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Richard Shimooka: Whether Trump or Biden wins, Canada must make defence spending a major priority

Commentary

Donald Trump’s win at the Iowa Caucuses and New Hampshire primary has cemented his front-runner status as the Republican Party nominee for the 2024 presidential election. It should not have been surprising, given the mass of polling that placed him quite aways ahead of his nearest competitor since the day he left office in 2022. 

It is still a long way until November, however, and there’s no guarantee that Trump will win, or even be the nominee by then.Disqualifying him due to his actions on January 6th, 2021 via Section 3 of the 14th Amendment of the Constitution remains a distinct possibility. Current polling numbers suggest the presidential race is at best a tossup, but there are signs that improving economic numbers and candidate Trump’s personal legal troubles and statements may see a shift towards Biden in the coming weeks and months.  

Nevertheless, the global community has started to prepare for the potential of a second Trump term. That certainly includes the government of Canada. As they do, it’s worth looking back to how Trump handled international relations in his first term.

The international community in an America First world

Trump’s election and subsequent first term was a profound shock to America’s long-standing allies. His mercurial decision-making, primarily transactional view of international relations, and willingness to overturn long-standing tenets of U.S. foreign policy offered few obvious strategies for how world leaders should navigate the turbulence.

Overall, Trump’s personal focus was less on threats to the international order and more on the financial burden imposed on the U.S. economy to maintain this order. Trade policy considerations took precedence over defence and security policy—even if these were used as fig leaves to justify the administration’s preferred trade policies. Trump was unafraid to use bellicose rhetoric, threats, and economic measures such as tariffs to achieve his America-First objectives. A former Reagan Administration official described it as a “grievance-based” foreign policy, emerging from Trump’s populist tendencies.

Some allies pivoted to this new reality more successfully than others. Shinzo Abe of Japan, for example, built up an excellent rapport with Trump and was able to avoid much of the acrimony faced by others, such as Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany.

Canada’s approach to managing relations was the most multifaceted of all allies, reflecting the depth of the bilateral relationship between the two countries. It exploited existing connections to governors, congresspeople, and government officials to lobby their case where needed; an effective full-court press. The administration’s concerns with Canada were not mainly on defence, despite our lagging defence spending. Rather, Trump focused on trade and was insistent on renegotiating NAFTA, which resulted in the USMCA.

Justin Trudeau, Donald Trump, and Enrique Pena Nieto participate in a signing ceremony for the new United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement in Buenos Aires, Argentina on Friday, Nov. 30, 2018. Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press.
Biden’s different (but same) approach

Overall, Trump’s belligerent foreign policy damaged the reputation of the U.S. as a stalwart ally, something the Biden administration has dedicated significant effort to reverse. In practice, however, Biden’s foreign policy commitments have not differed all too greatly from Trump’s (even if not intentionally so). 

The contours of his defence policy, especially around spending and program priorities are roughly the same. China has remained the largest threat through both administrations, though Biden has certainly treated Russia more adversarially, especially following the invasion of Ukraine. Yet, much like Trump and every other president since the Second World War, while Biden has also been concerned about burden sharing with America’s allies, the approach has differed more in leadership style than policy substance.

Certainly, Biden has been aided by a radically different international environment that pushed allies to look to the U.S. for leadership. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the increased Chinese action across Asia have awakened many countries to the direct threats to their security and prosperity, leading to significant increases in defence spending and more strident defence policies. 

One of Biden’s most significant priorities has been to deepen defence relationships with close allies, and in ways that were much deeper than arrangements at the political level. In particular, his administration sought to foster defence-industrial cooperation between allies in order to draw them closer in alignment with the U.S.  

Defence production relationships have a number of benefits over “regular” alliances—interoperability and interchangeability are major parts of them. Importantly, though, they provide ties beyond the purely political. Collaborative production schemes require large and constant investment, ensuring sustained future cooperation. As Ethan Kapstein pointed out recently, production arrangements also constrain policies between states in that they essentially bind their members’ foreign policies much more closely together and make it difficult for each to stray too far away. 

Undoubtedly the clearest example of that is AUKUS, which draws the U.S., Australia, and the United Kingdom together into an arrangement that will provide Australia with the capacity to operate a nuclear submarine fleet, but will also promote innovation in defence technologies among the members. 

The upshot if Biden is to hang on and win re-election, then, is that the world can expect more of the same: an America endeavouring to navigate multiple international crises by drawing closer to allies while also flexing its economic muscles to prod them into shouldering greater defence burdens, strengthening global security institutions, and attempting to constrain threats to its hegemony, whether they come from Russia, China, Iran, or elsewhere.

What if Trump wins?

This brings us back to a potential second term of the Trump administration. 

First, it is important to note that a second term may not actually be very productive, considering the potential scenarios surrounding congressional control. It is not likely that Trump will enjoy control of both houses as he did during the first half of his first term. This would severely constrain his ability to get his agenda passed. Additionally, there’s a reason second presidential terms are commonly viewed as lame ducks. Presidents in this position tend to have less governing power as they get closer to their term limit, capping how much policy they can expect to successfully push through.

When it comes to foreign policy, a majority of individuals on both sides of the aisle see deep value in maintaining America’s alliances and will attempt to thwart any significant repudiation of them.

At the same time, Trump would almost certainly not attract the quality of staff required to run the government’s national security apparatus. The negative experiences of highly respected individuals involved in Trump’s first administration—like reported from John Kelly, James Mattis and H.R. McMaster—as well as allegations of unethical if not illegal requests, will likely warn off many potential officials from joining the administration. While the inexperienced individuals he does attract will almost certainly try to push a more radical policy agenda and a retreat from strong global leadership, they will also have to face a combative bureaucracy and a military that will be more vigilant of any potential transgressions.

Add it all up, and policy gridlock is much more likely to occur on any given issue. 

Certainly, the world in 2024 has changed significantly from 2016, particularly in security and defence. America’s allies are more serious about the security challenges that are confronting them. Yet while allies’ defence spending has increased dramatically since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it is doubtful it has risen enough to placate Trump. Expect the grievance-based feuds with allies to resume.

Still, given the groundwork laid by Biden in deepening America’s alliances and the likely gridlock that will stifle a second Trump term, the substance of America’s foreign and defence policies will shift less than one might predict.

What does this mean for Canada?

The major roadblock in the bilateral relationship between Canada and America under Trump was removed with the signing of the USMCA. Looking ahead, Ottawa’s lack of urgency on security matters, whether it be defence spending or foreign interference, is more likely to come to the fore.

Given that displeasure with Canada on this file is shared widely by politicians and senior officials of all stripes in Washington, we are unlikely to find many sympathetic ears there, regardless of who wins the 2024 election. Whether Trump or Biden occupies the White House next, then, the best thing Canada can do to manage our most important bilateral relationship is to start taking our defence and security responsibilities seriously.

Hub Exclusive: Supreme Court Justice Malcolm Rowe on postmodernism, democracy, and judicial overreach

Commentary

This past weekend, 200 lawyers, law students, and scholars from across Canada gathered at the University of Toronto’s Hart House for the seventh annual Runnymede Society conference. Entitled “Law & Freedom 2024”, the event addressed everything from how we should view the Emergencies Act following a landmark Federal Court ruling that found its one and only use unconstitutional, to free expression, to federalism.

Founded in 2016, the Runnymede Society is a non-partisan organization of lawyers, law students, and legal scholars that describes itself as being “committed to the principles of constitutionalism, the rule of law, and fundamental freedoms.” The group can be broadly characterized as right-of-centre, with many of its members identifying as libertarian, classically liberal, and conservative. A product of the Canadian Constitutional Foundation, the society produces original debates, journal publications, and networking opportunities meant to challenge conventional thinking in Canada’s legal community. It now boasts chapters in many of Canada’s law schools.

“We cannot take for granted intellectual diversity in the legal profession,” insisted outgoing Runnymede Society national director Kristopher Kinsinger, kicking off this year’s series of discussions.

The 2024 keynote lecture was delivered by Supreme Court Justice Malcolm Rowe. The Hub’s managing editor Harrison Lowman was there to cover the address. Below is an exclusive excerpt from his speech, entitled “Constitutionalism in a Free & Democratic Society.”

What is the impact on democratic institutions of an expanding role by courts in determining public policy?…[My] focus isn’t on what courts do or how they do it. Rather, it is on the consequences of courts expanding public policy role on the operation of democratic institutions.

…Forty years ago, Peter Russell…predicted that political issues would be transformed into legal ones. He expressed concern with what he called the “negative side” of “transferring policymaking from the legislative to the judicial arena.” This transfer, he wrote, “represents a further flight from politics, a deepening disillusionment with the procedures of representative government and [of] government by discussion as a means of resolving fundamental questions of political justice.”

Thirty years ago in “Judicial Power and the Charter,” Christopher Manfredi was even more direct; he warned of an “imperial” judiciary whose authority would undercut democratic institutions. He wrote, “The problem with judicial social engineering…is that the attempt to correct the errors of democratic institutions through litigation…risks undermining the capacity for self-government on which liberal democracy ultimately depends…Too great a reliance on…litigation can both exacerbate social conflict and enervate public discussion of important political questions.”

Twenty years ago in “The Charter Revolution,” Morton & Knopff wrote that, “Encouraged by the judiciary’s more active policy-making role, interest groups…have increasingly turned to the courts to advance their policy objectives…Not only are judges now influencing public policy to a previously unheard-of degree, but lawyers and legal arguments are increasingly shaping political discourse and policy formation.” They concluded that “Liberal democracy works when majorities rather than minorities rule, and when it is obvious to all that ruling majorities are themselves coalitions of minorities in a pluralistic society. Partisan opponents…must nevertheless be seen as fellow citizens who might be future allies. Representative institutions facilitate this fundamental democratic disposition; judicial power undermines it.”

Recently, Dave Snow & Ted Morton wrote in “Law, Politics and the Judicial Process” (4th ed) that “To adapt [Peter] Russell’s formulation… if populism reflects a flight from representative government and government by discussion, [deciding policy under] the Charter represents a further flight.” Mark Harding’s book, Judicializing Everything addresses these issues at length.

These political scientists share the view that for democratic institutions to function properly there need to be practical incentives to “force” compromise, to compel participants to “make deals” to accommodate one another. Those who cooperate to get things done differ from issue to issue, so that there is no permanent majority on all issues. Thus, exclusive groupings tend not to form.

When I studied political science, this was called “brokerage” politics. It led to “big tent” political parties that brought together a wide range of interests. For example, there were “Red Tories” and “Blue Liberals” and pragmatic “Prairie-style NDP’ers,” all of whom had much in common. Within a political party, within a caucus, and within a cabinet, no group could have their way all the time. Pragmatism and moderation were needed in order to get things done.

But, to use Mark Harding’s terminology, when “everything [is] judicialized” and is transformed into a constitutional issue, the final decision-makers become judges, not those who are elected. Court cases tend to be “winner take all” contests. If you can win big in court, why compromise through elected institutions? Indeed, political compromise can be seen as unprincipled when one characterizes issues of public policy as questions of constitutional rights.

But, if we turn away from the practical avenues of political pragmatism into the victory or defeat of litigation as a means to determine public policy, do we not undermine moderation and honourable compromise? That is the concern highlighted with great prescience by Peter Russell. I do not read his critique to be directed against the content of any particular court decisions. Rather, it related to the consequences for the operation of democratic institutions of having more and more public policy determined through the judicial process. Well, what of it?

For those whose views are shaped by post-modernism and critical theory, pragmatism and moderation by elected officials are not virtues. Rather, they are business as usual within a power structure designed to sustain the discrimination and exploitation that pervade our society. In this view, liberal democracy is not a manifestation of freedom. Rather, it is an instrument of repression. That is a dark view of liberal democracy and Canadian society that I do not share. I’m familiar with Habermas and Marcuse. I have read them. I just don’t agree with them. It’s a misconception of society.

Justice Malcolm Rowe takes part in a question-and-answer session with Senators and members of the Commons justice committee Tuesday October 25, 2016 in Ottawa. Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press.

My views are akin to those of Cicero, Hanc retinete, quaeso, Quirites, quam vobis tanquam hereditatem, majores vestry reliquerunt: “Preserve, I beseech you, these liberties that your ancestors have left you as an inheritance.” Here I speak figuratively, rather than literally, as the Roman Senate was an assembly of aristocrats, and the liberties of Romans were confined to those who held citizenship. Nonetheless, the figurative point remains; many of the liberties protected by the Charter did not begin in 1982. They were part of our heritage.

In 1872 Benjamin Disraeli, speaking as a partisan, which I do not, contrasted the opposites of a “confederacy of nobles” and a “democratic multitude.” Instead of these opposites, Disraeli spoke of One Nation, “formed from all the numerous classes in the realm—classes…equal before the law, but whose different conditions and different aims give vigour and variety to [the] national life.” This combination, Disraeli concluded, “is the best security for public liberty and good government.” Disraeli while being a “Red Tory” in domestic policy was also an arch-imperialist. Thus, I embrace his words as an expression of domestic purpose, especially as to the obligations of mutual support within society. From that perspective, does not his vision of One Nation continue to embody wisdom, even as the aspirations of that nation change with time?

Over time, liberal democracies are able to understand themselves differently, to adapt, become more inclusive, and aspire to be more just. The structure of our institutions, the principles of our laws, and the good faith of citizens can serve us well as society appreciates new perspectives. Thereby, step by step, meaningful progress can be achieved.

I have confidence in the democratic system. One can readily point to the failings of Canada and other liberal democracies, just as one can readily conceive of utopian alternatives. But what other system has achieved so great a degree of individual liberty, so high a degree of prosperity and so open a system in which to pursue justice?

Thinkers who are critical of contemporary society and who properly call on us to comprehend historic and contemporary injustices can be dismissive of liberal democratic institutions. In their view, how can one value a system under which such wrongs have occurred? And, is it not necessary to create a new system so as to ensure that further wrongs do not occur? To this, my response is that liberal democracy is a vessel that is filled by successive generations with the aspirations of that generation. As those aspirations change so will the outputs of the system.

Ours is a good country, one that warrants our devotion. But such devotion needs to be founded on a mature understanding of history and how people, in all of Canada’s diversity, live today. We should not tell ourselves comforting fairy tales, just as we should avoid empty negative rhetoric. Rather, we should seek to live in an inclusive and fair society, while being practical and realistic.