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Which States Most Require ‘Democratic Support’?

Roland Paris and Jennifer Walsh have an excellent, and thought-provoking, column in the Globe and Mail where they argue that Western democracies need to adopt a ‘democratic support’ agenda. Such an agenda has multiple points comprising:

  1. States getting their own democratic houses in order;
  2. States defending themselves and other democracies against authoritarian states’ attempts to disrupt democracies or coerce residents of democracies;
  3. States assisting other democracies which are at risk of slipping toward authoritarianism.

In principle, each of these points make sense and can interoperate with one another. The vision is not to inject democracy into states but, instead, to protect existing systems and demonstrate their utility as a way of weaning nations towards adopting and establishing democratic institutions. The authors also assert that countries like Canada should learn from non-Western democracies, such as Korea or Taiwan, to appreciate how they have maintained their institutions in the face of the pandemic as a way to showcase how ‘peer nations’ also implement democratic norms and principles.

While I agree with the positions the authors suggest, far towards the end of the article they delicately slip in what is the biggest challenge to any such agenda. Namely, they write:

Time is short for Canada to articulate its vision for democracy support. The countdown to the 2024 U.S. presidential election is already under way, and no one can predict its outcome. Meanwhile, two of Canada’s closest democratic partners in Europe, Germany and France, may soon turn inward, preoccupied by pivotal national elections that will feature their own brands of populist politics.1

In warning that the United States may be an unreliable promoter of democracy (and, by extension, human rights and international rules and order which have backstopped Western-dominated world governance for the past 50 years) the authors reveal the real threat. What does it mean when the United States is regarded as likely to become more deeply mired in internecine ideological conflicts that absorbs its own attention, limits its productive global engagements, and is used by competitor and authoritarian nations to warn of the consequences of “American-style” democracy?

I raise these questions because if the authors’ concerns are fair (and I think they are) then any democracy support agenda may need to proceed with the presumption that the USA may be a wavering or episodic partner in associated activities. To some extent, assuming this position would speak more broadly to a recognition that the great power has significantly fallen. To even take this as possible–to the extent that contingency planning is needed to address potential episodic American commitment to the agenda of buttressing democracies–should make clear that the American wavering is the key issue: in a world where the USA is regarded as unreliable, what does this mean for other democracies and how they support fellow democratic states? Do countries, such as Canada and others with high rule-of-law democratic governments, focus first and foremost on ‘supporting’ US democracy? And, if so, what does this entail? How do you support a flailing and (arguably) failing global hegemon?

I don’t pretend to have the answers. But it seems that when we talk about supporting democracies, and can’t rely on the USA to show up in five years, then the metaphorical fire isn’t approaching our house but a chunk of the house is on fire. And that has to absolutely be our first concern: can we put out the fire and save the house, or do we need to retreat with our children and most precious objects and relocate? And, if we must retreat…to where do we retreat?


  1. Emphasis not in original. ↩︎
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CANZUK as a failure of middle power imagination

From Open Canada, we see why CANZUK is a failure of middle power imagination:

The answer for Haass (as it is for Judah) is leadership. But middle power leadership is not the same as great power leadership. Middle power leadership cannot trade in vague (if lofty) ambitions or general concepts. To be effective, middle powers must be focused, detail-orientated and technically proficient. This was the approach Canada used to lead on peacekeeping, organizing the Montreal Protocol on ozone-depleting chemicals, the Ottawa Convention on anti-personnel landmines and the Responsibly to Protect. All of these were clear-eyed, focused attempts to improve the international system. By leveraging their technical acumen and accumulated diplomatic capital, Canada and other middle powers got things done. These successes built international reputations and skills that could then be applied to parochial state interests. CANZUK’s supporters do not have this focus. Instead, facing complex problems, they offer vague gestures to shared liberal values.

This is probably the most direct explanation of why middle powers, as often considered amongst the Anglosphere, are routinely unable to actually achieve their goals or stated objectives. Dangerously, states and their foreign ministers may enter into arrangements in the hopes that doing so will re-create a past golden age only to realize, years later, that looking backwards has caused their respective nations to further fail to take hold of their individual and collective futures in the world stage.

While building alliances and tightening friendships can be helpful, they must be accompanied with clear and specific areas of policy coordination. Doing anything else will not enable middle powers to exert substantial power on the world stage.