking that Canada is at a similar position preparing for the reviews as its North American counterparts.

Fowler said the agreement is “generally viewed as positive” in both the U.S. and in Mexico.

He suggested Canada will use the review as an “opportunity” to deal with issues that have arisen under CUSMA, and issues that weren’t being thought of during the NAFTA renegotiations that have since emerged, but won’t relitigate aspects that Canada failed to have included during the past talks.

“If we focus on relitigating issues that we already went through, then this opportunity would become a moment of jeopardy for the agreement and the three countries and the industries that rely on this instrument,” he said.

Fowler added that some issues with the agreement may be worked out through committees and discussion groups before the 2026 review.

CUSMA mandates a review occur six years after the agreement comes into force, and during that review all three countries can agree to add a new 16-year term to the agreement. If that decision isn’t reached, it will expire after 16 years in force or in 2036. If a decision is made in 2026 by a party of the pact not to continue with the agreement, the countries will meet every year for the next decade to conduct a joint review until it expires. During those annual reviews, the three countries can, once again, decide to extend the agreement for a 16-year term

Fowler said that at the moment the review is “not really defined.”

“There has been … a very preliminary discussion between ministers this year at the third Free Trade Commission, as to what [the review] will look like in practice,” he said. “There are some pieces that will need to fall into place before we will be in a position to really elaborate specific proposals. That will also be a function of what the political environment is in the three countries. What are their preoccupations and their trade policies at the point of time? And more broadly, what is the geopolitical environment in which we are all operating?”

“The way we see our relationships with each other in many respects is going to be function of how we see our place in the world. That is very different in 2023 than it was in 2018,” he said. “And I would expect it would be very different in 2026 than it is in 2023.”

Right now, Fowler indicated that Canada needs to put the right communications and advocacy teams in place in the U.S. and Mexico.

The proposal mirrors the so-called “charm offensive” that Canada put in place during the NAFTA renegotiations to trumpet the importance of the integrated North American trading relationship.

Carleton University professor Meredith Lilly, a former trade adviser to then-prime minister Stephen Harper, said it is “great to hope” that the review will be an “opportunity,” but suggested Canada take a more “realistic” approach and prepare for a “complete and total disaster.”

“This is what happened with NAFTA renegotiations. Canada had this idea—it’s all going to be about modernization, we’re going to keep it slim and quick, and we’re all going to hug and its going to be great—and of course the Americans had a very different idea,” said Lilly during the CGAI panel.

“We should go forward with an opportunity, but make sure we’ve got our bulletproof vest,” she said.

Steve Verheul, who served as chief negotiator during the NAFTA renegotiations, said during the panel discussion that preparation is “the key.”

“You have to game out every single scenario, by sector, by chapter, by virtually every issue that could come up or might come up [to] have your position, your fall back, all your offensive interests, all your defensive interests. All of that, all in a roadmap, so that you are ready to go whichever way the wind starts to blow when we get closer to this,” said Verheul, who has since retired from GAC.

“The preparation is the foundation of all of this. So, you have more knowledge, you’ve thought more extensively about these issues than the other side has been thinking about them. That’s always the key,” he said.

Verheul said efforts should be made to see how the three countries can get ahead of the review, indicating a role for the business communities in the three respective nations, remarking that trade negotiators can only go so far with counterparts to map out a potential review. He added that business communities can start to set the agenda.

“That would have a powerful influence,” he said, noting that governments could then pick up on that advice

CGAI vice-president Colin Robertson, a former trade negotiator and moderator of the Sept. 26 panel, said while Canada doesn’t know what will happen in 2026, it should be preparing now, by setting up a working group. He said advocacy and communication work in the United States should be unfolding now to ensure Canada knows what works down the line.

“When you go to Americans with creative solutions, I always find them very receptive,” said Robertson.

Former diplomat Louise Blais, who served as Canada’s consul general in Atlanta, told The Hill Times that CUSMA’s renewal is the priority, not advancing specific proposals.

“We’re hoping for a very smooth rollover of the agreement as opposed to arriving with a list of things to change or improve,” said Blais, now a senior special adviser with the Business Council of Canada.

She said renewing the agreement will create certainty, adding that, in the meantime, there needs to be continued engagement with the Americans, in particular, to outline the benefits of the agreement with both Democrats and Republicans.

She said she is “cautiously optimistic” that all three sides will decide to move forward with an extension to the agreement.

International trade lawyer Lawrence Herman said Canada’s focus should be on ensuring that, in 2026, there is a contained review that doesn’t see the whole agreement come under the microscope.

“The important thing is to ensure that this review is properly managed or it could go off the rails,” he said. “If there isn’t an agreement among the three parties, the three governments, as to the issues to be addressed in the review, it could lead to a process that is undisciplined and uncontrolled and would lead to an opening up of the entire [trade deal], which is to be avoided.”

Herman said the three governments need to come to an understanding on the issues and provisions that need to be adjusted.

Herman said that before their respective elections take place, the three countries should be working on a pathway towards the review to help depoliticize it.

Bloc Québécois MP Simon-Pierre Savard-Tremblay (Saint-Hyacinthe-Bagot, Que.), his party’s international trade critic, said he doesn’t see any of three sides making a decision whereby the North American market wouldn’t have free trade coverage.

He said he wants to see both the oft-troubled softwood lumber dispute be addressed in the 2026 review, as well as the countervailing and dumping of aluminum from outside North America.

Savard-Tremblay added that he would like to see the Canadian government present more information regarding the review to Parliament.

“We should have the [House] International Trade Committee push for more transparency because there’s always a horrible lack of transparency when Ottawa is negotiating deals,” he said. “We’re going to push to have more information.”

Robert Kaplan The Loom of Time

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

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

Penguin Random House/August 2023

Reviewed by Colin Robertson

September 24, 2023

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trudeau in India

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

G20 Takeways

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

The G20 Leaders’ Summit in New Delhi/@G20org

Colin Robertson

POLICY MAGAZINE September 12, 2023

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edited by Patrice Dutil

UBC Press/June 2023

POLICY MAGAZINE Reviewed by Colin Robertson

September 3, 2023

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What if Trump returns?

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Forewarned is Forearmed: The Bilateral Lessons from Trump One

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


August 24, 2023

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aboard HMCS Winnipeg

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

The author aboard the HMCS Winnipeg (Royal Canadian Navy)


By Colin Robertson

POLICY MAGAZINE August 4, 2023

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The sleeping quarters before we made our beds (author)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NATO Vilnius summit: What Happened

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

Colin Robertson


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yet, Zelensky did not leave Vilnius empty-handed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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