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Ginny Roth: Isolationists are naive and wrong. So why are we afraid to actually engage them?

Commentary

I was born at the end of history. No, really. 

My mother gave birth to me on October 20, 1989. The Berlin Wall fell 20 days later, and the Ceaușescus were executed 46 days after that. So sped up the falling apart of the Soviet Union and the winding down of the decades-long Cold War that defined our parents’ youth. By the time my peers and I were in school, post-Cold War optimism was reaching a fever pitch. 

It seems moronically naïve now to suggest that the mere fact of increasing global wealth and democracy would stave off geopolitical strife, that since “no two countries that both have a McDonald’s have ever fought a war against each other” none ever would. And that therefore the job of liberal democracies like Canada and the United States was to push a kind of fast-food diplomacy. But at the time, it was gospel. The 1990s were a sweet spot for kids in most Western democracies. We weren’t hiding under desks during bomb threats, and smartphones hadn’t yet invaded our lives. The Bosnian genocide felt like a blip that mostly went over our heads and the optimism of the Oslo Accords only enhanced the hubris of increasingly mainstream peaceniks.

Then 9/11 happened. A flash of extraordinary evil to be sure, but who to blame? At first, it was enough to promise vengeance, but soon action had to be taken. Afghanistan seemed to make sense. Even though 9/11 was perpetrated by non-state actors, the country was harbouring al-Qaeda, and we needed to get Osama Bin Laden. Iraq was a harder circle to square—a difficult truth I learned as a gung-ho contrarian junior high student willing to take up the side in the class debate no one else would volunteer for and finding myself struggling to justify what was increasingly understood to be a poorly conceived invasion with increasingly high costs. I was 17 years old when the U.S.-Iraq war casualties peaked in 2007. As it happens, J.D. Vance was 23. 

Of course, I bring up Vance for a reason. The context in which he, I, and our millennial generation grew up is crucial to understanding the concerning rise in varying degrees of isolationism among young, right-wing leaders in the U.S. (and to a lesser extent Canada). It’s tempting to not even try to understand. Far easier, and more gratifying, to call Ukraine war funding skeptics Putin stooges, useful idiots, and conspiracy theorists, chalking their cynicism up to too much Tucker Carlson. 

But just because we disagree with them doesn’t mean we should dismiss them. Some of these skeptics come by their analysis honestly, informed by a very different upbringing than the neocon boomers who come to their foreign policy hawkishness so easily. Those of us who believe the U.S. and its allies must pursue peace through strength ought to be engaging with the arguments put forward by the young isolationists, particularly those who share some of our first principles. By continuing to talk past one another, we risk winding up on the wrong side of a demographic trend, shaking our fists at the sky as the neocons age out of the public discourse, and America one day soon really does turn inward. 

The Ukraine funding skeptics are making relatively detailed public policy arguments, as Vance does here in the New York Times. They are ready and willing to be engaged with. And the more prominent among them tend to be ideas politicians, identifying problems caused by previous generations (often in their own party), and putting forward new policy programs to try to solve them. What’s striking is that their positions on everything from China to industrial policy to nationalism and strong borders seem to belie their position on Ukraine. Senator Marco Rubio, for instance, voted against the most recent foreign aid package. This despite having fled Cuba, building his career advocating for anti-communist foreign policy, leading his peers on China skepticism, and speaking out against dictatorships the world over. 

Rubio and his Senate colleague Vance have also prioritized making an argument for a strong industrial policy. Often harkening back to the heyday of America’s manufacturing heartland, they advocate for re-shoring supply chains and investing in key industries to revitalize sectors that produce well-paying, stable jobs. Indeed, many of the policy thinkers of their intellectual movement point to “expanding defence industrial capacity” to prepare the U.S. to defend its interests and that of its allies abroad and strengthen the domestic economy. Vance argues in his New York Times essay that the U.S. doesn’t have the defence manufacturing capacity to make the number of artillery shells that Ukraine needs. But isn’t that just an argument for exactly the kind of industrial policy he and his supporters have been advocating for?

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks during a news conference with President Joe Biden in the Indian Treaty Room in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House Campus, Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2023, in Washington. Evan Vucci/AP Photo.

Finally, many of the national conservatives who oppose Ukraine funding, embrace an old-fashioned patriotism, cultural nationalism, and concern for border sovereignty that lends itself very well to an argument for supporting allies in their own battles for national sovereignty. Indeed, they point to the migrant crisis at America’s southern border, and the current administration’s inadequate response, as the main reason they wouldn’t support the aid bill. 

But this very concern for the strength of one’s own national borders, for the virtues of one’s own domestic population, for the shared values of one’s own people, and for the vitality of one’s own economy is precisely why wealthy Western countries ought to arm our peer nations who are struggling to preserve exactly those things, especially when the forces that threaten them could very well threaten us next. It’s not a leap for the young isolationists to support more aid to Ukraine (or Israel, or eventually Taiwan), which is why we should try to help them make it.

Because of course, Fukuyama was wrong. At most, as Bari Weiss puts it, we had but a “holiday from history.” Now that the holiday’s over, it’s easier for those who grew up with Ronald Reagan’s assertive foreign policy clarity to revert to a posture that worked. But for many millennials, chest-thumping about Russia and Iran sounds like a precursor to a quagmire, their minds sending them back to the mess in Iraq, and the foreign aid package dollar figures making them fret about their own economic circumstances. They want to believe that the U.S. and its allies can disengage from the world, letting strong men rein and civilizations fall with no domestic consequences.

Our task is explaining the likely consequences of that approach, without disdain or dismissiveness. Yes, even if you think our interlocutors occasionally watch too much Tucker Carlson.

Kristopher Kinsinger: The Liberals still have no good justification for their thought crime law

Commentary

Bill C-63, the federal government’s so-called Online Harms Act, continues to be the subject of vigorous debate across the political and legal spectrum. Numerous civil liberty organizations and legal scholars have expressed alarm over what they describe as the bill’s draconian restrictions on expression that will discourage legitimate political speech. Critics contend that the law places unjustifiable limits on freedom of expression, which is constitutionally guaranteed by section 2(b) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

One of Bill C-63’s most problematic provisions would allow for the issuing of peace bonds (referred to in the Criminal Code as “recognizances”) against hate crime offences. When there are “reasonable grounds” to fear that someone is likely to commit such an offence, provincial court judges would be empowered to, among other things, place the offender under house arrest, or order that they refrain from communicating with certain people. 

Officials with the Department of Justice and spokespeople for the federal government have downplayed the risks to free expression posed by these peace bond provisions. In one op-ed, a senior advisor with the Prime Minister’s Office dismissed criticism of these provisions, framing it as “right-wing” fear-mongering to convince Canadians that “peace bonds are a novel concept created by the Liberal government to appease the woke overlords while punishing regular Canadians with pre-crime offences, like thinking the wrong thing.” 

These defenders of Bill C-63 contend that peace bonds against hate crime offences are justified because the Criminal Code already allows for similar peace bonds against terrorist offences, as well as sexual offences and offences involving serious personal injury. It’s a seemingly witty retort. After all, the Harper Government lowered the threshold to obtain a peace bond when it is feared that someone is likely to commit a terrorist offence. Doesn’t this expose the Conservatives as political hypocrites for now opposing similar legal tools in the Online Harms Act? 

On closer examination, this argument fails to withstand scrutiny. Simply put, the existing legal justification for issuing peace bonds against terrorist and other offences is actually much stronger than for hate crime offences—even though civil libertarians may credibly oppose both.

Establishing “reasonable grounds” that someone is likely to commit a terrorist offence or an offence involving serious personal injury is a largely objective analysis. For example, if someone has been gathering materials that could be used to assemble a bomb, and has been posting threatening messages online against a particular group or venue, it may be reasonable to conclude they intend to commit a terrorist offence in the near future. 

Notably, the Criminal Code prohibits not just terrorist acts, but also “conspirac[ies], attempt[s] or threat[s] to commit any such act or omission.” Thus, actively planning to commit a terrorist offence is itself a criminal act that our law already prohibits. In these cases, a judge issuing a peace bond will consider actions that may themselves prove to be criminal, even if law enforcement still needs to gather additional evidence before charges can be laid. In this regard, peace bonds against terrorist offences are broadly consistent with existing prohibitions on conspiracies or attempts to commit these kinds of offences. 

However, these same justifications can’t be given for the Trudeau government’s proposed peace bonds against hate crime offences. Merely intending to say or do something hateful does not, on its own, constitute a criminal act. Moreover, as I recently wrote for these pages, “The evidence that judges will consider when deciding whether to issue the peace bonds envisioned by Bill C-63 will, invariably, include the allegedly hateful content that the individual in question is expected to express.” In other words, assessing the likelihood that someone will commit a hate crime offence demands (contrary to what certain PMO advisors would suggest) an investigation into that person’s very thoughts. 

How else can a judge assess what someone will say before they say it? Where no actual expression has taken place, all that’s left is what it’s believed that person intends to say. This sort of assessment would necessarily require an investigation into the “internal forum” of someone’s thoughts. This raises the deeply troubling prospect that Bill C-63 not only imposes limits on freedom of expression but also on one of the forgotten freedoms also guaranteed by section 2(b) of the Charter: freedom of thought. 

Indeed, legal scholars like Brian Bird have suggested that limits on freedom of thought may never be constitutionally justified. Although conventional wisdom holds that no right or freedom is absolute, this is not what the Charter actually says; rather, section 1 states that limits may only be imposed on Charter rights and freedoms where they can be “demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.” Against this rigorous standard, the question must be asked: under what circumstances could restrictions on a person’s very thoughts—before those thoughts have even been expressed—be justified in a society that purports to be free and democratic? 

The Trudeau Government has yet to offer a compelling answer to this unsettling question.