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Why history matters: The “two Michaels” as a Canadian example

Superpowers break whatever rules they want, and third-tier powers like Canada have to keep their allies close. That’s how the world has worked since the days of Ancient Greece, says Mark Milke.
Cracks can become canyons.

To grasp how Canada ended up with two Canadian prisoners/hostages in China, former diplomat Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor, released only in late September, it helps to place that event in useful historical perspective.

First, for those who just joined us, Kovrig and Spavor were arrested in China in December 2018, ostensibly on espionage charges—the Chinese government claimed they were spies. In reality, their capture was in response to the detaining and then arrest of Huawei Technologies Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver.

That arrest took place at Vancouver International Airport on 1 December 2018, in response to a provisional extradition request from the U.S. Justice Department, alleging fraud and conspiracy to commit fraud in order to circumvent U.S. sanctions against Iran. That occurred in the context of statements to HSBC about Huawei’s relationship with Skycom Tech Co. Ltd., which conducted business in Iran but was controlled by Huawei.

In late September, the U.S. Justice Department announced it had reached a deal through a deferred prosecution agreement. Meng agreed to a statement of facts that validated the allegation she had made untrue statements to HSBC but she was not required to plead guilty.

Meng flew back to China and in parallel, Kovrig and Spavor were immediately flown back to Canada. That timing removed any fig leaf of a pretence that their original capture was anything else other than a diplomatic hostage-taking. The message from China was clear: You’re getting them back in exchange for Meng, so pay attention.

Canada is about the rule of law

The Canadian Border Services officers and later, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, who detained and arrested Meng in 2018, acted properly. The point of extradition requests between countries allows for the rule of law to function and to avoid making Canada a safe haven for alleged criminal activity. (Exceptions to this are where we as Canadians doubt the integrity of the justice system in some other country.)

And this goes both ways. Canada asks the United States and other countries to detain, arrest and return those alleged to have committed a criminal act in Canada, to Canada, to face prosecution—and so we should. After all, if someone set up a Ponzi scheme in Canada, bilked investors out of millions of dollars and fled to California, Canadians would properly be outraged it Americans refused to extradite that person back to Canada.

But we need allies: A lesson from ancient Greece

That’s the reasons for extradition treaties. But the “Meng+two Michaels” affair needs to be placed in greater context, and in specific, Canada’s role in the world going forward.

Here’s where history helps. Let’s go back about 2,500 years to ancient Greece.

In the ancient historical account of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, the fifth century B.C. Athenian historian and general recounts the experience of the tiny island of Melos.

Melos, then as now, is located in the Mediterranean, about midway between the isle of Crete to the south and Athens to the north. Due west lies the ancient city of Sparta, the rival to Athens in the Peloponnesian War.

In any war, real or virtual and cold, warring nations look for allies—voluntarily if possible but forced if necessary. The “forced” option is even easier if the two main powers have overwhelming strength vis-à-vis others. Thus, think of Sparta and Athens as the superpowers of their age, akin to the superpower face-off in the 20th century between the United States and Soviet Union between 1945 and the late 1980s.

Or in today’s terms, think of the United States as a superpower still, but with China rising in influence and capabilities. Russia is weaker compared to the entity it was once dominant in (the Soviet Union) but can still throw its weight around for good or ill. Then add the United Kingdom, France, and India as second-tier powers, with the rest of us in the world, Canada included, as third-ranked powers – if even that.

Canada is not the U.S. or China

Here’s the thing about third-ranked powers, neutral ones such as Melos in the Peloponnesian War, or allied powers such as Canada, part of the Western alliance including membership in NATO. We in Canada will never have the ability to act as a superpower, or even as a second-tier power.

We simply have too small a population, an economy, and lack the size and capabilities in our military forces to project and protect our interests in the manner of the United Kingdom and France, to say nothing of China and the United States. Our ability to get our way at all, to project or protect our interests at all, is highly dependent on being tightly linked with our allies.

Put another way, in the 1980s, China never would have taken two Canadians hostage because the relationship between Canada and the United States and its leadership (Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and President Ronald Reagan) was strong. China, much weaker vis-à-vis the U.S. at that point, was also more interested in keeping relations in good repair with the United States. Thus, it would have been folly to anger the United States by picking on a weaker U.S. ally—Canada.

The argument from fair play and why it fails

In response to power politics, one often encounters morality arguments and from fair play, as in, it is wrong for China to capture two Canadians and hold as bargaining chips.

That’s right insofar as morality goes but is incomplete. Melians too argued this vis-à-vis Athens. In 416 and 415 B.C. in the 27-year long war, Athens demanded that Melos come to the side of Athens in its war with Sparta or be conquered. The Melians refused and offered up a number of moral justifications, appeals to self-interest, and appeals to hope.

The Melians argued that: the Athenians were not being fair; they were judges in their own case vis-a-vis Melos; the example of an Athenian invasion would be bad for Athens’ reputation; that neutrality was not akin to opposing Athens or taking sides with Sparta; and even that the gods might rescue Melos from Athens should it attack.

None of it was convincing and the dialogue between Athens and Melos is bracing in its clarity. “Of the gods we believe, and of men we know…here we bless your simplicity but do not envy your folly,” respond the Athenians to Melos.

The Athenian generals were straightforward in their language: that of power, not morality or sentiment. “We shall not trouble you with specious pretence,” the Athenians remark, noting that any false justification for an invasion “would not be believed” anyway.

Instead, the Athenian generals tell Melos that “Right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power.”

After some back-and-forth, the Melians ultimately refuse. After a subsequent battle in which the Melians surrender, the Athenians then kill all the captured men and sell the women and children into slavery. They then send out “five hundred colonists and inhabited the place themselves,” is how Thucydides starkly ends his chapter.

Canada’s interests are protected by alliances, not naivete

Back to the two Michaels. The Chinese government is quite clear about how it views Canada.

After Meng flew back to China and the two Michaels were back in Canada, China’s foreign ministry issued a statement noting that Chinese president Xi Jinping was involved: “General Secretary Xi Jinping made important  instructions,” spokeswoman Hua Chunying said.

One media account paraphrased her comments this way. She noted President Xi “personally handed down orders for handling the case.” The foreign ministry was also candid and directly said that Canada should “draw lessons” from the Meng episode.

Canada should draw a lesson: that Canada is not Melos in danger of some military invasion. Unlike Melos, more in danger from the naval power Athens than the inland power, Sparta, and vulnerable, Canada’s geographic location is right next door to our main ally, the United States. We will likely never be invaded by any non-American power for that reason alone.

However, Canada is similar to Melos in this way: a small power whose freedom to act and to project power is restricted by that fact. That means Canada must always nurture, preserve and strengthen our alliance with other democratic allies, be it our main and closest geographic ally the United States, or Australia, India, Japan, the United Kingdom, France, and others.

That strengthening will not guarantee another “two Michaels” episode will never happen. But Canada cannot afford to isolate itself in the middle of the sea of international politics by pretending we are akin to a great power.

We are not. And to cite ancient Athens once again, we are thus not equal in power to China. We need allies.

Mark Milke wears many hats and one is that of an author. His most recent book is The Victim Cult: How the culture of blame hurts everyone and wrecks civilizations.