June 12, 2022

-Global News

Canada and the United States are facing “rough patches” in their democracies as populist, authoritarian movements continue to find traction among Western countries, says the American ambassador.

But in an interview with The West Block‘s Mercedes Stephenson, David Cohen said he is ultimately optimistic that the democracies will find a way through the political turmoil of recent years.

“I am always a glass-half-full kind of a guy,” Cohen said. “I irrevocably believe that democracy will prevail.

“We may have to work through some issues. There may be some rough patches.”

“But at the end of the day, you combat these rough patches with the strength of democracy, with dialogue, with working together with other democracies.

His comments come as the U.S. House of Representatives committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, deadly attack on the Capitol presents its findings to the American public in televised hearings.

Cohen added that the challenges to democracy are not just happening in North America but in countries around the world where extremists are trying to use populism to subvert democratic processes and voices to further the goals of authoritarianism.

China and Russia are among the actors involved in those attempts to subvert democracy, he said, but also domestic forces including elements in the trucker convoys that blockaded the Canadian capital and border crossings for three weeks earlier this year.

“I don’t know whether it’s Donald Trump lines that have seeped into Canadian politics or whether it is this global movement that, quite frankly, predated Donald Trump,” Cohen said.

“I think the best way to combat some of the hateful rhetoric of these extremist movements is with positive speech, is with democracies getting together and talking about the benefits of democracy and the things that we can do together as democratic countries and democratic societies,” he added.

“And that’s a lot of the discussion that took place at the Summit for the Americas last week.”

The Summit brought together not only Canada and the U.S. but countries from the hemisphere, including many from Latin America where analysts have suggested American influence has waned in the years since the U.S. withdrew from leadership on the global stage under the Trump administration.

That waning influence presents an opportunity for Canada to exercise a bigger role in hemispheric diplomacy and strategy.

“Given the U.S. position on all of this, it only makes Canada’s potential role in the hemisphere, not just materially but symbolically, really critical,” said Kenneth Frankel, chief executive of the Toronto-based Council of the Americas, in an interview last week with Global News.

“Latin Americans who are struggling for democracy and human rights — they want to know that there’s a big country in the neighbourhood that’s on their side.”

An ongoing source of criticism for Canada, though, is matching rhetoric with action — and dollars.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has continued to face questions about why he is not committing Canada to spending the NATO target of two per cent of GDP on defence amid what his defence minister, Anita Anand, has acknowledged is a “darker” and “more chaotic” world.

While the government has increased defence spending by roughly $8 billion in the most recent budget, it still falls roughly $75-billion short of hitting the NATO target, according to an analysis by the Parliamentary Budget Officer.

Cohen had appeared critical of that budget increase earlier this year, when he described it as “a little disappointing as matched against the rhetoric that we heard leading into the release of the budget.”

He clarified those comments to Global News.

“I think there was an impression created that there would be a larger increase in defence spending than there ended up being,” he said.

At the same time, Cohen said the U.S. acknowledges there are spending commitments such as NORAD modernization and a defence policy review that could end up seeing additional defence spending beyond what is outlined in the budget.

“I don’t think, as the United States ambassador to Canada, it’s appropriate for me to say one way or another what’s enough and what isn’t enough,” he said. “I think Canada has a firm sense of the importance of defence, particularly in light of what’s happening in Russia — Ukraine, particularly –and what you talked about earlier with China’s increasing aggressiveness.”

“Canada needs to make a judgment of what is enough to spend by way of defence and how quickly they need to move to be able to get there.”