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Sean Speer: Chinese interference in our elections is a political scandal—and must have political consequences

Commentary

Last week ended with a huge and unexpected bang in the ongoing political controversy over allegations of Chinese interference in Canadian elections. The Globe and Mail took the extraordinary step of publishing an anonymous op-ed by a whistleblower who has provided details to its reporters about the Trudeau government’s failure to act in response to intelligence on China’s election interference. (Globe and Mail journalist Steven Chase described the op-ed’s author as “one of our sources.”)

Its release was the culmination of a hectic week on the file including reports that implicated an Ontario Progressive Conservative MPP in the federal interference scheme, new evidence that extended the cases of interference to Vancouver’s municipal election, and of course the appointment of former Governor General David Johnston as the special rapporteur to investigate these matters.

In light of these major developments, there are growing debates about the whole episode, including the permissibility, legality, and ethics of the leaks, the Trudeau government’s ongoing parliamentary stonewalling, and the outstanding questions about what the prime minister himself and other senior government officials knew about the intelligence and why ultimately the government chose neither to reveal it nor act on it.

One of the virtues at The Hub is that we’re not slavish to day-to-day politics. Our business model and editorial approach enable us to differentiate from other sources of news and analysis by seeking out unique takes and heterodox perspectives. We’re fortunate that we generally don’t need to concern ourselves with the sound bites and talking points on Parliament Hill.

Today’s edition may seem like a prime example. While other outlets have zigged, The Hub’s content zags. Instead of focusing on narrow politics, we’ve published two related yet different articles that deliberately take a broader view of the election interference story and its implications for Canadian society in general and Conservative politics in particular.

Our content editor, Amal Attar-Guzman, has written a reflection on how the Chinese election interference story is merely another case of Canada failing to treat its diaspora communities as little more than domestic political constituencies to be leveraged for electoral gain. As she puts it: “diaspora communities tend to be viewed by larger Canadian society in one of two ways: childlike and ignorant or dangerous and distrustful.”

(Former Canadian ambassador to China, David Mulroney, similarly lamented in a May 2022 episode of Hub Dialogues about Canada’s crass form of diaspora politics that, in his prescient words, “attracts foreign interference and mistreats and mischaracterizes people that we should be championing as Canadians.”)

We also have a provocative commentary from Mark Johnson, a 2021 Conservative Party candidate in a Greater Toronto Area riding, that cautions Canadian Conservatives to resist the political temptation to overstate the problem of election interference and, in turn, harm the party’s standing with Chinese Canadian voters.

It’s an important message for political actors across the spectrum. As David Frum powerfully argued in a recent episode of The Hub’s bi-weekly video and podcast series with him, Chinese Canadians aren’t a threat to Canada’s democracy. They’re the ones who are actually subject to threats of harassment, intimidation, and even violence.  

It’s also probably true that Canadian Conservatives at different points in recent years have been too loose in distinguishing between the Chinese Communist Party and Chinese Canadians. Johnson is right therefore to urge greater caution and circumspection as a matter of political interests as well as social cohesion.

Yet if these articles (which I’d encourage Hub readers to check out) have any flaws, it’s the rare case where their distance from politics causes them to miss something. Their appeals to high-mindedness risk obscuring the inevitable role that politics must necessarily play in adjudicating an issue such as this one. As we’ve been reminded in recent days, even the appointment of a special rapporteur—including someone as distinguished as David Johnston—is ultimately an expression of politics.

Politics tends to get a bad rap. It’s often characterized as biased, subjective, and prone to partisan excesses. But its messiness is mostly a feature rather than a bug. It reflects the invariable plurality of opinions and perspectives inherent to a large, pluralistic, and complex society. Canada, in this sense, is a big, messy macrocosm of the diaspora communities that Attar-Guzman aptly describes in her article.

American writer Peter Wehner wrote in his 2019 book, The Death of Politics, that “The task of politics is to live peaceably with our differences and for people to find appropriate outlets for their views to be heard and represented.” It’s how we reconcile competing normative priorities or conceptions of the truth. It’s also how we resolve public matters separate and apart from the coercive function of the legal system. The probabilities of politics are an intentionally lower bar than the reasonable doubt of criminal justice.  

Deferring to legal processes on this file, as Johnson recommends, therefore risks forgoing the crucial role of politics to grapple with the complexities of the issue. No one is accusing the prime minister or his government of criminality for failing to react to intelligence reports of foreign interference in our elections. The accusation is one of imprudence, short-sightedness, and even political self-interest. It’s not the RCMP’s job to render judgment on those charges. It’s the role of politics, properly understood.

That doesn’t mean political processes such as the parliamentary hearings on these matters won’t be messy or unedifying. Johnson’s calls for moderation and proportionality are well-taken even if they invariably go unheeded by both sides. But the ultimate solution is that we should demand better of our politicians rather than attempt to replace them with legalistic processes.

The late, great Charles Krauthammer (whose voice we desperately miss these days) once wrote: “Politics—in all its grubby, grasping, corrupt, contemptible manifestations—is sovereign in human affairs. Everything ultimately rests upon it.”

As we aim to look beyond day-to-day politics at The Hub, we cannot, for better or for worse, escape its foundational role in the ordering and functioning of our society. The same goes for the Chinese election interference scandal. Politics, not the police (or a special rapporteur for that matter), will ultimately judge the Trudeau government’s handling of the file.

Patrick Luciani: The tragic mind of Robert D. Kaplan

Commentary

Review of: The Tragic Mind: Fear, Fate, and the Burden of Power
Author: Robert D. Kaplan
Publisher: Yale University Press 2023

If anyone is qualified to talk about war and conflict, it’s Robert Kaplan and his forty years as a foreign correspondent. He is on everyone’s list of top policy thinkers and has written 20 books to back up his reputation. He has now added another, The Tragic Mind: Fear, Fate, and the Burden of Power, his most personal book.

The Tragic Mind is about deep regret by a keen observer of war and how he got the Iraq War wrong. After spending the 1980s covering the Greater Middle East and Eastern Europe, nothing was more terrifying than Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Kaplan described it as “one vast prison yard lit by high-wattage lamps,” with a level of tyranny even worse than Hafez al-Assad’s Syria and comparable to Nicolae Ceausescu’s Romania. Kaplan returned to Iraq in 2004, embedded with the U.S. Marines in their first battle of Fallujah. He believed that overthrowing Saddam and installing a democratically elected government was the right thing to do. His position was transformed when he witnessed the brutality and anarchy that led to countless innocent deaths causing him to suffer a clinical depression that lasted for years.

Kaplan describes himself as a political realist, a position that mostly says to leave well enough alone. This time that instinct and objectivity deserted him. Kaplan quotes the medieval Persian philosopher Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, saying that one year of anarchy is worse than a hundred years of tyranny.

How could Kaplan have gotten it so wrong? He admits he lost perspective as an independent observer. He was affected by “group think” where most of Washington favoured the war, including a majority in the Senate and House of Representatives. War was in the air, and Kaplan got swept away without considering the consequences of toppling Iraq’s leader. He felt the burden of his writing that may have influenced political leaders. Kaplan knows the heavy moral responsibilities of a writer. His 1993 book Balkan Ghost so “depressed the president [Clinton] that it led to inaction on his part.” Kaplan supported military action to save lives in Bosnia, but his book had the opposite effect. 

For solace and insight, Kaplan turns to the ancient Greeks and Shakespeare. Sophocles’ plays, such as Oedipus Rex and Antigone, teach that predestination can’t be avoided or that duties and loyalties to the state or religion are often in conflict. The ancients teach that the wise are full of fear and must think tragically to avoid even greater disaster—a lesson Vladimir Putin is quickly learning after he invaded Ukraine. Putin’s hubris can be ranked with the outrageous arrogance of the Persian king Xerxes when a smaller motivated Athenian force destroyed his mighty army.

Removing Saddam Hussein seemed an apparent good in ridding the world of a murderous tyrant, but a greater evil followed. We worry about the terrible things that don’t happen but seldom about the awful things that do occur. Great statesmen have this innate sense of tragedy. They imagine the unimaginable. 

Reflecting on those who have this quality, Kaplan mentions former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger, James Baker, and George Shultz. He also includes two presidents, General Dwight D. Eisenhower and George H. W. Bush, who could see beyond current conflicts and steady America’s military hand in dangerous times. In the case of Eisenhower, he held back after the Soviet Union aggressively moved against Hungary in 1956 and Bush Sr. when he limited the first Gulf War to expel Iraq’s army from Kuwait. In a speech in Kyiv in 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Bush Sr. warned of the dangers of suicidal nationalism. It was received as a retreat undermining the Ukrainian struggle for independence. But he saw the risks of a collapsing Soviet Empire that eventually produced Vladimir Putin. 

It’s no accident that both Eisenhower and Bush Sr. were military men who experienced the death and destruction of war. It wasn’t their understanding of international affairs or the past but their capacity to know that further action could lead to disaster. I’ll also add John F. Kennedy to this list. He had the sense to reject the unanimous advice of his joint chiefs of staff and national security advisor, who recommended an all-out assault during the Cuban Missile Crisis. This event still lingers in the Russian mind as a moment of humiliation that must be avenged, a theme that echoes throughout Greek tragedy. 

Does learning the lessons of history prevent mistakes that lead to tragedy? Kaplan thinks not. History is an imperfect guide to understanding the future or the optimistic view that the “arc of history” bends toward justice. In his view, history rarely repeats and seldom rhymes. And the study of international affairs is a poor social science in understanding the behaviour of nations. Kaplan reminds us that every villain isn’t Adolf Hitler, and not all years are 1939. 

If we can’t look to history as a guide, we might find some understanding in the ancients that teach about chance, predestination, and the limits of imagination. We might also learn that the potential for tragedy is always present. Kaplan hopes we can stave off disaster by reflecting on the literary classics and the good fortune of having wise leaders. It’s not much, but it’s all we have in a dangerous world.