When diplomacy becomes appeasement – a view from Canada

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Leading up to the recent vote on non-permanent members to the UN Security Council, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau talked with Rwandan President Paul Kagame. After their meeting, Trudeau spoke of the “strong friendship” between the two countries, doubtless in hopes of winning the authoritarian regime’s support for Canada’s ultimately unsuccessful Security Council bid.

While we might write off such cosiness with an authoritarian leader as the price one has to pay to have a seat at the world’s highest table, this show of friendship is just the latest episode in Canada’s problematic engagement with authoritarian states. Now that the Security Council campaign is over, Canada should re-evaluate how it approaches relations with authoritarian regimes.

Growing authoritarianism

How we engage with non-democratic countries matters. Many democracy watchdogs have been sounding the alarm about growing authoritarianism across the world, from democratic backsliding to the hardening of supposedly benign authoritarian regimes. Freedom House tells us that “not free” and “partly free” countries – admittedly catch-all categories – clearly outnumber free countries, and the trend in the last years has not been positive. We cannot cut ourselves off from more than half the states on the planet. Engaging with non-democracies is not an option.

As importantly, not all non-democratic countries are the same. If we set the bar of unacceptable authoritarian practices at glaring mass atrocities and rights abuses against civilian populations, or only condemn the most obvious kleptocratic regimes syphoning state revenues and international aid, we may become too tolerant of other forms of authoritarian governance, particularly those deployed by astute regimes.

Many of today’s autocratic states know how important it is to cover themselves with a democratic sheen, notably by holding elections and highlighting their representativeness and inclusion. Some of these states stand as beacons of efficiency and effectiveness, which makes them attractive to donors, public or private. And many are masters of political marketing and branding, keeping the ugly side of their authoritarian rule out of focus. Today’s authoritarianism often tries to take on, at least on the surface, a more palatable face than that of an Idi Amin or a Saddam Hussein. Yesterday’s strongman in military fatigues has made way for the bespoke suit-wearing, Davos-attending, enlightened despot.

Avoiding the mines

This makes engaging with authoritarian states a minefield. Why couldn’t Rwanda be a strong friend, for example? After all, the country holds elections in which parties and presidential candidates compete and where little fraud at the ballot box is noted. Rwanda is also a promoter of gender equality, with one of the highest proportion of women in parliament. International aid to Rwanda is generally used efficiently. Some have even called the country a donor darling.

But the Rwandan government also intimidates and assassinates opponents at home and abroad. There is no need for electoral fraud because the stakes for not favouring the incumbent are clear. And the women who sit in the legislature have little political power, which is almost exclusively found in the dominant party and the president’s office – an office which has been held by the same man for 20 years.

What does this imply for Canadian diplomacy and how Canada engages with authoritarian states? To start, we need to drop the naïve assumption that we can democratize these states, or at least nudge them toward democracy, by investing in civil society, the media, women and so forth. Yes, these investments matter. But authoritarian states know their politics far more than we do and they are adept at coopting and undermining our efforts. A policy built on the notion of effecting democratic change is one blind to the adaptability and resilience of authoritarianism.

Pulpit diplomacy will only get us so far in a world where non-democratic states are ascendant.

Second, we need a two-track approach. We have to recognize authoritarian states and engage with them cordially. Given their weight internationally, we should not be afraid to have relations with authoritarian leaders; they simply cannot be treated as pariahs. Pulpit diplomacy will only get us so far in a world where non-democratic states are ascendant. Yet this does not mean we need forgo our values. We also have to be measured in our approach and cognizant of the deception, repression and violence that accompanies authoritarianism. Coherence between these two tracks is key. You can’t have a bromance one day, and a firm line on human rights the next. While we may have tended to opt for either-or, it is the fine line of sustained, realistic and consistent engagement that is key.

This means you need to invest yourself in engaging with authoritarian states. Good diplomacy requires a solid understanding of the countries we are speaking with. And it takes the kind of knowledge that can only be acquired from ongoing interest in what lies beyond the surface-level politics of shared values branding and comforting narratives that contemporary authoritarian leaders deploy. We need deep knowledge of these countries and their political dynamics. For this we also need to deploy the financial means necessary to gain this knowledge.

The challenge facing Canada

Canada’s isn’t well-placed to achieve this balance. Our Global Affairs department has been depleted and our knowledge of many authoritarian states is cursory. We have kept up our understanding of the two authoritarian great powers, China and Russia, and we can focus our limited capacity on a few others as crises come and go. For all the rest, we are left with a superficial understanding that leaves us vulnerable to miscalculations and, worse, to manipulation. Too often, this leads to policies and positions that encourage and coddle authoritarian regimes. This is exactly the opposite of what we are aiming to achieve.

Yes, we must maintain productive diplomatic relations with authoritarian states. We even need them, whether it be for a UN Security Council seat or to move broad multilateral agendas. But we need to get smarter about calling regimes who jail and kill opponents our “strong friends.”

Marie-Eve Desrosiers is Associate Professor at the Graduate School in Public and International Affairs, Unviersity of Ottawa, and holds the International Francophonie Research Chair on Political Aspirations and Movements in Francophone Africa.

This article first appeared in the Ottawa Citizen – check out the original here, and read the Ottawa Citizen for other great analysis and content.

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