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Brian Lee Crowley: American liberal order or authoritarian free-for-all? The choice is obvious

Commentary
President Joe Biden, right, stands with Chinese President Xi Jinping before a meeting on the sidelines of the G20 summit meeting, Nov. 14, 2022, in Bali, Indonesia. Alex Brandon/AP Photo.

We must never take the American-led world order for granted. The autocratic alternative would be far worse

William Thorsell sympathises with those countries, such as Russia and China, who feel that the postwar order is a vicious one, constructed without their consent, and irredeemably hostile to their interests. In this world view America has been the primary force imposing the liberal international order criticised by autocrats and authoritarians everywhere. Cutting America down to size and recasting postwar institutions and practices more in the image of Beijing, Moscow, and their ilk would, allegedly, bring about a fairer and more just world.

I take the opposite view, of course, namely that the period of unprecedented order, peace and prosperity the world has enjoyed in the postwar years under the Pax Americana has benefited not only the liberal democracies but people everywhere. Freer trade, freedom of the seas, the essential neutralisation of the threat of nuclear conflict between states, the ease of travel, the promotion of human rights, the exuberant exchange of ideas and capital, and the explosive growth of technologies and markets across borders have raised incomes and the quality of life in every corner of the globe.

Virtually all of this was resisted by the world’s autocrats, who preferred poverty-inducing centralised control to the unpredictable and uncontrollable innovation that results from empowering individuals and civil society. The fact that the liberal international order has succeeded as much as it has is largely down to the liberal democracies, under American leadership, chivying along reluctant authoritarians.

Clearly, however, Thorsell and his sympathisers see the same postwar world I do and come to a different conclusion about its desirability. So rather than argue the merits of that order, I propose something different. Let us test the proposition that the world yearns to be freed from the yoke of the institutions and relationships that are the warp and weft of the postwar world. In other words, who wants to move into America’s neighbourhood, and who wants to be in the authoritarians’ camp? If the world’s people could vote with their feet, where would they go?

As I write this, China is actively engaged in intimidating its neighbour Taiwan through military exercises meant to punish the island’s voters for having had the temerity to elect a president from a party that opposes unification with the People’s Republic. Taiwan’s survival in the face of Chinese hostility depends on America’s support for the proposition that it is for the Taiwanese to decide their own future. They desperately seek admission to America’s neighbourhood.

In defiance of international law, China has claimed the entire South China Sea, expanded islands and atolls throughout the region, established military bases they denied they were building, and now sit astride the shipping lanes and energy-supply corridors of all their neighbours from Singapore to Japan. In response, the bulk of the littoral countries seek closer relations with America as a counterweight to China.

Ukrainians are, today, engaged in a life or death struggle with their neighbour, the Russian Federation, whose unprovoked invasion is the first large-scale attempt since the Second World War to change borders in Europe by force. For Ukraine, admission to the American neighbourhood (including eventual NATO membership) is a matter of life and death.

If you are one of the 20 million or so residents of Seoul, Korea, you live in the shadow of vast artillery forces massed just across the border in neighbouring North Korea. The same madman who controls that artillery also possesses nuclear weapons and every time he needs cash he engages in nuclear blackmail by lobbing a missile in the general direction of nearby Japan, improving his aim a little bit each time. Little wonder that both Korea and Japan prize their membership in America’s neighbourhood above all else.

A TV screen shows a file image of North Korea's missile launch during a news program at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, Friday, May 17, 2024. Ahn Young-joon/AP Photo.

Israel’s neighbours in the Gaza Strip and Lebanon include armed militias (Hamas and Hezbollah respectively) actively financed and armed by a third neighbour, the Islamic Republic of Iran. All three have promised to spare no effort not merely to defeat the “Zionist entity” militarily but to erase it from the Earth. Israel might well survive on its own, but being in the American neighbourhood has been a virtual guarantee of its survival.

In support of these anti-Israel efforts the Iran-aligned Houthis, a tribe in a slightly more distant neighbour, Yemen, rain rockets down on the world’s shipping passing through the Suez Canal, disrupting supply chains and raising prices for goods around the world. America and its allies lead the effort to fend off these attacks and to protect the freedom of the seas on which so much depends.

In South America, newly oil-rich Guyana’s neighbour Venezuela is clearly preparing the ground for the military seizure of Guyana’s Essequibo region, eschewing negotiation of its border claims in favour of naked force. Uncertainty as to whether Guyana is in America’s neighbourhood may be one of the few things making Venezuela hesitate and Guyana does not seem to be clamouring to join the authoritarians’ neighbourhood.

In none of the places I have listed do the residents want to see Beijing, Moscow, Tehran, Pyongyang, or Caracas empowered to impose their will on their neighbours.

The only places where we see a desire to move more into the authoritarians’ world is where lesser authoritarians feel their grip on power is weak and they need help oppressing their own people.

Thus Caracas is happy to have the help of Cuba and Iran in consolidating its otherwise tenuous hold on power.

Syria’s President Bashar Assad was thrilled to offer Russia a coveted Mediterranean naval base in exchange for support in its campaign to slaughter hundreds of thousands of its citizens for the sin of preferring a different regime in Damascus.

And of course Russia itself has relentlessly pursued an ever-closer relationship with Beijing in Moscow’s efforts to evade the sanctions imposed on it by much of the world in response to its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

By contrast, Finland and Sweden, who have long hovered on the borders of America’s neighbourhood, took one look at Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and promptly applied for NATO membership. When the countries of eastern and central Europe finally freed themselves from subjection to the Soviet Union the very first thing they did was to apply to move to America’s neighbourhood.

Countries like India, Australia, and Japan, fearful of finding themselves facing an expansionist China alone, have rushed to bind America to their region and security more firmly by creating new security organisations such as AUKUS and the Quad.

And here at home, when Canadians are honest with ourselves we acknowledge that we can skimp on defence spending, not because no one wants to attack us nice Canadians, but because everyone in the world knows whose neighbourhood we live in; you couldn’t attack Canada without America intervening. We shamelessly free-ride on America’s towering strength and then wag a moralistic finger self-righteously in their face over relatively minor features of the way that they led the world to unheard-of peace and prosperity.

Remember that talk is cheap, including talk about the inequities of the postwar order. If you really want to know what people think and feel, watch how they act. In this case, never forget many countries fear that America will cease to count them as part of their neighbourhood, while others fervently seek admission, all fearing a world in which they must face the world’s authoritarians alone. By the same token, millions of individuals aspire to move to America or to the countries in its neighbourhood. In fact, so many are headed here that it risks destabilising the very societies these teeming migrants wish to join.

On the other hand, there are no queues at the entrance to, and vast numbers of people hovering near the exit from, the odious regimes that Thorsell wishes to see be given more power and influence.

The fact that we have built an international order where the world’s bullies meet real obstacles to their naked ambition and real consequences for their brutality is a cause for neither sorrow nor regret, but rather celebration. Our respective neighbourhoods, and the balance of power between them, are vastly preferable to the alternative.

Alex MacDonald: The Jason Kenney dividend

Commentary

Put simply: no Premier Kenney, no Premier Smith

Today (May 29th) marks the one-year anniversary of Premier Danielle Smith’s election victory and the second mandate for the United Conservative Party of Alberta (UCP). It also marks the nearly two-year anniversary of Jason Kenney’s resignation as leader of the UCP.

While the 2023 twin victory of Smith—the UCP leadership and provincial election—has been rightly chronicled as a true political comeback drama, the inextricable link between Kenney and Smith has been less explored or recognized.

While Smith is worthy of praise in her own right for her many achievements, when a wide angle is taken of recent Albertan political history the legacy of Kenney looms large. In fact, one can argue that for a host of both positive and negative reasons, Smith’s success as leader of the UCP has been largely thanks to Kenney’s contributions to the province. Put simply: no Premier Kenney, no Premier Smith.

Kenney’s provincial political odyssey not only provided Smith the opportunity to contend for the UCP leadership and then government, but it also prepared the ripe conditions for her success in the 2023 election and then as premier.

This political legacy, which Kenney effectively bequeathed to the province and his successor at the helm of the UCP, should be understood as a political dividend of sorts—one which Smith is now cashing in.

How did we get here?

Prior to contending in the 2019 provincial election, Kenney undertook the massive and historic task of uniting the Albertan Right. This consisted of three distinct campaign efforts within a 10-month time period:

  1. Winning the Progressive Conservative (PC) leadership contest
  2. Brokering the PC – Wildrose merger and winning the subsequent UCP leadership contest
  3. Winning the Calgary-Lougheed by-election

Three straight victories, all of which were secured by at least 61 percent or more of the vote, was no small feat. But these were only parts one (unite the Right) and two (lead the Right) of Kenney’s Triple Crown performance.

Having secured the leadership of the UCP and a seat in the provincial Legislature, Kenney then embarked on part three: a nearly two-year campaign against Rachel Notley and the NDP leading up to the 2019 provincial election. In this time, Kenney stewarded the nomination of 87 UCP candidates and drafted perhaps the most comprehensive provincial platform to date with 300 plus policy commitments.

The UCP approached the 2019 election with unstoppable momentum and ultimately won with 54.9 percent of the vote, securing the most votes of any political party in the history of the province. No party in Alberta had secured such a vote share on its first ballot since Social Credit contested and won its first election in 1935.

The UCP’s first mandate

With such a strong mandate secured, the Kenney-led UCP embarked on an ambitious policy agenda of lowering taxes and cutting regulations, a K-12 curriculum re-write, a new master agreement with doctors, the Fair Deal Panel and referendum, reviving the embattled Keystone XL pipeline, and the passage of 149 pieces of legislation in the UCPs first Legislature.

However, a mere 13 months into the mandate, as the COVID-19 pandemic began to unravel, Premier Kenney declared a public health emergency which set the province on a tumultuous trajectory of battling the pandemic, both physically and politically.

A month later, Alberta and Canada experienced another historic event: Canadian energy began trading for less than $0 as energy markets expeditiously collapsed as demand halted. The North American benchmark crude, West Texas Intermediate (WTI) fell close to $50 on April 20th alone, closing at negative $37.63 USD.

As the pandemic intensified and commodity markets continued to reel, Alberta’s economy suffered, as it was harder hit in 2020 than any other province. While most other provinces experienced a 4-5 percent contraction in GDP compared to 2019, Alberta’s GDP decreased more than 8 percent. Consequently, the province’s budget deficit of $ 7 billion quickly tripled to nearly $20 billion, severely threatening the UCP’s promised path back to balance.

Taken together, these three generational crises combined into a triple Black Swan event for the province and its ambitious new government. Yet, in true Kenney fashion, he took these adverse times head on “like the sturdy prairie buffalo” determined to deliver on the UCPs mandate—and he did, at least for as long as was tenable.

Alberta roars back while Kenney limps

Having inherited a provincial debt load of roughly $13 billion in 2014-2015, Kenney was able to steer a clear course to balance despite pandemic-induced spending, the commodity crash, and the general economic disaster of the pandemic. Astoundingly, the UCP delivered a balanced budget in 2022. Notably the province’s first balanced budget in a decade.

Yet stewarding the economic peril of the province from historic catastrophe to steady relaunch would prove insufficient as the pandemic and its politics exposed Kenney to intense and unrelenting scrutiny from within and without his caucus. When the UCP government re-imposed a near lockdown in the spring of 2021, 17 UCP MLAs wrote an open letter to Kenney decrying the decision.

Despite the UCP caucus subsequently ejecting two MLAs, the malcontent over pandemic policy continued to stew within the ranks of the UCP. The discontent revealed a fatal weakness within the management and ethos of the party the inability to harmonize a staunch prairie libertarianism and a traditional conservativism of ordered liberty.

The fissure of libertarianism that took hold within the UCP thanks to the pandemic ultimately spelled the demise of Kenney while offering Smith a path back to political office and party leadership.

On May 18, 2022, Kenney faced the UCP membership in a scheduled leadership review. Despite securing 51.4 percent of votes, he announced shortly after that he would resign as leader.

The politics of the pandemic proved to be the soft underbelly of Kenney’s leadership. Despite stunting the rise of the NDP, economically managing the pandemic downturn, and undertaking the most significant policy revival in recent provincial history, Kenney was ultimately judged by his caucus and party membership through the solitary frame of his public health choices.

To his most severe critics, however, it wasn’t just Kenney’s pandemic response itself. It was how his pandemic management fulfilled and confirmed a particular narrative—that Kenney was insular, hubristic, and unwilling to govern the caucus collegially.

UCP Leader Danielle Smith makes her victory speech in Calgary on Monday May 29, 2023. Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press.

The UCP’s second mandate  

Given her Wildrose roots, Smith was a natural standard bearer for the libertarian discontent that had brimmed over in the UCP caucus and base. Smith stewarded a successful leadership bid by predictably focusing on commitments to dismantle  Alberta Health Services in retribution for the pandemic, protecting personal freedoms, and aggressively asserting provincial jurisdiction. She competently rode the wave of reactionary libertarianism that Kenney’s leadership opened up within the UCP base.

Upon assuming the leadership, Smith was endowed with not only the party that Kenney founded but also its achievements, its potential, and a province that was roaring back from the pandemic.

The healthy economic state that Smith inherited allowed her to deliver timely affordability policies directly to voters ahead of the 2023 election. These included sending cheques directly to Albertans, a fuel tax break, and electricity and natural gas rebates. Such public spending would not have been possible without the effective economic management of the Kenney years, which produced the first balanced budget in a decade while the subsequent rebound of oil prices provided a surprising $10.4 billion budget surplus in 2023.

As Smith led the UCP into the 2023 election she also had the benefit of an exceptionally ambitious and efficient UCP policy record. As has been noted in these pages before, Kenney’s UCP was “the country’s most ambitious centre-right provincial government since the Harris government’s Common-Sense Revolution in Ontario more than a quarter-century ago.”

Practically speaking, this allowed Smith to run on the UCP record, not her own personal record or a particularly ambitious policy agenda. The NDP’s choice to run a predictably negative campaign against Smith and her personal record only confirmed that Smith’s perceived weakness was her record of public musings and potential to self-immolate through a mid-campaign gaffe.

The inherited UCP record cushioned her in the polls and allowed for a bland, cautious, and ultimately successful campaign.

Comparing the 2019 and 2023 UCP platforms reveals that while the 2019 platform was brimming with novel policy commitments, the 2023 platform was rather uncontroversial. Perhaps the most notable platform commitment was the creation of a new 8 percent tax bracket.

Having not led through the pandemic, Smith was also able to contrast herself with Kenney’s pandemic policies, side-step direct responsibility for its management, and focus on the more politically expedient—the political and bureaucratic reforms in the wake of the crisis. This was ultimately a winning proposition.

Conclusion

What is now obvious in hindsight is that Kenney’s dividend is paying out handsomely for Alberta and for Smith herself.

Smith has shown an incredible degree of grit, patience, and political acumen, and she does deserve credit for capitalizing on the value of what Kenney left behind. She too deserves acclaim for converting the dividend into political action and true progress for the province of Alberta. We ought to hold her up on this anniversary of her election victory, but not forget that she is standing on the shoulders of Kenney, the father of the UCP.