Why it’s more effective for united democracies to ‘engage-and-constrain’ China than ostracize it

September 15, 2020
Why it's more effective for united democracies to 'engage-and-constrain' China than ostracize it

This column is an opinion by Colin Robertson, a former diplomat and now vice-president and fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. For more information about CBC’s Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

On the International Day of Democracy, the United Nations is flagging a dismaying array of concerns about the erosion of rights and freedoms, issues that have been exacerbated by the pandemic. With democracy in retreat in many regions, its champions at the UN, in Canada and elsewhere need to demonstrate anew that protecting health and preserving liberties is done best under democratic institutions.

For the fourteenth consecutive year, Freedom House reports a decline in global freedoms. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index says democratic rights around the world are at their lowest ebb since the survey began in 2006. Only 22 countries including Canada, representing 5 per cent of the global population, qualify as “full democracies,” while more than a third live under authoritarianism.

The Chinese model of authoritarianism works. It has lifted billions out of poverty. Under Chinese Communist Party rule, China is restored as a great, even pre-eminent, world power. It has managed the pandemic better than others. But a democracy it ain’t. As for human rights — look how it treats Tibet, its Uighers, its dissidents, and now Hong Kong.

We in the West assumed that economic liberalization went hand in hand with political liberalization. We were wrong, a reminder that diplomacy requires us to better understand different histories and cultures.

Now we risk making another mistake in resurrecting the paradigm of the Cold War to address issues with China.

Decoupling from China,” as President Trump has tweeted, is wrong-headed.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is closer to the mark when he argues the democracies need to negotiate with China on the basis of reciprocity and transparency.

An even better approach, as former Australian diplomat Peter Varghese argues, is to “engage and constrain.” We disagree on human rights, but surely we can work together on shared interests, like vaccines and climate mitigation.

In his splendid, magisterial America in the World, Robert Zoellick notes that self-doubt is inherent to democracies. But as Ronald Reagan told British parliamentarians at Westminster in 1982, the “mission” of the democracies is to “preserve freedom as well as peace,” while advancing “individual liberty, representative government, and the rule of law.”

Advancing these ideals means deepening the ties among democracies. The G7 — still the top table of democracies — should bring in India, Indonesia, Korea and Australia and, from this base, work to effect global action on the economic recovery from COVID-19 within the G20, the premier forum for economic cooperation. Isolationism and nationalism will not stop the pandemic — a multilateral response can.

It also means collective diplomatic effort to compete more effectively with China in international institutions and key regions like Africa.

Reducing dependence on China’s market and Chinese technology will oblige a collective research effort in critical areas like artificial intelligence and quantum computing. Infrastructure investments must establish resilient and dependable supply chains.

We also need to link collective defence in the Indo-Pacific, the Atlantic and the Arctic, especially in preserving the vital sea-lanes that carry our commerce.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has said, ‘As the world confronts COVID-19, democracy is crucial in ensuring the free flow of information, participation in decision-making and accountability for the response to the pandemic.’ (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Wars and catastrophes are catalysts for change. As World War II ended, a U.S.-led coalition created a rules-based international order. The UN and its alphabet soup of agencies oversaw geo-politics. The Bretton Woods twins — the IMF and World Bank — managed geo-economics. The western democracies created NATO to deter the Soviet Union. The G7 was born out of the oil shocks in the ’70s. The G20 came of age after the Asian financial crisis, proving its worth in the 2008 financial collapse. But facing the pandemic, these institutions have not proved fit for purpose.

So in this, the COVID moment, can Canada be a helpful fixer?

We were engineers to the American architects during the post-war reconstruction, and then godfather to the G20. In helping to create the rules-based order, we introduced the principle of functionalism. This is the abiding legacy of Louis St. Laurent, Lester Pearson and others — internationalists by conviction, they were realists by experience. Canada was not a great world power, but in certain sectors — food and energy — we had vital interests and capacity. This merited a place at the table. With competence, investment and artful diplomacy we earned our seat in the UN’s functional agencies and, albeit temporarily, joined the great powers on the Security Council.

To play helpful fixer will require the traditional skills of quiet diplomacy, rather than the preachiness of late.

It means finding the niches in which we do well, including running elections, policing and administering justice, and managing diversity. It means reinvesting in the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that do these things, and staying the course.

Canada’s effectiveness also depends on a United States prepared to lead and champion the order it created. As we have seen these past four years, without U.S. leadership the system fails. The allies need to share the burden.

COVID-19 has put the spotlight on democracies and our multilateral institutions. We must demonstrate that our rules-based system best protects health and liberty.

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