The Sochi Games are over and Russian President Vladimir Putin is back to business as usual. The decision to use Russian troops following the Ukraine’s establishment of a new government is reminiscent of Cold War politics and Putin’s disregard for international law.
In reaction, the Canadian government has already chosen to recall its ambassador to Russia. Through President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, the U.S. government has also warned that there will be consequences to Putin’s response to the change of government in Kiev.
In recent weeks, the Western world has seen the street reaction in Kiev’s Independence Square to now former President Victor Yanukovich’s decision to choose a Putin-directed economic deal over one from the European Union. The violence ordered by Yanukovich to quell the protesters only intensified and inflamed the degree of opposition. Many in the West following the Olympics in Sochi were stunned by how quickly the ‘’street revolution’’ replaced Yanukovich and installed a new government in accordance with the Ukrainian constitution (impeaching Yanukovich and releasing a prominent political opponent were both legal and constitutional).
Certainly, Putin’s objective to present the best face of Russia to the world during Sochi suffered a major setback. While invading and taking control of Crimea may give him the upper hand against a cash–strapped Ukraine with a new provisional government, it does little to show the emergence of a new Russia. Already, the anti-gay law and the release of political opponents from prison depicted the calculation of a ruthless and inward–looking leader.
As the North American leaders Stephen Harper, Barack Obama and Enrique Peña Nieto meet in Mexico City this week, we can expect smiles and all the rhetoric about intensifying the relationship between the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) partners. While the trade numbers justify applauding and celebrating the NAFTA agreement 20 years after its inauguration (January 1994), there remains a lot of “behind the scenes” tension, conflict and unresolved issues.
For Canada, NAFTA has been a positive development. In 2010, trilateral trade represented $878 billion, which is a threefold expansion of trade since 1993. Mexico now represents Canada’s first Latin American partner in trade, and we are Mexico’s second most important trade partner in the world. Bilateral trade has expanded at a rate of 12.5% yearly to attain $30 billion in 2010. Canadian investment in Mexico is now estimated at over $10 billion. In short, both countries have benefitted from the deal.
This being said, it is generally acknowledged that both Canada and Mexico invest more time, energy, and resources in pursuing bilateral relations with the world’s number one economy, the United States. As a result, some outstanding issues such as Canada’s imposition of visas on Mexican tourists continue to be a major irritant for the Mexican government. The continuing disputes on respective beef import bans also continue to create tension between the two countries.
Just this past weekend, Canada’s highly respected Globe and Mail had the following headlines: “Mexico has stern messages for Harper” and “Canada-Mexico relations merit more than forced smiles”. Clearly, the relationship is strained.
If there is one issue that has pitted the Canadian government against a U.S. administration in recent years, it has been the Keystone Pipeline XL project. The project is meant to transport crude oil from the Alberta oil sands to the Gulf of Mexico. Final approval of the trans-border pipeline rests with President Obama.
It is fair to say that Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper was hoping that the Obama administration would decide to approve the project during its first term in office. In addition, the Canadian prime minister showed remarkable restraint when President Obama was facing reelection in 2012, knowing the president had to wrestle with a portion of his political base. Instead, Harper used discreet diplomacy.
Canadian Ambassador Gary Doer proved to be an effective spokesperson and promoter. Having a strong environmental background, Doer pushed the case in a methodical manner with U.S. legislators and administration officials behind the scenes. The case for Keystone and North American energy security can be compelling.
The State of the Union (SOTU) address can be considered an institutionalized “bully pulpit” for the President of the United States. It is delivered yearly on the last Tuesday in January. As expected, the President forcefully made his case for new proposals to Congress before a primetime television audience.
President Obama’s speech was delivered in the midst of low approval numbers (43 percent), and after what many have termed 2013--Obama’s annus horribilis. Beginning the sixth year of his presidency with his Democratic Party bracing for a potentially tough mid-term election cycle, it is fair to speculate about whether Obama is already facing a premature lame duck status.
For those of us north of the border, we tend to follow the SOTU with keen interest, but very rarely expect to see Canada in the forefront. The battle over the Keystone Oil pipeline project is of interest, but judging from the President’s general statements about U.S. energy, Canadian officials were not given any indication of a decision coming soon. The President spoke of the progress made due to his energy policies, the rising importance of renewable energy sources, and stated emphatically that “climate change is a fact”. For the opponents of Keystone, these comments were likely encouraging. For the proponents, it seems the wait is not yet over.
In a recent blog, I described Canada’s new and emerging American economic challenge with our neighbor to the south as it was heading towards energy self-sufficiency with its consequent impact on the manufacturing sector of its economy. While Canada has increased its trade with new partners in recent years and is actively pursuing new markets for its products through free trade agreements, I concluded by saying that the United States remains our number one export nation and this will not change in the near future.
On the political front, there are few relationships more stable and predictable than that of Canada and the U.S. We have fought wars together, have done peace missions together, have shared intelligence on national and continental security matters, and generally have had compatible national interests. The post-World War II years have seen some differences between these two neighbors, but none significant enough to doubt the depth of trust, commonality of interest, and shared commitment. At least until recently.
The current trip by Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, with a huge delegation of government officials and business people to the Middle East, including Israel, Jordan and the West Bank, has raised speculation that Canada has steadfastly decided on a go-it-alone policy at a crucial moment as U.S. diplomacy is actively pursuing peace in the region. The reception offered to the Canadian visitors by the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu is unmatched in recent memory and Prime Minister Harper has reciprocated with an unequivocal endorsement of Israel’s conditions for peace. Some observers in Canada are asking: is Canada more supportive of the Israeli government’s negotiating position than the brokering efforts of the U.S.?
The Canada-Israel bond contrasts with the frosty relationship between Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama. Considering the Israeli Prime Minister’s warmth to the Republican Party and its 2012 Presidential nominee, Governor Mitt Romney, and his public lecturing of President Obama, Netanyahu’s enthusiastic praise for Harper’s policy seems meant to convey an implicit mistrust of the U. S. government in its handling of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Clearly, this did not seem to be a factor in the Canadian Prime Minister’s trip.
Since the Edward Snowden–National Security Agency (NSA) affair exploded in the media last summer, some world leaders, such as Angela Merkel of Germany, have since discovered that they were under some surveillance by the U.S. security apparatus. The negative reaction that followed the German chancellor discovering the bugging of her cell phone is evidence that NSA policies are more than an infringement of privacy if they have created a diplomatic incident with a major ally to the Obama administration.
NSA methods seem to be out of control when a country is caught spying on its allies. Concerned about this type of fallout, the Obama administration, along with its outside NSA review panel, is now considering sweeping changes to existing policies.
Just over the holiday season, The New York Times made the case for clemency for the former NSA contractor. British newspaper The Guardian, which has been the conduit of many of Edward Snowden’s sensational bombshells, called for an outright pardon by U.S. President Barack Obama.
What started out as a “hero versus traitor” debate about the actions of Edward Snowden is now becoming one about whether an individual whistleblower who broke the law while purportedly acting in defense of the U.S. constitution (the Fourth Amendment) should be tried for a 'crime' created by a governmental institution.
If 2013 saw a rebound in the Liberal brand nationally, how will 2014 fare for the ruling Conservatives on the federal scene? A year ago, the Conservative government, despite some good economic numbers, was facing a resurgent Liberal party in the midst of a leadership race with the emergence of the charismatic and likeable Justin Trudeau leading all other contenders. By the end of 2013, Trudeau had established his standing in the polls leading both Prime Minister Stephen Harper and official opposition leader Tom Mulcair.
The Canadian Senate scandal erupted in the spring of 2013, where three Conservative senators were accused of spending irregularities. They eventually left the Conservative caucus and were suspended from their duties. However, the scandal, along with the Trudeau leadership victory, marred what could have been a good year for the ruling Tories.
With the economy undergoing modest growth, most seemed appreciative of Harper’s economic management. And just a few weeks ago, Canada concluded a free trade agreement (yet to be ratified) with the European Union. Still, by the end of 2013, the Tories were facing disapproval numbers hovering over the 60 percent mark, and had 29-30 percent voter choice number (voter intention).
The Tory prospects for 2014 may rest with how the New Democratic Party (NDP) and the Liberals perform with their respective bases (generally progressive), and their appeal to disenchanted voters.
During the course of the first leg of the Mandela funeral celebrations last week, one event made news around the world—U.S. President Barack Obama shaking hands with Cuban President Raul Castro. Speculation immediately surfaced about whether it was a planned event, and whether it meant an eventual new beginning for Cuban‒U.S. relations.
Judging from the reactions of both presidents’ spokespeople, it was a circumstantial meeting. To not shake hands would have been more significant.
Back in the spring of 2012, both Canada and the United States could not agree with their Latin American and Caribbean partners on a communiqué about the outcome of the sixth Summit of the Americas—in part because both the Canadian and American leaders opposed the formal inclusion of Cuba at the next summit. Last week’s event between Obama and Castro should not be interpreted as a change of heart.
Yet, basking in the accolades and homages to Nelson Mandela and his spirit, one cannot escape the thought that Mandela himself would have approved of the gesture as a first step to an eventual normalization of relations between these two antagonists.
The tributes to Nelson Mandela will continue to pour in over the next few days, as dignitaries make their way to pay their final respects to the leader who did more to transform Africa than any other in recent memory. His life story is now becoming more familiar by the day, and the upcoming film about his life will only add to the remarkable achievements of the man called Madiba.
We in Canada have always had a special place in our hearts for Nelson Mandela. The first country Mandela visited after his release from prison was Canada. The prime minister of the day, Brian Mulroney, was the principal world leader pushing for sanctions against the white supremacist government of South Africa, which ultimately brought the downfall of apartheid. Prime Minister Jean Chrétien later made Mandela a citizen of Canada.
When the tributes are done and world leaders have made sense of Mandela’s life and legacy, what will remain? Will there be primarily a focus on his achievements as a transformational and inspirational leader? Or, will there be a larger lesson—one that will transcend the ages and inspire future generations?
Without him, South Africa would not be where it is today—a multiracial democracy after years of apartheid and oppression. Yet a healthy and conscious Nelson Mandela would be the first to acknowledge that his work remains unfinished, and that the South Africa of today has not fulfilled the promise and the hopes of its visionary leader.
Obama’s sinking approval numbers one year into his second term have led some observers to conclude that the presidency has seen its best days. For the first time, the President’s “trustworthy” factor is deficient, and talk of the second-term curse has already made its way into the daily media jargon.
The Obamacare computer glitch has since been compared to Bush’s Katrina—and because it is the president’s signature achievement, pundit talk has already surfaced about a failed presidency. We in Canada have always liked Barack Obama and hoped he would be a successful president, but now many are asking, “Is it too late for Obama?”
Clearly, this has been a difficult year for the Obama administration–the IRS targeting of the Tea Party, a return on the Benghazi fiasco, the Edward Snowden and National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance controversy, the government shutdown in September, and the failed Obamacare rollout.
As we are about to enter 2014, midterm elections and potential lame-duck status for the sitting president are on the horizon. Some of it is self-inflicted, but despite the Republicans’ failed strategy related to the government shutdown, they still believe that they have cornered Obama and ensured for themselves a pathway to maintaining the House and capturing the Senate next November. Only winning the White House in 2016 would remain to complete the trifecta.
On November 25, Canadians went to the polls in four by-elections—two in Manitoba, one in Québec and one in Ontario. The results were not dramatic, as they maintained the same distribution of seats in Canada’s House of Commons. The Conservative Party of Prime Minister Stephen Harper kept its two Manitoba seats—albeit with highly reduced margins. The Liberals, led by new leader Justin Trudeau, won both the Ontario and the Québec seats.
What made news was the fact that the Liberals captured second place in the Manitoba contests, leaving the New Democratic Party (NDP) to ponder whether they are losing their hold as the alternative to the governing Tories.
Harper’s party is still mired in the Senate scandal from last spring, which involved alleged spending infractions by former Conservative Senators Patrick Brazeau, Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin—then part of the Conservative caucus.
To the opposition parties, it’s the scandal that keeps on giving, as daily revelations dominate the newswires. The prime minister is finding out the hard way the Watergate scandal lesson—the “cover-up” is usually more damaging than the “crime.” Evasive answers, contradictions and improvisation have amplified what should have been an isolated case of misbehaving senators (since expelled from the Tory caucus) into a full-blown scandal.
Conservatives have suffered the blowback in recent national polls, and the by-elections results confirmed that the government is in troubled waters. What may be encouraging to the government strategists, however, is that the Tory fall in the polls cannot really be attributed to the government’s major agenda item: the economy. Rather, it is the scandal and how the government conducts its business in the light of the scandal that are the source of the current rejection. With two years to go until the next election, there is plenty of time to adjust and recover—or so the Tories think.
It has been said that if Iran develops a nuclear bomb, the world will become more dangerous than at any time since the height of the Cold War. The interim accord between Iran, the five members of the UN Security Council and Germany is meant to address this fear. The accord sets specific and significant limitations on Iran’s nuclear capability and development (that is, to freeze Iran’s nuclear program) with UN inspections in return for some temporary sanction relief for the Iranian government. The six-month agreement is temporary and is intended to provide a foundation for a long-term settlement beyond this deadline.
Already, the reactions approving or opposing the deal have come forward swiftly. From U.S. media coverage, one would think that the deal is only between the U.S. and Iran, ignoring the work and commitment of the other partners. Remember Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany are partners to this agreement. Sure, the Obama Administration is at the center of this high stakes game and Secretary of State John Kerry has played an instrumental role. However, it must be emphasized that the deal remains a first step involving the UN’s permanent Security Council members, and the dialogue is meant to continue.
The strongest and most strident voice opposing the accord has come from Israel and its Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. This was not unexpected, and may not be totally negative. Iran must realize that this recent development is not a free pass to sanction relief as it has earned the mistrust through its past actions. Israel, however, cannot lose sight of its ultimate objective—no nuclear weapon has been developed by Iran yet, and the dialogue has begun. Israeli President and Nobel Peace Laureate, Shimon Peres, was more balanced and constructive in his reaction, saying that results will matter more than words.
Fifty years ago, I was entering university when a tragic event with worldwide repercussions occurred: the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. Many who lived through that day and the following three days can recall where they were, what they were doing and how they felt.
Besides the United States, Canadians probably felt the pain most vividly. JFK had visited us earlier in his presidency and described us as neighbors, allies, partners, and friends. No relationship was closer and more interdependent. He had effectively seduced us on that visit.
Since his death, numerous historical accounts have focused on the theories about his assassination, the myths about the Kennedy years in the White House—the so-called “Camelot” era—and the successes and failures of his presidency. Even after all these years, the JFK mystique still captivates our imagination.
JFK was, above all, a modern man. Elected president in 1960 at age 43, he was the first U.S. president to be born in the 20th century. Young, handsome and charismatic, he was the first president to do regular televised press conferences. With his natural charm, he was able to display vision, firmness and humor. By all accounts, he was a natural for the television age.
Above all, JFK knew how to use the power of words to inspire and to give direction. His words still resonate after all these years: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country”; “Never fear to negotiate, but never negotiate out of fear”; “Wherever we may be, all free men are citizens of Berlin—Ich bin ein Berliner”; We choose to go to the moon in this decade not because it is easy, but because it is hard.”
On Friday, October 25, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani spoke at Montreal’s Board of Trade on the eve of the Montreal mayoral election.
The Board of Trade, anticipating the fervor of the final stretch of the campaign for a new mayor, chose to invite Giuliani for his take on how to revive Canada’s second largest city after a year of upheaval in which two mayors were forced out of office and a new election is scheduled for November 3.
Against a backdrop of corruption investigations, crumbling infrastructure and a general feeling of decline, Giuliani’s presence was most welcome. While the former mayor was careful not to appear smug or condescending, he did outline what he considered to have been the formula for his success in reviving the fortunes of New York City.
Having a vision and a sense of direction for your city is the first major ingredient for success, Giuliani said. When he took over in the early 90s in New York, the crime rate was high and people were leaving the city. When he left office shortly after 9-11, crime was down 80 percent and people were coming back to the city.
To measure the progress of a city, Giuliani emphasized the need for both accountability and measurable goals. He recognized that there were risks in this approach, but said that one should govern as if it is a single mandate and that the population will respect the efforts even if the results are inconclusive. Transformational governance, says Rudy, requires taking risks even at the prospect of failure and ultimate electoral defeat.
While thousands of federal workers in the U.S. went back to work today after grappling with the government shutdown and debt ceiling crisis, Canada’s Parliament has just now reopened for business, with Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s second Throne Speech since his party won a majority government mandate in May 2011.
Coming at mid-term, the speech has been properly described as a new beginning for the Harper government. He outlined consumer-friendly measures such as reducing the gap between cross-border prices on items purchased in the U.S. and greater subscriber freedom in purchasing cable TV packages. In addition, he announced more law and order policies to reinforce his conservative base. All this was presented in the usual pomp of a Speech from the Throne.
The past year has seen the Harper administration facing its most serious crises since it first took office in 2006. Election irregularities in the 2011 campaign have led to departures within the ranks, and a Senate scandal involving three Conservative senators dominated the spring session. Current polls place the Harper Conservatives behind the third party in the House of Commons—the Liberals, under new leader Justin Trudeau. While there is plenty of time for a resurgence before the 2015 general election, the Speech from the Throne delivered on October 16 does represent a potential second wind.
The Conservative victory in May 2011 was so impressive that some seasoned political observers saw the emergence of a new coalition made up of law and order types and Canadians with conservatives values— one which could transform the Conservatives into “the natural governing party” of the nation, as the Liberals were through most of the 20th century. Harper’s Conservative party is also seen as the most ideological party of its nature since Confederation.
Some pundits have postulated that the 2011 shift to the Right may develop into a permanent phenomenon. After all, in that year, the Liberals dropped to third place (Conservatives occupied 161 seats in the House of Commons while Liberals occupied 34) and seemed decimated in key strongholds across the country, including Québec and the greater Toronto area. The progressive view seemed in search of a principal voice. Enter the new official opposition party—the New Democrats (NDP), who are hoping to replace the Liberals as the alternative to the Conservatives.
As the U.S. government shutdown continues in its second week and there remains a looming possibility of a Congressional gridlock over the debt ceiling on October 17, much attention has been directed to the first-term Republican Senator from Texas, Ted Cruz. The Calgary-born Cruz has been dominating the headlines for the past three weeks with his 21-hour faux-filibuster against the Affordable Care Act (popularly deemed “Obamacare”), and his adamant stand against the president’s health care reform as a “job killer.” In so doing, the “Senator from Canada” (Cruz was born to an American mother and a Cuban father in Alberta, Canada. He currently holds both U.S. and Canadian citizenship.) has become the de facto leader of Tea Party Republicans in the House of Representations and the face of the GOP.
Republican House Speaker John Boehner seems unable to break Cruz’s hold on the Tea Party caucus. As a result, defunding Obamacare has become the leitmotiv for Republican support to end the shutdown. Speaker Boehner keeps asking for a conversation with President Obama to break the stalemate, but it seems his most intransigent opponent is within his own ranks. Cruz, however, may be calling the tune on this Republican shutdown position, but he is not without his detractors.
Republican heavyweights such as anti-tax zealot Grover Norquist and Bush operative Karl Rove have openly questioned the Cruz-led strategy to tie a budget vote to replacing the 2012 election result on Obamacare or making it inoperative. Some have openly speculated that a fratricidal war within Republican ranks could cost the GOP dearly at the polls in the 2014 midterm elections. Polls, while spreading the blame to both parties, indicate greater disapproval with the Republicans’ performance on this issue. It is undoubtedly a risky strategy.
Clearly, Cruz has ambitions beyond the shutdown and the debt ceiling fight—possibly even the next presidential cycle in 2016. While many Republicans are increasingly uncomfortable with his bravado, his leadership on this issue and his media presence are making Speaker Boehner look weak and vulnerable. This is a unique situation where the Speaker of the House is being held hostage by a first-term Senator of the same party from another arm of the legislature. Meanwhile, the Tea Party is keeping Boehner’s feet to the fire, despite his obvious inclination to find a compromise with Obama.
With the U.S. administration now engaged in trade talks regarding the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and President Obama’s intention, expressed in his last State of Union address, to embark on a free trade arrangement with the European Union, it is clear that trade policy in the U.S. is in for a major shift. The Canada–U.S. commercial relationship, as we know it, will surely be in for a change. When you trade $1.5 billion of goods daily, neither country can remain indifferent if new commercial arrangements modify the status quo.
If we add to this the emerging energy revolution—related to shale gas and shale oil—that is bound to influence the U.S. economy, we can conclude that the U.S.’ major trading partners will soon face new challenges. It is becoming more apparent that the U.S. is heading toward energy self-sufficiency. By 2017, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the U.S. is expected to be the largest oil producer in the world. By 2020, it could be a net exporter of natural gas, and in 2030, the U.S. could be a net exporter of petroleum. This will have a direct impact on prices of those commodities, the cost of doing business and the potential growth of the U.S. manufacturing sector.
No one doubts the ingenuity and the innovative character of the U.S. economy. With a competitive advantage sparked by this new energy picture, one can conclude that the American economy may be in for important, positive and significant growth. Despite the uncertainty often associated with its domestic politics regarding deficit and debt issues, the U.S. economy is certain to be gradually transformed. The current Canada–U.S. commercial relationship, which is the largest in the world, will also be directly affected. Canada cannot afford to ignore what this new American challenge represents for its own future.
For Canada, this will require an even greater effort to diversify and pursue more aggressively new or alternative markets. It will also have to engage in more research and development, aim for greater productivity, attract more immigrants, and invest in greater manpower training. With our energy, our multiple natural resources , and our competitive high-tech sectors, Canada has already engaged with moderate success in diversifying its markets.
Last week’s address to the nation by U.S. President Barack Obama showed the complexity of the debate regarding Syria and the chemical attack of August 21. Military strikes were still on the table during Obama’s address, but at the end of week Russia and the United States had come to an agreement regarding chemical weapons in Syria and the renewed role of the United Nations in eventually eliminating them. While still open to doubt and debate about its impact and its results, it is easier to deal with diplomacy, even if it fails, than a potential war with no clear objectives or exit strategy.
Less than a month after the atrocious use of such weapons against a civilian population, Bashar al-Assad’s government now acknowledges the possession of such weapons when he spent years denying he had them. This is no small feat, since Russia—the prime supplier of such armaments—began the process with the U.S. after days of attributing the attack to the rebels.
U.S. domestic politics, being what they are, are once again the subject of renewed partisanship (the GOP still has no coherent policy on Syria), division on means and objectives, and a general lack of public support for any military enterprise against Syria. Obama’s decision to ask Congress may have been in line with his campaign rhetoric of 2008, but it had a lot to do with the British government losing a vote for the first time in 150 years on military action. Since then, Obama’s detractors in Congress have given Russian President Vladimir Putin the credit for getting Obama “off the hook.” They go a step further by calling Obama weak.
The fact is that the U.S. population is war-weary and skeptical about its leaders in both parties, as well as claims about the national interest. When we go back to Lyndon Baines Johnson and the Vietnam War, Reagan and the Iran-Contra saga, or Bush’s claims of weapons of mass destruction to bring about regime change in Iraq, it is not surprising that Obama was facing an uphill battle with the general public to get an endorsement for military strikes.
With the G20 summit completed, the world is now focused on the United States Congress, and whether it will vote in favor of a resolution authorizing President Barack Obama to launch military strikes on Syria. Since the British Parliament voted down a similar motion by Prime Minister David Cameron to involve Britain with the U.S. in a military enterprise against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons, Obama decided to ask for Congressional support. The outcome for support in the war-weary United States is far from certain.
Normally, the United Nations would be the ideal forum to debate any contraventions to the 1925 Geneva Convention, which made the use of chemical weapons a war crime. However, both Russia and China have indicated they will use their veto power over any American resolution. With UN inspectors soon to divulge their findings following the chemical attack on innocent victims, it may be a wise course for the U.S. to share its intelligence with the UN on who perpetrated this heinous act. From all indications, the U.S. case is solid.
Clearly, President Obama understands the stakes. He, who made the whole Iraq war imbroglio a defining element of his candidacy back in 2008, knows that his countrymen would remind him of his views regarding the Bush years. To go to Congress was a wise and necessary choice. And it gives him needed time to explore backchannel diplomacy.
With polls showing little support for military action in Syria, the Obama administration will have to present a much more compelling case for engagement. International support, while significant in some quarters, remains elusive. Eleven of the G20 countries, including Canada, support the U.S. president’s intention to use military force, but a closer reading indicates the support is varied in tone and conditional in practice. History can also be a guide in making the case, but it cannot be a doctrine, a strategy nor a policy. It can only serve as a reference.
Fifty years ago (August 28), Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his legacy “I have a dream” speech. Events are planned in Washington at the Lincoln Memorial, and elsewhere, commemorating this landmark address. Speakers are expected to highlight Dr. King’s philosophy for promoting change, how the civil rights movement and its accomplishments defined modern America, and the work that remains to be done. President Barack Obama will speak, honoring the work of Dr. King.
Five years ago, the Democratic Party chose as its nominee, Barack Obama, who went on to become the first African-American president. Hope and change were in the air. While much of the optimism associated with Obama’s victory has been tempered through the rigors of governing, it was no small achievement on the part of the American electorate. Re-electing him in November 2012 consolidated this historic accomplishment.
Surely, Dr. King would consider the Obama election very much a part of the dream articulated 50 years ago but it is more important to recall how the famed civil rights leader led his quest for equality and justice. Above all, he was an inspiration to his followers by his example, and he did it through the power of his words and his actions. In “Letters from a Birmingham Jail,” he stated that ‘’injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’’ In “I have a dream,” Dr. King expressed the hope that all should be judged “by the content of their character and not the color of their skin.” Powerful words indeed, and they remain as relevant today.
In addition to words, Dr. King was a man of action—a man of peaceful action. Inspired by the example of Mahatma Gandhi, King’s chosen tactics included pacific resistance such as boycotts, marches and sit-ins. To those in authority who used water hoses and police dogs to break up peaceful demonstrations, King and his followers responded with acts of nonviolence—just as Rosa Parks refused in 1955 to sit in the back of a bus. Dr. King resisted segregation and prejudice with a firm confidence in the righteousness of his beliefs.
Normally, a gay pride parade would go unnoticed in Montreal. Actually, in many cities across North America, we have become accustomed to the annual ritual of the multicolored, multi-uniformed and occasionally shocking outfits in favor of gay pride and gay rights. While much progress has been made in the last decade to advance the cause through court rulings and legislation, there remains more to do about attitudes and policies.
On August 18 in Montreal, however, something important happened. The representatives and the involvement of all political parties in both the Canadian House of Commons and the Quebec legislature (National Assembly) were present in some form at the event.
Granted, there was an electoral consideration as gay voters need to be courted. Being absent in this context would have been news. Only Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper was not present because of his annual tour in the Canadian North. Yet, his government contributed significant funds to make the event happen. His primary opponents in the Canadian Parliament, NDP leader Thomas Mulcair and Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, were highly visible throughout the parade route. Quebec Premier Pauline Marois became the first premier in her province’s history to attend such an event. The remaining parties in the Quebec parliament were also there.
We can only applaud such an occurrence. It is a sign that gay rights and gay pride are becoming more a part of the political mainstream in Canada. The Premier of Ontario (Canada’s largest province), Kathleen Wynne, is openly gay. Same sex marriage has been a fact of life in Canada since 2005 when Canada became the fourth country and the first outside Europe to recognize marriage for gay and lesbian couples. To see active politicians of all stripes openly marching in this annual event is a testament to the road travelled.
In recent weeks, Russian President Vladimir Putin has made headlines in harboring and eventually granting asylum to National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Edward Snowden, resisting U.S. overtures for a peace initiative in halting the Syrian civil war and passing anti-gay rights legislation in the buildup for next year's Winter Olympic Games in Sochi.
A few days ago, President Barack Obama cancelled an upcoming summit with Putin in Moscow. Meanwhile, after condemning the Russia government for its pre-Olympic anti-gay stand, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government has just indicated its willingness to look favorably on gay Russian asylum seekers who claim to be the victims of persecution.
The deterioration of the Russia-U.S. relationship has led some observers to question whether we are entering a new era of Cold War politics. Some politicians, such has U.S. Senator Lindsay Graham, have also hinted about a boycott of the Winter Games in Sochi.
Clearly, the relationship has not been as frosty since the fall of the Berlin Wall, but a new Cold War is not and should not be on the horizon. In the last decade, the U.S. and Russia have agreed on a number of key issues, including backing the war in Afghanistan in 2001, ratifying the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) on nuclear weapons, and imposing important sanctions on Iran.
In the past few days, U.S. media networks have been reporting on the tragic events in Lac Mégantic, Québec, where a runaway, unmanned train carrying crude oil from North Dakota (73 wagons) barreled through a quiet tourist village of 6,000 inhabitants, derailed and exploded, leaving devastation in its trail. At the time of this writing, the entire downtown area had been decimated—15 people are reported dead and close to 40 missing. This will surely rank among the most heartbreaking tragedies in Canadian history. The events have since galvanized Canadians from coast to coast to offer heartfelt encouragement to the tiny village of Lac Mégantic and its inhabitants who are coping with this unspeakable horror.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper visited the site over the weekend and described it as a “war zone.” The Québec government under Premier Pauline Marois is on the scene and has pledged its full government support in providing assistance to the local population. Other politicians from across the political spectrum have visited the village and the Red Cross shelter to offer comfort and to demonstrate support. What led to the derailment will now be the subject of extensive investigations by authorities, and will surely continue over the coming months. There remain many unanswered questions about why this tragedy occurred.
Only a couple of weeks earlier, the city of Calgary, Alberta, also suffered tragic events, as extensive flooding—some of the most serious in Canadian history—resulted in tens of thousands being left homeless, with irreparable damage to property, personal belongings and infrastructure. Again, politicians and other dignitaries were quick to respond with offers of assistance and support. Canadians across the country have also reacted with the proper mix of compassion and assistance.
Both tragedies are still playing out and the affected communities will feel their impact for years to come. There is not much of a silver lining when tragedy hits so suddenly and affects so many lives. This is why, as Canadians observe the resilience of the citizens affected, it is encouraging to see how some local leaders can rise to the occasion, confront adversity, and become a source of comfort and inspiration in facing the ordeal. This is the case of Lac Mégantic Mayor Colette Roy-Laroche and Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi.
To some, former CIA and National Security Administration (NSA) employee Edward Snowden is seen as a classic whistleblower, who divulged government secrets that contradict the U.S. Constitution and its 4th amendment. Many who espouse his view—on both the left and right—have applauded his courage and regard him as a hero.
To others—especially within the U.S. political class—he is now considered a charged felon, who has willingly pursued a plan to embarrass his government, and in so doing, has breached matters of national security and made the United States less safe. His weekend flight from Hong Kong to Russia may lead some to go as far as to label him a “traitor”.
Which is it—hero, felon or traitor? It is too early to answer this. But the longer the situation drags on, the more damage it will inflict on the reputation of the United States on the world stage.
The 4th amendment of the U.S. Constitution sets guidelines to protect individual privacy. Even in matters of national security, we are told that due process must be followed. NSA programs, including the ones covering telephone records as well as internet activity that Snowden denounced, must be subjected to safeguards that protect the right to privacy. President Barack Obama has since justified these NSA programs as the necessary balance between privacy and security in this post-9-11 world. While his administration has been careful in its choice of vocabulary, it has decided to charge Snowden with contravening the Espionage Act.
The spectacle of the strongest power on earth chasing Snowden around the globe is not reassuring to those who believe in the value of U.S. diplomacy, U.S. intelligence capacity or U.S. military might. The ease with which Snowden accessed sensitive material and subjected his government to this embarrassing game of “cat and mouse” is also not comforting to those who count on U.S. intelligence forces to keep them safe.
Clearly, at the outset, the initial effect of Snowden’s action was to spark a legitimate debate about privacy, security and the importance of the 4th amendment. Libertarian politicians like Rand Paul did not condemn Snowden outright. Snowden also has significant support in progressive circles.
Those who never voted for Barack Obama when he ran for President in 2008 or when he sought reelection in 2012 will conclude that Obama’s current second-term blues are just a case of the “chickens coming home to roost.” They never liked him and may actually rejoice in his misfortunes. All of the Republicans’ post-2012 election defeat soul-searching has since given way to more of the polarization and the dysfunctionality associated with the political gridlock of recent years.
Important elements of Obama’s second term agenda—gun control, climate change and immigration reform—appear to be in trouble. Meanwhile, events in Syria—mired in its two-year sectarian civil war—have led a reluctant U.S. president to arm the different factions associated with the rebel forces against dictator Bashar al-Assad. Instability is spreading throughout the Middle East, leading some observers to question the effectiveness of U.S. foreign policy in the region.
Add to this context, the ongoing conflict over the Benghazi talking points, skepticism of the Internal Revenue Service decision to target Tea Party groups, and the controversy surrounding National Security Agency and its surveillance programs, and a growing perception emerges that Obama might have lost control of his agenda at a crucial period in a second term. We are often reminded of scarred second-term administrations since 1960—Johnson (Vietnam), Nixon (Watergate), Reagan (Iran-Contra), Clinton (Lewinsky scandal/impeachment), Bush (Hurricane Katrina/ financial meltdown).
The past two months have seen the Obama Administration go from alleged scandals, to defeat on key proposals—such as gun control—to controversy about privacy and security. Considering that the mid-term elections are but 18 months away and the 2016 presidential stakes will begin shortly after, time does not seem to favor the president.
Yet, despite this somber picture, many of Obama’s problems have to do with the normal course of events in any political mandate. Governing is not a picnic in the park and it is full of surprises and obstacles. Obama certainly understands from his first term that the Republicans will not make his life easier in a second term. But crisis management is very much a part of his job.
Twenty years ago this June, the Québec government under Liberal Premier Robert Bourassa adopted legislation stipulating that all outdoor commercial signage should be in French, but lifted the ban on the presence of English and other languages. The media often refers to this as the return of bilingual signs since the 1977 Charter of the French Language (also known as Bill 101) made French the only language allowed in outdoor commercial advertising. While the issue was highly divisive throughout the 1980s and lead to court challenges, the decision in June 1993 by the ruling Liberals was significant enough to make international news. It has since withstood the test of time (in the interests of full disclosure, I was chief of staff to Premier Bourassa from 1989-94).
To better comprehend the significance and magnitude of this language chapter, it is useful to go back in history. The 1960s and 1970s were turbulent times in Québec as the Québec independence movement gained ground and became a legitimate and important component in consideringQuébec’s options for a future in or out of a federal Canada. Closely associated with the debate on Québec independence was the conviction within nationalist circles that the use of the French language (concentrated in Québec and spoken by over 80 percent of Quebeckers) was in danger, and that legislative measures were needed to protect and defend French in various walks of life—education, public administration, language in the workplace, and outdoor commercial signs.
When a Liberal (federalist party) government decided to make French the only official language of Québec in 1974, the hope was that it would calm fears about the future of French. The independentist Parti Québécois, however, came into power in 1976 promising to bring forward comprehensive language legislation. Bill 101, or the Charter of the French language, was enacted in 1977.
It was 45 years ago today that Robert F. Kennedy was fatally shot on June 5, 1968, just after winning the California presidential primary against fellow Democratic Senator Eugene McCarthy. Over the years, we like to remind ourselves of what could have been, had he lived. Perhaps, in this turbulent world, we might do well to recall who he was and how he inspired a generation.
Bobby Kennedy was taught from a very young age about the importance of service, and chose a life very much in the service of making his brother, John, the president of the United States. During his brother’s administration, he served as attorney general and acted as President Kennedy’s leading confidante on a host of issues and crises. Historical accounts of Bobby Kennedy’s role in combating organized crime, pushing for civil rights and being instrumental in ending the potential nuclear confrontation during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 have now become the stuff of legends.
Despite those achievements, I prefer to recall the Bobby Kennedy who grew before our very eyes as he assumed the mantle of his brother’s legacy after 1963, and how, in his own right, he was able to carve out his personal identity through the power of words and his active engagement in social causes. Who can forget the comforting and unifying words of Bobby Kennedy the night Martin Luther King, Jr. died? How about his active support for César Chavez during the latter’s hunger strike on behalf of Latino farm workers? And who can forget his visit to South Africa and his condemnation of apartheid before white university students. when he stated, “Suppose God is black?”
While Prime Minister Stephen Harper was conducting a Latin American tour last week, a firestorm was in full force concerning questionable expenses of prominent Conservative senators Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin. Before Harper actually left for Latin America, his respected chief of staff, Nigel Wright, had already resigned from his post after making the decision to give Senator Duffy $90,000 to pay a portion of his debt to the Canadian public.
Meanwhile, the official opposition New Democratic Party (NDP) called for the outright abolition of the Senate—an appointed upper chamber of the Canadian Parliament. This has been the traditional position of the NDP for years. Prime Minister Harper has long been a strong proponent of major senate reform both during his opposition years and now. His approach revolves around the concept of a “Triple E Senate”—elected, equal and effective. The third Canadian parliamentary party, the Liberal party, having benefited for many years from dominating the Senate, has been far more ambiguous about its vision. Currently, legal issues regarding senate reform have been referred to the Canadian Supreme Court for a ruling.
The original intent of the Senate was to provide “sober second thought” on legislation emanating from the lower House—the House of Commons. In addition, the Senate was meant to play a role in defending provincial responsibilities and interests. The Federal Cabinet nominates senators. Over the years, the Senate has comprised a mix of party officials being rewarded for past services and prominent citizens called to another form of civic engagement.
To most Canadians, the Senate is not a major force or concern regarding how the nation conducts its business. So, abolition? Reform? Perhaps we need to start with the question: Is it still a legitimate body in today’s modern parliamentary system?
With a full-blown scandal over the expenses of some senators engulfing the Canadian Senate, an ongoing inquiry into corruption in Québec’s construction industry, and the daily whirl of allegations from the Republican leadership toward the Obama administration on Benghazi, the IRS, and Associated Press reporters, it is not surprising that young people may be questioning themselves these days about the value of civic and political engagement.
Rarely a day passes without a media story about a scandal, unearthed by the diligent work of an investigative reporter, reaching the mainstream networks. It is no small wonder that cynicism and skepticism are growing about the workings of the body politic or civil society, and whether getting involved and making a difference is still as relevant in today’s world as it was in more recent times.
The temptation to sit on the sidelines and criticize from afar those who are betraying the public trust is becoming more comfortable than joining the fray, fighting for one’s beliefs or a noble cause, and trying to bring about change to a social or political condition. Some actually believe that today’s younger generation—closely wedded to technological innovation—will be more susceptible to growing doubts about the value of civic engagement.
While the current setting in many Western democracies may lead some to pessimism and disengagement, I remain an optimist about the future and why it is more important than ever to get involved.
It was U.S. President John F. Kennedy who set the goal of putting a man on the moon in the early 1960s. It was Neil Armstrong who would be that first man to step on the moon, saying: “It was one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Now, Canadian Commander Chris Hadfield, whom Armstrong inspired to become an astronaut, has just ended his space odyssey by singing David Bowie’s Space Oddity, once again fascinating us with space travel and exploration.
Commander Hadfield’s latest voyage in space began in December 2012, and took command of the International Space Station two months ago. Since he began his voyage, Hadfield has treated us to extraordinary visuals, communicated daily in a personal way through social media, and demonstrated amazing musical skills in a space capsule. More than any other astronaut, he made us enter his world, educated us, made us feel special, and once again made us believe in science, imagination and achievement.
During his third mission, the 54-year-old astronaut from Sarnia, Ontario, made many in his country and beyond feel the excitement, the joy and the challenges of being in space. His messages, often delivered in both of Canada’s official languages—French and English—probably did more to unite his fellow Canadians than any law or politician has in several decades.
It’s been said that Canada has usually “punched above its weight” on the international stage. Whether we refer to the world wars of the twentieth century, the creation of the United Nations, the bipolar era of the Cold War, the conflict in Korea, or the reaction to Afghanistan after 9-11, Canada’s contribution in blood, sweat and tears is well documented. In addition, we have constantly played a role in peacekeeping and economic liberalization that is a model to the developed world.
Our close alliance with our neighbor to the south, the United States, has usually kept us in the loop on the major currents in world politics. However, the recent announcement by Foreign Minister John Baird that Canada would not seek a seat at the UN Security Council was met with criticism from many long term adherents of Canada’s traditional foreign policy and with derision by the growing chorus of critics who oppose the values associated with the Harper government’s foreign policy and its ideological stance on international cooperation. Rightly or wrongly, it was interpreted as one more step toward Canada’s declining reputation in foreign policy matters.
Withdrawing from Kyoto, opposing international NGOs that provide abortion services, actively supporting Israel’s right wing coalition government and its approach to the Palestinian issue, and withdrawing from some UN projects have led proponents of traditional Canadian foreign policy to question whether Canada’s international reputation is now so damaged that Baird’s announcement was more an admission of certain defeat for the Security Council seat rather than a point of principle. Some veteran observers of UN politics interpreted Canada’s defeat two years ago for that very seat as a vote against this new orientation under the Conservative government of Stephen Harper.
To be fair, the world today is far different from the glory days of Lester B. Pearson and his Nobel Peace Prize in the Suez Crisis of 1956. Under Pearson’s influence and that of his successors, Canada’s international profile was built on multilateral cooperation, active engagement and above all, a strong diplomatic corps. However, events today are less predictable and ideologies less certain. We no longer live in the more predictable bipolar world of the Cold War.
The last couple of weeks have shown that terrorism, or the threat of it, is not just something we read about in other parts of the world. Occasionally, we recall the events of 9-11, but soon it will be twelve years since that horrible day. However, the tragic ending of the Boston Marathon reminded us in vivid terms how vulnerable a free and open society is to the threat of terrorism, whether domestic or imported. Hence, the balance between freedom to exercise our rights in society and the need for security and safety from harm is once again at the center of public policy.
A few days after the two Boston bombers were apprehended (with one killed in the process), Canadian authorities arrested two alleged plotters in Montreal and Toronto—supposedly linked to an Al Qaeda cell in Iran—and accused them of planning to derail a Via Rail passenger train with an explosive device. Although the Boston bombings might appear, for the moment, to have been the work of a domestic “lone wolf” operation, the Canadian incident might have a direct international link. Meanwhile, the Canadian Parliament adopted a law giving authorities greater preventive powers in dealing with future threats of terrorism.
There is no doubt that we live in a dangerous and unpredictable world where different kinds of fanaticism continue to grow and lead to actions aimed at disrupting lives and destabilizing political regimes. Let us be clear: successive governments in North America have never been soft on terrorism, but our citizenry is especially strong on freedom. How can we ensure that this remains the course of action on both sides of the border? The answer to this question has repercussions on the economic, social and political life of North America.
As the Harper majority government ends its second year in office, the Liberal party, with its third party status, has just chosen a new leader. Normally, the choice made by the third party in the House of Commons would barely make waves. However, the overwhelming victory of Justin Trudeau—the son of former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau—at the end of a six-month campaign has already begun to change the political landscape in Canada.
Public opinion polls preceding and following Trudeau’s selection have demonstrated that the 41-year-old Trudeau is beginning to have an impact on how Canadians see their current government, what they are looking for in a prime minister and how important the theme of real change could be in the next election. Just prior to choosing Trudeau as leader, Liberals had either narrowed the gap in public approval with the governing Conservative party and the opposition New Democratic Party (NDP), or taken the lead. A poll recently published in the National Post showed Trudeau actually widening his lead in approval ratings.
With the elections more than two years away, these polls should be taken with a grain of salt. But it is clear that the Liberals have gained a new energy that makes them, once again, a potential major player in the next electoral cycle. How Trudeau fares in the coming weeks could very well determine the outcome of the 2015 election. If he loses traction, he may quickly become a passing fad. Should he display aplomb and growth in his new role, he could become the prime minister-in-waiting.
It is often stated as conventional wisdom that the United States is a right-of-center country and Canada, with its state-supported healthcare system and greater state-run operations, is left-of-center. In real life, it is far more complex—as we saw when U.S. President Barack Obama handily won reelection last November while the right-wing Conservative Party of Prime Minister Stephen Harper has won the last three general elections in Canada.
Occasionally, a book surfaces about a new political paradigm, leading many to question existing conventional wisdom. One such book has just hit the newsstands in Canada. It is called The Big Shift, co-authored by the CEO of Ipsos Public Affairs, Darrell Bricker, and the respected Globe and Mail newspaper columnist John Ibbitson. I happen to personally know both authors and can attest to their impeccable professional credentials. Their book covers new ground, challenges existing conventions and offers a highly provocative treatise about the new politics in Canada.
The book’s basic thesis deals with an emerging new coalition of voters—anchored in resource-rich western Canada and in suburban Toronto—who share more conservative values and views about the role of government, the economy and law and order. Using recent census data, they point to a fluid demography where many new immigrants are arriving in Ontario and western Canada from East Asia and South Asia. Ibbitson and Bricker speak of an immigration inflow that is equivalent to the size of Canada’s largest city, Toronto, every ten years. The result is a new, more Pacific-oriented Canada that is more polarized along the conservative-progressive divide than ever in its recent history.
With March 20, 2013 representing the 10th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, historians and journalists in both Canada and the United States have been assessing the wisdom of this historic decision. The Iraq War, due to its enormous costs in human, financial and material terms, has long fallen out of favor with the American people and the political class. Even the Republican Party has taken some distance from the major architects of the war—former President George W. Bush and former Vice President Dick Cheney. Neither has addressed a Republican National Convention since 2004.
In Canada last week, former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien made all the media rounds and was strongly commended for refusing to go along with the so-called “Coalition of the Willing” in 2003 after the UN Security Council refused to sanction the U.S.-led invasion. It was the first time that Canada said “no” to a U.S. president about to enter a war. It was a defining moment because Canada was a faithful U.S. ally in World War II, in the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War, the 1950-53 Korean War, and throughout the Cold War. Moreover, Canada was very supportive of the invasion of Afghanistan after September 11, 2001.
The decision to go to war in Iraq was never popular in Canada, despite the initial support of the opposition Conservative party leader, Stephen Harper. The case for weapons of mass destruction and the links between Iraq’s dictator, Saddam Hussein, and Al Qaeda were never convincing to the general population. The Canadian government of the day, led by Prime Minister Chrétien, had large-scale support for saying “no,” and this support was especially vocal in Chrétien’s home province of Québec. Even Conservative leader and current Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper later recanted, saying the war was a mistake.