This article originally appeared in the National Post.
By Balkan Devlen, October 5, 2022
What does a future shaped by Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping look like? Putin’s ongoing war in Ukraine, his turn toward totalitarianism at home and his increasingly unhinged threats of nuclear war provide one part of the answer. China’s digital authoritarianism, its brutal treatment of minorities, including Uyghurs and Tibetans, its suffocation of Hong Kong and its increasingly bellicose threats against a democratic Taiwan provide the other part. It’s not a world you would want to live in.
It would be a strictly hierarchical international order, in which not all states would be truly sovereign. This is most clear in Putin’s thinking regarding the former Soviet republics, but Xi also displays a similar understanding of international order that is divided into great powers that have real sovereignty, and others that are not quite sovereign. I call this the “Animal Farm” understanding of sovereignty, after George Orwell’s famous novel. In other words, all are sovereign but some are more sovereign than others.
It would be a world in which might makes right, both domestically and internationally. The normative worldview of the Communist Party of China (CCP) and the Kremlin is predicated on an understanding that being in power in itself bestows legitimacy and moral authority, and thus challenges to that authority are both illegitimate and immoral. Criticism and dissent, domestically and internationally, are seen as threats that need to be quashed. Those who dare to oppose Moscow or Beijing will be bullied into submission as others look away, lest they attract the authoritarians’ ire themselves.
The reach of these authoritarian regimes into our society is already apparent. From the kidnapping of Canadian citizens to influence operations, from disinformation and election interference to intimidation and threats against human rights activists and political dissidents, these regimes are already targeting Canada’s social cohesion and its institutions. In a world run by Putin and Xi, it will only get worse, as emboldened authoritarians will try to limit Canadians’ freedom of expression, assembly and association when they are displeased.
It will be a world in which millions of people living in the self-declared spheres of influence of Russia and China are subject to the whims of the powers-that-be in Beijing and Moscow. Their foreign policy choices will be constrained, their domestic politics and economies will operate under the shadow of the Kremlin or CCP and their political classes will be co-opted by, or forced to appease, Beijing or Moscow.
Political and civil liberties will be curtailed, dissenting voices stilled and democratic institutions corrupted since the presence of liberal and democratic regimes on the borders of Russia and China would serve as constant reminders that one is not destined to live under a dictatorship. Those who dare to chart an alternative way and defy their imperial overlords will face war and destruction, killing and maiming, just like Russia is currently doing in Ukraine.
It will be a world in which genocide, ethnic cleansing and war crimes will go unpunished. Dictators would be able to jail, torture and prosecute their opponents with impunity, as long as they kowtow to the Kremlin or the CCP, and defending the human rights of others will become a subversive — almost criminal — act. This will be justified and legitimized using the principles of sovereignty and non-intervention. Those who object will be accused of undermining international peace and stability and of subverting the international order.
In this divided world — between great powers and others, those within Russian and Chinese spheres of influence and the rest — relations will be purely transactional, economic and political blackmail will be common occurrences and the threat of military conflict will be ever present. It will be a bleak future in which the progress of human rights and democracy is rolled back.
It is also a world in which Canadian interests and values are at peril. Canada relies on a free, well-functioning, stable and open rules-based international order for its prosperity and security. Canadians sacrificed blood and treasure in the last eight decades to uphold and defend that order. If it is to be replaced by the world of Putin and Xi, our security, prosperity and domestic peace will be threatened.
Accepting such an international order will corrode our liberal democracies. It would represent a betrayal of our most cherished values and principles. It would mean accepting that there are second-class peoples in the world who do not deserve to live in a free society. It would play into the hands of our adversaries, who argue that the western defence of freedom, democracy and human rights is nothing but a facade.
What is to be done? What should the West — defined as a set of values, ideas and institutions, rather than a geographic location — do to prevent such a bleak future?
First, we have to be unapologetic in defending our values and our interests. We must not equivocate on the value of the rule of law, democracy, human rights and civil liberties, including freedom of expression, assembly and association.
We should also be unapologetic about defending the rules-based international order as an expression of not only the enlightened self-interest of the West, but also as an order that benefited “the rest,” lifting billions out of extreme poverty and improving the lives of hundreds of millions around the world.
Second, the West must co-ordinate better across institutions, issues and geographies. Russia and China are using multilateral institutions, such as the United Nations, to erode, undermine and subvert the norms and rules that govern the current international order. They align their policies across regions and issues, prodding for weaknesses and disagreements. We need to do a better job at co-ordinating within those institutions, build stronger coalitions to counter Russian and Chinese influence and develop minilateral arrangements when the existing institutional structures are immobilized or captured by authoritarian regimes.
We also need to have a frank and honest discussion of what our national interests are, how they interact with the interests of our allies and how we can articulate and align these different national interests within a framework of enlightened self-interest that benefits us all.
Third, we have to recognize that Ukraine and Taiwan are the canaries in the authoritarian coal mine. They are on the front lines of this struggle and their fate will be indicative of where the future will be heading. Dominating Ukraine is essential for Russia’s imperial ambitions, as controlling Taiwan is for China.
In addition to their geostrategic importance, the existence of a democratic and prosperous Ukraine and Taiwan are a constant reminder that freedom and democracy can flourish in those parts of the world. Their very existence is therefore a threat to the regimes in Moscow and Beijing. Supporting Ukraine and Taiwan is not charity, but enlightened self-interest in denying Russia and China their imperial goals.
Fourth, we have to take the fight to Putin and Xi. Countering their subversion in our countries is not enough. The West must come to terms with the use of subversion as a tool within our statecraft and use it to undermine the legitimacy and effectiveness of the Kremlin and the CCP on their own turf. This does not need to be a declared policy and is best pursued through covert means.
Those who argue against such a policy by pointing out that it will cause those regimes to mistrust western democracies miss the point that Putin and Xi already believe that the West is out to get them. Nothing we do or don’t do will change that belief. Refusing to engage in subversion against regimes that are bent on undermining our interests and values robs us of useful tools of statecraft that can be used to weaken our adversaries and retaliate against attacks perpetrated against us.
All of the above requires broad-based public support within western societies. We need to have an honest discussion about the choices we face, the costs and benefits of those choices and the consequences of not getting our act together. We need to invest in our societal resilience, from cognitive defences against disinformation to ensuring energy and critical mineral security, from protecting our supply chains and production to countering elite capture and corruption.
The road ahead will be bumpy and there will be hard choices to make and prices to pay. However, if we do not want to pay pennies today to defend our interests and values while we still can, we will pay hundreds of dollars in the future. The cost, in other words, will be immeasurably more. This is a conversation we need to have now.
Here in Canada, we need to have a frank and open discussion about what we want the world to look like, what role we want to play in international affairs and what steps we will need to take in order to get there. This may entail throwing out previous conceptions about Canada’s place in the world and a clear-eyed assessment of our responsibilities as a free and democratic country.
Canada also needs to invest more in defence and security. The world is becoming more dangerous and will remain so for some time. It is essential that Canada has the tools to defend its sovereignty, protect its interests and secure its people and prosperity from coast to coast to coast, and over the horizon, if need be.
Committing to meeting the NATO defence spending target of two per cent of GDP is a good place to start, although what you spend the money on is at least as important as how much you spend. Investing in intelligence and counterintelligence capabilities to protect Canadians from subversion and cognitive warfare is as crucial as increasing defence spending. One key area that will require sustained attention is supporting defence and dual-use technology innovation in Canada in the era of techno-competition between the West and China.
A good ally is the one that shows up. The Canada-led NATO Enhanced Forward Presence mission in Latvia and Operation UNIFIER, the military training mission in Ukraine, are great examples of how Canada can make a meaningful contribution to the security of its allies. Those need to be studied and emulated when appropriate, while exploring other areas where Canada can make a difference, such as the Arctic, cyberspace and space.
Likewise, Canada must invest in ideas and people. From NATO to the G7 to Five Eyes, Canada has a seat at the most coveted tables in international politics. It should use that institutional advantage to shape global norms and rules, promote policies and ideas that strengthen the cohesion and effectiveness of the democratic world, bring countries sitting on the fence into the fold and, when needed, spearhead new institutional arrangements. It is essential that those who develop and implement these ideas and policies have the resources they need to get the job done.
Canada can offer much to its allies and the democratic world. Canada is a natural resource superpower. It can help its allies reduce or even eliminate their dependence on authoritarian regimes for energy, while helping others transition away from dirty coal. It can ensure a reliable supply of critical minerals to the democracies of the world. It can help feed the world while the most vulnerable face hunger due to Russia’s war in Ukraine. The potential is there and our allies are asking for our help. What is needed is political leadership and initiative, both at the federal and provincial levels.
If Putin and Xi have their way, we will return to a world order in which might makes right and Canadians’ way of life, values, security and prosperity are under constant threat. This is not a world you’d want to live in. The community of countries that believe in the rule of law, democracy, open markets, human rights, civil liberties and individual freedoms can and should fight back, so that such a future never materializes. Canada can, and should, have a pride of place in that struggle.
Balkan Devlen is a Senior Fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.