North Korean denucearlization poses greatest foreign policy challenge for Trump yet

On March 5th, the North Korean regime announced that they are willing to discuss letting go of their nuclear capabilities in exchange for an assurance of security. 

On Monday, the North began engaging the South through bilateral talks absent of American involvement; on Thursday evening, it was reported that Kim Jong Un had proposed total denuclearization. Pyongyang’s change of heart is unprecedented, as the prospect of denuclearization has never been put forward by the Kim regime.

International dialogue has been scarce since Pyongyang began testing their nuclear arsenal in 2006. The last major multilateral negotiations that included North Korean officials, known as the “six-party talks”, were held between 2003 and 2007. They excluded Canadian diplomats and ultimately failed to produce a roadmap for peace in the region.

This week, the world was given its first glimpse of hope since the failed six-party talks. The announcement comes after de-escalation talks between Canada and the leaders of 20 world powers in January. The summit, hosted in Vancouver, was the first in years dedicated to answering the crisis on the Korean peninsula.

In its aftermath, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson proclaimed that a nuclearized North Korea had no place on the world stage. “A North Korea that commits to the complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantling of its nuclear program,” said Freeland, “will have a secure place in the international community.” It now appears that Pyongyang was listening.

Canada has seldom spoken with North Korean officials since 2010, when the Harper government severed formal diplomatic relations over North Korea’s alleged role in sinking a South Korean warship engaged in a training simulation in the East China Sea. In lieu of formal relations, Canada has maintained a Controlled Engagement Policy which has strictly limited contact between the two states to consular and humanitarian matters. Since then, diplomatic isolation has been North Korea’s dominant strategy. 

That changed this week, when the Kim regime ceded their former stance by proposing new measures to South Korean representatives. In sum: no nukes, no missile tests, and no military exercises—on either side of the Korean border. In other words, a partial dissolution of the US-South Korean military alliance. 

The significance of this exchange should not be understated. The proposition of amicable talks, without hostile rhetoric or ballistic showmanship, marks a major turning point for two countries that have been officially at war since 1950.  For the first time, the Kim regime has signalled that they have no need for nuclear weapons should their security be assured.

But how secure are “security assurances”? Ask Ukraine, who in 1994 agreed to destroy their stockpile of 1,700 nuclear warheads and join the global Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). John Mearsheimer, a “realist” scholar in the field of international relations theory, predicted that Ukraine’s sacrifice would lead to future aggression from Russia.

Mearsheimer’s predictions have begun to materialize, as a toothless Ukraine has lost the territory of the Crimean peninsula to Russian annexation. Consequently, the Ukrainian military has had to relinquish their Black Sea Fleet to the Russian Navy.

Since 2014, full-scale war has ensued between government forces and Kremlin-backed rebel groups near Ukraine’s eastern border. In January, the Ukrainian parliament officially recognized Russia as an “aggressor” state, and declared the Ukrainian regions of Luhasnk and Donetsk as “occupied” by Russian forces.

When confronted with the threat of asymmetrical warfare, the lesser state relies on nuclear weapons to deter the aggression of the larger. Without a deterrent, then, how can the Kim regime feel secure against the threat of American intervention?   

A freeze-for-freeze is a game played not with dollars but with trust, a currency that President Trump is woefully short on. In a “freeze-for-freeze” situation, the US and her allies will have to guarantee to stay out of the Korean peninsula, and out of its surrounding waters; any failure to make good on this promise will be tantamount to the South’s “nuclearization” in the eyes of the North.   

The Obama administration denied olive branches from the North Koreans, instead employing a doctrine of “strategic patience”. His administration was hesitant to buy into propositions from a regime known for their duplicity throughout previous de-escalation efforts during the Clinton and Bush eras.

The cynical view, surely not lost on the Trump administration, is that Kim’s offer is a routine gesture, offered every few years when his regime is in need of aid. However, if President Trump decides to abandon the cynical approach he will be faced with his most improbable challenge yet: gaining the world’s trust not to intervene. 

North Korean denucearlization poses greatest foreign policy challenge for Trump yet

Sen. Lynn Beyak, Andrew Scheer, and the CPC’s mixed feelings on free speech

This piece first appeared in the January 13, 2018 edition of PoliPerspective.

What Senator Lynn Beyak published on her website was fucked up by any reasonable standard. Her racist and idiotic “letters of support” are ignorant of history, and although the letters were not her own words they cannot be dismissed or trivialized.

The letters described Canada’s Indigenous peoples as lazy, uncultured, and uncivilized. They described Indigenous people in the same terms that first forced them into residential schools. The same terms that led to the abduction of Indigenous children, displacing them from their families and into abusive, abject living conditions. Into decrepit schoolhouses where they were infected with diseases due to shoddy ventilation and the complete absence of medical screening. Into classrooms where teachers and volunteers, both good and ill-intentioned, taught them how to assimilate into a culture that wasn’t theirs. How to forget their language. How to hate their identity. How to be silent.

Her defense of the residential school system is abhorrent, and cannot go unchallenged. But she has a constitutional right to freely make such a defense, and Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer honoured this right.

In response, Scheer did well not to invoke the language of “hate speech”. Classifying speech as such is indolent, coddling, and authoritarian. We should not be so quick to silence prejudice under the pretense that we do not have the good sense to filter or challenge it.

Scheer was correct to challenge Beyak’s views as racist and subversive. He was also correct to eject her from the Conservative Caucus. Political parties are private organizations run like any other, complete with corporate hierarchies and managers willing to show you the door if you’re a no-namer prepared to subvert the boss.

Last year, Scheer came to the defense of infamous Laurier University TA Lindsay Sheppard and other free speech crusaders. He’s also threatened to withdraw federal funding for public universities if they fail to protect freedom of speech on campus.

Despite lamentation from critics and racists alike, Scheer’s actions in no way contradict his position on free speech. Beyak, another top-notch Harper appointee, was allowed to publish the letters, and was allowed to keep it on her website after facing criticism. But this does not excuse her actions; this does not shield her from criticism or demotion. Beyak stands for views that her party strongly disagrees with, and Scheer exercised his own right to free speech by kicking her out the door for insubordination.

I’m glad Beyak was given the freedom to express her racist views, otherwise they would have been kept invisible, dormant, and thus sheltered from challenging. Now Beyak must answer to those she’s chosen to confront. It is within their right just as much as it was within hers.


Sen. Lynn Beyak, Andrew Scheer, and the CPC’s mixed feelings on free speech

The Case for a Korea Deal

This article first appeared in National Newswatch on Dec. 14, 2017

On November 29, North Korea tested the Hwasong-15, their newest long-range missile experts deem capable of striking anywhere in North America. It climbed to a height of 4500 kilometres before diving into the Sea of Japan. The launch followed two rounds of successful intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) tests by North Korea in August and September.

A week later, American and South Korean forces began their annual joint military drills over the Korean Peninsula. The exercises included a record twelve American F-22 and F-35 stealth fighters, warplanes that would be tasked with destroying the North’s nuclear sites in the event of war. Codenamed “Vigilant Ace”, the massive five-day exercise involved over 230 combined aircraft, the allies’ largest show of strength yet.

Somewhere a drumbeat pounds.

Two years since its signing, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), better known as the Iran deal, has curbed another nuclear crisis. Today, Iran’s economy is recovering from the cold grip of international sanctions. In return, Washington and her allies are breathing easier as UN inspectors have on-demand access to Iran’s nuclear enrichment facilities.

The deal is the result of years of multilateral diplomacy between Iran and six major world powers. In July 2015, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council — China, Russia, France, Britain, and the U.S. — alongside Germany, agreed on terms slated to bring reintegration and stability to the Middle East.

As Korea’s nuclear crisis quickly escalates, an imitation deal is the only realistic solution.

This wouldn’t be the first time it’s been tried.

The 1994 Agreed Framework, the original ‘Korea deal’ brokered by the Clinton Administration and North Korea’s Kim Jong-il, arranged for the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in exchange for the suspension of the U.S.’ military exercises in South Korea and aid in the form of heavy oil. The U.S., under President George W. Bush, withdrew from the deal in 2002, causing Pyongyang to restart the nuclear programme which now yields between 20 and 60 nuclear warheads.

Negotiations must reconvene. This time, with the lessons of Iran’s JCPOA and the compromise of Clinton’s Agreed Framework. It will require special dispensation from a North Korea deeply skeptical toward the United Nations and a US administration noncommittal in the face of multilateralism.

Should negotiations resume, Pyongyang has already made its priority clear. For years, North Korean leaders have offered to freeze their nuclear program in return for the U.S. scrapping all joint military exercises south of the DMZ. If international agents are granted inspection authority, this could stop the North from further developing a nuclear payload capable of fitting on a long-range missile — an ability many experts deny the North has.

Still, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has repeatedly rejected this offer, arguing that it would set in stone North Korea’s existing, illegal nuclear capabilities.

To provide the level of assurance that the international community wants, the same UN-led inspections regime tasked with monitoring Iran should have access to North Korean facilities. Like Tehran, Pyongyang would not be required to fully denuclearize.

In turn, the U.S. and South Korea would acquiesce to the North’s demands to scrap their air drills. Additional concessions such as limited sanctions relief and a formal assurance against a preemptive strike may be persuasive enough for Pyongyang to once again open their country to international monitors. Similar to the Iran deal, sanctions must be able to snap-back should Pyongyang fail to comply.

For this, a UN endorsement is required. This implies that the remaining four permanent members of the Security Council must be party to the negotiations. For the U.S. to save face in the eyes of their regional allies, South Korea and Japan also need a seat at the table.

Multilateral diplomacy is the only tenable solution to the standoff. However, that Trump has threatened to terminate the Iran agreement gives Pyongyang all the more reason to believe that America cannot be trusted to keep its end of the deal. The question then becomes whether America has any credibility left to pull off the job.

And louder the drum beats on.

The Case for a Korea Deal

The Unfinished: Storytelling as Political Necessity


St. James Park was once a yurt village that I was never allowed to stay the night in. Having lived within commuting distance of Toronto at the time, I would board the GO Bus to Union Station for $7.70 on Saturday afternoon, and not return home until the last bus took off for the Newmarket Terminal at 12:50 the next morning. The Occupy movement was in full swing that October, and their weekend general assemblies would galvanize hordes of students, activists, champagne socialists, trade unionists, counter-culturalists, direct actionists, occupiers of all tax brackets and socioeconomic strata, some donning overalls, others in suits and ties, myself somewhere lost among them. Sometimes I still hear “We are the 99 percent” ring in my ears while standing in line at the grocery store checkout, watching the cashier scan the barcodes of off-brand boxes of breakfast cereal.

The ninety-nine percent. This rallying cry would become my first political schema: a cognitive constraint that enlisted myself against the one percent who were responsible for the injustices suffered by the other ninety-nine. I took on an identity shared by my other class-conscious compatriots muddling around a gazebo and a megaphone. E pluribus, unum.

We were the protagonist of our own rebellion story, standing in solidarity against the amorphous villain whose high-rise cast a shadow on our revolution. The tensions, fears, and uncertainties of the recession finally ripened the social climate for the change we needed. People were angry, motivated by principles of social justice, fairness, and egalitarianism.

And then winter came, and it quickly occurred that this story was unfinished by design. There were no goal posts, no agreed upon objectives, no bargaining units, no specific demands, and no structured ending. A story without termination is a story without structure, and without structure a story’s substance can wear away—becoming only incoherent, neglected symbols in a void. This would become Occupy’s fatal flaw. Their hyper-egalitarian “one voice” philosophy precluded any semblance of order and individual leadership that would have otherwise been conferred upon the movement. No clear goals were effectively communicated, no names were named. There were calls to action without plans of action.

Though the storyboard was properly fit with well-defined characters, themes, a central conflict, and an appropriate setting. What was missing was a plot, a central course of events that bring the characters to some sort of resolution. Without these, stories lose their grip, squander their momentum, and fail to set the gears of storytelling into motion.

The demise of the Occupy movement can be explained by its distinct lack of message control—when this narrative is lacking, so too the most central element of one’s story. Andrew Gelman and Thomas Basbøll recognize this element’s role in structuring human cognition and communication. They draw from work in cognitive science that holds that our understandings of the social world, and indeed of the self, are thought about in terms of “story-like causal relations” [1]. However, any old story won’t do. When stories work, their message is marked by two qualities: immutability and anomalousness. This holds that they must depart from prior explanatory models and their maxims must be developed well enough that critics can locate their flaws. That is, it is better to tell a story built upon potentially unrepresentative, but original maxims, than to fail to craft a story at all. This is true of both our social scientific understanding of the world, and our everyday lived-in experience of the social world: both are equally motivated by our natural inclinations to etch, ingrain, and retell stories that make sense of the symbolic and experiential stuff of life.

The immediate point of the Occupy story is that there wasn’t much of a story at all. Its incompleteness stunted its satisfaction of Gelman and Basbøll’s immutability condition. I didn’t realise until years later, but Occupy gave me a political map that, while being to-scale and easy enough to find myself within, was lacking a compass—missing a sort of north arrow with which to guide one’s orientation in the world. Likewise, an orientation that can be questioned, falsified, or challenged by a rival cartographer. The map, so it turned out, was useless in doing anything aside from discovering myself on its topographic field. Yet this only serves half of a good map’s function.

Today, the social engineers behind political messaging are equipped with ‘big data’, detailed personal statistics of vast complexity, that are used to assemble the constituent elements of a story. They’re the product of intensely personal data mining by ‘neuro-marketers’ who use bio-indicators such as brain waves, eye scans, facial recognition software, skin sensors, and heart rate monitors to collect individual responses to political stimuli in real time [2]. Data collected from more commercial sources, such as Neilsen ratings, credit card records, and customer rewards cards, are goldmines for assembling detailed dossiers of consumer behaviour, and are becoming increasingly targeted by politicos, campaign managers, and party staffers [3]. Natasha Singer has exposed how private marketing technology firms like Axciom Corporation and Cambridge Analytica collect and analyse these data for the purposes of strategic political communication [4].

Although these practices are defended as innovative and anodyne avenues for market research, the literature has demonstrated that even seemingly innocuous personal information, such as ‘Likes’ from our Facebook profiles, can be used as powerful predictors of sensitive personal attributes. In fact, even one Facebook ‘Like’ has a non-negligible predictive capacity above baseline for identifying our gender, age, and personality traits [5].

This is critically important for the purposes of storytelling as it allows for targeted messages to be relayed to us based on how well they correspond to our personalities and consumer behaviours. For example, personality traits Openness and Conscientiousness have been demonstrated to have a strong correlation with liberalism and conservatism, respectively [6]. If strong predictors of personality traits, such as ‘Liking’ The Colbert Report on Facebook, are targeted and exploited by political actors, this may present an insidious threat to the free market of ideas, and the stories that animate them. This is because it allows for tailored messages to reach only those audiences primed to espouse it; in effect, this has potential for us to become political sycophants—ideologues existing in enclaves wherein only a narrow slice of political information is exposed to us.

These ideological messages can be thrust upon us through coded, or underhanded, means designed intentionally to exploit those innermost attributes and prejudices. Dog-whistle tactics have been long-standing in the political arena, but when combined with the data analytics of today we become presented with a new set of ethical problems to grapple with. Take the case of 2012’s Romney for President, a political action committee that produced racially-coded television advertisements for select white demographics in Ohio and Colorado. The ad producers leveraged demographic data—records mined and analysed by corporations like Acxiom—to subliminally play on the racial sentiments of the white working class, a demographic empirically demonstrated to respond to this sort of emotional appeal [7].

Given its strategic benefit, it stands to reason that political advertisers will only continue to become more stringent with whom they decide to target by employing increasingly invasive data collection methods. In doing so, the target audience will become so intently identified such that only those segments of the electorate that are naturally responsive to the message will be made aware of it at all.

The possibilities to this end are seemingly boundless. Rose McDermott et al. suggests that even our sense of smell has ideological and political correlates [8]. These too can be leveraged for more rigorous message-control: imagine a digital billboard that emits an attractive scent that only a precise demographic niche is perceptive to. Even the idiosyncrasies of one’s speaking habits can evoke a novel, positive response among political audiences [9]. As it turns out, even something as instinctive as casual speech is immutable.

These message-elements are ordered into the format of a story through the process of narrativization. The sheer quantitative complexity of big data on its own is not enough to assemble the various elements of a message into a cohesive and meaningful communique. There must be a qualitatively affecting narrative that entices the senses and emotions in order to turn mere ‘data’ into information—that is, to render it intelligible and meaningful.

The act of visualizing information is imperative to communicating effectively in the narrative form. It is no coincidence that cognitive scientists conceive of the human brain as a connectionist neural network that is innately configured to process symbols along spatial-visual lines [10].

The phrases “far left” and “reactionary right”, by this account, are not incidental terms. They attest to the mind’s propensity to draw clear spatial representations of the political.

Reductive as it may be, there is experiential merit in visualizing politics. Taking a conceptual model and reifying it in three-dimensional space, allowing it to live and breathe in a cognitively ‘natural’ symbolic order, is a powerful tool in enhancing how we simply experience politics.

The lynchpin of the Occupy movement’s message was their scathing opposition to the inequality of wealth in the United States. One of the main motivating factors that drew me to their rallies was the outrage I experienced upon seeing the infographics that portrayed the share of the national wealth concentrated among the top ninety-ninth percentile of income earners. This is a testament to the power of simple visual heuristics, images capable of framing an issue in a way that is evocative to the target audience.

Generally, this is the domain of ‘branding’. How political brands take form is important for the purposes of visual communication to the electorate—names, colours, and logos are essential for both remaining in, and drawing from, the public’s collective memory. For example, the green colours of the Reform Party were strategically chosen for its association with populism and the prairie spirit, and the Liberal Party’s red was originally selected for its historical roots in socialist and revolutionary politics. These colours, identifiers, and trademarks are deployed by political strategists in a way that not only familiarizes voters with the themes and characters of the story they seek to tell, but also attracts them to the implicit messages that each ‘brand’ has embedded within it.

This is akin to how commercial retailers market their products to consumers; in this way, the voter is treated more like a political consumer than a politically sophisticated voter. This notion that we associate implicit thematic elements from a political stimulus is essentially predicated upon the connectionist paradigm of the political brain. Ex uno, plures.

The visualization of political ‘brands’, and the messages they contain, are vitally important for informing our understanding of politics, as well as our behaviour in the political arena. The larger point, however, is that it serves as a strong example as to how political messaging is ‘heresthetically’ framed in a way that’s both pleasing and accessible to our sensibilities. It alludes to the fact that we, as voters, readily attach ourselves to tribalistic political units (i.e. parties, ideologies, movements, and brands) in order to simplify and heuristically engineer our political environment. Brands, in this way, are politically orienting forces.

The Conservative Party brand tells a reactionary story that diametrically opposes the attenuating forces of the political left; conversely, the New Democrat’s brand tells a proactive, or radical story in opposition to their right-wing counterparts. They mitigate the risk of decision fatigue by narrowing our range of political affiliation to one of only a few viable candidates composed of a collage of colours, slogans, and ideological tropes. Yet, the stories that political parties tell are orienting in a way that the Occupy movement’s never were—because they call for your vote. This is the course of action that is demanded of you in return for being provided the heuristic benefit of brand affiliation.

This is the ‘plot’ of the story that was sorely absent from my angst-ridden misadventures at St. James Park.

But all plots move deathward. It must be borne in mind that the privilege of branding extends beyond the control of the organizations and movements themselves: they can take on a life, message, and story of their own when in the hands of external actors.

Take, for example, Andrew MacDougall’s op-ed, which employs a number of tactics, explicit and implicit, that ‘brand’ both the Liberal and Conservative parties around their leadership personas [11]. In what is essentially a lesson in rhetorical heresthetics, the author paints a vivid picture of both party’s image. Justin Trudeau as the green, youthful, celebrity politician that resembles change and a new stylistic direction; Stephen Harper as an experienced, true-blue veteran that evokes stability, prudence, and phronesis, or “political wisdom”. More implicitly, MacDougall alludes to Trudeau’s brand as being an extension of his familial dynasty, a pedigree too illustrious for its inheritor to live up to.

Bleak imagery is invoked: a “sea of troubles” rising upon Canada’s shores; an animalistic Russian threat; a combative and tumultuous national milieu. And with this, a specific visual representation is brought to mind that frames the political context as one in which Trudeau is unprepared for. Harper, in turn, is lauded for his public policy track record, as MacDougall lists the various tropes of the Conservative Party platform: “lower taxes, a strong military, cracking down on crime, getting rid of the wasteful and ineffective gun registry and abolishing the Wheat Board”. In framing the choice in this way (that is, between the Liberals or Conservatives), prospect theory would position Trudeau in the domain of losses, or at best, the domain of probabilistic gain. Whereas Harper, by this account, represents a sure gain. In effect, this reduces the nuance of the debate to an easily discernable dichotomy—option A representing only a possibly beneficial outcome, while option B resembles the safe bet for the more risk averse.

MacDougall’s piece is less a partisan hit job than it is a representation of an effective political story. One that encapsulates the thematic elements of a narrative, evokes strong and suggestive imagery, identifies the central conflict, orients the audience, and presents a simple and reductive decision-making heuristic. Political messaging par excellence.

Like the call to arms of yesterday’s radicals, “We are the 99%”, the message is manufactured to circumscribe one’s response to it: either you’re within, or without. It is crudely reductive, binary, and dichotomous, and for as long as we maintain an adversarial political system this will remain an effective communicative strategy. It is the inevitable product of electoral and systemic complexity, and the fact that we have such cognitive shortcuts is its saving grace. Without them, we can become lost in the whirlwind of political mayhem; the natural confusion that arises from an overwhelming decision analysis that would demand of us more mental faculties than we’re willing to afford. This is the reason why we support Bernie Sanders for President, but not necessarily Bernie Sanders as president [11]. It’s the reason why we faithfully support our political darlings, even amid high-profile scandals [12]. And it’s the reason Obama couldn’t get his story straight [13].

McDougall’s article gets at the heart of how we make political decisions. Political heuristics are practical in their application as repellents of decision fatigue, identity insecurity, and moral confusion. To this end, politics is itself a heuristic game. To be sure, there is insidious potential for harm to a democratic sphere when these messages and heuristics are applied deceptively, or hyper-selectively to those carefully determined to be best suited for them. In a democracy, the enterprise of ideas and messages should remain open—and this is an important caveat to maintain.

However, it is equally important to be privy to the fact that our politics are determined by the heuristics made available to us. Contrary to folk theories of democracy, we don’t vote, or otherwise politically behave, according to rational maxims. The political sphere is ensnared by cognitive constraints shaped by language, symbols, visual cues, and messages that inflict low-resolution representations of ‘the political’ upon us.

It is incumbent upon the political participant to develop their own sophistication by navigating those symbols and heuristics that we expose ourselves to, and triage them in a way that makes sense to us. To convert them into ordered messages, parable-like and didactic, that mold into our social schemata. And yet they are unfinished and amorphous, as is the development of our political sophistication, as is the acuity of our political minds: when We are the 99% has lost its ring, we move on to other schema, other stories.

The Unfinished: Storytelling as Political Necessity

In defense of: responsible government

Since I know you’ve been losing sleep over whether responsible government is a legitimate constitutional convention of Canadian parliament, I thought I’d take a minute to get to the bottom of it.

First, what it is:

Jennifer Smith (1999) posits responsible government (RG) as the organizing principle of several interlocking components that comprise the Westminster system of government—the electoral system, party discipline, democratic representation, adversarialism, majority rule, and a separation of constitutionally defined powers. As the institutional design of Parliament, responsible government confers sovereignty in the Queen and holds Her Majesty’s Government to account by requiring the confidence of the directly elected House. Through this mechanism, Parliament is assembled through direct lines of accountability.

If a vote of confidence is lost, then constitutional convention dictates that the Prime Minister must request the Governor General to dissolve parliament and issue the writ of election. In exercising these prerogative powers of the Crown, the primacy of the Queen is respected as the seat of sovereign authority. The powers of the Crown are executed on the advice of the Prime Minister (PM), whose power is limited by their support in the House.

Per Smith, the central convention of RG is the requirement that the government maintain the confidence of the lower chamber, which thereby “enables the voters to easily identify the political players who are responsible for the public-policy agenda of the day and to punish and reward these players at the next general election (p. 399). The ability to identify these actors, and their ability to work cohesively in the national interest, relies upon a degree of partisanship in the form of party discipline (p. 405). In this respect, partisanship resolves the tension between competing popular conceptions of representation that hold parliamentarians to act as both local-level delegates and national-level representatives (p. 405).

Next, its criticisms:

Several perceived flaws are found in the current system. Savoie (1999) found that RG as an accountability mechanism has failed to prevent the PM from consolidating power within his circle of courtiers such that both Cabinet and Parliament are increasingly bypassed in the policy-making and agenda-setting processes (p. 98). According to Docherty (2014), an excess of confidence votes has caused party discipline to interfere with RG’s function of representing the electorate (pp. 154,168). Forsey (2009) censures the Crown’s uncritical allegiance to the advice of the Prime Minister in dissolving and proroguing Parliament.
Bearing these issues in mind, Peter Aucoin et al. (2011) challenge Smith by essentially positing a reverse conception of RG that sees it as a means to parliamentary democracy rather than an organizational end in itself (p. 212). They see the failures of RG as being representative of institutional deficiencies around flimsy constitutional conventions and sweeping executive powers invulnerable to democratic checks from the House.

Now, let’s look at why reform efforts have failed:

Aucoin et al. (2011) put forth a series of radical reform proposals that undermine the rules and principles of RG. These include constitutional amendments requiring the consent of two-thirds of the House to prorogue Parliament, and a “constructive non-confidence procedure” that limits the incidence of confidence motions and, in turn, reducing party discipline (p. 225). As noble as ‘democratizing’ appears, these proposals fail to account for the fact that sovereignty, under RG, rests with the Crown, who delegate the attendant responsibilities not to Parliament but to her officers in the Queen’s Privy Council. Reform efforts of this kind privilege a delegative model of representation that demands agency and local-level representation from MPs, however this interferes with RG’s constitutional function—to ensure stability, predictability, clear accountability, and the maintenance of the national interest. 

Ultimately, this embraces a theory of representation essential to Edmund Burke’s trustee model whereby legislators are sufficiently free to exercise their will with the public interest in mind, rather than their local constituency. This is in stark contrast to James Madison’s republican-inspired delegative model that sees representatives as local-level delegates tasked with expressing the will of their community. Where you align yourself among these two theories will inextricably guide your placement in the larger debate on responsible government.

As Smith advises, we are due to correct perceived democratic deficits but we ought to remain “cautious” by providing reasonable checks that are consistent with RG. Smith suggests an overhaul of our electoral system to a form of proportional representation as a means of inhibiting majority governments and restoring greater agency in the House, without thwarting the ordering principle from which sovereignty and accountability emanate. To suggest that the principle of responsible government itself can be reformed is to suggest that one lacks a full appreciation of its function.


Jennifer Smith (1999) “Democracy and the Canadian House of Commons at the Millenium”, Canadian Public Administration, 42(4): 398-421

Peter Aucoin, Mark Jarvis, and Lori Turnbull (2011) Democratizing the Constitution: Reforming Responsible Government. Toronto: Emond Montgomery Publications.

Donald Savoie (2009) “Power at the Apex: Executive Dominance” in Canadian Politics (6th ed.) by James Bickerton.

In defense of: responsible government

Abridged: toward a modular framework for integrative research in IR theory


International relations (IR) theory as a discipline of study has both suffered from and found communicative grounding in a series of well-connected “Great Debates” between generations of conflicting theoretical schools. Presently, the crux of the fourth Debate can be summed as such: positivism versus interpretivism (sometimes conflated with “post-positivism”). In recent years, there have been a number of calls to reverse the so-called “balkanization” of the field (Colgan, 2016: 7), mostly advocating for a degree of cross-theoretical dialogue, and a pragmatic admission that both schools offer mutually enriching tools for problem solving (Price & Reut-Smit, 1996; Kowert & Shannon, 2002; Fearon & Wendt, 2002; Katzenstein, Keohane, & Krasner, 1998). At the same time, there have been counter-argumentative efforts that reify the divisions between the two predominant philosophies, pointing to certain fundamental rifts in methodology that demand consideration (Moravcsik, 1999; Mearsheimer, 1994). At the forefront of the epistemic divide are a growing school of scholars who are crafting an obscure, though earnest, conciliatory framework for bridging the rival paradigms. Borrowing from recent developments in the philosophy of social science, “critical realists” (or critical naturalists) have provided a possible catch-all epistemology that accommodates for the ontological claims from both sides of the field (Jackson, 2010; Bhaskar, Esbjorn-Hargens, Hartwig, & Hedlund, 2016). I intend to situate this emerging interface within the established canon of IR theory in such a way that it provides space for a possible détente between opposing theoretical factions. To this end, I will illustrate my solution using the concept of modular design.

In plain terms, positivism is a collection of multiple epistemological approaches that share the foundational assumptions in the efficacy of (i) data derived from empirical evidence, and (ii) its interpretation through reason and logic, as the only source of true positive knowledge (Larrain, 1979); albeit, this statement has no intention of ever “being proved” as a truth claim itself (p. 197). And here lies the crux of the debate: positivism, on the whole, relies on a Humean account of causality and a foundational claim of scientific laws as being those extracted from the empirical unification of events. These assumptive premises have been questioned as to whether they are consistent with some general “goal of understanding” (Smith, 2006: 192). Smith (2006) goes on to point out that the antithetical method employed by the interpretivist of rejecting natural or social causality contradicts their inclusion of this world in their research should it maintain any pretenses to science or ‘inquiry’ (p. 192). We can now infer that the ontological status of causality, and thus what can be known about the world in general, presents a rift between the two parties that fundamental obstructs their ability to meaningfully communicate with each other—or, in more temporal terms, there is no mid-level theory on which these epistemologies can interact.

In advancing further with respect to the positivist’s dilemma, it would be a disservice to the debate to not continue expounding its foundational difficulties. At its core, the positivist advances a causal mechanistic framework that rests upon grossly unempirical assumptions regarding “timeless necessary connections” between causal events (that is, the inextricable quality linking ∆X with ∆Y); however, to accept this as true would be to accept that nothing, in empirically verifiable terms, binds X and Y together, and the fact that “all past [X] has been [X and Y together, and the fact that “all past [Xs] have been [Ys] is a matter of cosmic coincidence” (Hildebrand, 2016: 4). This is a cogent description of David Hume’s critique of inductive reasoning which, in broad terms, posits that inductive arguments are concerned with inferential justifications from the premises; however, inductive premises are justified themselves by subjective experiences which themselves have no immediate bearing “on how the inference from that premise to the conclusion is justified” (BonJour, 2010: 53).

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Abridged: toward a modular framework for integrative research in IR theory