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Sean Speer: The ten-year anniversary of a crazy 24 hours


Yesterday marked the ten-year anniversary of the craziest and most memorable 24 hours of my professional career.

A bit of context: At the time I was on leave from my job as a policy advisor in the Prime Minister’s Office and working on the Conservative Party of Canada’s 2011 election campaign. It was my first time on a national campaign. It was an exhilarating yet stressful experience.

The campaign started in earnest on March 26 following a non-confidence vote in Parliament and was set for 37 days with the election itself falling on Monday, May 2.

As it unfolded, the campaign’s main political issues became Stephen Harper’s appeal for a Conservative majority government to pre-empt the prospect of a Liberal-NDP-Bloc Québécois coalition and Jack Layton and the NDP’s unexpected surge in Quebec. The policy debate was generally less developed. It amounted to a ballot question about which party was best placed to manage the ongoing economic recovery in the aftermath of the 2008-09 global financial crisis.

My role was focused, in broad terms, on public policy. I contributed to the party’s platform, wrote speeches and produced policy backgrounders, answered surveys from stakeholder groups, fact-checked press releases and talking points, and responded to queries from the party leader and rest of the team traveling with him. I was basically a jack-of-all-trades. The work and its urgency never seemed to slow down.

By the beginning of May, election day was finally in clear focus. Although the outcome wasn’t guaranteed, polling consistently showed the Conservative Party was out-in-front and likely to win re-election. Whether it would be enough to secure a majority government – the first for a Conservative Party in nearly a quarter century – was yet to be determined.

As of May 1, most staff in the national campaign office had cleared out. It was the final day before mass voting and there wasn’t much left for national campaign staff to do. People were encouraged to head out into different ridings to stump for candidates in a final, pre-election blitz.

I remained back in the campaign headquarters with a small skeleton crew to deal with any last-minute policy issues and be on stand-by if Mr. Harper or the team had any questions. But it was a slow day, and we were able to wrap up around dinner time.

That night I planned to relax, have a few drinks, and get some well-deserved sleep. Early in the evening, I exchanged with the senior team who were at a final stop in Abbotsford before traveling with Mr. Harper to Calgary to await the election results the next day. Everything seemed under control.

That, however, didn’t last long. As I sat on my couch and flipped through the channels, something unexpectedly significant happened. News began to emerge around 10PM that a group of Navy Seals had executed an operation, code-named Operation Neptune Spear, to kill Osama bin Laden in a compound in Pakistan.

This was big deal. As the terrorist mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks, bin Laden had been the highest Al Qaeda target for nearly a decade. The lack of progress tracking his whereabouts and bringing him to justice was a source of great frustration for America and its allies. It cast a pall over U.S. political life and was a disconcerting reminder that terrorists with radical ideas, significant means, and sophisticated know-how could carry out damaging attacks on free societies and get away with it.

This wasn’t just an American story either. Not only had the Canadian Armed Forces served with great honour and distinction in Afghanistan including some of the most dangerous theatres such as Kandahar province, but 24 Canadian citizens were also killed in the 9/11 attacks.

(Canadian citizen, Ron DiFrancesco, whose office was on the 84th floor of the South Tower of the World Trade Center, managed to make the harrowing journey out of the building before it collapsed. He’s believed to be the last person to make it out of the building alive, and the US 9/11 commission report says he was one of only four people to escape who were working above the 81st floor.)

The killing of bin Laden must therefore be seen as more than just an effort on the part of the American government to neutralize an ongoing threat to its homeland. It was also a moment of justice and closure for other countries like Canada whose citizens had given their lives in the global war on terror.

As for its immediate implications in the late evening of May 1, it’s worth pointing out that while we were in the final hours of an election campaign, Mr. Harper was still Canada’s Prime Minister and as such had, at least in theory, access to the capacities and functions of the federal government in order to carry out his responsibilities. It’s a basic feature of the Westminster model that the governing party continues to effectively govern until a post-election transition.

This was generally less of an issue in the 2011 federal campaign, but it mattered a great deal incidentally in the subsequent 2015 campaign during which the Canadian government finalized and announced its involvement in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. During that campaign, as Mr. Harper criss-crossed the country to announce Conservative Party platform commitments and hold party rallies, he remained in regular contact with political staff, public servants (including the lead trade negotiators) and the cabinet to get ongoing updates and provide instructions on our negotiating position.

It also mattered in the late hours of May 1, 2011. As leaks started to be reported in mainstream American media, it became obvious that there were major implications for Canada. It was one of those unique moments in modern history that needed to be marked. The prime minister needed to issue a statement.

Yet it was challenging to get much information from government officials. The problem was two-fold: first, we were on the eve of an election so there may have been some trepidation on the part of public servants to get too involved in a high-profile issue that could conceivably have some impact on the election outcome; and second, it was late on a Sunday night and many people had gone to sleep. U.S. President Barack Obama’s public address didn’t even begin until 11:35PM.

I was in regular contact with the team traveling with the prime minister and in touch with colleagues who had stayed back in the Prime Minister’s Office during the campaign and public servants in the Privy Council Office. We were trying to understand what had happened, who was involved, and if bin Laden and other high-profile terrorists were killed or captured.

It seems sort of surreal in hindsight but most of the information that I was able to accumulate and pass onto the team with the prime minister was mostly drawn from Fox News and other American media outlets whose reporting on the raid and its successful execution was moving much faster than what we were able to obtain from our own sources.

Eventually, with some intelligence from the public service and our own news consumption, we were able to piece together a statement on behalf of the prime minister acknowledging the successful outcome of the raid, the role of Canada’s military in breaking up Al Qaeda’s networks in Afghanistan and those Canadians whose lives had been touched by its terrorism.

It was written in some haste and with fast-evolving information, but in hindsight the prime minister’s statement reflected the right mix of soberness for those who had sacrificed and defiance for those who would threaten our way of life. Mr. Harper had a significant hand in drafting the statement. He delivered it in an empty hangar at the Abbotsford airport in the early hours of May 2.

That evening’s frantic emails and phone calls were a fitting capstone to the entire campaign experience. I finally got to bed much later than I had initially planned.

The next day was election day. I drove out to riding of Glengarry-Prescott-Russell, just east of Ottawa, where the incumbent Conservative MP Pierre Lemieux was running in his third election. I went to help out but admittedly didn’t make much of a contribution. I was burnt out and distracted by the unknown election result.

I went for dinner to mark the end of the campaign and accept the futility of worrying about it much anymore. It was ultimately in Canadians’ hands.

Later that night a group of us who hadn’t joined the senior team in Calgary got together in a bar in Ottawa to watch the results. The riding-by-riding returns played on televisions across the bar. They started in Atlantic Canada and began to move westward.

Soon the number of projected Conservative seats started to bounce around the threshold for a majority government. They went up and down several times before it became clear that it was only moving up and no longer dipping below the magic number of 155 seats. We did it. The networks soon declared a Conservative majority government.

In that moment, the stress of the previous weeks just sort of washed off. It was a feeling of accomplishment that’s sort of difficult to describe. People were hugging, calling their families, and joyously celebrating. Some were even in tears.

It marked an extraordinary moment for Mr. Harper and the Conservative Party which had only been created seven years earlier. It had already won three successive elections and now its first majority government at a crucial moment in Canada’s trajectory from the depths of the global financial crisis.

It also marked the culmination of a crazy 24 hours that started with scrambling to understand what was going on northeastern Pakistan and ended with celebrations of a majority government with friends and colleagues in an Ottawa bar. It’s an experience and a set of emotions that I’ll certainly never forget. And 24 hours that will be difficult to match.

Sean Speer: We need a ‘long telegram’ on the growing great power competition


At 3:52 p.m. on February 22, 1946, an incoming diplomatic cable from Moscow was received by the State Department in Washington. It was addressed to Secretary of State James F. Byrnes, who had previously been appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1941 but resigned after just 465 days because he couldn’t resist the pull of politics.

Byrnes is a highly underrated figure in post-WWII historiography. After serving in various senior bureaucratic roles during World War II (which earned him the unofficial title “assistant president”), there was an expectation that Byrnes would be Roosevelt’s running mate in the 1944 presidential election. Yet politics ultimately prevailed and Roosevelt instead chose Harry Truman.

Soon after Roosevelt’s untimely death and Truman’s swearing-in as president, Byrnes was appointed secretary of state and had tremendous scope to shape America’s post-WWII foreign policy including attending the Yalta Conference with Roosevelt and subsequently attending the Potsdam Conference and Paris Conference with Truman. He was a major figure in American strategizing about post-war geopolitical arrangements including the U.S. relationship with the Soviet Union. For these efforts, he was named Time Magazine’s Man of the Year in 1947.

The incoming cable back in February 1946 helped to inform and shape Byrnes’ thinking on geopolitics in general and the Soviet Union in particular. It was drafted by a senior diplomat and Sovietologist named George Kennan who had grown frustrated by his perceived lack of influence with the Truman Administration. His 5,363-word memorandum to the secretary of state was a last-ditch effort to urge him to abandon any hopes of America-Soviet cooperation and instead to see the relationship through the lens of a new economic, geopolitical, and ideological rivalry.

As he wrote:

“…we have here a political force [Soviet communism] committed fanatically to the belief that with U.S. there can be no permanent modus vivendi that it is desirable and necessary that the internal harmony of our society be disrupted, our traditional way of life be destroyed, the international authority of our state be broken, if Soviet power is to be secure.”

In light of this, Kennan called for a systematic response that recognized the Soviet threat represented the “greatest task our diplomacy has ever faced and probably greatest it will ever have to face.”

We’re missing a Kennanian strategy for how we engage China in the post-pandemic age.

Kennan’s memorandum, which famously became known as the “long telegram”, outlined a new, comprehensive strategy for managing relations with the Soviet Union. He later published an abbreviated version in Foreign Affairs magazine under the pseudonym “X.” The two documents came to fundamentally shape America’s Cold War strategy for the subsequent 40 years.

Kennan’s thinking and strategizing had such profound influence for three main reasons. The first is it was hard-headed yet empathetic. He sought to put himself in the mind of Soviet leaders and the country’s population to understand the impulses and objectives that would guide Soviet policymaking and the relationship between the day-to-day lives of ordinary citizens and the state apparatus.

The second is he was systematic. At the time of his writing, there was emerging thinking about the West’s economic relationship with Soviet Union, its defence and national security positioning vis-à-vis the Soviets, and questions about geopolitics and the future of Europe. Yet too much of this strategizing was siloed and disconnected. Kennan implored western policymakers and strategists to bring them together in a systematic strategy for the Cold War.

The third was timeliness. It was clear by the time of his writing that World War II collaboration with the Soviets would be replaced by a growing ideological and geopolitical rivalry. (Winston Churchill would deliver his famous “iron curtain” speech in Fulton, Missouri, just 11 days after Kennan’s memo reached Washington.) His memo arrived at a crucial time as policymakers were coming to realize the scope and the nature of the forthcoming challenge. Kennan armed them with a strategic framework at the precise moment that they needed one.

We could sure use a modern version of the long telegram today as the U.S.-China geopolitical rivalry intensifies and the threat of a new Cold War looms. While there’s a growing consensus that western countries need to rethink their economic and political relationships with China, there’s far less agreement on the goals, purpose and tactics of a new strategy. As Princeton University professor Aaron Friedberg has put it: “We’re now running behind [the evolving U.S.-China relationship] trying to figure out exactly what we want it to look like.”

The immediate impetus for these fast-moving developments is the COVID-19 pandemic and a growing view that the Chinese government’s cloak-and-dagger handling of the virus contributed to its global explosion and the resulting public health and economic crisis. But the truth is the West’s relationship with China has been increasingly fraught for several years. A combination of economic, geopolitical, technological, and human rights considerations has caused western policymakers and their populations to revisit basic assumptions about the relationship.

The previous strategy, which presupposed that leaning into economic cooperation in the form of expanded trade and investment would lead to a combination of greater prosperity and democratic reform, has shown itself to be a spectacular failure. China got richer but it produced a significant “shock” to certain industries and workers in western economies and the promised political liberalization never transpired. President Xi’s China is now more ruthlessly and efficiently authoritarian than it was at the start of the century.

Donald Trump’s shocking election in 2016 was due in part to his willingness to call out this failure. Now everyone from former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers to former Speaker Paul Ryan basically concedes as much.

It’s a remarkable reversal from the optimism with which we began this century. The Canadian government at the time was among the biggest boosters of the view that China’s transition from communism to something approximating market economics represented both an enormous opportunity for western businesses to leverage China’s low-cost workforce and massive domestic market as well as the geopolitical prospects of its full partnership in global governance.

Those assumptions were predicated on Korea’s history of development which saw a correlation between growing household wealth and democratization as well as the collapse of the Soviet Union which started with glasnost and ended in perestroika.

The tools of statecraft will necessarily be different than in the Cold War.

This became in academic, business and political circles a universalist theory that foresaw a predestined relationship between rising GDP per capita and burgeoning democracy. Yet China’s real-life experience hasn’t conformed to this overdetermined theory. Instead it’s once again shown that history isn’t History — a proper noun reflecting autonomous forces unfolding to an inner logic — but rather a matter of individual and collective choices. Western leaders forgot this crucial insight. They somewhat ironically proved to be more Marxist than China’s communists.

The question, of course, is what comes next?

We need a modern version of the long telegram to fully and properly answer it. We’re missing a Kennanian strategy for how we engage China in the post-pandemic age.

This is particularly important for Canada which has already experienced the profound challenges of being stuck in the middle of a growing “great power competition” between the U.S. and China. A protracted, zero-sum conflict between its first and third largest trading partners will necessarily have far-reaching consequences for Canada’s economic and geopolitical interests.

It’s not quite correct, by the way, to describe the U.S.-China rivalry as a new Cold War. The two countries are much more economically integrated than was the case with the Soviet Union. Their rivalry is also less about ideological conflict and more about technological competition in strategic areas such as artificial intelligence, biopharma, and semi-conductors. That these technologies tend to have both commercial and military applications only reinforces the seriousness and urgency. Former U.S. Vice President Mike Pence has called it a battle for the “commanding heights of the 21st century economy.”

The tools of statecraft will therefore necessarily be different than in the Cold War. A technology-based competition will require serious and practical thinking about, among other things, supply chains, intellectual property, basic and industrial research, foreign investment, free trade, and cybersecurity. It will be less about vanquishing the other side and instead more about staying ahead in an ongoing technological race.

The policy and governance implications for Canada are significant. Recent essays for The Hub by famed foreign policy expert Janice Stein, Macdonald-Laurier Institute scholar Balkan Devlen, former Religious Freedom Ambassador Andrew Bennett, and anti-money laundering expert Matthew Grills outlined various considerations for Canadian policymakers.

What’s interesting though is that as much as Kennan’s long telegram was focused on policy and governance questions, his key recommendations were mostly about our own social cohesion, community vitality, and civic confidence. As he wrote:

“Much depends on health and vigor of our own society. World communism is like malignant parasite which feeds only on diseased tissue. This is the point at which domestic and foreign policies meet. Every courageous and incisive measure to solve internal problems of our own society, to improve self-confidence, discipline, morale and community spirit of our own people, is a diplomatic victory over Moscow worth a thousand diplomatic notes and joint communiqués. If we cannot abandon fatalism and indifference in face of deficiencies of our own society, Moscow will profit.”

This is a key insight: although foreign policy issues tend to be highly contingent, there’s nothing stopping us from trying to “solve internal problems of our own society.” Recommitting ourselves to the aspirational goals of growth, dynamism, and a renewed sense of collective purpose is squarely within our purview.

It turns out that the best way to navigate the tumultuous world of post-pandemic geopolitics is the same thing we need to do to address the growing pessimism and polarization in our society. Basically we need a narrative and vision to overcome what New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has called “decadence” and to replace it with something perhaps approximating what American conservative writers David Brooks and Bill Kristol once referred to as “greatness.”

A “national greatness” agenda may be too grandiose. The Hub contributor Howard Anglin, for instance, has written in favour of more modest ambitions. But the key point here is that, as Kennan notes, we must reject fatalism and indifference and instead recognize that we have greater control over our destiny than we often realize. As he put it in his memo: “I would like to record my conviction that [the Soviet] problem is within our power to solve.”

Many experts agree that the U.S.-China geopolitical and technological rivalry will likely shape the rest of this century. How countries such as Canada navigate this new world will be the key question facing their political leaders in the coming years. It should start with a plan to get us out of decadence. A modern-day George Kennan and his long telegram would help too.