I recently had the chance to reprise a talk I give annually to International Relations students across campus at Trinity College. The theme is lessons learned from Canada’s “whole of government” mission to Kandahar in Afghanistan. I welcome this exercise because it forces me to reconsider my own past experience as part of the mission. Questions from the very gifted students in Professor Jack Cunningham’s class keep me on my toes. Even better, Trinity’s Chancellor, Bill Graham, is a regular participant. He was, as Minister of Foreign Affairs, a boss and mentor to me, and someone who later, as Minister of National Defence, helped to shape the mission.
Bill Graham and I also share a history of early exposure to Afghanistan, each of us having visited the country as young men. Graham saw it in the midst of a golden era of peace and growing prosperity in 1960. I made a couple of visits as that era was ending in the mid and late 1970s. I think that, for both of us, those memories helped shape our thinking about just what kind of Afghanistan Canada should try, through its significant military, diplomatic and development assistance commitment, to help bring into being. It could never be, as some joked, “Switzerland in the Hindu Kush Mountains,” but it might aspire to being, once again, a developing country sufficiently secure to allow its people to craft their own democratic future.
One of the many problems associated with the multi-national mission that Canada joined was that there was no consensus within the United Nations or among the military partners convened by NATO about that very question. All too often, it seemed that planners were trying to build a new Switzerland in that remote and challenging environment. Nor, significantly, was there much clarity coming from Afghanistan’s own government, which was struggling simply to survive in a country still riven by ethnic factions and the constant interference of such powerful neighbors as Pakistan, Iran and India.
If there was no unanimity among the allies in Afghanistan, each country in the coalition also struggled with its own internal divisions. For the military, the mission was about fighting and defeating the Taliban. For civilians, it was about pacifying and rebuilding a shattered state. And while both military and civilian leaders talked about transferring power back to the Afghans, there was a marked tendency, particularly among the “can-do” military contingents, to go it alone, to replace local capacity rather than to rebuild it.
It took a long time for Canada to get its own portion of the mission on track. That it did, and managed to do better than most, is thanks to the timely advice provided by former Deputy Prime Minister John Manley and the panel of very wise and experienced Canadians he led. They conducted an important and highly influential review of the mission and made recommendations about a way forward that was realistic, achievable and in line with Canadian values. I had the great privilege of serving as secretary to the panel, travelling with them to NATO capitals and across Afghanistan, and later helping to implement their recommendations, all of which had been accepted by the government.
Manley and colleagues saw Afghanistan as a “once in a decade challenge” that required Canada to operate at a much more sophisticated level, streamlining development assistance, investing new resources in the military side of the mission, and reinventing government itself to achieve carefully defined objectives consistent with Canadian interests and Canadian values. Manley and his colleagues had the vision and experience to offer the practical policy advice the country needed.
In the past few years, my annual Afghanistan talk has prompted me to think as much about Beijing as Kabul. At the recently concluded congress of the Chinese Communist Party, General Secretary Xi Jinping proclaimed himself the leader for a new era. That’s a bold and confident step reminiscent of Mao Zedong, the “Great Helmsman”, who steered China’s people into decades of chaos and misery. While Xi is calling for continuing economic growth, he is also seeking to normalize a new era of Chinese power and influence. This includes a vision of “human rights with Chinese characteristics,” which for Xi means the ascendancy of economic rights, (a chicken in every pot) over democracy and the rule of law. Rising prosperity is a great good, but for Xi, and for the lesser dictators who watch him closely, it is also a quid pro quo for retaining power, crushing dissent, and eliminating basic freedoms.
For Canada, getting the China relationship right is more than a once-in-a-decade challenge. Our own future prosperity and security depend on this, but so, too, does our stake in the rules-based international system that Canada and Canadians helped shape. Indeed, this system is essential if middle powers like Canada are to survive and thrive in a world that would otherwise be dominated by larger states, some of which, like China, are confidently and aggressively challenging human freedoms and the very key notion that there are universal human rights.
We might have thought that this question was settled. Drafted in the wake of World War 2, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights opens by recognizing “the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family”. Jacques Maritain, who is so closely associated with St. Michael’s, helped bring the document to life. But Maritain was keenly aware that any such rights are of more than human provenance. Our rights are inalienable and universal because they are common artefacts of our creation. They are implicit in our pilgrim natures as we all struggle, whether knowingly or not, to return to our Creator. And of course, Maritain also recognized that rights imply corresponding responsibilities.
The post-war consensus that spoke confidently of universal human rights is no more. Even in Canada, we seem unwilling to acknowledge that our rights are linked to our created natures. And while we endlessly invoke an expanding agenda of rights, we have largely abandoned reference to the responsibility side of the equation. Having lost touch with the ideas and beliefs that motivated us in the post-war era, we have allowed the foundation of our rules-based system to weaken and crumble.
We’re ill prepared to navigate a world order that is already taking shape.
It seems to be that in getting China right, we need Maritain as much as we need Manley.