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Define “Interests”?

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Brent H. Cameron is a Senior Advisor with Concierge Strategies, and a local councillor in Ontario, Canada. The second edition of his book, “The Case for Commonwealth Free Trade: Options for a new globalization” is available now on Amazon worldwide. He can be found on Twitter at @BrentHCameron

On March 1st, 1848, Henry John Temple – better known as the 3rd Viscount Palmerston, rose in the House of Commons to speak in his capacity as Britain’s Foreign Secretary. In his address to Parliament can be found an oft-worn phrase, trotted out by successive generations of leaders and foreign policy mavens, that:

“We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.”

The “we” Palmerston refers to is the nation he served, and for those who wish to look beyond the pithy sample to the broader remarks, you would see the fuller context:

“I hold that the real policy of England—apart from questions which involve her own particular interests, political or commercial—is to be the champion of justice and right; pursuing that course with moderation and prudence, not becoming the Quixote of the world, but giving the weight of her moral sanction and support wherever she thinks that justice is, and wherever she thinks that wrong has been done…I say that it is a narrow policy to suppose that this country or that is to be marked out as the eternal ally or the perpetual enemy of England. We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow… And if I might be allowed to express in one sentence the principle which I think ought to guide an English Minister, I would adopt the expression of Canning, and say that with every British Minister the interests of England ought to be the shibboleth of his policy.”

As always context is everything.

When Palmerston spoke of ‘interests’, he was referring to the national, and not the personal. He explicitly outlines the need to “be the champion of justice and right” and to “[give] the weight of her moral sanction and support wherever she thinks that justice is, and wherever she thinks that wrong has been done.” The pursuit of self-interest was the collective, not the singular.

There was no ambiguity when that phrase was first employed. Unfortunately, we cannot say the same for its subsequent uses – either in letter or in spirit.

This past week, 19 prominent Canadians lent their signatures to an open letter to the government calling for Canada to resolve the issue of the arrest and detention of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor by the Chinese regime. Their approach recommends the dropping of extradition proceedings against Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou, allowing her to leave Canada on her own accord rather than be transferred to the United States to face criminal proceedings.

Of course, the timing of the arrests of the two Michaels was always a painfully obvious tit-for-tat response to the detainment of Ms. Meng. It was blatantly designed to exert pressure on Ottawa to ignore the extradition treaty with the United States and – in essence – pick a side. That Beijing is openly admitting as much while it upgrades the charges to espionage, which carries a possible death penalty, shows that the Communist regime has allowed the surgical mask to drop.

To unpack this situation – and this letter – is not an easy task. Those who signed it are all labouring under their own individual motives and intentions, running the spectrum from cynical to well-intentioned, from embarrassingly naïve to coldly pragmatic.

But unpack it we must. It is wholly necessary.

Those that signed the letter have – in their various roles in academia, government and jurisprudence over the years – fought to support and promulgate the idea of a “Canadian interest.” Some determined government policy – both foreign and domestic – or upheld basic precepts of justice, human rights and the rule of law in the courts. Others supervised the education and tutelage of a couple of generations of bureaucrats and diplomats who have been handed the baton to carry forward.

If Canada represents some semblance of an ideal at home and abroad, it is one that was fashioned, in part, by these people. They are charter members of a consensus that purported to explain Canada to ourselves and to the rest of the world. When they did, they spoke as though those values were immutable, not open to compromise or auctioning. In their various roles, they made decisions predicated on those ideals and with real-world consequences. Those consequences were born by all – innocent and guilty alike.

Palmerston declared national interests to be both eternal and perpetual, so when those who first defined those interests for Canada openly seek to have them revised, we need ask why and to what ends?

Is this a simple humanitarian plea for the release of two innocent men held by a capricious and predatory regime? If so, no decent individual would dare question the desire. Decency and mercy are in short supply nowadays, so it would be wrong to discourage it. But we can question the wisdom of the plan – of gaining the freedom of these wrongly accused individuals at the expense of allowing someone to skirt trial in the United States on significant charges. We can also ask what of the precedent we would set with Beijing as they kidnap Canadian citizens each time they wish to exact some manner of tribute.

What we cannot say is that Canada’s long-term interests are protected or advanced by such a proposal. We might – at best – secure the freedom of two decent people from the clutches of a despotic regime, and that is it. For many that is enough, and that is fine, but we should not pretend that Canada would not come out diminished for it. We should not delude ourselves that there will be consequences.

If we accede to this open letter’s request, we gain two lives, but we also imperil every other Canadian in the PRC – as well as the over quarter-million Canadians in Hong Kong once Beijing imposes its new security law on that city.

We also abrogate the spirit of the extradition treaty with the United States. Notwithstanding the political situation in Washington, no President can serve more than two terms. Even if Donald Trump manages to gain another four years, the damage to our bilateral relations will last even longer. If the allegations against Ms. Meng and Huawei are borne out, the damage could extend to our defence and security partnerships – the very ones that give weight to the global ideals we say we profess.

In signing this letter, these individuals have already done the calculus, and determined the gains to be greater than the losses. They have reasoned that compromising on our values and our alliances, thus emboldening China and risking further extortion is worth the price – even if it openly and blatantly contradicts much of what many of them have said, written and held others to for years. They have defined ‘interests’ in a way that leaves many of us bewildered.

Palmerston took the time to define the parameters of what he meant by ‘interests’. Maybe the signatories of the open letter should pay us the courtesy of taking the time to do likewise.

About Brent Cameron

Profile photo of Brent Cameron
A writer and commentator on Commonwealth trade issues, Brent Cameron is the author of 'The Case for Commonwealth Free Trade' (2004, 2018) and numerous essays and articles. He is also a member of the Advisory Board of Commonwealth Exchange, a London, UK-based research group. Cameron worked as Telecommunications Coordinator for the Federal Ministry of Labour in Ottawa, Canada before joining SES Canada Research (now Nanos Research) as a Research Associate. He also worked as an assistant to former Ontario MPP Harry Danford, Member for Hastings-Peterborough and Parliamentary Assistant to Ontario's Minister of Agriculture and Rural Affairs. Cameron was a member of the Advance Team for Prime Minister Brian Mulroney during the 1988 Canadian federal general election. During the 2007 Ontario Referendum on Electoral Reform, he acted as Coordinator for the 'No MMP' campaign for eastern Ontario (excluding Ottawa). Cameron has also served as a member and contributing columnist on the Community Editorial Board of the Kingston (ON) Whig-Standard newspaper. He holds an honours degree in politics from Queen's University and a Certificate in Municipal Administration from St. Lawrence College (Kingston, ON). In 2014, Brent Cameron was elected to the municipal council for the Township of Central Frontenac, in southeastern Ontario, Canada, and serving as Deputy Mayor in 2017.

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