Times Wang is a lawyer from Montreal living in the United States focused on human rights-related work. He is writing a book about his father, Wang Bingzhang, a Chinese political prisoner and McGill University PhD whose family lives in Canada.
Imagine, if you will, this scenario: In 2020, U.S. President Donald Trump wins re-election, makes good on a promise to “open up the libel laws,” and starts to imprison journalists, whom he believes are the “enemy of the people.” The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) kicks into high gear to counter this trend and, in 2022, the Norwegian Nobel Committee awards it the Nobel Peace Prize for this work. Mr. Trump retaliates by halting U.S. imports of Norwegian salmon, and the Norwegian salmon industry suffers tremendously. For the next several years, Norway says nothing about human rights in the United States, and its government even lobbies for awarding the Nobel Prize in Economics to a pro-Trump economist.
This is no alarmist hallucination. It is more or less what happened when Chinese writer Liu Xiaobo was awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, except the relevant superpower was the People’s Republic of China.
For years, the Chinese Communist Party had led a boycott of one of Norway’s primary exports, closing its enormous market to the Scandinavian country. It was only after extended diplomatic efforts – not to mention a 2012 Nobel Prize in literature awarded to Chinese writer Mo Yan, who happened to be friendly to Beijing – that salmon exports to China began to recover.
In sum, Norway’s economy suffered for Norway’s principles.
Thus, the question currently plaguing any democracy, especially a smaller one, that deigns to stand up to authoritarian might: How much money are you willing to pay for your ideals? Invariably, there is a limit. After all, it’s too much to ask Norwegian fishermen – or Canadian farmers or Taiwanese small business people – to sacrifice their livelihoods on the altar of democracy.
And yet, whatever that limit is, there is a theoretically elegant way to delay its arrival. Suppose that in 2010, Norway had been part of a treaty in which the core promise was that democracies that stood up for democratic principles, and are being retaliated against economically, would be supported by the other participating countries in order to ease their economic pain. For example: Suppose Norway could show that a US$100-million decline in salmon exports were attributable retaliation over Mr. Liu winning the Peace Prize. Under the treaty, that might trigger an obligation for other democracies in the agreement to increase purchases of Norwegian salmon, or even to make direct cash transfers, until Norwegians were more or less made whole.
If that had been the case, the CCP-engineered boycott of Norwegian salmon would have hurt less. In turn, Norway could have stood a bit taller in its defence of cherished democratic values.
Now, imagine such a treaty were in place by the time of the scenario contemplated in the opening paragraph, and that countries such as Canada, South Korea, Japan, Australia, France and so on, were part of it. The prospect of treaty-bound countries assisting Norway if Mr. Trump were to retaliate against it for the Norwegian Nobel Committee’s award to the ACLU might deter the retaliation or at least reduce the pain. And freedom-loving people around the world might be spared the spectacle of an honourable democracy kowtowing to an authoritarian bully – which is currently an all-too-common sight.
To be sure, such a treaty would cost its members some money. But our current era is being defined by one major question: Is democracy worth it?
In high-minded speeches, elected leaders around the world claim that the answer is yes. But behind closed doors, before committing their countries to courses of action that test that claim, they’re forced to also ask themselves whether the people of their country, the ones who elected them, should suffer for those decisions. The answer to this is rarely in the affirmative.
So unfortunately, democratic values routinely give way to economic and domestic interests. But if something like an economic alliance for democracy existed, defending constituencies around the world from potential retribution, courageous stands around democratic values are likelier to occur. And no surer proof could exist that we actually value democracy, like we say we do, than if we agreed to open up our wallets to each other and pay for it.
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