Time to wake up and take megalomaniacs seriously

Vladimir Putin’s meandering rant on the eve of invading Ukraine demonstrated that his deranged torment and bitterness over failing to restore Russia’s imperial greatness has advanced to psychopathological megalomania.

In his 70th year and with more than two decades in power, Putin is obsessed with achieving military dominance beyond Ukraine to the other nations of the defunct Warsaw Pact, at any cost. Convinced he has been foiled by American treachery, he will not be deterred by massive sanctions that bring great suffering to ordinary Russians. Putin threatens to deploy nuclear weapons if he doesn’t get his way. If we did not take his menacing speeches seriously before, we had better do so now.

China is another nuclear power that could threaten that option to achieve its international ambitions. Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who is also approaching a third term that will take him to his early 70s, will be closely watching Putin’s attempt to vanquish Ukrainian nationalism for lessons on how to subjugate Taiwan. But Xi’s speeches, similar to Putin’s, look beyond Taiwan, descending into a dark, resentful rhetoric over the West’s suppression of China’s “national rejuvenation.”

Xi is confident that, under his leadership, China’s civilizational norms, as he interprets them, will displace the liberal West in a new China-dominated global order. He foresees this “community of the common destiny of mankind” being in place by 2050. Under his Belt and Road global infrastructure initiative, the world’s economy will be restructured to place China definitively at the centre of power; all the belts and roads will lead to Beijing. It is a delusional overblown ambition, but if Xi sees this promised future slipping away, China could lash out at the world in the same dangerous ways as Putin is doing now.

Canada has until now given Xi’s ambitions short shrift. Serious China expertise in our foreign ministry, CSIS, the RCMP, CSE and DND is thin on the ground. There has been no political will to get more Canadians fluent in Mandarin and thus more attuned to what is really going on with the Chinese Communist Party, domestically, internationally, and here in Canada.

In fact we even enable Xi’s regime by submitting to Chinese embassy threats to punish Canada economically through trade sanctions if we respond in any substantive way to China’s robust industrial espionage operations in Canada, or coercion of ethnic Chinese people in Canada to serve the interests of the Communist Party regime, or China’s very sophisticated influence operations targeting Canadians with influence on Canada’s foreign policy formulation.

What we need to do immediately is stop pussyfooting around on Huawei 5G and make a clear statement, to China and the world, that we are not duped by Beijing’s assurances that Huawei is not a function of the Chinese regime and its military intelligence services.

We need to work with our allies to stand up collectively to sanction China’s flouting of the international rules-based order in trade and diplomacy. It is too late for Canada to credibly take the lead in this effort, but we should join Australia in urging our European allies to set aside petty national egos that have obstructed moving beyond rhetoric on this front. It only plays into China’s slick and well-resourced divide-and-conquer strategy.

Canada must also become much more urgently engaged with Third World nations who are understandably tempted to sign over their sovereignty and security in exchange for China’s Belt and Road development funding.

The atrocities in Ukraine demonstrate that megalomaniac autocrats will not abide by our perceptions of the self-interest of nations over which they have inflicted dominance. Canada needs to follow Germany and significantly upgrade our military capacity to meet the increasingly uncertain geostrategic challenges of which the invasion of Ukraine is just the harbinger.

We must do all we can to support the transition to democratic regimes in Russia and China so they can become responsible members in the community of nations.

Charles Burton is a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute in Ottawa, and non-resident senior fellow of the European Values Center for Security Policy in Prague. He is a former professor of political science at Brock University, and served as a diplomat at Canada’s embassy in Beijing.

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