The U.S. Ambassador to Canada says the question of whether or not foreign election interference is happening is less important than whether it’s been successful, and he hasn’t seen any proof that alleged interference attempts by China in Canada’s elections have managed to affect the results.
David Cohen told CTV’s Question Period host Vassy Kapelos in an interview airing Sunday, his many years of political experience have led to his developing a “certain level of skepticism and thick skin,” and an “assumption” that both China and Russia have been interfering in the elections of several countries for years.
“I almost think it’s not even worth asking the question about whether there’s interference,” he said. “I think the better question is: what is the interference targeting? Has it had any impact? Has it had any effect?
“I’ve seen nothing that anyone’s reported or that anyone has said that’s been able to disclose any impact from any alleged interference by the Chinese in the last couple of Canadian elections,” he said.
Recent reports of alleged Chinese interference in Canada’s last two federal elections have led to mounting pressure from the opposition for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to call a public inquiry to investigate the issue.
Trudeau announced this week he’s appointed a special rapporteur — former Governor General David Johnston — to assess foreign interference and the integrity of Canada’s democracy, plus make a recommendation on whether to hold an inquiry.
Cohen said he wouldn’t weigh into whether there should be a rapporteur, or an inquiry, or any other “mechanism” to evaluate foreign interference attempts, but that it’s important the issue is being taken seriously.
“I think the Chinese and the Russians have been at this for a long time,” he also said.
Canadian Ambassador to the U.S. Kirsten Hillman told Kapelos, also in a CTV’s Question Period interview airing Sunday, that no American official has raised concerns about Chinese interference in Canada’s elections with her.
“Obviously I see that this is an important subject of discussion here, but it is not something that has been raised with me by any American interlocutors,” Hillman said.
Ahead of U.S. President Joe Biden’s highly anticipated first official visit to Canada next week, Cohen sat down with Kapelos to lay out the American priorities.
Biden is set to meet with Trudeau and his cabinet before addressing Parliament.
Cohen also touched on Canada’s defence spending, something that’s expected to be on the agenda for the presidential visit. The last American president to visit Ottawa — and to address Parliament — was Barack Obama in 2016. In the 50-minute speech, Obama said: “NATO needs more Canada.”
Canada has long faced calls to increase its defence spending to two per cent of its GDP, the agreed-upon target by NATO members as part of the Wales Summit Declaration in 2014.
Cohen said Canada has “stepped up” in many of its spending commitments, including in support for Ukraine, and plans to modernize Norad, so he’d “rather look at Canada’s conduct and what it’s actually doing, as opposed to any formula.”
“But that doesn’t mean that this won’t be, and shouldn’t be, a topic of ongoing conversation,” he added. “Because we do need more dollars for defence.
“We’re facing 21st century threats that require 21st century solutions, and that require 21st century funding,” he also said.
Read Cohen’s full interview with Vassy Kapelos for Sunday’s episode of CTV’s Question Period, which has been edited for length and clarity.
Vassy Kapelos: I wanted to start by asking, from your perspective, what is the president’s primary objective for this visit?
Ambassador Cohen: “I think there are a few objectives, but the best way to crystallize it is to say that this is an opportunity for the president and the prime minister to celebrate the successes of this extraordinary partnership, over the past couple of years, the progress we’ve made against the roadmap. And then to help set an agenda for the next couple of years as we think about our commitments to shared security, shared prosperity, and to shared values. That’s what’s defined our partnership and our relationship, and I think basically everything that happens in the visit can be bucketed in one of those three places, as we recommit ourselves to growing our economies and making our countries and our hemisphere and the democracies around the world more secure.”
Kapelos: I want to start with the bucket of security. I was thinking back to when a previous president was here, President Barack Obama, and his address to Parliament, one of the lines that generated a lot of headlines was “NATO needs more Canada.” That was specifically around the premise that the president had hoped Canada would spend more money on defence. Does Joe Biden want Canada spend more money on defence?
Ambassador Cohen: “I’ve learned a long time ago that I always let my principal speak for himself or herself. I think we need to wait for the leaders to have their conversation, but there’s just no doubt that defence is at the top of the agenda for the United States, and I believe, at the top of the agenda for Canada as well.
The last month has shown we’re facing 21st century threats. Who would have thought that a balloon would create all of the noise and concern — this balloon floating over Canada, the United States, and the Arctic? So we’re facing 21st century threats that require 21st century solutions, and that require 21st century funding.
I think funding of defence is important. It’s important for the United States. It’s important for Canada. So I think how we fund our 21st century defence efforts in order to confront 21st century threats will be a topic of conversation.”
Kapelos: In the past, there has been concern from previous administrations about the level of spending as a portion of GDP — as part of the agreement of NATO countries — to try to target two per cent on defence spending. Canada has so far fallen short. Is there a concern in this administration, from your perspective, about the level of defence spending here in Canada, or have you seen during your time here a pivot in that?
Ambassador Cohen: “I don’t want to answer the question based upon a formula, and based upon the Wales Summit Declaration, which I will point out, by the way, was an agreement by NATO countries, and Canada agreed to spend two per cent of its GDP on defence. This is not something the United States or NATO, or any other country, is seeking to impose on Canada, it’s something Canada agreed to do.
I’d rather focus on the overall threat posture, on what the world looks like today, and on whether the United States, Canada, the rest of NATO members, and the rest of democracies around the world are investing appropriately in defence. Are they deploying what they are spending in an appropriate way? Additional Canadian investments in defence have been noticeable. In the last year, it added $8 billion dollars to the budget. That’s not pocket change. The Canadian government announced a Norad modernization plan with real dollars attached to it. We have to see how that shows up in the budget, but it was a real plan with real dollars attached to it. Canada released an Indo-Pacific Strategy that also had real dollars attached to it, many of that for defence. Canada has certainly stepped up in its support for Ukraine in terms of military equipment and humanitarian assistance, so I’d rather look at Canada’s conduct and what it’s actually doing, as opposed to any formula.
But that doesn’t mean that this won’t be, and shouldn’t be, a topic of ongoing conversation. Because we do need more dollars for defence. I mean, Norad has real needs, and there are only two members of Norad, Canada and the United States, so if Norad has additional needs, for equipment, for infrastructure, to support that commitment, it can only come from Canada and the United States.”
Kapelos: Do you anticipate, or do you have any impression, that the needs of Norad could exceed the resources already promised?
Ambassador Cohen: “I’ll be honest with you, I’m not sure we understand what resources have been promised or allotted. There have been a lot of numbers floating around over a very long period of time. I try not to do this, but I’m going to quote (U.S. Defense) Secretary (Lloyd) Austin — in a bilateral meeting that he had with (Canadian) Defence Minister (Anita) Anand at the Halifax Security Forum when they were talking about the Norad modernization equipment — and what Secretary Austin said, is we’re very appreciative of that commitment, and we need to have some conversations about the size and timing of those commitments.”
Kapelos: So is it fair to say that the U.S. would like some more specifics?
Ambassador Cohen: “I think there are ongoing conversations about the specifics of it. I think, in the Norad context, there may be more of a focus on timing than there is on dollars, because there’s agreement, for example, on the new radar systems and Canada’s agreed to pay for them. The question is when are they going to be available? When will they be ready? I think Norad has a perspective around the threat posture, which would call for an earlier investment than the current plan by the Canadians.”
Kapelos: Does the United States want Canada to lead a military mission in Haiti?
Ambassador Cohen: “So, as usual, you ask very good questions, right to the point, but it’s a little bit of a simplified assumption behind that question. The United States and Canada, but I’ll just talk about the United States, desperately needs to see a plan to stabilize the situation in Haiti. It’s one of the great risks in our hemisphere and maybe in the world. One approach to that is a multinational force, which will need a leader — and there certainly have been discussions about whether Canada would be prepared to lead such a force — but there are other options, and they have also been the subject of discussion.
And I’ll give you one example, which is how effective can we be in the application of sanctions in bringing the elites and the bad guys in Haiti more under control? Canada has been a strong proponent of the effectiveness of sanctions, and has really led in the application of sanctions in Haiti. I think it’s too early to tell how effective they’ve been, but they’ve certainly had some effect, so that’s another approach.
Kapelos: So the military option isn’t the only option, is that what you’re saying?
Ambassador Cohen: “Correct. The third approach is to improve the capacity of the Haitian National Police. That’s another place where Canada believes there is work to be done and can be done. What I’m trying to say is that solving the problem, stabilizing the situation in Haiti, so that it can be sufficiently stable for there to be free and fair elections, and have a real, democratically elected government installed in Haiti, is a shared objective by Canada and the United States. The tactics of how we get there has been a continuing subject of discussion, and although I don’t want to speak for the leaders and the agenda, it is still under discussion. I’d be surprised if there were not a continuation of those discussions during the (presidential) visit.”
Kapelos: I have one more question for you, as it relates to security, and that is around the Indo-Pacific strategy, for example, and the balloons and China. The U.S. posture towards China, and the Canadian posture towards China, is a very live discussion right now. I am wondering, from where you sit, if you have concerns about the allegations, as I’m sure you’ve read about, that China’s interfering in Canadian elections?
Ambassador Cohen: “You’re talking to somebody with a lot of years of political experience, and out of those years has come a certain level of skepticism and thick skin. My assumption is that for at least the last five years, maybe longer than that, China and Russia have been interfering in democratic elections around the world, including in the United States and in Canada. I almost think — and this may be controversial, I know it’s a very hot topic in Canada — it’s not even worth asking the question about whether there’s interference. I think the better question is: what is the interference targeting? And has it had any impact? Has it had any effect?
I’ve seen nothing that anyone’s reported or that anyone has said that’s been able to disclose any impact from any alleged interference by the Chinese in the last couple of Canadian elections.
I’m the U.S. Ambassador to Canada, not a policy maker. I’m not going to say whether the mechanism that the prime minister has set up to try and get to the bottom of this is the right mechanism, or should there be a different mechanism to do that. To me, the most important thing is it’s being treated incredibly seriously by the prime minister, by the press, by Parliament, and I think we will know more as this process goes through as to whether there was interference, and most importantly, if there was, if it had any impact on the elections. But I suggest that it’s that second question that is the most important question to be asked.”
Kapelos: And does that surprise you, what you’ve read so far?
Ambassador Cohen: “It really doesn’t. I think the Chinese and the Russians have been at this for a long time.”
Kapelos: Okay, Ambassador, I’ll have to leave it there. I look forward to seeing more of you this week.
Ambassador Cohen: “Thank you, I appreciate being here, I’m always happy to come back.”