Nationalism in its ethnic, civic and cultural incarnations is back in style. The left-vs-right arguments that dominated the industrial era are increasingly meaningless; what remains is where we live, whom we live with and how we feel about that. In this section, we look at nationalism’s different and intersecting incarnations.

Algerian columnist Kamel Daoud is fed up with his country, which offers “three choices: the mosque, drugs or suicide.” He celebrates the flight of Algerian youth to Europe, paying people-smugglers for orange life vests that provide a counterpoint to the yellow vests of French protesters. For Daoud, even though secular Algerians just forced their autocratic government to resign (the first peaceful regime change in the Maghreb since neighbouring Tunisia launched the Arab Spring in 2011), it’s France’s dream of liberté, egalité, fraternité that inspires; the nationalist narratives of other countries can be more compelling than anything your own country can offer. Canadians understand this.

Click to read The Future is Orange by Kamel Daoud.

There can be purely domestic battles over national identity, as Inroads managing editor Bob Chodos discovers in exploring the controversy created by the federal Liberals’ short-lived imposition of a values test on organizations applying for youth jobs grants. The backlash against an enforced commitment to values such as reproductive choice gave Canadian social conservatives a rare political win, while showing the limits of state-directed progressivism.

Click to read Defining Canadian Values, One Summer Job at a Time by Bob Chodos.

Jeffrey Oberman, Inroads’ media commentator, writes that our government-protected cultural industry cannot compete with digital streaming networks that host programs made in Denmark or Delhi, filmed in Brazil or Botswana. Want to see a postnational world where meritocracy reigns? Here it is. The dearth of streamed Canadian productions (if not Canadian actors, crews and locations), combined with Canadians rapidly disconnecting from broadcast TV, shows that the age of Cancon has come to an end. Unless you’re a fan of earnest dramas featuring Mounties, this feels like progress.

Click to read Canadian Cultural Nationalism: A Casualty of Netflix by Jeffrey Oberman.

That’s a sentiment Gareth Morley would embrace. The Inroads editorial board member argues that liberalism must separate nation and state just as it fought to separate church and state. He sees civic nationalism, the idea that a country can have an identity based on values independent of ethnicity, as a dangerous contradiction that accepts the structure of the group-based nationalism it should be working to replace. He embraces a liberal intersectionalism inspired by George-Étienne Cartier: a multicultural compromise where a web of social and other ties allow us to move beyond the state as a focal point for our identity.

Click to read Is it Time to Separate Nation and State? by Gareth Morley.

Inroads co-publisher John Richards reviews John Judis’s The Nationalist Revival, which argues that nationalist uprisings are a rejection of globalization triggered by the hubris of the usual bugbears of the American left: George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. They are simultaneously to blame for embracing China – driving down Western wages – and for alienating Russia. This is not an argument about nationalism, but the usual efforts by the Western New Left – now the Old Left, as Richards points out – to blame the world’s ills on American, or more broadly Western, imperialism. This continued obsession has made a coherent progressive nationalism difficult to achieve.

Click to read Cosmopolitan Errors, Nationalist Response by John Richards.

In Le Devoir columnist Christian Rioux’s “Gilets Jaunes: Under the Radar,” the protests that have rocked the Macron government in France are examined through the lens of the lived experience of the protesters. The Yellow Vests are not reacting against – or as part of – any coherent ideology. They destroyed traffic photoradar machines not as a comment on global trends, but because they don’t like their government making them pay more for gas and fining them for speeding. Rioux casts the Yellow Vests as 21st-century machine-breakers, resentful of their bosses’ Bose headphones just as the many have always resented the few.

Click to read Gilets Jaunes: Under the radar by Christian Rioux.

What emerges from these articles is division within and between nation-states. What is unarguable is that the nation-state exists, and creates a ready-made focal point for discord. In an age where technology and other new forces are further levers to create dissent, new nationalisms are likely to rise, and divide.

This section includes four articles on recent developments in Asia. One article focuses on Japan, and recent developments in efforts to change its constitution. Airo Hino explores the history of that country’s pacifist foreign policy, entrenched in the constitution, since it was imposed by the occupying American forces after World War II. Up to now efforts to change it have failed. With Japan’s near-abroad now under pressure from an expansionist China, a nuclear North Korea and an increasingly erratic United States, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe may be in a position, despite some recent scandals, to complete a reform that eluded his predecessors. If successful it would be a break from the postwar security consensus.

Dominique Caouette asks if that consensus is further eroding as he traces the retreat of democracy in Southeast Asia. As the Philippines and Cambodia undo decades of hard-won democratic advancement and reforms stall elsewhere, now-entrenched elites are confronted with an alternative economic and political development model: Chinese authoritarianism offers a locally successful example, one being pushed aggressively by Beijing. The shine is going off democracy around the world and American influence is waning in the region. The appeal of the rule of law and free elections, which not coincidentally threaten the hold on power of Southeast Asia’s elites, wanes with it. As in Russia and Turkey, staying in power indefinitely is as tempting as ever.

The problem of slow economic development across South Asia is examined by Inroads co-publisher John Richards and his collaborators Shahidul Islam and Manzoor Ahmed, who ask “Why is South Asia poor?” Their answer points to underperforming government schools, which result in low literacy rates. Countries that get primary education right achieve better economic growth than countries in South Asia. Leaving aside the extraordinary development in China, the national literacy rate at the beginning of the century is an excellent predictor of change in per capita GDP in subsequent years across South and Southeast Asia. The lowest growth occurred in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal, all with literacy rates in 2000 below 50 per cent. With a literacy rate of 60 per cent, India performed somewhat better. By far the most impressive increase in per capita GDP among South Asian countries was in Sri Lanka, where literacy was above 90 per cent in 2000 despite having endured a civil war in the last decade.

Moreover, South Asian leaders, who typically enrol their own children in private schools, have shown little interest in making their school systems work. Bangladesh, Nepal and most states in India “gamed” the UN Millennium Development Goal of universal primary education by 2015, by lowering standards for certification. Large-scale surveys in rural India found that half of all children in Grade 5 cannot read a simple story, and half cannot perform a simple subtraction problem, from the Grade 2 curriculum.

Like Sri Lanka, Nepal recently endured a civil war, and like Japan, it has been rewriting its constitution. Here, Nepali lawyer and former Maoist guerrilla turned parliamentarian Khimlal Devkota shares a personal account of his country’s 1995–2006 civil war and the 12-year peace process that followed. Devkota, who moved from the battlefield to elected member of the Constituent Assembly tasked with drafting the new republic’s constitution, remains an enthusiastic defender of his party’s accomplishments. His article is a rare if not unique first-hand English-language account from the Maoist perspective.

I worked in Nepal during the 2006 revolution and participated in the peace process that followed. At the time I was sceptical of the Maoists’ motives, believing they were a genuine Maoist party using the weakness of the democratic parties and the continued existence of their army and militias to win power and establish a dictatorship.1 On the basis of the evidence, reinforced by Devkota, I was wrong on both counts. The Maoists were sincere in abandoning the armed struggle, and insincere in their commitment to anything that resembles Maoist doctrine.

There’s no question that the Maoists achieved their primary objectives: the end of the monarchy and a Constituent Assembly tasked with drafting a new, republican, federal constitution. Devkota rightly praises his movement for its success on those counts. Prerevolutionary Nepal was dominated by a small group of men from upper-caste families, from the same regions of the country, most wealthy and many with connections to the then-royal family. The revolution changed all that. Women made up more than 25 per cent of the Constituent Assembly, quotas ensured that representatives from “lower” castes and minority communities were elected, and the new leadership is much more representative of the country’s diversity.

The Maoists, says Devkota, decided to end the war and embrace multiparty democracy when the toll of suffering became too much – the war claimed approximately 10,000 lives. He doesn’t talk about the military pressure on his party when their attacks on poorly armed police posts and civilian infrastructure provoked the deployment of the formidable Royal Nepal Army, pushing the war to a stalemate. That dam broke in 2005, not because of any Maoist military breakthrough, but because the parliamentary parties joined in an alliance with the Maoists and their combined pressure brought down the monarchy.

I doubt that the Maoists’ transformation started with good intentions. But it is unarguable that, after the war, they followed through. Their People’s Liberation Army was disbanded and incidents of Maoist-instigated political violence dropped. Hardliners within the party defected and set up a new movement committed to armed struggle; no one paid much attention.

So Devkota is right when he says the Maoists are now a normal Nepali political party. But if the Maoists accept multiparty democracy and a market economy, in what way are they still Maoists? And how can he maintain that Maoism was a doctrine worth 10,000 lives and a decade of lost opportunity?

Still. as they continue the process of negotiating a merger with another left party and ending their history as a distinct party, Nepal’s Maoists probably deserve some kind of award for being the most conciliatory of all the world’s significant Maoist movements. Still, since the war ended, their focus has been on governance changes and not on the supposedly central project of making people’s lives better. Devkota is right to say that his party’s place in history will be decided in the next few years. The war was won, the constitution rewritten, the king deposed. Now will the lives of regular Nepalis, often trapped in poverty and deprived of education and opportunity, improve? We will see if Devkota and his comrades can deliver.

Click to read Why is South Asia Poor: The Role of Primary Education by John Richards, Mohammad Shahidul Islam and Manzoor Ahmed, Democracy’s Ebb Tide in SouthEast Asia by Dominic Caouette, Japan’s Constitutional Divide by Airo Hino, and From Guerrilla War to Government by Khimlal Devkota.

Continue reading “Constitutions, Postdemocracy and Poverty in Asia”

Peter Pomerantsev, Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia. New York: Public Affairs, 2014. 256 pages.

Fake news, alternative facts and a president who says one thing then does the opposite: these are recent problems for Westerners struggling to understand Donald Trump and his imitators. But in Russia, a country with a centuries-long history of practised self-deception, where displays of shared idealism mask a shared knowledge of corruption, fake news is old news. The current regime has perfected a hybrid authoritarianism combining age-old power politics with the relatively new philosophy of postmodernism.

Peter Pomerantsev was born in Kiev in 1977 and raised in the U.K. Seeing an opportunity for a young Russian speaker in Boris Yeltsin’s booming Moscow, where being a Westerner was currency more valuable than money, he landed in Russia at the turn of the millennium. Working in television and public relations, Pomerantsev watched as the chaotic promise of liberal democratic capitalism mutated into something new and dark: “Moscow can feel like an oligarchy in the morning and a democracy in the afternoon, a monarchy for dinner and a totalitarian state by bedtime.”

Pomerantsev’s first book, 2014’s Nothing is True and Everything is Possible, is, on the surface, a collection of stories showing the utter weirdness of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Beautiful young women take classes on a reality TV show to help them lure oligarch husbands. A businesswoman framed on ludicrous grounds and then strangely acquitted leaves you wondering if this was unexpected justice or whether she had played an unwitting part in some larger, hidden, game.

There’s a crime boss explaining his rise from local thug, an activist trying to save heritage buildings from developments funded by the crime bosses, self-improvement groups that veer into extortionist spiritualist cults infiltrating the elite, and the sheer strangeness of living in a superficially Western capital city where you can be stopped and thrown in jail if, when leaving McDonald’s, you don’t have the right identity papers.

President Vladimir Putin is everywhere in the book but almost never referred to by name: he is simply “the President.” In that way the book is, perhaps intentionally, very Soviet. The stories illuminate the President but never in a way that you could say any individual story, taken alone, was genuinely subversive. Older readers will remember the jokes from the USSR:

Q: Is it true that there is freedom of speech in the Soviet Union, just like in the USA?

A: Yes! In the USA, you can stand in front of the White House and yell “Down with Reagan!”, and you will not be punished. Equally, you can stand in Red Square and yell “Down with Reagan!”, and you will not be punished.

It is not until Pomerantsev confronts Vitaly Surkov, Putin confidante and erstwhile author (he wrote the foreword to an autobiographical novel, Almost Zero, that he bizarrely denies writing – an act that tidily sums up Surkov’s work and modern Russia) that the book’s various threads come together. Surkov is a “political technologist” who takes us behind the curtains and explains, with the honesty that only the profoundly corrupt can carry off, exactly how Russia works:

In the twenty-first century the techniques of the political technologists have become centralized and systematized, coordinated out of the office of the presidential administration, where Surkov would sit behind a desk on which were phones bearing the names of all the “independent” party leaders, calling and directing them at any moment, day or night. The brilliance of this new type of authoritarianism is that instead of simply oppressing opposition, as had been the case with twentieth-century strains, it climbs inside all ideologies and movements, exploiting and rendering them absurd. One moment Surkov would fund civic forums and human rights NGOs, the next he would quietly support nationalist movements that accuse the NGOs of being tools of the West. With a flourish he sponsored lavish arts festivals for the most provocative modern artists in Moscow, then supported Orthodox fundamentalists, dressed all in black and carrying crosses, who in turn attacked the modern art exhibitions. The Kremlin’s idea is to own all forms of political discourse, to not let any independent movements develop outside of its walls.

Surkov has served in a dizzying number of positions and professions, including deputy prime minister, but he is the first to acknowledge that titles are not important. Only power matters.

Functionaries are used to holding real power: it’s worth remembering that the most powerful person in the Soviet Union wasn’t the president or the prime minister but the general secretary of the Politburo. Elections have never mattered very much: the Tsar’s courtiers were replaced by the Soviet apparatchiki. Now the political technologist is the dominant species, wielding influence behind the scenes but, in an evolution, proud to show off that power in public.

Spin doctors, pollsters, opposition researchers – the armies of professional political staff who support parties and leaders in established democracies – know that their first priority to is to stay in the background. For example, Canadian conservative David Frum’s influence over President George W. Bush began to drop when he claimed authorship for the President’s infamous “Axis of Evil” speech, making him the story instead of his boss.

Spin doctors have influence, but it is limited. Most Westerners react sharply and negatively to the perception that institutions are being mobilized behind any government. Western public services and the media are clearly contested ground, with objective ideals confronting political realities that encourage favouritism and patronage under the best conditions. There are obvious ties between the leaders of governments and business in Western countries that are, again, somewhat inevitable: people running things, whether large businesses or large government departments, tend to hang out together.

Western political movements fight against that collusion. You will hear arguments around immigration, tax policy, the death penalty and climate change, but no serious political party or group pushes to relax the rules around political accountability or corruption. Campaigns in the established democracies remain a competition to see who can advocate for the clearest, most open, government.

In countries without a history of the rule of law, personal freedom or the understanding that government can serve more than just itself, the idea that the machinery of government could be separated from the party in power is ludicrous. You should expect that every civil servant would obey political bosses, and that every businessperson would be expected to do the same. This difference is profound: in authoritarian countries like Russia, new political movements advocate increasing central control. Democratic reformers are scorned and weak.

There are other differences. The West does not have, and would not tolerate, armies of psychologists, sociologists, historians and scientists trained to advance political as well as scientific arguments, and to put obedience to a political orthodoxy ahead of any professional ethics. That was the Soviet reality. To survive, Soviet citizens had to be shape shifters, advancing “correct” positions that could change overnight, on the whim of the party. If you made a mistake your life could be over.

The Soviets developed an enormous security structure designed to advance the goals of international Communism. Helpfully, those goals, no matter what they were, always coincided with the national goals of the Soviet Union. Unhelpfully, what was meant by “Communism” shifted regularly, depending on the changing leadership and needs of the government. Enormous efforts were dedicated to forcing history and the present into a frame that suited the needs of the USSR, a grim process of fraud captured in Orwell’s 1984: “Oceania is at war with Eurasia. Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia.”

Surkov and his ilk, who lived through the hollowing out and then collapse of Soviet power, had to confront the failure of that system and the subsequent disillusionment with democracy that marked the turmoil of the 1990s and the rise of the oligarchs. They noticed that the underlying culture, of power divorced from reality, endured. Functionaries trained to destroy the market became billionaires, while majors who had trained to physically destroy democracies became, if not democratic politicians, at least elected ones.

What remained? A country that remains centralized and corrupt, a terror-wielding security service that persists and a government that focuses on strengthening nationalism over delivering public services. What changed? The adoption of a new set of ideas that turned out to be much more effective than Communism or Tsarism.

If Soviet authoritarianism forced everyone to express a single opinion, even if that opinion was opposite to the one they had been forced to express yesterday, postmodern authoritarianism says no opinion matters. You can believe something, or nothing. You can believe things that are clearly completely contradictory. All that matters is the government remaining in power.

Pomerantsev’s book is filled with images of flight, escape, of freedom and butterflies transforming. When Surkov is asked about the travel restrictions imposed on him by Western sanctions, keeping him from directly experiencing the Western culture he clearly loves, he points to his own head. He says that what he needs of the West he carries inside him, displaying a skill Soviet citizens quickly developed: the ability to have an inner life divorced from your actual life. When you’re politically malnourished, when information is filtered and thinned and contrasting flavours evened out, you compensate. You try to create a better world in your own head.

Governments like this don’t just shape the information you’re allowed to see or hear – they want to influence how you react to that information. And not just the way you react externally – censoring what you say, reporting people who speak against the government – but internally, changing the way you think, altering the way you judge risks and rewards or open yourself to the potential dangers of genuinely trusting friendships.

Nations used to being spied on cannot be condemned for developing unhealthy levels of paranoia, suspicion and even fatalism: it’s a natural protective mechanism to help make life bearable. This is the inner world of Winston Smith in 1984, or Terry Gilliam’s 1985 movie Brazil, or countless other tales from or about dystopias and tyrannies.

Hundreds of writers have focused on the authoritarian side of the Russian coin, placing Putin and his regime on a left-right, ideological-to-pragmatic, modernizer-to-traditionalist continuum. Since he comes from the world of entertainment Pomerantsev’s contribution is to wander, almost accidentally, into a confrontation with the intentionally surreal heart of the country and its government.

The Russian government has scientific expertise and political thinking linking behavioural science to public opinion research to the design and launch of political and social movements designed to serve the needs of Putin’s government. They include biker gangs, groups of scientists, religious figures from the mainstream to the bizarre fringe and political parties by the dozen, from Communists to fascists to supposed reformers. Sometimes activists are arrested, sometimes they receive Putin’s approval, sometimes that approval is withdrawn. Sometimes they are shot. No one can say, with any certainty, what is going on.

Surkov’s Russia offers a new sort of new deal in the face of this manufactured chaos: in exchange for tolerating the regime you can believe anything you want. You can say just about anything you want, not because the government believes in free speech but because your expressing your fantastical opinions, combined with countless others’ expressing theirs, helps create an ever-larger billowing cloud of political fog so dense that the state, hidden within, can do whatever it wants.

The Russian propaganda machine has evolved from the blunt and unconvincing “America is bad, democracy is a sham” lines of the Soviet era. Everyone, including the propagandists, knew they wanted the blue jeans, rock music and creature comforts common in the West and nearly unattainable in the East. Surkov’s Russia lets you enjoy those luxuries, and crave more, while simultaneously believing your country, with its diminishing life expectancy and crippling debt, is superior in all ways to the West.

The Soviets tried to restrict thought and access to property in pursuit of maintaining control of their country. Today’s Russia lets you think what you want and own what you want in pursuit of maintaining that control. Same people, different policy tools.

The unparalleled freedom and prosperity of the postwar West spawned, as every society does, dissidents. A culture based on the idea, if not always the reality, of allowing nearly unfettered speech and new ideas quickly generated philosophies that challenged liberal capitalist democracy.

Postmodernism, in just a few decades, has upended Western culture. For hundreds of years Enlightenment values that exalted reason and the scientific method were the engine of social change: critical thinking went from dangerous treachery to an essential tool that drives the development of modern societies. A culture that had colonized much of the world partly on the basis of a sense of its own superiority, driven by undeniably stronger institutions and technology, quickly snapped inward, confidence replaced with an often crippling self-doubt and loss of common purpose.

Postmodernism says there are no roots and no facts, and that empiricism itself is a power structure designed to sustain its own privileged position. It has no claim to superiority. That postmodernism itself has to be exempted from this cycle of self-criticism (if there are no facts why pay attention to postmodernism?) is ironic but beside the point. For Western governments that rest on an ideal of democratic accountability the postmodern critique – underneath the ideal is the same naked aggression and desire to control – is devastating. There is nothing good here, just people protecting themselves and their friends, excluding those different from themselves.

For authoritarians, this is a fantastic gospel to adopt: the philosophers of the liberal states are the ones ready to expose their hosts as charlatans. Today, the best way to be Western is to condemn the West. Free speech, free thought: these are just illusions. In contrast to the intersectional confusion of the West, Putin’s Russia looks more honest, more genuine. Russians are free to believe what they like, vote for whom they like, buy what they like. And those freedoms rest in the arms of a strong government, a government that is authentic. There is only one fact that matters in Russia: Vladimir Putin is President. Everything else is negotiable, debatable and ultimately irrelevant.

Who can say if it was the Russian government that bombed apartment buildings and then claimed the attacks came from Chechen rebels, giving a pretext to the second Chechen War? Who can say if the Nord-Ost crisis in 2002, when security forces killed around 200 hostages by accident when liberating them from a Moscow theatre, was covered up by the authorities? Large crimes mix with small absurdities.

The title of Pomerantsev’s book is humorous but ultimately profound, superficially surreal but ultimately a concrete state policy: nothing is real and everything is possible. A radical doctrine supposed to destroy establishments has been turned by Putin into an establishment weapon. Hopefully postmodernism’s host countries will soon notice that these ideas are incompatible with democracy and an open society. If not, they may soon adapt again, and further undermine already weak democracies. As Donald Trump has shown, strong men spouting nonsense are not a specifically Russian weakness. Our institutional defences are stronger than Russia’s, but they are not insurmountable.

Francis Fukuyama, The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution.
New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011. 585 pages.

Francis Fukuyama, Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy.
New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014. 672 pages.

When I talk to friends about these books the reaction tends to be “Fukuyama? The guy who predicted the end of history? Yeah, look how that turned out.” Or “Isn’t he a neocon?” This review is a plea to anyone, no matter your politics, interested in why humans behave the way we do: read these books. Fukuyama is no cardboard-cutout conservative. He targets established thinking across the spectrum and in the process lays out a framework for a genuinely radical new way of analyzing politics that is grounded in history. Whether you are a Sanders socialist or a red tory or a free marketeer, you will find ideas to like here, and many more to challenge you.

Francis Fukuyama’s best-known work is “The End of History and the Last Man” (the title a half-joking nod to Hegel), an essay and then book published in the flush of the just-post-Cold-War. In it he argued that liberal capitalist democracy marked an end to political evolution. We were all “pointing toward Denmark” – on the escalator toward a peaceable, well-governed, equitable democracy. All roads led to elections, to restrained markets, to the rule of law.

While 21st-century winds have frayed Fukuyama’s flag, he was on to something. Today’s worst dictators want the legitimacy of elections and call themselves democrats, preferring the title of President or Prime Minister to Emperor or General. They pass laws against corruption, even while never quite getting around to enforcing them. There is no serious competition to capitalism. The acceptable economic spectrum ranges from Chinese capitalism to rapacious kleptocracies to social democracies with large, if creaking, welfare states. There are arguments over how to collect and spend the money made from market economies, but no serious debate over whether they should exist.

At the same time, however, an aggressively illiberal and expansionist Russia is resurgent, controlling the press, rigging its own elections and, increasingly, interfering in other countries. Communist China continues its rise to dominance, taking ownership over great washes of the South China Sea far outside its recognized areas of control. Not a day passed in the American presidential campaign without Donald Trump comparing strong Chinese GDP growth to a stagnant United States. Yes, the comparison further demonstrated Trump’s economic illiteracy, but it also spoke to a malaise about the broader West.

Western institutions and alliances are weakening. The U.K. voted to withdraw from the European Union, and that same Union saw its flagship free trade deal with Canada nearly destroyed by opponents from the tiny Belgian region of Wallonia. This raises the question: If Europe can’t agree that Canada is a good trading partner, who would qualify? Thuggish Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who has excused more than 4,000 extrajudicial killings since his election last May, announced in October that his country was “separating” from the United States and “there are three of us against the world – China, Philippines and Russia. It’s the only way.” Hungary’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, talks of building an “illiberal democracy” based on nationalism as much as consent by the governed. Perhaps more than Oslo’s tidy boutiques, the renovated police dungeons of Moscow seem to be the political ornaments of our time.

International weakness is matched by domestic unease within established democracies. Growing concerns about inequality, expressed in popular anger against elites, are met with incomprehension by established parties of the left and right. Twentieth-century policy tools, including the universal education, public health care and old age security programs that lifted millions from poverty, are now taken for granted. Citizens look to their ever-richer elites and ask: what’s next? A quarter century has passed since the End of History and the road to Denmark is getting bumpier.

In these two volumes Fukuyama doesn’t tell us what’s next, but he gives us the full, sweeping context of where we have been and shares worries about the future. He presents, in page after densely packed page, the topography of human history. The depth of these books is impressive, the vast bibliographies are testament to Fukuyama’s scholarship and the clear writing makes his work accessible to the general – if committed – reader.

Every paragraph is packed with observations that spill into conversation long after you put the books down. Anecdotes about stew made from the bodies of defeated enemies and the role of slave soldiers in building the Ottoman Empire linger with you. They are mixed with respectful but forensic dissections of other scholars’ work: Rousseau, Hobbes, Marx, Hayek, Diamond all applauded for what they got right and corrected where they went astray, with their surviving conclusions carefully added to the foundations of Fukuyama’s argument.

Given the scope of the work and Fukuyama’s biography, which presents those on the left with a good many obstacles, I expected to quickly trip over the author’s biases. Instead, his evidence-based approach to the vast literature on human social development is one of the books’ most impressive characteristics. Occasional assertions go unsupported, for example his dismissal of the idea that humans are inherently cooperative. The evidence for this idea might not be convincing but, in such an already long book, a few sentences backing up his dismissal would not have been upsetting. This is a small complaint.

Born in Chicago in 1952 and raised in New York, Fukuyama picked up degrees from Cornell and Harvard, spending time in Paris under the postmodernist Jacques Derrida before completing his studies with Samuel P. Huntington, who became his mentor (and whose 1968 Political Order in Changing Societies inspired these books). He went on to work for think tanks and Ronald Reagan’s State Department, quickly establishing himself as a voice of the emerging neoconservative movement.

Fukuyama has moderated and refined his views over the last 20 years, breaking with the neocons over the Iraq War, which he had initially supported. He acknowledged that “The End of History” had been too quick to slam postmodernism for every modern sin and too slow to see the need to recognize the importance of culture when promoting limited government and the market. These books end up being neither left- nor right-wing. They’re rooted in Enlightenment values of openness, and share a spirit of optimistic realism with U.S. Progressives of the early 20th century: any problem can be fixed if we understand it.

Fukuyama’s core thesis, arching through both books and including detailed examinations of Chinese, Indian, German, Ottoman and many other civilizations from prehistory to the present, is straightforward enough: Even an ideal state is constantly undermined by the very human desire to give power and privilege to those close to you through bonds of blood, belief, geography or principle. As the Arab saying goes, “Me against my brother, me and my brother against my cousin, me and my cousin against the stranger.”

The first volume works through the common threads that link the creation of different states. Fukuyama starts by pulling apart the obvious but often unexamined error at the heart of modern philosophy and political science: the competing theories on the origin of political order are clearly, completely, wrong. Contra Rousseau, humans were not solitary creatures enslaved by civilization. Contra Hobbes, they were not engaged in a war of all against all. We know from anthropology, primatology and other fields that humans are social animals, evolved from social animals, and this biological root needs to be the starting point for study of our species’ growth.

Without knowing the exact behaviour of early humans, Fukuyama draws on studies of patronage and political behaviour in chimpanzees before looking to contemporary examples of simpler social structures, such as dispersed kin groups in Papua New Guinea’s highlands, where extended families live in tight-knit communities separated by mountain ranges that divide communities as much as any ocean. These communities are relatively egalitarian; leadership is based on ability, not heredity; there are customs but no laws or impartial justice; and by definition they never grow beyond a few hundred members.

Next on the road to the state are tribes, made up of different kin groups, linked by looser but still definable bonds of blood. These are still loosely organized but will come together when needed, usually in time of war. The rules governing tribes become necessarily more complicated the more kin groups are included. Bonds between ever more disparate groups are maintained by ritual and religion, explained by Fukuyama as an entirely obvious construct in aid of enhancing social and military control: “It is likely, then, that the first society that was able to knit together large kindreds through belief in ancestors would have had enormous advantages over its rivals, and would have stimulated imitation the moment this form of social organization was invented. Thus war did not just make the state, it made the tribe as well.”

Kin groups survived the transition to tribes and, in most cases, the transition to states. Population density, geography and other causes play a role, but state formation is primarily a response to organized violence. The threat of physical extinction leads people to give up the relative equality and freedom of kin-based societies and accept hierarchical leadership. Effective defence is Fukuyama’s first pillar. The group able to match or exceed the military, tax-collecting and agricultural efficiency of an aggressor is likely to prevail.

Building on his demolition of Rousseau and Hobbes, Fukuyama works through other theories on state formation one by one, my favourite being Karl Wittfogel’s “hydraulic hypothesis,” which argues that irrigation and intensive agriculture could only be managed by a centralized bureaucracy:

For Wittfogel’s hypothesis to be true, we would have to imagine a group of tribesman getting together one day and saying to each other: “We could become a lot richer if we turned over our cherished freedom to a dictator, who would be responsible for managing a huge hydraulic-engineering project, the likes of which the world has never seen before. And we will give up that freedom … for all time, because future generations will need a good project manager as well.” If this scenario were plausible, the European Union would have turned into a state long ago.

Fukuyama points out our bias toward building intellectual theories on physical evidence: ideas and religious thoughts don’t persist in the same way as temples, dams and spears. We focus our interest on the single castle that endures at the expense of 10,000 wooden houses that rotted away. Fukuyama looks for similar, if less obvious, bias in other theories. Not surprisingly he targets modernization theory, long the target of his mentor, Huntington. Modernization theory was wrong to assert that politics, economics and culture evolve in lockstep, moving neatly from one phase to the next. Fukuyama shows that those transitions are mostly messy and incomplete, and European modernists, in theories of state formation as in other disciplines, imposed their uniquely European experience on the rest of the world.

China, which solidified into something close to its modern borders and culture over 2,000 years ago, shows the modernists’ error. Constant warfare cracked and broke apart more than 3,000 polities between 2000 and 200 BCE, mixing them together until they became one. There was no time for the development of trader or peasant classes, or for anything but the preparation of defences against the next attack from a neighbour.

China was the first state but it has yet to develop the rule of law, Fukuyama’s second pillar, or his third, accountable institutions. China did have legalist systems including Confucianism, based on the family and tradition, and the poorly named Legalism, which saw the state imposing brutally one-sided obligations. Confucianism encouraged obedience through a dense mesh of social connections and pressures. Legalism encouraged obedience by torturing or killing those who stood against the state. These competing strains of codified oppression have marked the boundaries of Chinese political life to the present, when the Communist Party exerts unrestrained power through the Basic Law, which allows the Party to overturn legal decisions.

Western Europe developed slowly (seemingly established powers like Germany, Italy and Sweden have only existed in modern forms for about as long as Canada), but overarching legal codes imposed by the Catholic Church allowed the rule of law to come into force at an early date, independent from local political power. The church, behaving like a state itself, struggled with proto-nation-states, with individual Europeans the target. For the first time in the history of our species, power structures competed for the loyalty of very ordinary people. States offered competing legal systems and, starting with the Reformation and the creation of the Church of England, competing faiths. Rulers won loyalty from their subjects by insisting they were subject to the law, not above it.

This contest had unintended consequences. At the start of the second millennium, as the Catholic Church competed with Christian princes and kings, Rome developed laws that allowed spinsters to own and widows to inherit property. Instead of passing to in-laws, where it was within reach of a king’s power to tax and seize, property could go directly to the church on the widow’s death, weakening family lineages. Indulgences and other scams vacuumed up money and property from those freed from family control. The universal church had accidentally created individuals, with political and economic rights before the law, as well as rights for women.

One unexplored avenue opens when Fukuyama says, “State building concentrates political power, while rule of law limits it.” It would be accurate to say the rule of law focuses power, as well as limiting it – the more freedoms were protected, the more trust rulers gained over the ruled, and the more power they could exercise in those areas open to them. This virtuous feedback led to the development of Fukuyama’s third pillar, accountable government, which should not be confused with democracy. Multiparty elections are the most common means of holding the government to account, but not the only one; Fukuyama cites the King of Jordan, who has successfully juggled different interest groups and maintained broad support despite the absence of anything approaching a genuine democracy.

Where the first volume shows the evolution of the state, the second looks at how a planet of competing states has behaved in the two centuries since the start of the Industrial Revolution. Successful states must be able to defend their borders, live under the rule of law and have accountable institutions. That leads them to maturity, when they fall prey to political decay.

Throughout both volumes Fukuyama uses the inelegant if accurate term repatrimonialization to refer to the process of elites seeking to overcome the limitations imposed by the state, the rule of law and accountable institutions and return to the inherent human tendency of rewarding friends and relatives, regardless of their merit or the consequences. To Fukuyama this is something close to humanity’s Original Sin, a drive so powerful that every idea on improving government has to be considered in its light. Examples of repatrimonialization range from the perpetuation of hereditary royal families in early tribal societies to the complex clientelism of the 19th-century United States. The second volume digs into examples of astonishing acts of graft and corruption in the goal of helping friends and family.

Fukuyama expands the idea that the stronger a state and its institutions, the more resilient it is to the predations of colonialism. He presents a surprisingly orthodox-left assessment of sub-Saharan Africa: colonizers drew borders where none had existed, creating inevitable conflict between tribes and nations forced to live within the confines of unnatural states. This helps explain the rise of the “strongman” – not a traditional African leadership style but an inevitable product of states that require strength and authority to replace shared history and culture. Without institutions, leaders rely on friends: “Zaire, for example, had six hundred thousand names on the civil service payroll, when the World Bank estimated it needed no more than fifty thousand. The central bank alone employed half again as many people as the entire private banking sector.”

The colonial powers’ conquests in Latin America were marked by their strong if decadent institutions: “As settlement colonies, they tended to replicate the class-based, mercantilist society found back on the Iberian peninsula, in which indigenous laborers and mestizos took the place of the white European peasantry.” In Asia, strong local institutions absorbed elements of the colonial culture and incorporated them into traditional structures. Artificial creations like French Indochina reverted to the independent states of Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

When considering the growth of democracy, Fukuyama embraces elements of Marx: democracy requires a middle class and usually emerges from a bourgeoisie looking to protect its interests against a rapacious elite and the threat of revolt from peasants and workers. The fact that a protected middle class grew steadily wealthier, expanding to include more and more of the population who were then afforded the same protections, was a positive but unplanned consequence of a group acting out of self-interest.

As someone with a self-interest in political parties, I found it gratifying to see those structures given their due. Too often parties are ignored in favour of the close study of institutions and philosophies, and their central role in mediating conflicting people and ideas is overlooked. The ability of small groups to advance new ways of tackling problems, and then to be given the opportunity to take control of state institutions without destroying, recreating or coopting them, is to me the operational Rosetta Stone at the heart of liberal democracy.

Fukuyama has reassuring words for Arab reformers despondent at the near-complete failure of the Arab Spring, noting that in the years after the revolutions of 1848 most of the countries that had experienced uprisings underwent periods of conservative repression. He reminds us that progress is slow and messy, and that even in established democracies democratic rights had to be fought for, often violently, against the wishes of established elites.

This optimism seems to disappear as the book closes. Traditional arguments against democracy are looked at and dispensed with. Fukuyama’s concerns are in the future, not the past. With the success of the welfare state and ever expanding human lifespans, will democracy survive in countries filled with entitled centenarians? Malthus – dismissed in the first volume for ideas on the limits of population growth that were destroyed by the explosion in productivity brought about by the Industrial Revolution – is resurrected. Limits may reappear in the face of declining productivity, longer lives and longer retirements.

Fukuyama’s writing on technology explores its dangers to democracy. Once humans can alter the course of evolution, there is a risk of destroying social equality. If intelligence, strength and other desirable attributes become market commodities, those commodities will be acquired by the wealthy and powerful. We may see not just an economically dominant class but a virtually new species: homo sapiens 2.0.

The size and success of government programs are themselves a problem. Following the iron law of entropy all systems degrade, and following the iron law of bureaucracy all governments protect themselves from cuts and work to expand their powers. It is much easier to add a government program than to eliminate one.

Fukuyama asserts that “there is … too much law and too much ‘democracy’ relative to American state capacity.” While courts have allowed every decision to be endlessly litigated, Congress has become thoroughly repatrimonialized, not through the direct vote-buying associated with the clientelist era but through the rise of interest groups that are allowed to purchase access to and control over elected officials via donations to candidates and parties. This problem is particularly acute in the United States but diluted versions exist in, for example, Canadian political parties, whose donor and activist lists are dominated by trade unions, industry groups and the organized voices of minority communities.

This group control is not surprising in light of the overall decline in citizen participation in public life. As a result, it is harder for today’s middle class to defend itself against threats from above or below. Class solidarity grew more naturally during the industrial period. As impersonal as that world was in terms of subservience to machines, it was intimate in the literal sense: company towns with thousands of people working in a single factory, mine or mill, doing similar or identical work. Today’s diversified economy offers many advantages, but social cohesion is not one of them.

This helps explain the increased fear citizens in many established democracies have toward groups and cultures that continue to be strongly cohesive. Radical Islam, for example, is an unappealing project by any measure: miserable, blinkered and backward-looking. Rather than absorbing and dismissing the attacks of groups or individuals operating under the banner of radical Islam, Western democracies in particular seem gripped with an existential dread, wasting time on arguments about clothing and speech that, depressingly, make George W. Bush look prescient when he said “they hate us for our freedoms.”

Similarly, there is increasing resentment toward an elite that has grown astronomically wealthy and its perceived collusion with a political class that today manages wealth rather than engaging the public in great projects that result in concrete improvements in people’s standards of living. As memories of truly severe poverty recede in memory, programs that have been very helpful, like Obamacare, are perceived negatively by those who benefit the most.

With many people living in democracies, or wanting to (save a relative handful of deluded young people you don’t see floods of refugees rushing to live in Saudi Arabia), it is hard today to envisage a return to broadly authoritarian or totalitarian rule. But we should not be complacent. What Fukuyama terms the “vetocracy” has replaced a functioning system of checks and balances that was long at the heart of American democracy. Increasingly politics is a zero-sum game where politicians on each side accuse the other of being responsible for all that ails the country. The United States is not alone in falling prey to this strident populism.

Writing in Foreign Affairs last summer, Fukuyama updated the concerns that close out these books.1 A shock to the economy or social fabric could be enough to shatter already fragile institutions. Voters may elect populists who will unarguably undermine their standard of living – not out of an effort to undermine democratic institutions, but out of a sense that no one is listening to them and their vote is their only tool for expressing their anger at being ignored. The Republicans listen only to the wealthy; Democrats listen only to minorities. White working people who continue to make up a large part of the population believe they have no voice: hence their support for Trump. In the U.K., those same people voted to leave the European Union. It is only a matter of time before this wave reaches Canada.

Fukuyama concludes by maintaining his commitment to democracy, continuing to argue that we should keep on walking down that road to Denmark. Fittingly for someone who maintains the importance of political alongside, but independent of, economic and social development, he advocates some evidence-based solutions which, as a centrist social democrat, I find appealing.

He praises German policies, which stress efficiency in production, providing more money to be inefficient, but more egalitarian, in wages. This may annoy some economists but it maintains a social coalition to support your state. Despite higher labour costs, Germany remains the world’s third biggest exporter. He argues for investment in education, not just for young people but retraining for those displaced by an ever-faster-moving economy. He proposes infrastructure spending à la New Deal.

There are obvious criticisms of Fukuyama’s work. There is hubris in tackling the entire history of human political organization in two books – similar to writing a guidebook to the entire planet. To me this is part of the books’ appeal: he is unafraid to aim high, to put forward grand themes, and to do the hard work of reinforcing his thesis, point by point, page by page. When much scholarship has leached out into incomprehensible jargon-filled nonsense, a tightly written book that accepts its own limitations is a welcome change. Continue reading “A guidebook to the entire planet”

I believe that military force can be harnessed for the greater good of humanity and that there is clear evidence to prove that case. As Western democracies evolve from their Cold War backing of brutal dictators – as long as they were our brutal dictators – we can shift to supporting countries that share or aspire to share our values of human rights, accountable institutions and democracy. The imperfection of today’s democratic states is no excuse not to help those ready to suffer and die, as thousands of refugees have died in the Mediterranean this year alone, to experience a fraction of the freedoms we daily take for granted.

In part 1 of this article, I looked at the ideas and ideology behind liberal interventionism through the lens of the ongoing destruction of Syria at the hands of President Bashir Al-Assad.1 Military intervention has a rough ethical history: every country claims justification for its attacks on others. Democracies, especially the United States, have claimed a moral mantle for the most indefensible missions – from Vietnam to supporting blood-soaked Central American death squads. This history has to be acknowledged. In 1999, then–U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair suggested a framework for intervention, based on five questions, now known as the Blair Doctrine:

  1. Are we sure of our case ?
  2. Have we exhausted all diplomatic options?
  3. Are there military operations we can sensibly and prudently undertake?
  4. Are we prepared for the long term?
  5. Do we have national interests involved?

Successful interventions in the former Yugoslavia (1995), Kosovo (1999), Sierra Leone (2000) and Mali (2013) followed this plan with positive results. The failure to stop the Rwandan genocide and the poorly planned mission to Somalia contributed to international interest in the idea of ‘humanitarian intervention,” later codified into the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine embraced by the United Nations in 2005:

  1. The State carries the primary responsibility for protecting populations from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing, and their incitement;
  2. The international community has a responsibility to encourage and assist States in fulfilling this responsibility;
  3. The international community has a responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other means to protect populations from these crimes. If a State is manifestly failing to protect its populations, the international community must be prepared to take collective action to protect populations, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations.

Anyone who says the United Nations has no mandate to engage in military intervention, in Syria or elsewhere, is wrong. There it is, in black and white. If history can be used to condemn liberal intervention, it can also be used to defend it. For anyone of fair mind who is not a pacifist, the question should not be whether intervention is ever right, or ever wrong, but how to make it work.

Liberal interventionism is a new type of war that coexists alongside conventional war. It has been joined by a still newer type, the so-called War on Terror, a dark distortion of liberal interventionism. Both dismiss state borders while relying on state protection to achieve their goals. Where liberal intervention, or “wars on terror,” can only be carried out by states strong in arms and legitimacy, international terror groups rely on weak states to house them and rogue states to fund and supply them.

In this article I dig deeper into the experience of interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya before making the argument for a liberal intervention in Syria. I look at the reasons why it’s an argument unlikely to be heeded, and the devastating consequences of the West’s newfound suspicion of its power, and our lack of confidence in our own capacity to evolve.

Afghanistan: Breaking our word and Islamist blowback

The 2001 invasion of Afghanistan qualified as a liberal intervention under the five tests of the Blair Doctrine – except the Taliban was never recognized as the legitimate government by Saudi Arabia, only gaining recognition from the United Arab Emirates, Pakistan and Noam Chomsky. The 9/11 attacks on the United States triggered an ultimately conventional war between NATO and the Taliban, with  the latter treated as the effective if not legitimate government, and that war was UN-sanctioned (Security Council Resolution 1368). Real improvements followed, from infrastructure to education – especially for girls.2 Elections were contested, despite Taliban violence and massive corruption on the part of then-President Karzai’s government.

The perception of failure haunted the Afghan mission. The defeat of successive empires within its borders over the course of thousands of years created a lazy narrative that ignores the fact that life there is better by most measures today than before 2001.3 Al Qaeda – which could not be destroyed with the capture of territory, or even the killing of its leaders – and the Taliban were displaced but not eliminated. We judge conventional wars based on the fall of capital cities and the surrender of armies; Afghanistan denied us that metric.

The Americans seemed to have learned little from their 1993–95 intervention in Somalia, which included a small military force, massive but poorly controlled flows of aid and unreliable allies. The lack of a clear plan for the military, and a clear way of explaining the mission to the American public, meant the mission could not survive the infamous “Blackhawk Down” incident, when 18 U.S. servicemen died in a single day. Two decades after President Clinton ordered his troops home, Somalia has only now begun to stabilize, thanks to the longstanding and costly commitment of the African Union.

In Afghanistan, shifting perceptions of national interest led intervening countries to abandon the international mission. Afghan leaders could see that the West was preparing to cut and run, as many had suspected. I was in Kabul in 2002, meeting with political leaders who had been underground since the time of the Soviet occupation. I assured one, over a huge meal of meatballs and bread, that unlike other promises from other governments, this time the Western alliance would not abandon them. That my government and others made me a liar is something I still find hard to forgive. The fourth Blair test, the commitment to stay engaged for the long term, was broken. With the Taliban resurgent in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Islamist terror spreading in part in response to Western interventions, the perception was that the war had failed on all three counts: conventional, liberal and counterterror.

I’ll return to the problem of democratic countries making long-term commitments. The question of interventionism creating terrorism needs to be addressed head-on. In the case of former Yugoslavia or Sierra Leone, to say nothing of the defeated Axis powers in World War II, there was no “blowback.” There are no Milošević-inspired suicide bombers, no devotees of Foday Sankoh blowing up buses in London. Serbia has just applied to join the European Union. In Sierra Leone Tony Blair is a national hero.4 If intervention does not produce blowback in all cases, it cannot be accused of defining the idea.

It is beyond question that intervention in Islamic countries has produced blowback, in the form of attacks against Western countries and Western interests. Why? The West took its place in the Islamist pantheon of enemies largely on the basis of its support for oppressive regimes in the postwar era. This was compounded by those regimes deflecting internal criticism onto Israel, which was supported by the United States. Domestic repression closed off peaceful means of dissent at the same time as traditional left or Marxist alternatives were discredited, leaving Islamism as a culturally relevant and accessible alternative. That same repression created emigrant communities in Western democracies where Islamist ideas spread for different reasons: in response to prejudice, as a means of rebelling against the dominant culture, or because radical Islam scratches the same itch as previous extremist creeds such as Communism, Fascism, fundamentalist Christianity and so on.

This is not an article about Islamist terror. What is important in this context is this question: Do the complexities and possibility of Islamist terror mean countries likely to create it are exempt from human rights standards? Does fear of suicide bombers or other mass atrocities mean any country or group ready to use those tools is exempt from retribution? If the answer is yes, the world will quickly fall under the sway of such groups, or more likely of countries like Russia or China who act against such groups, and others they disagree with, without due process.

If the answer is no, then terror attacks have to be addressed as a modern challenge to liberal democracy, the same way other extremist ideologies have been successfully confronted. Allowing your opponent to define your rules of engagement is never a good idea.

Iraq: How to do everything right, then wrong, then right, then wrong again

The complexities of Afghanistan and Islamist terror were unnecessarily amplified a hundredfold by the war in Iraq.

George W. Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq just 18 months after 9/11; the quick seizure of Kabul was taken as evidence that the broader Middle East was ready for rapid restructuring. This was not a liberal intervention. It met, at best, only two of the Blair Doctrine’s five tests. The Americans said Saddam Hussein had to be deposed for possessing weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and supporting international terrorism. Longstanding UN sanctions, imposed after the 1990–91 Gulf War, sometimes helped and sometimes hurt the case for war, as Saddam cooperated with and then obstructed weapons inspectors, creating the impression that he maintained a WMD stockpile while avoiding the consequences of doing so.5

The war itself was carefully executed; Baghdad fell within three weeks. Civil conflict began immediately as regional, ethic and religious tensions, repressed by the dictatorship, erupted in violence.

The Iraq war is presented as the signal failure of liberal intervention, discrediting the concept and the author of the Blair Doctrine. Efforts to achieve humanitarian goals in Iraq cannot excuse the failure of the U.S.-led coalition, and efforts by Saddam to muddy the waters cannot be used as an excuse for the failure to make the case for war. It is not the job of the tyrant to make life easy for those who want to overthrow him. While diplomatic options were pursued, there was no consensus that they had been exhausted.

Shockingly, there was no plan for the occupation. U.S. combat troops were drawn down as sectarian militias were formed, and bizarre decisions, such as dissolving the Iraqi military and border patrol, created a horde of armed, unemployed young men. Intent on destroying Saddam’s Ba’ath Party, the United States embarked on a process of de-Ba’athification that far exceeded the de-Nazification imposed on Germany after World War II. This rendered most Iraqi professionals, who had joined the Ba’ath because it was required, unemployable. The Americans added to this army of the desperate by sanctioning torture. Iraq remains chaotic, despite a period of stability during the U.S. troop surge of 2007–10.6

Blair’s decision to take the United Kingdom into the war was driven by a desire to maintain its influence over the United States. He feared the instability that a unilateral U.S. invasion could generate and believed, as the British usually do, that they could mitigate American excesses. Blair’s inability to explain the difference between humanitarian intervention and preserving the trans-Atlantic alliance gravely wounded the concept and its champion.

The Iraq debacle – from the failure of Bush and Blair to plan for the occupation to the failure of Obama to carry the surge to a positive conclusion to the haphazard response to the rize of the Islamic State (Daesh) – was seized upon by Western isolationists of the left and right. The left linked Iraq to American imperialism and hubris; the right said it showed the United States should retreat to a pre-1941 isolationism. Conservatives in other countries had their prejudices against foreigners of all stripes, American and otherwise, reinforced: if the world doesn’t want our help, let’s leave the world alone.

Democratic confusion added to the chaos: unlike wars, which tend to be short, nation-building takes time. This increases the pressure on any government that engages in liberal intervention to win broad support for the project: their domestic opponents may end up responsible for finishing the job. The Bush administration bears responsibility for the post-invasion disaster but deserves credit for the 2007–10 surge, which combined a massive troop buildup with a focus on law and order that allowed Iraqi institutions to strengthen. These steps should have been taken in 2003. The fact they worked as well as they did after years of bloodshed is a sobering reminder of what could have been. It was a lesson that Barack Obama, intent on living up to his campaign promise to end the war, failed to heed. Obama’s disengagement created a vacuum that led to the rise of Daesh. Another president, another unintended consequence, and an unnecessary horror that continues to this day.

Libya: Making the same mistakes

In North Africa, in early 2011, with the Arab Spring in full bloom, Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi responded to initially peaceful protests with ever increasing levels of violence and moved to retake the country by force. On March 19, 2011, as his armoured forces prepared to assault the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, he gave a speech that made his intentions clear: “We are coming tonight. There won’t be any mercy. We will come neighbourhood by neighbourhood, house by house, room by room. We will find you in your closets.”

This threat drove NATO to act. First the French, and then the British and other NATO countries including Canada, bombed Gaddafi’s forces with UN approval. The Libyan leader was stopped. On October 20 Gaddafi was killed. His regime disintegrated.

Recent attempts at revisionism about the Libya mission, most notably the September 2016 report from a U.K. parliamentary committee claiming the threat to civilians in Benghazi was “overrated,” are breathtakingly ignorant.7 Gaddafi, with decades of murdering opponents behind him, responded to peaceful protests with a brutality that continued, and escalated, until his death. Bernard-Henri Lévy, in his well-argued refutation of the Westminster report, said,

Should we have waited (as happened in Syria) until 100,000 people had died – 200,000, 300,000? And those tank columns I saw and filmed in early April 2011 as they levelled the outskirts of Benghazi – would it have been better to let them gut the entire city? Not to mention Misrata. Imagine how the survivors of that shelled and massacred city, with its roads reduced to ash and rubble, its remaining inhabitants fleeing bombs and sniper fire, would respond to the report’s strange questions. And that battle happened in April, lasting through May – weeks and months after Gaddafi had made the threats that today, from within the panelled halls of Westminster, we are urged to consider as having been mere “rhetoric”, not to be taken “literally”.8

The report was correct in stating the plain fact that the coalition lacked an endgame in the Libyan intervention. R2P was used to justify the bombing missions but – despite the disaster of the initial U.S.-led administration of Iraq (2003–06), the success of the surge (2007–10) and the subsequent rise of the Islamic State following U.S. withdrawal (2010–14) – NATO states refused to acknowledge the obvious lesson: any success in R2P requires “boots on the ground.” The coalition splintered and, despite initial optimism, by 2014 the country had descended into civil war. Initial success followed by descent into chaos: Libya was Iraq’s sequel.

4_putinTo the east, Bashar Al-Assad started killing Syrians around the same time that Gaddafi started killing Libyans. There was never an appetite for Western involvement. Gaddafi was an isolated eccentric; Assad had a powerful ally in Putin’s Russia. Syria borders Iraq, Iran and Lebanon, making the military and political costs of engagement very high. The Syrian dictator looked at his country’s streets as they filled with protesters and knew what they did not: he could do what he wanted.

Syria: Why we should intervene, and why we won’t

In part 1 of this article I started with a question: Should the West intervene in Syria? I have argued that liberal interventionism works when a successful and well-planned military operation segues into a plan for nation-building that focuses on the creation, strengthening or transformation of government institutions and quickly – if by necessity only partially – addresses high-profile legitimate grievances. The intervening force has the responsibility to set an example in terms of its conduct by being clear in its mandate and serving as much as possible as an impartial arbiter. Democracy has to be seen to deliver if extremist alternatives are to be denied strength.

In judging intervention in Syria the case is clear. The Blair Doctrine’s five steps are met. Are we sure of our case in Syria? Yes. Mass murder? Ethnic cleansing? Rape as a weapon of war? Using civilians as human shields? Mass torture and extrajudicial killings? Use of weapons of mass destruction? Yes, on all counts. Democratic decision-makers in the West – and that means all of us, with our right to vote – have to ask this question: If Assad’s actions do not warrant the use of force, what atrocities would?

If we decide that Assad can no longer be tolerated, then what? The second test, exhausting diplomatic efforts, is easily met. Assad has repeatedly said he will retake his country by force. Peace talks have been held, most notably in Geneva in 2014 and 2016. Ceasefires have been signed and broken, with the government unashamedly advantaging its forces. At the time of writing, in late September 2016, the latest ceasefire ended with Assad’s Russian allies bombing the first UN aid convoy to reach a rebel-held area.

President Obama first ignored Syria, and then, with Assad’s first use of chemical weapons in 2012, declared their further use to be a “red line” that, if crossed, would precipitate American intervention. The Russians intervened, saying they would guarantee that Syrian WMDs were decommissioned. They weren’t, but the United States welcomed the opportunity to retreat. The cost? Russia was reestablished as an equal interlocutor in the region. Assad did not give up his chemical weapons and continues to use them to this day, the American “red line” covered over with sand.

The pursuit of diplomatic options has strengthened Assad, strengthened the Russians and allowed a war to continue that has now displaced 50 per cent of the country’s population and killed more than 400,000 Syrians. Waves of refugees have flooded across the Middle East and into Europe and beyond. As the West stands by, the Syrian civil war is coming to the West, transforming politics, influencing election results and giving voice to a xenophobia that had been unacceptable for decades. Diplomacy is being used by Assad and Putin to prolong the war, to expend time, to their clear advantage.

The third test: Can a military operation be sensibly undertaken? Pressure for no-fly zones and humanitarian relief corridors were ended by Russia’s intervention in 2015. With Assad vastly stronger in 2016, and opposition fragmented and radicalized, intervention today is more difficult than it would have been in 2011.

In the West little is known of the Syrians who rose up against Assad except Daesh, a millenarian death cult conceived by Al-Qaeda in Sunni-dominated western Iraq. Daesh benefited from the sectarian manner in which the Shi’i regime of Nouri al-Maliki governed in Baghdad. The Americans preferred to leave Maliki in place following the 2010 election, even though he had (narrowly) lost to a nonsectarian Shi’i-Sunni coalition. While its atrocities cannot be excused, Daesh is responsible for a tiny fraction of the civilian deaths in the Syrian civil war. Assad’s forces are responsible for 95 per cent, and all other forces, including the Western countries bombing Daesh, less than 5 per cent.9

The Kurdish YPG, or People’s Defence Force, has received some attention for its use of women’s brigades and bravery in confronting Assad, Daesh leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Erdoğan views the YPG as the Syrian branch of the banned independence party of the Turkish Kurds, the PKK. The YPG have been disciplined and effective, much as the Kurdistan government in Iraq has set an example of effective governance.


The non-Kurd resistance to Assad was led by the Free Syrian Army, a secular formation that arose soon after the civil war began and quickly attracted senior defectors from Assad’s armed forces. By 2012 it started to splinter, as appeals for international assistance were ignored and Islamist groups began to emerge. The non-Islamist resistance is now divided among dozens of groups, fighting both Assad and radical Islamist groups.

The divisions between rebel forces make the creation of a moderate united front a priority. An internationally backed ground intervention today, something many rebels called for in 2011–12, would likely fail: it would be like invading Iraq with the Islamist groups occupying part of the country and with Saddam and the Iraqi military still in place. The High Negotiations Committee, an alliance of Syrian rebel groups struck to participate in the spring 2016 peace talks, showed that a united front is possible if incentives to cooperate are on the table. Access to Western weapons, training, recognition and other supports are strong incentives. Going further, establishing a no-fly zone would be essential, as would be the creation of relief centres and corridors protected by air or ground forces. President Obama refused to take these steps. I will not predict what President Trump will do.


It is a hard choice. Intervention in Syria is now about much more than confronting Assad. It is about confronting Vladimir Putin, who has fashioned himself into an anti-Western superhero. His military adventurism in Georgia, in Ukraine, now in Syria has been primarily aimed at maintaining his popularity ratings at home: his “managed democracy” is failing and foreign distractions are handy tools to unite the people and further repress dissenting voices. Western weakness has made this an easy card to play.

The Russians would resist any effort to displace Assad but they do not have the money or ability to enter a war with the West. To put the Russian dilemma bluntly: If Russia is ruled by rational actors, they will reach an accommodation with the West on Syria. If not, better to find that out sooner rather than later, given the pace of Russian rearmament and the momentum created by a series of successful invasions.

The question that has to be asked is not “why confront Russia?” but “what are the costs of not confronting Russia?” At what point will cyber-attacks on Baltic states and American political parties be stopped? At what point will the repression of LGBT Russians be considered intolerable (they were recently denied the right to drive cars)? Which military occupation or attack on neighbouring states will be one too many?

It is possible that Russia would respond to the deployment of Western-backed troops with ground forces of its own. While radically raising tensions, this would likely lead to a quick and negotiated end to the Syrian war. Similarly, the Iranians, following their nuclear deal with the West, would be willing to negotiate simply for the sake of being included in negotiations and recognized once more as a regional power. At the very least the war would be ended; if the West is successful in bolstering the anti-Assad forces, the dictator could be replaced. Agreements to amnesty Ba’athist, and other, war criminals would stick in the throat, but seeing Assad live out his days in a luxury dacha on the Black Sea would bend the arc of history more toward justice than seeing several hundred thousand more deaths in his name.

If the political will existed to support intervention, Assad’s crimes would make arguments against intervention difficult to uphold. Western governments have built support for military action on much flimsier grounds.

The fourth criterion – are we prepared for the long term? – is perhaps easier to satisfy in Syria than in Iraq or Afghanistan. The border between East and West Germany was, as the border between North and South Korea still is, a frontier between great powers with clearly conflicting aims. To make peace acceptable, the United States stations 28,500 troops in Korea to this day; in the German case, NATO defence of West Germany ended only with the country’s reunification. A Syria divided between Western-dependent and Russian-dependent zones would need long-term help and both sides would be inclined to offer it.

Lessons must be learned from the failures in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, and the more unequivocally successful interventions described earlier. Any occupation of Syria should include a defined but limited de-Ba’athification program to remove leaders of Assad’s party from power. Peacekeeping troops from as many nations as possible, especially Islamic countries, should be deployed along new ethnic and sectarian fault lines while generous infrastructure support should flood the country. Support for institution-building should draw on those with knowledge of those fault lines. The militias, armies and weapons that swamp the country should be taken up in a comprehensive and generous disarmament, demobilization and reintegration process so the curse of Libya, where ubiquitous weapons tempted new political formations to gain power through bullets instead of ballots, is avoided.

Plans for any occupation should be integral to the military operation. Publicizing plans for a post-Assad Syria will erode support for a regime that is based on fear and continues to suffer defections. Early in 2016 even the leaders of Assad’s Alawi community, seen as having the most to gain from his family’s continuation in power, distanced themselves from the regime. Olive branches and amnesties should be extended to any leaders or communities willing to give up violence. A blueprint for a future government will allow intervening countries to better define their contributions and offer rebel groups an incentive to cooperate. This is not to understate the enormous difficulties: addressing the demands of Syria’s Kurds will raise alarm across the region and the ongoing operations against Daesh need to be concluded; fortunately, Daesh appears to be on the defensive.

This takes us to the fifth and final test: Do we have national interests in Syria? The answer, much more than in all the other cases I have discussed, is yes. The longer this war continues the more our liberal societies in western Europe will be challenged by waves of refugees and continuing Islamist terror attacks. We are already seeing a rise in populist isolationism threaten peaceful globalization and democratization. The longer the war in Syria continues, the weaker the West will become, and its self-image as a global beacon for human rights and pluralist democracy, however imperfectly realized, will be made hollow. In Canada we patted ourselves on the back for taking in more than 30,000 Syrian refugees in 2015–16. Germany has taken in over a million. Will Canadians agree to take 100,000? 500,000? The answer is almost certainly no. The only way to avoid asking the question is to address the root cause of the crisis: end the war.

A tragedy in the making

We do not live in vacuum. The West has interests in asserting a place in the world as the Russians are asserting theirs, and as the Chinese are asserting theirs. Choosing not to take a stand is taking a stand: to accept pushback against Western ideas, ideals and power and the territory they influence. We risk sending the same signal to national leaders that NATO sent to those Afghan headmen I talked to many years ago, who would side with the Taliban not from any affinity but out of pragmatism. They knew the West would leave, and the Taliban would not.

As things stand, the people of Syria will continue to die at the hand of their own government, and millions of futures will be distorted or curtailed. If a serious military intervention were launched in Syria there would be no question of a Western military defeat. Defeat for the West comes from political forces operating within the Western democracies. We no longer have the will to intervene, the will to endure the sacrifices that would go with an intervention, or leaders willing to mobilize voters to support a politics that looks beyond national borders.

In 2012 the British House of Commons voted against a military response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons against civilians. Canada didn’t even consider the question of military intervention in Syria. The United States drew a line in the sand and then scuffed it out. Bureaucratic internationalism in the form of the UN and the EU, and multilateral trade agreements seen as unfairly benefiting large corporations and the wealthy, are becoming increasingly unpopular.

The internationalist current in Western politics has died away at the same time as politics based on Enlightenment ideals has faded within Western countries. On the left and right, parties and movements are becoming increasingly narcissistic. The left is more interested in discussing microaggressions on college campuses than mass murder in Syria, or any sort of vision for how a globalized world can be brought into being. The left internationalism that drew thousands to fight Fascism in Spain has been replaced by a multiculturalism that holds all beliefs and practices to be equal no matter how far they stray from the old assertions of confident internationalist socialism: all people are equal, and equally deserving of social and economic justice. Today’s left, obsessed with our culture’s sins and its own self-righteousness, looks backward and inward and is unable to confront the future.

The Western right that mobilized behind Ronald Reagan’s call to “tear down this wall” in the 1980s has evaporated. It has been shamed by Iraq and replaced by nativists like Donald Trump who want to build walls, not tear them down. The War on Terror has already eroded civil liberties more than any other wars the West has fought since 1945. Across the West, the legitimacy of nations having colonial traditions is itself is under question. Allegedly, their historical sins as imperial powers are far worse than any historical sins of other nations and other empires. The new, illiberal, empires stirring in Russia and China embrace military and economic imperialism, respectively, on a foundation of xenophobia and nationalism. How will we respond?

The modern West was built on the (imperfectly realized) ideal of individual freedom and self-determination, and an often misplaced confidence in our ability to shape the world and extend that freedom. It will be a tragedy if just as more and more people accept that message we choose this moment to turn our back and say, “Sorry, now you’re on your own.” Yes, liberal interventionism is difficult and should accept its limited role in the world. We have successes and failures to learn from, and a world filled with suffering. Liberal interventionism offers a way to reduce that suffering, one country at a time. It offers a model for progressive democracies to redefine the future of international relations toward a more just and equitable end.

One hundred and fifty years ago it was hard to imagine a world where everyone had the vote and a social safety net helped us live in educated good health until our eighties. As we grapple with the challenge of renovating our democracies, we should devote some effort to extending our blessings to those less favoured by birth. We should start in Syria. We won’t. That is not just a tragedy for the people of Syria, but for the world. I am afraid liberal historians, if there are any in centuries to come, will look at this decade as the moment the West lost its way. Continue reading “Syria and liberal interventionism – II”

Should the Western democracies, including Canada, intervene in Syria to defend the revolution that began in March 2011? I propose to answer that question with the story of liberal interventionism: what it is and is not, where it has worked and where it has failed.

First of two parts

Should the Western democracies, including Canada, intervene in Syria to defend the revolution that began in March 2011? I propose to answer that question with the story of liberal interventionism: what it is and is not, where it has worked and where it has failed.

Syria: 2001–2016

When making the case for intervention in Syria it’s important to start with the facts. More than 470,000 Syrians, of a 2011 population of 22 million, have been killed.1 More than 6.6 million Syrians have been internally displaced. A further 4.6 million have fled, prompting a refugee crisis that threatens to overwhelm the borders and politics of the European Union and Syria’s neighbours. Of the civilian deaths in Syria, 95 per cent have been at the hands of the country’s dictator, Bashir Al-Assad, and the remaining 5 per cent at the hands of others, including the millenarian Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).2

Following the success of Tunisia’s Arab Spring, hundreds of thousands of peaceful Syrian demonstrators took to the streets. They were beaten, shot, shelled, then bombed by their government. Protests turned to resistance, then to civil war. Assad’s regime grew weaker and he lashed out, using chemical weapons. President Obama said further use of these weapons would cross a “red line” that would trigger an armed American response. Russia, Assad’s longstanding ally, said Syria would immediately surrender its chemical weapons and the West backed down. The use of chemical weapons resumed. Western democracies did nothing.

The anti-Assad opposition, originally largely affiliated into the Free Syrian Army, came to be dominated by Islamist groups. The United States and other democracies provided small levels of aid to some rebel groups, with little effect. The opposition has become increasingly Islamist in part because Islamist groups and countries, especially Saudi Arabia, provided funds that the democracies would not – a reminder that our inaction has consequences.

ISIL’s foothold in Iraq grew to include parts of Syria. In 2014 the United States and its allies began bombing ISIL; pressure mounted on Assad, and by October 2015 he controlled just 11 per cent of Syria’s territory. Fearing their ally’s collapse, the Russians began a six-month bombing campaign, targeting any group that threatened Assad.

Much of Syria has been destroyed. A generation has been deprived of an education. Millions have their lives on hold in refugee camps in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan. ISIL continues to occupy part of the country.

When can force be used?

The argument for intervention in Syria starts with a question: what are the conditions under which armed force should be used by one state against another? Consistent pacifists say there are no such conditions, so in posing the question in this way we are leaving them by the wayside. For the purpose of this conversation we are assuming there are conditions under which force should be used – what are they?

Most people support an armed response if their country is attacked. Neutral Switzerland and post-imperial Japan, with its clearly named Self Defense Force, sanction force in response to invasion. In addition, many countries are members of regional or ideological self-defence alliances: if any member of the alliance is attacked, the other members will treat it at as an attack on their own soil. For example, Canada’s participation in NATO commits it to war with Russia should Russia invade Lithuania. NATO’s resolve has been tested once, following Afghanistan-based Al Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks on the United States.

Next consider wars of aggression: wars launched to expand territory like the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, wars fought for ideological or political reasons like the 1980–88 Iran-Iraq war. Following the slaughter of the first half of the 20th century and in the face of the risk of nuclear annihilation, the United Nations and other institutions were created to reduce the chance of interstate war. In this context, countries no longer admit to waging wars of aggression even when they obviously are, and claim humanitarian motives for the most brazen aggressions. This makes arguments for humanitarian intervention more complicated, and a standard of intervention even more important to uphold.

If you believe countries have the right to use force and the right to defend themselves and their allies, humanitarian interventionism asks the next question: how should that right to intervene be defined? There is a deep well to draw upon for answers to that question. Nigel Biggar lays out six criteria from the Just War tradition: just cause, legitimate authority, right intention, last resort, proportionality and prospect of success.3 Liberal interventionism is bound by all these conditions, with special emphasis on the question of legitimate authority – not because it is more important than the others, but because in a world where national boundaries are upheld by international law, violating them requires a framework that imparts moral and political authority.

I argue that the sanctity of someone’s home is no longer a refuge for someone engaged in domestic abuse: we have decided that the right to live free from abuse is more important than the right to make your home your castle. Similarly, geographic divisions decided by long-dead kings, colonial administrators or clever generals should offer no protection to governments that abuse their people. Just as individual rights can be infringed to protect victims of abuse, the inviolability of state borders should also be qualified.

Humanitarian or liberal intervention broadly means taking action, up to and including the use of force, when a state is engaged in, or fails to prevent, mass atrocities against its own or other people. It is a new concept, though with roots that go back to the Augustinian concept of Just War and Marxian ideals of internationalism. The idea is radical, and challenges the nation-state’s monopoly on the legitimate use of force. It is idealistic, while constrained by the paradoxical reality that only existing states can prevent other states from committing evil acts. Coalitions, and even the United Nations, still rely on Westphalian states as their component parts.

Critics of humanitarian intervention cite many examples, notably the invasions of Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003) and the American-backed struggle against Communism in Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador, Chile, Vietnam and other countries. In many of these conflicts, a moral justification was cited for war. However, none of these were humanitarian interventions. Making a country safe for American – or Soviet – exports is not the same as an intervention in pursuit of protecting universal human rights. Queen Victoria spoke strongly of the “humanitarian” drive behind the vicious British suppression of the 1857 Indian Mutiny. If humanitarian intervention transcends the primacy of nation-states, that applies as much to the intervenor as to the intervened. Engaging in intervention does not render a state virtuous. At the same time, the fact that an intervening country has engaged in past aggressions does not disqualify its intervention from being humanitarian. Nations, like people, can change and progress.

There is a tendency to reject or ignore evidence that intervention works because factors other than humanitarianism come into play. For example, it can be argued that the abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade by the British Empire in 1807, and subsequent military action by the British against countries and companies that continued the trade, helped British commercial interests in an increasingly competitive world economy. However, that in no way invalidates the humanitarian aspect of the British action.

Similarly, the Allied defeat of Hitler during World War II stands as an example of liberal intervention: France and Britain declared war on Germany despite there being no immediate threat to their borders or interests. Few would say the Allies acted too soon. Tolerance for the domestic and international excesses of Nazi Germany in the period of 1933 to 1939 does not invalidate the resolve that led to the declaration of war in September 1939.

Modern liberal interventionism

The birth of humanitarian interventionism followed the end of the Cold War. With two superpowers controlling their respective spheres of influence, there was little room for protecting the vulnerable. Excesses were defended as byproducts of a global ideological struggle.

The comfortable United Nations peacekeeping missions that had marked the pragmatic humanitarianism of the postwar era fell apart in the former Yugoslavia in 1992. Instead of monitoring static front lines in Cyprus or the Sinai, where missions lasted for years, the United Nations confronted an aggressively nationalist Serbia, intent on consuming as much of the former Yugoslavia as possible. Peacekeepers were used as human shields and sometimes killed. United Nations “safe havens” were overrun by the Serbs. In Srebrenica, more than 8,000 Bosnian men and boys were killed between July 13 and 15, 1995.

The massacre pushed the international community to act. A bombing campaign in August and September turned the tide of the war and pushed the Serbs to the negotiating table, and the Dayton Accords in November 1995 ended the first war in mainland Europe since 1945. Memories of the recent horrors of Rwanda were fresh: a complex civil war had spilled across national frontiers, with former colonial powers taking sides and tolerating genocide while a large United Nations force was rendered ineffective. World leaders looked to the Balkans and saw that a short military campaign had ended the war where four years of diplomacy and sanctions had not.

Four years later the Serbs were at it again, attempting to maintain control of Kosovo and ethnically cleanse its Albanian population. NATO again undertook an air campaign against the Serbs, which lasted from March to June 1999. In April then–British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who had convinced President Bill Clinton to join the air campaign, spoke to the Chicago Economic Club. He laid out five questions that should be asked, and answered, before any country considered humanitarian intervention:

  1. Are we sure of our case?
  2. Have we exhausted all diplomatic options?
  3. Are there military operations we can sensibly and prudently undertake?
  4. Are we prepared for the long term?
  5. Do we have national interests involved?

Blair’s doctrine proposed something new: that war could be started purely because people were oppressed by an illegitimate government. This harked back to the early days of international Communism, when global revolution was justified to displace capitalism. Blair’s standard would replace economics with human rights and the rule of law, but it was still a step beyond the world of the nation-state.

The Blair Doctrine contains an inherent, politically necessary, hypocrisy. The fifth test trod a careful line between the old approach to international politics and a new one not yet fully formed. Previously, only national interests were acceptable justifications for war. Defenders of the doctrine will argue national interests are still central, because in a globalized world suffering and conflict have consequences that transcend borders and regions: look no further than the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis. But Blair included the fifth test in part because support for international military action is hard for democratic politicians to gain and maintain even in the face of reasonably clear threats.

Blair addressed this collision of idealism and pragmatism when asked in 2002 why, as he favoured intervening in Iraq and Afghanistan, he didn’t support invading Zimbabwe, where President Mugabe presided over a famine of his own creation. He said he did favour intervening in Zimbabwe, but he lacked support from the UK and Zimbabwe’s neighbours.

You can easily argue that North Korea, nuclear-armed and allied with China, is a worse place than friendless and impoverished Afghanistan was under the brutal Taliban. The North Korean regime may be more worthy of displacement. The Afghan regime was displaceable. Creating a scale against which governments should be measured is not something any government has yet had the courage, or foolhardiness, to try. That does not remove the need for such a scale, if humanitarian intervention is to develop into anything more than a new form of justification for traditional war.

Recognizing that the wars of the 1990s and 2000s had exposed a glaring hole in the international order, the United Nations might have been expected to take the lead in developing such a scale. In 2005 the UN adopted the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P). Conceived in response to the failure of the international community to act in the face of the Rwandan genocide, then the Srebrenica massacre, then killings in Darfur by the government of Sudan, then the Serbian attack on Kosovo, R2P defined the conditions under which retaliation, up to and clearly including military force, could be used against abusive governments.
Where the Blair Doctrine was a checklist for democratic leaders, the Responsibility to Protect is a statement of aspiration, typical of the United Nations. It says:

  1. The State carries the primary responsibility for protecting populations from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing, and their incitement;
  2. The international community has a responsibility to encourage and assist States in fulfilling this responsibility;
  3. The international community has a responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other means to protect populations from these crimes. If a State is manifestly failing to protect its populations, the international community must be prepared to take collective action to protect populations, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations.

The language is clear – and its failure equally clear. For anyone who says the use of force in Syria must be sanctioned by the United Nations, here is the mandate.

Some liberal interventionist successes

Liberal interventionism had its first clear test months after the success of the Kosovo intervention, which saw Kosovo freed and the subsequent fall of Serbian strongman Slobodan Milošević to a domestic protest movement. Blair applied his test to a country in a region that had for a decade been a synonym for endless war: West Africa.

In 2000, Sierra Leone was part of a regional conflict that included Liberia and Nigeria. Endless peace accords were broken as warring groups fought to control the lucrative mineral trade. In May of that year, following the collapse of another peace agreement, the British military intervened to assist in the evacuation of the international community and then fanned out to stabilize the country. By September the mission was completed and, for 16 years now, the country has been at peace. Institutional support continued after military operations ended and, despite persistent problems of corruption, Sierra Leone survived the recent Ebola outbreak with its central government intact. Blair remains a hero in the country and the case offers an example of how liberal interventionism can succeed in practice in a part of the world that was considered as unstable as today’s Middle East.

Other reasonably clear success stories can be identified. In Mali in 2013, a force backed by France and the European Union worked with the government to displace Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. In early 2015, the African Union authorized a military force that turned the tide when Nigeria’s military, riddled with corruption, was unable to deal with the rise of Boko Haram.

It is often hard to measure the success of disasters averted and deaths prevented. The above examples offer compelling case studies: ongoing wars ended quickly. Lives were lost in the process but it is hard to disagree that more were saved. Importantly, domestic support from the intervening countries was easier to maintain because the conflicts were short and victory decisive. Long-term support was relatively inexpensive and low-profile enough that support or opposition was not a significant factor in the domestic politics of the intervening countries.

Failures and the future (to come)

In part 2 of this article, which will appear in the Winter/Spring 2017 isssue of Inroads, I will look at the experience of interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya before making the argument for liberal intervention in Syria – an argument unlikely to be heeded. I will look at the potentially devastating consequences of the West’s newfound suspicion of its power and our lack of confidence in our capacity to evolve. My hope is that my article will be redundant and that by the time the next issue of this journal goes to press the Syrian people will be freed of the twin afflictions of Assad and ISIL. I am not optimistic. Continue reading “Syria and liberal interventionism”

When I wrote in Inroads six months ago laying out the themes of the campaign to come, I suggested that the Tories should focus on the economy and security, the Liberals on their leader and the NDP on a concrete plan that demonstrated their ability to govern.1 The NDP failed completely. The Liberals succeeded completely. The Tories failed to score on the economy and, unexpectedly, scored an own goal on security, wounding the NDP and allowing Justin Trudeau to soar to a majority.

The longest election campaign in modern history was too long. Unless we want politics dominated by candidates who are retired, independently wealthy or backed by special interests, campaigns need outer limits. The longer the campaign, the less likely parties are to rely on volunteers, increasing the importance of fundraising and professional staff.

The Conservatives failed in their attempt to define their party as the only credible defender of a strong economy. Thrown off by the slide into a “technical recession,” the Conservatives continued their pre-election attacks on Trudeau before descending into fearmongering over the niqab and “barbaric cultural practices.” They undid years of work by Jason Kenney and others to reach out to culturally conservative minority communities. The instigator of Tory fearmongering may have been Australian political consultant Lynton Crosby, veteran of victories for the right in his homeland and the UK. Oddly, Crosby’s firm denied that he was involved and the media never did find out just who was running the campaign for our then-governing party.

For the Conservatives, having failed to maintain focus on the economy and aware that a large majority of Canadians wanted change, security issues were an appealing lifeline. But instead of a terrorist attack against which they would protect the nation, they faced images of drowned children in the Mediterranean and desperate families clawing their way into the West from a shattered Syria. Suddenly Stephen Harper’s record looked more hard-hearted than firm-minded, offering Justin Trudeau the chance to summon the spirit of his father’s multiculturalism.

The New Democrats ran a front-runner campaign, safe in presentation but – I’ll get to this – weak in its foundations. The NDP called for Canadians to “Stop Harper,” and they had a backup chorus in the Liberals, the Greens and the Bloc. As long as Tom Mulcair was lead singer, this helped the party. During early weeks the NDP rose in the polls, peaking at 37 per cent on August 24. When, in mid-September, the niqab decision came down, Mulcair earned credit for bravery from commentators but scorn from a majority of Quebec voters influenced by cultural nationalism and the French tradition of laïcité. The Bloc ran a TV ad against the NDP that was shocking in its negativity: a pipeline dripping oil that congealed into the shape of a niqab-covered woman (the NDP offered qualified support for the proposed West-East pipeline that the Bloc opposed).

From that moment the Conservatives descended to a series of actions that reinforced every negative stereotype the party had created while in power: dividing Canadians between new and “old stock” and promising help lines to report “barbaric cultural practices.”

The New Democrats plunged in Quebec polls, dropping over 11 points between September 18 and October 2. Now, for the first time since early summer, the way to stop Harper looked to be to vote Liberal. While polls in Quebec stabilized, with the NDP moving back into contention there, the Liberals took a clear national lead over both Tories and NDP. The NDP, diverted by a dress code violation, returned to find that a younger, sexier singer had taken charge of the band, with a message that lacked lyrical complexity but had an undeniably catchier beat. It chose simply to carry on louder and more insistently than before: Stop Harper. Okay, said NDP voters across the country, and voted Liberal in droves.

This is ironic, since in areas where it could have faltered – organizing, fundraising and databases – the NDP, traditionally the third party, didn’t. The New Democrats raised money from more small donors than ever before in Canadian history and rolled out a new voter contact database that, unlike previous versions, didn’t crash and burn. While paper candidates in no-hope ridings were scrutinized, the NDP suffered few scandals.

During the writ period six Conservatives, five Liberals and two New Democrats were disqualified for reasons ranging from the serious to the trivial to the very weird (such as disgraced plumber and Conservative candidate Jerry Bance, caught on camera urinating into a client’s cup). Parties have yet to adjust to social media, where low-profile candidates in unwinnable seats now require the same attention from central campaign staff as high-profile stars. Our political system has evolved: privacy is a thing of the past. Either we accept that everyone has done embarrassing things, or we will, in the words of the British political comedy The Thick of It, create a world of political “brushed aluminium cyber-pricks” bred to run for office, men and women with no hinterland, no flaws, no past.

Despite their decimation in 2011, the Liberals remained a national party, in power in six provinces, and continued to be seen as a party that could govern the country. Even the late-campaign revelation that the party’s cochair had offered Energy East advice on how to lobby a non-Tory government had no impact in the polls. Here we come to the NDP’s core problem. The Liberals had to persuade Canadians that their leader was ready, and they succeeded. No one doubted that they were prepared to govern, for good and ill. The NDP leader shone in the House of Commons, but his party’s ability to govern, never even a real possibility until this election, was still much in doubt.

The New Democrats chose to tackle their image as “tax and spenders” with a pledge to balance the budget with only minor tax increases Then they waited three weeks before releasing a “costing document.” The full platform was released ten days before election day, on the Friday before the Thanksgiving long weekend, when millions voted in the advance polls.

The NDP was hit from two sides. The party’s reputation as fiscally irresponsible was ironically enhanced by the balanced budget pledge because it seemed inconsistent with the many expensive programs the party continued to roll out. The left flank of the NDP had long defended deficit spending because the 1990s Chrétien-Martin Liberal government had made deficit elimination a central tenet. This bizarre position ignored the party’s disciplined history in Saskatchewan, from Tommy Douglas to Roy Romanow, and the Liberals cynically exploited the NDP’s internal contradictions and sowed dissent within the NDP by creating the myth, eagerly swallowed by party militants, that Mulcair, a former Liberal, was somehow right-wing.

To make this work the Liberals had to get away with a volte face. The party of Chrétien and Martin, the team that persuaded Canada that balanced books were the key to economic growth, now said, “Oh no, those were different deficits, bad deficits, while Justin Trudeau wants to spend money on good deficits that will be invested in infrastructure.”

Beware of Liberals promising infrastructure. We have been down this poorly paved road before. Next come the cosy contracts, then the bailouts – subsidized with downloading of services and spending cuts.

Most readers will acknowledge that deficit spending is a good idea only under some circumstances, and a bad idea under most circumstances. Giving tax money to bankers through interest payments is worse than investing in programs or giving tax cuts, or just saving up for a rainy day (hello, Alberta!). Programs invested in with borrowed money need to be obvious winners; otherwise you are digging yourself a hole.

So let’s stop the puffery. It’s embarrassing when MP Scott Reid, who had worked for Paul Martin, writes, “The NDP learned exactly nothing from the ill-advised campaign pledge to deliver balanced budgets. That commitment also appeared to be guided by the sake of appearances – to project a certain image, an imagined idea of what people would see as the ‘responsible thing’ instead of being shaped by the sensible, resonant and, yes, winning thing.” Paul Martin himself was wheeled out to stammer his way through a defence of Trudeau’s policies, policies he must find deeply repugnant. The academics and others following this post facto justification (where were the calls for deficit spending earlier this year?) should be equally shame-faced, especially when the Liberal plan includes the need for completely unexplained spending cuts totalling billions of dollars.
NDP claims, postelection, that the party abjured any deficit spending only out of deeply held principle are also embarrassing. As former NDP deputy leader Libby Davies told CBC’s The House two days before the election: “Can you imagine what the reaction would be if the NDP came out with a statement saying, well, we’re going to run deficits? I mean, it would have been mayhem. I think it’s a situation where you’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.”

In the spring I wrote that there was always a risk for an NDP that hadn’t accepted the reality of deficits as an emergency tool only, like an emergency parachute in an airplane. Jumping out of a perfectly good airplane over and over, just because you can, doesn’t instil confidence.

The Liberals knew the NDP had not reached consensus on fiscal policy, and pirouetted left, trading in their past economic credibility for a promise to intentionally spend Canadian tax money they didn’t have. The New Democrat left promptly went into class betrayal mode, accusing Mulcair of betraying his base. Mulcair wasn’t helped by media that exhibited a strong bias. My favourite headline was “Liberals take lead in Quebec, poll finds.” The numbers the poll reported? The Liberals and NDP tied, with 28 per cent each. More importantly, no one challenged the Liberals’ abandoning 20 years of party economic policy for tactical reasons.

The evidence-based approach that Mulcair had used to good effect when it came to Bill C-51 (read, analyze, then decide) was ditched in mid-campaign. In an interview with Vice News, Mulcair abandoned without warning a careful policy on decriminalizing marijuana (a policy many candidates I spoke with found frustrating and complicated to explain to voters). Similarly, the NDP had moved away from kneejerk opposition to trade deals but, despite never having seen or read it, the party announced that it definitely wouldn’t support the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal. On this file the New Democrats were as lucky as the Liberals who, forgetting 1988, claimed they were always in favour of free trade. Neither received much attention from the media.

Coverage of the election degenerated into uncritical reporting of opinion polls and leaders’ tour events. Polls have become to electoral politics what Latin incantations were to the medieval Catholic Church: incomprehensible but impressive. The CBC should be singled out for particular blame, hiring Éric Grenier, of the website. Grenier offered spurious riding-by-riding predictions before and during the campaign by extrapolating national polls down to the riding level, based on the results of the previous election. This method allocates party support to areas of historical strength, so that it is likely to make accurate predictions in seats that nearly always vote the same way – the Tories in Alberta, the Liberals in Newfoundland – but is useless in tracking changes. They also convey impressions of party strength that can influence voter opinion, a question that no one, least of all the survey-addicted media, seems interested in exploring. Grénier himself complained that his predictions were being cited as polls.

Strategic voting related to the excessive respect for polls had a major impact on the results. There was an explosion of third-party organizations such as LeadNow that took on the form of American-style PACs, allowing money to be spent in an election beyond the contribution limits. While PACs are usually the creatures of specific industries or unions, LeadNow raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for no purpose other than to campaign for the party best placed to defeat the Conservative candidate in races across Canada.

My misgivings about LeadNow are not partisan: the group endorsed many NDP candidates, some of whom won. My concern is about democracy: polls ignore the millions of reasons why people vote for or against particular parties and candidates, and dumb the discussion down to a horse race. Strategic voting dumbs democracy down to an even lower level: it is the sort of “if you’re not with us you’re against us” point of view that I have disliked about the political right. As former New Brunswick cabinet minister Kelly Lamrock said, “The three non-Conservative parties have platforms that differ on some big issues, from civil rights to economic theory to environmental standards to human rights. Even if you may decide that you can live with more than one of those options, that should happen after a full debate on the merits of each. LeadNow is actively trying to short-circuit those debates. If we stop having those debates in elections, we start to lose the chance to learn from each other.”

A final problem with strategic voting is that it just doesn’t work. Different strategic voting organizations recommended voting for different parties in the same ridings. Some of the targeted ridings elected Conservatives, as Liberal voters were driven to vote for a losing NDP candidate, or vice versa.

A conversation about the value of a vote may be a happy side-effect of the conversation around electoral reform Prime Minister Trudeau says he will initiate. I will be as pleasantly surprised if our education system, media and parties engage in a genuine civic debate as I will be if the Liberals adopt Mixed Member Proportional representation.

Changing how we vote is one of dozens of attention-getting but difficult policies the Liberals flashed across the electoral sky during the campaign. In choosing their priorities, the Liberals will no doubt look to dismantle the NDP, afraid that a party they had always dismissed as do-gooding nobodies came so close to destroying the Big Red Machine. To avoid a repeat of the orange wave they will spend a lot of tax money on shoring up their left bank.

Thus the NDP is a crossroads. The easy route leads back to the comfort of the nostalgic left, complaining that Liberal policies “don’t go far enough!” The harder one continues in the direction taken, toward that place that no party occupies, one that recognizes free trade as a good way to earn money that can be invested in more targeted government programs. The era of big national programs is over and the future lies in fuller devolution, allowing more creativity in the development and implementation of programs across the country.

Looking back on the Stephen Harper decade, we find that he leaves little behind as a legacy. Unlike Brian Mulroney who opened Canada to globalization and tried to deal with the holes in our constitutional fabric, Harper’s lasting contributions will be vandalism of government science and the abolition of the Wheat Board. Other signature policies, from eliminating the long-form census to the Fair Elections Act to the excesses of C-51, will be repealed. The candidates who seek to replace him as Conservative leader will not attach themselves to his legacy. Unlike Thatcher and Reagan, he was unable to change his country’s culture. He had few friends. He will not be missed. Continue reading “Tales of the long campaign”

You would have to be foolish to predict the shape of the government that will form after the October 19 federal election. Canadian politics continues to surprise – look at the May election in Alberta. We can anticipate that the economy and security will be important. But it will be the leaders, ground game and war rooms that will decide a race that will likely turn on a small number of hard-fought riding-by-riding contests.

I cannot pretend to be neutral: as leader of the New Brunswick NDP, I will be working hard to make Tom Mulcair Canada’s first NDP prime minister. But here I offer a survey of the leaders, the party strategies and machines and the political landscape they’ll battle over during the campaign.

Since the peculiar election of 2011, no party has maintained support above the 40 per cent needed for a comfortable win. Justin Trudeau, gifted with adulatory media coverage but hobbled by repeated gaffes, has returned a shattered Liberal Party to contention, but has been less successful in defining who he is beyond being heir to a famous name. Thomas Mulcair, exceptional in the House of Commons, has maintained support in Quebec and kept the NDP viable as an alternative across Canada, but his party struggles to change long-held negative perceptions. Stephen Harper, who has endured a succession of mistakes and scandals common to a party approaching the end of a decade in power, is undoubtedly a divisive figure, even loathed by many, but his party remains popular in many parts of the country.


The Conservatives do best on questions of economic management, the issue that heads Canadians’ list of concerns. During the Tory years, high oil and gas prices pumped from Harper’s prairie heartland injected billions into equalization payments for have-not provinces suffering from the decline of the manufacturing and non-petroleum resource sectors. Thousands who made the trek to work in Fort McMurray sent remittance payments home to struggling families in the Atlantic Provinces and elsewhere. Now, with the price of oil hovering around $50 and many of those workers heading home to join the unemployment lines, the economy stands on the edge: disaster hasn’t struck, but it could.

7_Stephen_Harper_by_Remy_SteineggerThe Conservatives take credit for economic stability (however precarious), their capstone a barely balanced budget tabled in April. The budget was otherwise predictable, filled with cotton candy for target voters, including a long-awaited income-splitting tax reform that won’t benefit 85 per cent of Canadians. There’s money for transport in a pitch to urban voters, balanced budget legislation for hard-core conservatives, and a cut in the small business tax. There’s no single strong signal fire. Instead there are many small flashes of light, sending reassuring Morse code messages into the darkness to the 40 per cent of the electorate who will still, after ten years, consider voting for the Conservatives.

To reach those voters, Harper’s campaign will spend heavily on government advertising. Everyone knows that governments will, even should, promote their own work: it’s supposed to be our work too, something we should be proud of. The Conservatives will claim it is a complete coincidence that wave after wave of ads precisely mirror the party’s communications priorities. That’s the problem with the Tories’ campaign: it’s too self-interested. The government is not so much letting the public know what it’s doing as demanding recognition from us for its good work.

It’s a good sign that Canadians dislike this, but there are also good reasons why all parties promise to ban political advertising when they’re in opposition but never do when they’re in government. We dislike the ads and signs because they work, no matter your opinion of Harper’s government. You notice the signs and, in your mind, they add up as accomplishments. You know you’re being manipulated but you’re still being manipulated. It’s annoying.

But the books are balanced. Unemployment is reasonable given historic precedents and global turmoil, although economic fringes such as the Maritimes are afflicted with jobless figures near or over 10 per cent. From Wabush to Victoria, the country’s highways and building sites are dotted with those ubiquitous blue placards signalling federal investment. Harper is walking a tightrope, taking credit for sound management while simultaneously warning of the dangers posed by NDP and Liberal inexperience: you may not like us, but just imagine what would happen if the other folks were in charge.

This is a particular challenge for the NDP, a party suffering from the reality that it has never governed the country and the perception that it is incapable of managing the economy. Facts don’t support the latter claim: at the provincial level, New Democrats have delivered more budget surpluses per year in government than their Liberal or Tory counterparts. The party’s icon, Saskatchewan Premier Tommy Douglas, balanced the books before introducing new social programs including the forerunner to medicare. That legacy has been undermined by the Rae government in Ontario and a small but vocal collection of activists who demand the embrace of ever-growing government, deficit spending and punitive taxes as a way to demonstrate solidarity with some long-dead socialist ideal.

That this group, not organized around any leader or policy, does not hold much sway over the party’s day-to-day operations, and never has, does not stop the media from trotting out this or that disaffected Marxist come election time. The left critic will loudly denounce the NDP for, once again, campaigning as a moderate social democratic party, and then – to the delight of the Toronto-centred and Liberal-leaning national media – will usually announce that because the NDP is not left enough they will have to vote Liberal to stop the Conservatives. No, it doesn’t make any sense to me either.

The key to the NDP winning the economic argument in 2015 is more political than policy-based: the party must show competence and discipline during the campaign by sticking to a very short list of commitments and giving a clear “no” to those within the party or the broader left who will, undoubtedly, demand much more. Mulcair has so far stayed firm and on track: rejecting personal or consumption tax increases and embracing reductions in the small business tax while calling for job creation and daycare. Mulcair is well prepared with a list of practical if unexciting consumer protection initiatives, such as reducing ATM fees, which helped Jack Layton establish a middle-class beachhead in 2011. Mulcair’s signature policies, such as a national $15-a-day daycare program, appeal to traditional left voters without alienating moderates.

7_Trudeau_ William Pitcher flickrThe Liberals dream of the NDP doing a buffalo jump toward socialism or chewing its own ideological tail off, a spectacle that they hope would divert attention from Trudeau’s meagre and contradictory policy offerings. The Liberals have been all over the economic map in the two years since Trudeau was anointed the fourth in a line of so-far disastrous post-Chrétien saviours. From endorsing the purchase of the Nexen oil company by CNOOC, a corporation controlled by the Chinese military, to contradictory positions on pipelines and free trade, Trudeau talks a lot about the middle class, but his policies – such as the May announcement of higher taxes for the very wealthy and cuts for the middle class – would not help most Canadians. What they do is advance the Liberals’ policy narrative for the campaign.

The Liberals’ policy playbook is clear and well tested. Run to the left with a campaign of loudly progressive words and deliberately vague policies, forcing the NDP to choose between a race to the left or a public confrontation with extreme elements of its own base. Either way Liberals think they can win. Their history as a centrist governing party and – paradoxically – their history of doing the opposite in government from what they say they will do during campaigns allows them to position themselves further to the rhetorical left than the NDP without suffering serious consequences. Simply, most people don’t believe the Liberals when they say they’ll govern from the left; the party long ago learned that people not believing what you say offers distinct political advantages. Mulcair has much less room for movement: any hint of embracing a tax-and-spend platform will send moderate swing voters over to Trudeau.

Security and C-51

Following the attacks on servicemen and Parliament in Quebec and Ottawa in October 2014, the Conservatives pushed Bill C-51 through Parliament, in the process misjudging voters’ willingness to sacrifice real freedoms to protect against unspecified terrorist threats. The legislation faced quick and concerted resistance from a range of unlikely allies, from civil liberties groups to firearms owners and the police. Initial public sympathy was strong: in the face of the October attacks many were willing to listen to any proposal that could stop future attacks. But as the details of the bill become known, support withered. The Conservatives amended the bill, ensuring that nonviolent groups could not be classed as terrorists and removing the power of CSIS to make arrests, but C-51 became a symbol of a government many Canadians see as increasingly authoritarian.

7_Thomas_Mulcair_wikimedia commonsThe NDP opposed C-51 and the Liberals supported it. Both parties added caveats, but the NDP was clearer, opposing the bill while offering a detailed critique. With an image of being soft on crime at home and a tendency toward unthinking pacifism abroad, the NDP pushed back, saying it would support laws that made Canada safer from terrorism but that C-51 did not qualify. When the Conservatives used various terrorism-related arrests to emphasize the need for greater law enforcement powers, the NDP pointed out that those plots had been exposed using existing police powers.

Trudeau’s decision to support C-51 (a decision he took before the final draft was even finished) while making speeches in the House opposing it was classic Liberal triangulation. Liberal messaging on C-51 was unsatisfying and arrogant. Trudeau said there was no point opposing the bill because the Conservatives had a majority and, in any case, when Trudeau was prime minister his government would simply repeal the parts of C-51 it didn’t like.

Trudeau’s cavalier approach to the role of an opposition party contributed to his party’s slow but steady decline in the polls from late 2014 onward, with voters who had previously been ready to give him a chance bleeding to the NDP and the Conservatives. While a major terrorist attack on Canada between now and election day would reset this debate, probably at the expense of the NDP, the Liberals have thus far failed in their attempt to use triangulation to differentiate themselves from their opponents.


Over the decades, in the face of a single viable opponent, triangulation has worked for the Liberals. Will it work as well facing off against two relatively equal foes? Willingness to absorb ideas from the fringes, from the NDPs penchant for central economic control in the sixties and seventies to Reform-inspired deficit reduction in the nineties, can appear as a virtue when espoused by a government party of the centre, but now that the Liberals are a third party it can simply look like lack of principle.

The Liberals will count on enthusiasm for their leader’s personality to overwhelm doubts about the specifics of what he would do as prime minister. Their 2015 campaign begins and ends with Justin Trudeau: to prove the point, try to visualize the party without him. It’s hard to think of a policy he’s championed except for legalizing marijuana; whatever the virtues of that idea, it’s not the core of a serious agenda to govern.

Yes, the focus on the leader has put the Liberals back in the fight, but party strategists should worry that, after two years and with often astonishingly forgiving media coverage, the Liberal brand remains weak in much of the country: only in seat-poor Atlantic Canada does the party seem guaranteed to gain significant ground. Elsewhere, two- or three-way fights loom. More worrying, the campaign needed to win in, say, francophone Quebec, is very different from the one needed to pick up seats in British Columbia. Choosing the words that ring positive from coast to coast – and avoiding all the rest – is not easy. So far Trudeau has performed poorly on this score, and that must frighten his campaign team.

7_Justin_Trudeau_wikimedia commonsThis odd geographical deafness means Trudeau often speaks as though he’s living in an age not just before the internet but before mass media, giving not just slightly different statements but contradictory ones in front of different audiences in different places. He spoke against the Energy East west-east pipeline in one interview, and in favour of it in another in New Brunswick (where the pipeline will end in a large and job-rich building project at Saint John’s Irving refinery complex).

What was effectively celebrity journalism during the pre-election period, practised by an overstretched and shrinking crew of mainstream journalists whose producers recognize that Trudeau’s pedigree, looks and family drive up fading ratings, will harden into political journalism during the campaign. Gaffes that had been dismissed as opportunities for another flattering hair-flipping photo shoot will be transformed into grilling sessions. Tripped-over sentences will grow into days of headlines. Being a politician with a fawning media fan base is like owning a pet python – eventually you are likely to get eaten.

If Trudeau is skilful, more skilful than he has been to date, he will avoid those gaffes. If not he will have to hope the public is ready to look at him not more deeply but more superficially. He excels as a brand ambassador, heir to a parallel royal family suited to the demands of modern royalty – the good looks and the odd statements, a comfort with fame and a willingness to be famous as an end in itself. Maybe this is what’s wanted in a modern democracy. I hope not.

Mulcair is used to being a political leader. As a Liberal minister in Quebec he was prominent in a province with all the trappings of a small country, with a citizenry much more plugged into politics. The National Assembly is probably the only legislature more hostile than the House of Commons and Mulcair excelled there, earning him the reputation we’re now seeing on display across the country with his parliamentary dismantling of the government case on Senator Duffy and on C-51.

Mulcair’s problem is the opposite of Trudeau’s: it takes little effort to imagine Mulcair as prime minister, no matter your opinion of him or his policies, but it’s harder to see the NDP as a governing party. While we’re used to Liberals running the country, it’s harder to see Trudeau as prime minister. The job requires a manager as well as a performer, someone with the mental agility of an air traffic controller who can keep dozens if not hundreds of policy files and individuals in their mind at any one time, constantly assessing and updating the ways they interact, hopefully guiding them to synchronized landings that will deliver political benefits for the government.

Not many Canadians would question Stephen Harper’s ability to be an air traffic controller – although you might wonder how close together he would guide conflicting planes, from time to time, just to prove that he had the skill to do it. He rarely loses his temper. That iciness might have seemed refreshing ten years ago, in contrast with the manic grins and hand-waving of Paul Martin in his last months, but now it feeds into the Prime Minister’s reputation for malevolence.

Harper has transformed himself from the civil libertarian Reform MP championing small government to the most centralizing prime minister in recent times. He has undermined independent offices, including the Parliamentary Budget Office that he created. After supporting and enhancing reforms to party financing, he presided over a party accused of repeated electoral malpractice, from the “in and out” scandal of 2006 to Pierre Poutine in 2011. It is hard to imagine today’s Stephen Harper allowing the young Stephen Harper, idealistic and outspoken, to remain in his party. It is even harder to imagine that the young Stephen Harper would want to stay.

The scandals have built over the years and will wash over the election as the awful spectacle of the Duffy trial grinds along. The Conservatives will have to campaign on a cheerful message of highways and hope – a campaign that can succeed only if the voters don’t wake up as they did in Quebec in 2011 or Alberta in 2015, using the NDP as the way to deliver a hard slap to entitled establishment parties.

If the NDP performs well over the summer, in Alberta now as much as in Ottawa, that will put extra pressure on the party. The New Democrats have never entered a campaign with a visible path to victory – and few imagined a world where that election would be performed in the shadow of the election of an NDP government in Alberta. The party’s platform and candidates have never been subject to the same scrutiny as those of the Liberals and Conservatives: perpetual opposition offers the chance to for candidates to be ill-disciplined and creative in making promises they know they will not have to keep. The NDP cannot do that in 2015. The full-on national campaigns Jack Layton ran in 2008 and 2011, raising money and spending it well to boost the profile of a party that never before seemed ready to govern – and that, in part, because it never seemed that it really wanted to govern – are a lasting credit to the late leader.

For the first time the NDP as a whole is hungry to win, with a leader used to winning. As a former Liberal, Mulcair was able to win over a very clannish party united in little but dislike for the Liberals. The NDP campaign will be focusing on showing that same persuasive personality to the country. In 2015 there will be local campaigns in places where the NDP has never organized, incumbents with positive track records in nearly a hundred ridings, new candidates with stronger résumés attracted by a more prominent party, the energy of the landslide victory in Alberta and a central campaign that will go dollar to dollar with the Liberals and Tories.

The Liberal Party, until very recently also a party united in little but dislike for (other) Liberals, has closed its eyes, gritted its teeth and come together behind Justin Trudeau. This is an experiment that will either go very well or destroy the party in the form in which it existed from 1867 to 2011. If the Trudeau gamble works, then 2015 will mark the end of a worrying but short anomaly. If it doesn’t, the Liberals will, one hundred years late, follow the example of most European centrist parties and be replaced by a social democratic party as the principal national opposition to conservatives.

The Liberals will fight against that fate in 2015 with a sophisticated voter contact database, a war chest filled with money, a leader who could be an asset and a deep knowledge of the grim fact that this is the old party’s last chance. They will claim that, despite their third-place status, they are the only party that can beat Stephen Harper. Their task is to convince the anti-Conservative majority that this is a sound argument and not continued Liberal entitlement.

The Conservatives will fight hard to maintain their turf; they excel at on-the-ground organizing and have embraced modern campaign and fundraising approaches. As their election skills have modernized, the party has become more comfortable with an authoritarian approach. While Red Tories were grandfathered into the new Conservative Party when the Reform/Canadian Alliance and Progressive Conservative parties merged in 2003, they have not reproduced: there is no progressive wing of the Conservative Party striving to be heard, no young MPs ready to inherit the mantle of Hugh Segal or Dalton Camp. Jim Prentice was supposed to be the Reds’ last chance, but that dream died in Alberta in May. Fiscally conservative, small-government but socially liberal and progressive Tories, the ones who show silent but genuine toleration for such things as gay marriage and casual marijuana use, no longer have a comfortable home. Where will they end up?

The NDP is going through a slow process of modernization, becoming more moderate by virtue of the party’s growth. The average Canadian is less radical than a traditional New Democrat, and since 2011 more average Canadians have joined the NDP. This trend will only increase with the election of the Alberta NDP. In her victory speech, leader Rachel Notley reached out to businesses and the oil and gas sector as she spoke about First Nations and her pride in leading a caucus with a near-majority of women MLAs.

What is missing for the NDP, and this is a problem for centre-left parties around the world, is a core set of beliefs and values that are clearly connected to the modern world. Ideological parties of left or right need an emotional core to drive them forward, to provide a clear moral compass to guide their policies. Activists who enjoy permanent righteous opposition have found a new home in Elizabeth May’s Green Party. The NDP, which has finally won the affection of a broad cross-section of the people, has to reciprocate that affection.

While the battle between TV ads plays out in September and October, the real battle will be over moderate conservatives, pushed away by the Conservatives but worried by Trudeau as a leader and the NDP as a party. If Harper can convince them that both opposition parties are a dangerous risk, he could remain in 24 Sussex. If Mulcair can show that his new-model NDP is more than a new leader and that he is willing to stand up to his party when needed, he could come ahead. For Trudeau the way is harder: he has to show the country he is a man who has matured, by definition a process that cannot happen overnight. If the election does become a personality contest, the country has a clear choice between a front man and a manager. For soft Tories tired of Harper and his government’s excesses, subscribing to the experience and moderation of Mulcair seems an easier leap than embracing the cosmopolitan flash of Trudeau.

The stark differences between the two leaders will further complicate an election that could return Canada to the minority governments of the last decade. It is hard to imagine a workable NDP-Liberal coalition, regardless of who comes first in the polls and regardless of Trudeau’s ill-advised statements that he would never form a coalition with the NDP. While I believe Mulcair would do what he felt was best for the country, the lightness of Trudeau would make a working relationship between the two men difficult. Couple that with the often-surprising animosity between New Democrats and Liberals at every level, from caucus to grassroots, and cohabitation looks unlikely.

The Liberals and NDP both need to emerge from this election with concrete gains. For the Liberals nothing short of a win will do, while the NDP must build on 2011. For Harper, a loss will mean the end of the line, and a new battle will begin over the future of a Conservative Party that once stretched across the ideological spectrum and across the country. No matter the result it will be a narrower party, shorn of its provincial base in Alberta, that faces the challenges of the world post-October.

With the angry but proudly directionless Occupy Wall Street movement making headlines, it is ironic that Canadian leftists, often united by anti-Americanism, base their political analysis and actions on American realities. Roberta Lexier’s article in Inroads, contrasting Ryan Meili’s bid for leader of the Saskatchewan NDP and Naheed Nenshi’s campaign for mayor of Calgary with the “old style” politics she disdains, draws our attention to this dichotomy.1

Lexier is not commenting on Canadian politics; she and many others on the Canadian left are orbiting a bright and distracting American sun, using American reference points and ignoring the differences between the two countries. Because of this Canadians are deprived of a richer progressive response to today’s political problems. Further, by exalting campaigns that appear game-changing, Lexier contributes to the myth that public protests and campaigns decide political outcomes, not hard work toward a common goal.

Canada shares many problems with the United States: rural and urban poverty, deprivation on First Nations reserves, diminishing economic vigour, confusion over how to deal with a globalized world, declining levels of political participation. But Canada is not the United States, where politics is elite-driven and controlled by multimillionaires. The American system is presidential, ours parliamentary; theirs is corrupted by massive interference from lobbyists while ours, thanks to reforms enacted by Liberal and Conservative governments, severely restricts third-party lobbying and depends on small donors and inexpensive campaigns.

Meili, a young doctor who lost an insurgent campaign against the Saskatchewan NDP establishment, and Nenshi, who emerged from nowhere to win as an unabashed progressive in the Conservative heartland, were influenced by Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, a heritage Lexier never acknowledges. From the “money bomb” fundraisers to self-directing groups of volunteers to YouTube videos and the fetishizing of new media, Meili and Nenshi sang from the Democrat’s campaign playbook and the Canadian media joined the chorus, eager for some Obama magic.

All three campaigns were fundamentally conventional. The candidates were professional men who used lofty rhetoric to win volunteers, raise money and get out the vote. Charisma, hardly a recent addition to politicians’ arsenal, allowed people to get swept up in a narrative of change often divorced from policy specifics.

Lexier offers unfavourable comparisons between the Meili and Nenshi races and the 2011 Canadian federal election. While she rightly criticizes the obsession with public opinion polls, arguments over the format of debates and focus on personal scandal in the election campaign, she praises process stories about campaign tools, fundraising techniques and new technology, imbuing them with ideological and transformative powers without any justification.

Facebook cannot change the world. People using Facebook certainly can, but the fetishizing of shiny political tools has led to a decline in citizen engagement in the United States that we should note with caution. Voter contact technology, direct mail strategies and other campaign tools, freed from the campaign finance restrictions that make Canadian politics less exciting but much more affordable, make elections inaccessible to all but the best connected and best funded. This disconnect, as much as any other single cause, has caused the sense of alienation that led to the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Lexier should look around: while rightly praised for helping Tunisians coordinate the Facebook Revolution that overthrew Ben Ali’s dictatorship, Facebook has been used by governments in Iran, China and Syria to investigate and disrupt dissident groups. To reinforce the fact that tools have no ideology in themselves, it is worth noting that just as Meili and Nenshi’s campaigns owed a debt to Obama, so did Obama owe one to George W. Bush’s 2004 campaign, which used then-revolutionary databases to empower Republican activists in the defeat of the hapless John Kerry. Democrats, in Canada as in Tunisia, have to listen to more than the siren call of organizing techniques and think about the ideas that drive people to want to use those new and potentially exciting tools.

Lexier is looking for transformation in all the wrong places. Campaigns that rely on process instead of ideas give a misleading plasma-screen excitement to the often dull reality of democratic government: reading reports, debating legislation, compromising with bureaucrats, arguing with people within your political party over policies and presentation.

We should not pretend that politics is more accessible or exciting than it is. The left has to learn how to win, then learn how to manage the complexities of the existing system, and then undertake the far more complex task of reforming that system. Simplifying the appearance of governance isn’t engagement: it is manipulation. On the right we have seen this play out through the illusions of control offered by referendums and the populism of the Tea Party. On the left the Occupy Wall Street movement, which sums up what Lexier is looking for, also offers plenty of noise but as little hope of changing the world in favour of the majority.

The self-obsessed Occupy movement, caught up with its ability to inform people about itself, is a lazy alternative to real change, disdaining tools previous generations of progressives fought hard for the right to use. The events themselves are meaningless, if meaning in politics comes from actually changing the world. Sure, we can get a thousand, ten thousand or even a million people out to a town square, but why are we there? Without an ideological framework these protests are harmless releases of political hot air, the energy they could have channelled dissipating like a thousand recycled slogans.

Evidence of the protests’ harmlessness was confirmed on October 10 when Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream, owned by the massive multinational Unilever, endorsed the Occupy movement. If the movement has one point of policy consensus it is the evils of massive multinationals. Ben and Jerry’s board know they can sell more ice cream by appealing to progressive consumers, and do it without any danger to their corporate interests.

Public protest has always been a last resort. When successful it is a literal demonstration of public force, reminding governments that they must listen to a clearly articulated set of demands. Such protests are a reminder that the group making speeches today will tomorrow knock down the doors of parliament. Muammar Gaddafi fell victim to this lesson; Syria’s Assad is still trying to resist it. In both cases the demand from the public was clear: your regime must go.

The Occupy movement enjoys no such clarity or resolve. Here the street protests are the first and last step; the protesters have no demands, and will neither organize politically nor arm themselves to overthrow their governments if ignored. Politicians know this so-called insurrection will, at worst, continue to be loud but ineffectual, or soon disintegrate into squabbling factions. This has already started, as trade unions that want to turn the Occupy movement into a voice for progressive taxation are angrily rebuffed by others who see any message as co-option.

Conservative columnist David Brooks, in a recent column called “The Limits of Empathy,” compared the anorexia of empathy with the transformative power of what he calls a code, which he might as well have referred to by its old-fashioned name: ideology. Empathy, the morally relative position of feeling the pain of everyone while simultaneously recusing yourself from any responsibility to address it, defines the core of the Occupy movement. The absence of an ideological focus is why it is doomed to fail.

The left must remember that our goal is action in the service of change, not discussion in the service of more discussion. Policies and programs are more important than fancy new technology: if we get the ideas right we will recruit the volunteers and raise the money to get the job done. Without the unifying ideas we are wasting time and energy. I do not underestimate how hard it will be to develop those new ideas: people are rightfully suspicious of politicians offering answers and we are at a period when what it means to be conservative or progressive is changing rapidly. Elsewhere in this issue of Inroads I have written some ideas on that score, and I hope others will follow suit.

Lexier is cynical; I am not. I became Leader of New Brunswick’s New Democrats earlier in 2011 with a campaign team led by young people, dominated by women and supported by volunteers who sacrificed their time – in some cases quitting their jobs – to make our shared dream for a better province real. We fought entrenched interests, brought in new volunteers and made it clear that politics is a battle and that no group with power gives it up voluntarily. We studied and used new campaign tools, but didn’t fetishize them – our province, like our country, needs courage and application, not iPhone apps.

Sacrifice and organization in service to a clear set of policies: this was the spartan approach of Tommy Douglas and other successful reformers. They made Canada one of the richest and fairest countries in the history of this planet. The system Lexier decries for its dullness has shown it can be harnessed by the people: we leap ahead as a country when we seize the tools already at our disposal. The saddest truth brought to light by the Occupy movement is our collective failure to realize that we, the public, the 99 per cent the movement talks about, already occupy this country. We just need to move in and make the renovations. We’ll need building supplies and tools to finish the rebuilding but most of all what we need, and what we’re missing, is an architect’s design. When that’s finished, and if our plans are rejected by that one per cent, then let’s go to the streets. Until then, let’s get to work.

Continue reading “Without policies and programs, a movement is meaningless”

May 2, 2011. Jack Layton led the federal New Democrats beyond the limitations of their history, and within sight of the promised land of government. Just over one hundred days later, his death opened the New Democrats to a leadership contest at a point when the party is stronger and more vulnerable than at any time in history. The choice it makes in March 2012, at its leadership convention in Toronto, will be a good sign of whether the party is ready to challenge the Conservatives for government or will sink back into obscurity.

Only one candidate is positioned to complete Layton’s transformation of the NDP into a party that can take on Stephen Harper. To become leader Thomas Mulcair will have to overcome the suspicions of a very tribal party and develop a new base for a party uncomfortable with change. But change used to be, and could be again, the driving force for Canada’s progressive party. Change is needed. Canada needs a party able to speak for the 99 per cent, not with slogans but with real reforms. A party that translates the values of a caring and cooperative Canada, where social justice is another way of describing the way people want their country to be: their communities, their relationships, their lives. Canada became a rich country despite the problems of exploitation and exclusion because we have been a progressive country, overcoming our problems together, becoming better.

New Democrats who see balanced books and strong social programs as complementary, not contradictory, are scattered across Canada. While the Saskatchewan and Manitoba branches of the NDP have long inspired social democrats with their combination of solid financial management and efficient, activist government, the NDP elsewhere has tended toward woolly thinking. Sensible socialists have had recent successes. In 2009 Nova Scotia became the first new province to elect a NDP government since Ontario in 1990. Unlike now-Liberal Bob Rae, who alternately appeased and enraged the union movement, business and just about every other group, Darrell Dexter has managed a careful government, even paying down provincial debt after an unexpected budget surplus in 2011.

For most of its history the federal NDP was the less serious option for ambitious prairie New Democrats. It became a playground for the more extreme activists, held at bay by an often rigid party establishment experienced in deflecting new energy and ideas. In Regina and Winnipeg, and sometimes in other provinces, the NDP offered a path to power. Ottawa offered the sterility of a party comfortable with its also-ran status.

A decade ago British sociologist Anthony Giddens described Canada’s federal New Democrats as “the last unreconstructed social democratic party in the Western world.” By that he meant the party had not confronted the failures of centralized economic planning, or absorbed the energy of the New Left movements of the 1960s. Before returning to New Brunswick and politics in my home province, I worked for ten years with a major international NGO (the National Democratic Institute) offering advice on political party development in many developing countries. My experience is that most parties have a lot in common. But the NDP stands out as the only party I have worked with where winning elections is not a key goal for members. Many are honestly comfortable with the New Democrats serving as the self-appointed “conscience” of Parliament. The NDP may revere Tommy Douglas, but except in Saskatchewan, Manitoba, the Yukon and, decades later, Nova Scotia, his ambition had minimal impact on NDP leaders.

This reflects the federal NDP’s complicated past. Its precursor, the federal Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), was the underachieving brother to a Saskatchewan party used to winning consecutive majorities. Decimated by the Diefenbaker landslide in 1958, the federal CCF, in partnership with the Canadian Labour Congress, created the New Democratic Party. Godfather to the CCF-labour marriage was David Lewis, who persuaded Tommy Douglas to leave Regina, after four terms as premier, to become the new party’s first leader.

When Douglas made the move to Ottawa, he found a very different party from the one he left behind. Shaped by an uneasy alliance of trade unions and intellectuals, this party did not look to Saskatchewan for inspiration but to the British Labour Party. After a mid-1940s spike in support, the Ontario CCF was weakened by fierce internal battles with the Communists, leaving the party a marginal player in the province. Nonetheless, the Ontario party exerted a large influence on the new federal party. Staff and financial support, most critically from the auto and steel workers unions, flowed from Toronto to Ottawa and back again.

Because it so dominated thinking among Ontario New Democrats, the history of the British Labour Party bears mention. Born in 1900, it was a creation of the Trades Union Congress. Riven by infighting, it did replace Britain’s crumbling Liberals as one of two dominant parties but realized only two transformative election victories, in 1945 and 1997.

The most powerful advocate of the British Labour Party as model for the NDP was David Lewis. Born in Poland and raised in the Jewish Bund tradition of socialism, he came to Canada when his family fled eastern Europe after the Bolshevik Revolution. A brilliant student, he attended Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar and immersed himself in Labour politics. He rejected the offer of a safe Labour seat so he could return to Canada to build the CCF. Where Douglas’s rhetoric inspired the party, Lewis built the structures and party culture that endured for 50 years. Lewis believed a formal trade union alliance was essential to building a social democratic party, and that non-Communist unions were an organizational force to protect the left from the then-powerful Communist movement.

In a series of lengthy battles, first as organizer and then as leader, Lewis purged the party, and the unions over which he and his supporters had influence, of Communists. They did this in the name of a social democracy that could best be defined as “Liberals in a hurry.” This model of iron discipline in protection of a tepid ideology failed. The NDP continued to languish in third place.

By the time he was angling to replace Douglas as leader in the early 1970s, Lewis’s command-and-control style of politics had gone out of style, replaced by the cacophony of the sixties New Left. The Movement for an Independent Socialist Canada, known by its nickname “the Waffle,” called for a radical move to the left, and brought the voices of feminists, young people and new social movements into the NDP, where they clashed with the party old guard. At the 1971 convention, it took Lewis four ballots and the concerted efforts of organized labour to beat back Waffle candidate Jim Laxer and become leader.

Party elders had struggled against Communism in the forties and fifties; now a new generation of activists had prevailed in battle with a new generation of leftists. For aspiring NDP leaders the lesson to be drawn from the war against the Waffle was the danger of new ideas and new policies. The way to get ahead was to be a professional organizer, preferably with a background in or connections to a trade union. The party presented a false choice: embrace a stagnant party culture that offered promotion or choose the life of a powerless activist. Many chose to leave the party altogether – to join single-interest groups or even move to the Liberals, where they could speak freely and have some hope of being part of a party in power. New Democrats scorn social democrats who defect to the Liberals; we should have looked inward and asked why the NDP was so flawed that the Liberals looked appealing.

The battle with the Waffle made the NDP the most conservative party in Canada. While the Liberals and Progressive Conservatives experimented with new ideas, policies and structures, the New Democrats dug in. Personal and professional connections trumped talent. Centre-left ideas circa 1970 became party dogma: universal health care, knee-jerk anti-Americanism, distrust of provincial power and of markets.

Drawing on Marx’s 18th Brumaire, if the evolution of the post-1917 Russian Bolsheviks was tragedy on a Napoleonic scale, the post-1970 evolution of the NDP was farce in the tradition of Napoleon III. Both Bolsheviks and NDP were transformed from parties of ideas and ideals into parties of apparatchiks. Through the leadership of Ed Broadbent, Audrey McLaughlin and Alexa McDonough, organizers ran the party, centralizing power in the leader’s office. Sometimes the party achieved a random resonance with the public, as when Broadbent took the party to short-lived leads in 1980s opinion polls. These spikes in popularity confirmed to party insiders that all was well. When the public subsequently abandoned its flirtation with the party, insiders took this as a sign, not that a change in our approach was needed, but that Canada was still not mature enough to appreciate our worldview.

NDP leaders became adept at listening to the subtle signals from internal factions. The demands of public sector trade unions and Toronto intellectuals were balanced with grousing from provincial party sections not aligned with the federal party’s positions. The NDP became a brokerage party in the same mould as the Liberals, but brokering the interests of party factions instead of the Canadian electorate.

This is the party Jack Layton inherited in 2003. He was elected without the support of many unions, who stood behind longtime MP Bill Blaikie. Despite his long history in the party and his experience as a Toronto city councillor, Layton was seen as an outsider. He was linked to the 2002 New Politics Initiative (NPI), which had called for the creation of a new party from a New Democratic Party that, in the 2000 general election, had slipped to 13 seats and 8.5 per cent of the vote. The NPI’s call for new links with the emerging antiglobalization movement and its support from the small, Trotskyist NDP Socialist Caucus contributed to concerns that the Waffle had been reincarnated in a new century.

Layton became leader in 2003 thanks to a party reform movement called NDProgress, created just before the 2000 election and dedicated to modernization of the party. The leaders of the group – I was one of them – were frustrated party staff or activists. We looked with envy to the innovative campaign tactics and recast ideas proposed by the Bill Clinton Democrats and Tony Blair’s New Labour.

NDProgress recognized that structural change must precede policy renewal. The major demand was “one member one vote,” which meant the elimination of union bloc voting at party conventions. Who could object to the principle of one person having one vote, or limiting the power of groups to influence the self-styled people’s party? The process of objecting to the reforms would strengthen the call for change. Despite a last-ditch effort by some unions to quash the reform at the Winnipeg convention in November 2001, the new system was put in place. Layton won on the first ballot in 2003 with 53.5 per cent of the vote. Without the NDProgress reforms, he would likely have lost.

The team around Layton was a mix of the old and the new. Party reformers, including a much-needed group of young people with roots in student politics, mixed with elders like Broadbent who, despite his establishment status, recognized that the NDP’s fire had grown so dim it was in danger of blowing out. Layton ran four election campaigns. The New Democrats grew incrementally in the first three, winning 19 seats in 2004, 29 in 2006 and 37 in 2008. The popular vote rose modestly from 16 per cent in 2004 to 18 per cent in 2008. Layton brought energy to the leadership that had not been seen since Broadbent in his prime. The party looked and sounded different, and much more professional, than anything that had come before.

Layton’s inner circle, including the 2006 and 2008 campaign director and now leadership candidate Brian Topp, were nervous reformers aware of how conservative our party can be. They admired the British Labour Party for its communications and public image departments; they were not interested in replicating Tony Blair’s experiment in prodding his party to think differently. On gaining power within Labour, Blair aggressively confronted the flaws behind many of Labour’s central policies and embraced new policies never imagined by the party’s previous generation. Immediately on winning the leadership, he pushed changes to Labour’s constitution, replacing an explicitly socialist preamble written in 1918 with a more modern communitarian version. With Blair promising to quit as leader if his reform was rejected, the new preamble was approved in a party-wide referendum by 58 per cent. To his party and his country, Blair had confirmed his reputation as a tough-minded reformer.

In contrast, under Layton policy reform, when it took place, happened by stealth or on the fringes, with easy-to-sell campaigns that, among other initiatives, proposed limits to ATM fees. Layton waited until 2011, eight years and four elections after he became leader, to introduce changes to the NDP’s preamble comparable to those Blair had introduced. There was no referendum, no consultation; the old preamble simply disappeared from the party’s website. A new version was floated just two days before the party’s 2011 convention in Vancouver. In the face of likely defeat Topp, the newly elected party president, tabled the new clause.

From 2004 to 2011 there had been little time for serious policy debate: minority governments meant ever-looming campaigns that discouraged party dissidents. Weaknesses in the NDP platform were largely overlooked by the media and political class, except in the context of Layton’s efforts to use his deal-making skills, honed by years at Toronto City Hall, to exact concessions from the Liberals and the Conservatives. Even Layton’s opponents conceded he was more successful than any New Democrat had been since David Lewis with his tactical manoeuvres during Pierre Trudeau’s 1972–74 minority government.

Building the NDP across Canada coincided with Layton’s efforts in Quebec, where it had been shut out for decades. The Quebec left was more open to decentralization within Canada and to free trade with the United States. They found the anti–free trade and centralizing Anglo-dominated NDP an uncomfortable home. Quebec social democrats rose to leadership positions in the Parti Québécois and Quebec Liberal Party in the 1970s, but subsequently lost influence.

In Layton’s first two elections there were behind-the-scenes gains in Quebec. The skeleton of an organization appeared. The party appealed to those Quebecers who wanted social democracy, not separatism, and who were tired of the Bloc Québécois’s monotonous drumbeat. A symbolic gesture: the federal party passed the Sherbrooke Declaration in 2005, emphasizing the right of Quebec to separate if it wished on the basis of a 50-per-cent-plus-1 vote – effectively reversing the party caucus’s previous support for the Clarity Act enacted in the wake of the 1995 referendum.

In 2006 Thomas Mulcair, the prominent Quebec Liberal and environmentalist, joined the party after leaving Premier Jean Charest’s cabinet in a dispute over development in a provincial park. Against the odds, the fiery lawyer ran and won in a 2007 byelection in Outremont, becoming only the second New Democrat ever to win a seat in the province. Winning reelection in the 2008 general election, Mulcair showed that the NDP in Quebec had become an organizational, if not yet an electoral, force.

As late as early April 2011, the NDP was seen as an also-ran in the May 2 election. It was frequently stated that Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe and Layton were as extraneous to the real choice of who should be prime minister as Green Party Leader Elizabeth May.

There will be arguments over what caused the Quebec NDP campaign to spring back to life over the Easter weekend. The Bloc campaign was stale; Ignatieff was not catching on and the Liberal campaign was battered from sustained Conservative attack. Quebecers warmed to Layton’s astonishing cheerfulness and eagerness and his command of colloquial Quebec French. Francophone Quebecers made a shift comparable to that which swept Mulroney’s Conservatives to power in 1984 and the Bloc to Official Opposition status in 1993.

Layton deserves credit for the fact that the Quebec NDP was ready to ride the wave that broke on May 2. The team he assembled, led provincially by Mulcair and organized by Raymond Guardia, a union man now managing Topp’s leadership bid, was stretched tight but well resourced. The media did their best to push the party off balance, but did not succeed.

The party’s new discipline was apparent when the 103-strong NDP Official Opposition ran an efficient filibuster against back-to-work legislation directed at the postal workers in June. It was on show again when the party voted unanimously to support the United Nations mission in Libya, a hard pill to swallow for a party with a strong pacifist wing. Over a terrible summer marked by the announcement of Jack Layton’s new cancer and then his death, the party was professional, united and calm.

There are parallels between the start of the NDP leadership campaign now under way and the 1994 Labour Party campaign that brought Blair to the leadership. In both cases, the former leader died unexpectedly. In 1994 Tony Blair, then working with Gordon Brown as a tag-team of modernizers inside the Labour Party, took advantage of the days after the death of John Smith. Brown had been seen as Smith’s natural successor, but he refused to mobilize his troops until after Smith’s funeral. This gave Blair’s supporters a week to frame the coming race. While many were shocked and some were offended, Blair’s initial success persuaded Brown not to contest the leadership.

Brian Topp did something similar. A longtime union leader and party organizer, he had no public profile. With Ed Broadbent at this side he seized the initiative and announced his candidacy quickly. In the weeks after his announcement Topp bludgeoned the party with endorsements from one heavyweight after another: former Saskatchewan Premier Roy Romanow was supposed to sew up the prairie pragmatist vote while Vancouver MP Libby Davies, standard bearer for the party’s old left, was supposed to sew up the left.

Topp, like Blair, needed to keep his heavyweight challenger out of the race. Here the parallel stops. Topp failed to stop Mulcair’s entry, in part because – unlike Blair and Brown – Topp and Mulcair have little in common. Out of convenience or conviction, Topp has become the voice of the status quo: he has gone so far as to defend the right of unions to preserve their bloc vote in the leadership race, despite that right having disappeared six years before. In contrast Mulcair has stated positions that, while not exceptional to regular Canadians, violate the NDP’s unwritten conventions. He has praised free trade, noting environmental protections in NAFTA he had helped draft. He has made it clear he wanted the NDP to move beyond its base. He has recounted how he told the head of the Steelworkers union that he would stand against special voting rights for any group within the party.

Topp’s failure to keep Mulcair out of the race has led to a crowded field. Topp secured support from Lewis’s union, the Steelworkers. But the Lewis machine has fragmented. Peggy Nash, a bilingual MP and former Canadian Auto Workers leader, entered the race, pitting the two big private sector unions against each other. Another candidate, Robert Chisholm, who led the Nova Scotia NDP to Official Opposition status in 1998, worked for many years for the Canadian Union of Public Employees. This fragmentation of union support between different candidates is unprecedented, and a sign of the challenges facing the NDP. Of Topp, Nash and Mulcair, the three fluently bilingual candidates with potential national organization, only Mulcair is offering a shift from a party obsessed with preserving its internal orthodoxy to one that is intent on changing Canada.

To win, Mulcair will have to sign up thousands of new members. He is at a disadvantage in a race where many existing members are comfortable with the old nostrums. But if Canada is a fundamentally social democratic country – as I believe – then Mulcair is far more likely to turn social democracy into a national force than Topp or Nash. Mulcair can cross partisan lines. If the NDP is going to occupy 24 Sussex Drive, the path is through the concerns of regular Canadians, not the interest groups courted traditionally by the NDP or now by the Occupy movement. Mulcair has the potential to turn Layton’s calls for a “kindler gentler Canada” into programs, plans and results that will change lives.

My hope is that New Democrats new and old will break our tradition of back-room dealing, and openly confront some serious questions: What do Canadians want from our federal government? How will we pay for rising health costs as the baby boomers age? When we talk about the public sector, is our first responsibility to protect public servants or public services? Are Canadians ready to overhaul the tax code and support a meaningful carbon tax? Will we confront the deprivation on reserves and the reality of poverty among urban Aboriginals? What responsibility do we have toward each other, to the citizens of other provinces and other countries? How will this be reflected in our foreign aid and military policies?

Mulcair is best placed to answer these questions. He is emphatic in stating the importance of sound financial management. As Tommy Douglas and Allan Blakeney never tired of saying, if you’re running a social democratic government you don’t want to be in debt to bankers. On the environment, Mulcair has an international record in government. In the pursuit of social justice, we can leave the lamentations to the Occupy movement. Canada’s problems are clear; our job as social democrats is to build broad support around solutions and then get the job done. For too long all Canadian parties have been offering a “Father knows best” style of government that infantilizes voters, suggesting we can have it all: low taxes, more generous social programs, a constantly rising share of GDP devoted to health costs. We cannot. A Thomas Mulcair–led NDP offers a national party that will embrace the challenges of the 21st century the way Tommy Douglas embraced the challenges of the 20th.

Photo: M.J. Coldwell and David Lewis looking over some papers together, September 1947