Brian Lee Crowley

Getting real about China, on NAFTA, national security and trade diversification

I have a bit of a bee in my bonnet these days about China, as any sensible person should. Everyone seems fixated on Donald Trump bullying Canada (and that is a reasonable concern) but the number of people who hold up China as some kind of alternative is truly staggering. If you want real, subtle, long-term bullying in unapologetic pursuit of national interests, you cannot do better than China. Add to that that China is an authoritarian, autocratic and repressive country without even a nodding acquaintance with the rule of law and a hostile relationship with the western alliance, etc., etc., etc., and China gets less appealing every day as a partner for Canada. Here are three recent op-eds in which I develop these various themes:

In the 30 May 2018 edition of the Globe, I took aim at China for its clear threats to Canadians’ national security. The context was Ottawa’s rather unexpected but welcome decision to veto the takeover of Canadian construction giant Aecon by a Chinese firm. As I pointed out, if this means that Ottawa is going to take national security threats from China more seriously (including their to-date insouciance about Huawei’s deep involvement in building Canada’s next generation 5G wireless network) that is very good news indeed and not before time.

Then came the G7 Summit. The G7 seems to me a little adrift these days, an organisation in search of a mission that would unite the disparate interests of Japan, North America and the largest European economies. My suggestion in an 8 July piece in Inside Policy: they should all agree to unite and reinforce their current disparate efforts to confront China’s disgraceful behaviour in the South China Sea that is an affront to the rule of law and freedom of navigation. There is also a video version of this piece.

Finally, Ottawa has been ramping up its focus on “trade diversification” as a kind of defensive card to play in its NAFTA negotiations with Washington. But of all the daft ideas, the one that China can replace or even partially compensate for our trade relationship with the US is surely the daftest. Read my op-ed, co-authored with Sean Speer, in the Globe of 20 July 2018 about why China is no trade saviour for Canada.

Trudeau was selling deficits, but the G7 wasn’t buying

The 2017 G7 meeting in Japan should give Prime Minister Trudeau ‎reason to reflect on his plan for deficit spending as Sean Speer and I argued in an op-ed in the Financial Post on June 3rd 2017. Trudeau arrived in Japan determined to sell other leaders on the merits of budgetary deficits to grow the economy. But his peers weren’t buying. ‎The summit’s 14,000-word communiquĂ© was silent on calls for more government spending. Perhaps the other leaders know something Justin doesn’t…or that he’s trying his hardest to ignore.

The premiers don’t speak for Canada

In my latest column for the Globe’s ROB Economy Lab, I dissect the behaviour of the premiers as they demonstrated yet again, over the course of the summer, why we cannot expect them to speak up for the national interest. The issue is protecting the rights of economic citizenship of Canadians (otherwise known as “internal trade”). Read on to find out what the systemic reasons are the premiers will never be the ones who deliver free trade within Canada. It’s Ottawa’s job.

By the way, If there is any question about what business, those ultimately responsible for job creation and exports think, the major Canadian business associations have banded together to publish a paper urging action.  Their vision is much more expansive than the premiers’, calling for all barriers to be ended and rules to be harmonized.   As Ailish Campbell, Vice President at the Canadian Council of Chief Executives (CCCE) has put it, “We want to see firms growing from Canada into global leaders. A common market to boost growth and jobs shouldn’t be in question.”

The column the Ottawa Citizen wouldn’t publish

As regular readers of this site know, I have the privilege of being a regular columnist with the Ottawa Citizen. Through them a number of my columns appear in other Postmedia newspapers. I enjoy a great relationship with the Citizen and my editor there. I was therefore a little taken aback when the paper refused last week to publish a column I had written for last Saturday’s paper. It’s not a big deal, and I look forward to continuing my relationship with the Citizen for a long time to come, but I thought that readers who missed the column might wish to see it here, and perhaps even pass along to me their thoughts on whether it was not suitable for publication.

The draft, which I reproduce below was admittedly a little different that my usual fare, which tends to focus on public policy quite directly. This column was inspired by a very interesting book I had read by a highly reputable author named Rodney Stark called The Victory of Reason. In this book Stark lays out the close relationship that exists, in his view between Christianity, intellectual, scientific, economic and personal freedom and the emergence of both capitalism and the scientific method in Europe. I found his discussion both stimulating and counter-intuitive, not least because of the narrative that has grown up over the last century or so about the incompatibility of reason and religious faith. Stark’s view, which I found persuasive, was that this is based on a misunderstanding of the intellectual pedigree of Christianity, and the central role that reason has played in its development.

Obviously I didn’t have room to develop all these themes in an 800 word column, so I chose to focus on Stark’s argument about why genuine science (as in the scientific method we recognise and apply now world-wide) emerged from Christian Europe and not, say, Chinese or Islamic civilisation. I gather from my Citizen editor that she found the argument too compressed (fair comment!) and therefore she found that the piece came across as unjustified ethnocentric triumphalism. On my side I wondered (unfairly?) whether my column would have attracted this kind of reaction had it suggested that some religion other than Christianity had been responsible for this signal civilisational achievement…..

Enough from me. Your comments are welcome about the article, reproduced below:

Science and Christianity

Science has been perhaps the most powerful force shaping human life in the last 2000 years. It has fed us, clothed us, educated us, healed us and exalted us while at the same time confronting us with the great challenges of our time: environmental damage, weapons of mass destruction and nuclear waste.

Science is the common inheritance of humanity. After all its precepts have brought great power and progress to peoples all over the world. A scientific principle once established can be harnessed by the Japanese, Egyptians or Mexicans.

But while scientific knowledge, once discovered, cannot be constrained nor undiscovered, science itself did not emerge uniformly across all societies nor is the scientific method which has granted us such insights into the laws of nature the common offspring of all peoples.

Author Rodney Stark in his book The Victory of Reason, makes a convincing case that science is a gift of Western civilization to the rest of humanity. While the Chinese or the Islamic world, for instance, could have given birth to genuine science, they did not. Yes, they accumulated various kinds of knowledge, mostly through accident or trial and error, and that gave them technological abilities that seemed impressive to earlier Western societies (think gunpowder, silks and fine china). But Stark makes the case that the acquisition over many generations of accidental knowledge about the world does not make for genuine science.

As he rightly points out, many societies developed alchemy. Only Europe developed real chemistry. Many societies conceived some version of astrology. Only Europe came up with genuine astronomy.

What makes the difference? Astrology and alchemy both involve close observation of the physical world, a belief that there are secrets there to be discovered and mastered. But science is not the discovery of facts about the world. It is an organized effort to explain nature’s behaviour and to confirm those explanations through testing. It involves both theories about how the world works and then seeing whether those theories hold up in reality.

True science cannot operate on the basis of authority. Just because some revered figure like Aristotle or Confucius or Mohammed claims that the world is flat, or the stars are fixed in crystal spheres or the sun revolves around the earth does not put those theories beyond question. They are to be tested to see if they are accurate. And if they don’t stand up, they must be ruthlessly discarded.

Only the West, says Stark, had the cultural and intellectual tools permitting such a courageous and orderly approach to knowledge. In particular he singles out Christianity as the main factor that permitted the emergence of a scientific mentality that didn’t just discover and catalogue miscellaneous facts about the world, but gave birth to a systematic scientific method that sought testable explanations of those facts.

This assertion flies in the face of a popular prejudice of our modern age that sees an irreconcilable conflict between reason and faith, that scientific enquiry is incompatible with a belief in the divine. But this was not at all the view of many of those who gave rise to science as we know it. Isaac Newton always believed his theological works were far more important than his treatises on physics, and Copernicus was a devout canon of the church. Science, being based on observation, can have nothing to say about what cannot be directly observed, and so has nothing to say about matters of faith or the existence of God.

What made it possible for science to emerge in Western societies was the notion that a perfect God had created the world and since his creation must also be perfect it must be governed by immutable laws, give or take the occasional miracle. And human beings, endowed by their Creator with reason, had both the ability and responsibility to understand and contemplate the perfection of his creation. Crucially, Christianity, with its notion of a beginning and end to time and the movement toward the fulfillment of God’s plan for humanity, was based on the concept of progress. With time we can improve, learn more, perfect our knowledge.

This was quite different from the intellectual starting point of most other societies, who saw the world as eternal and uncreated, mysterious beyond all human understanding, or subject to the whims of deities whose will was unconstrained by anything so vulgar as natural laws. In such societies history is seen as cyclical, not progressive. Humanity does not advance through an accumulation of knowledge over time.

Clearly you do not need to believe in God to understand, benefit from or participate in the scientific enterprise.  But without Christianity and its unique world view, Stark says, that enterprise might never have got off the ground.

Brian Lee Crowley ( is the Managing Director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an independent non-partisan public policy think tank in Ottawa:




Brian Lee Crowley
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