Lalo Espejo interviews West Coast iconoclast Michael Byers
I’ve gone to see Michael Byers speak a couple of times in the last year—at the downtown Vancouver library for a panel discussion on the Middle East, and at the University of BC to consider the legal implications of the melting Arctic on Canada’s sovereignty. Pretty dry stuff, right? But Byers delivers his message with clear-minded and infectious enthusiasm, whether deftly parsing the nuances of Israeli/Arab relations or telling anecdotes about the Inuit staring down passing US navy vessels. His philosophy is clearly that if something is worth communicating, then it’s worth communicating with verve.
Byers landed on my radar last year, when I got curious about the changing international role of Canada’s military. A lawyer whose specialty is war law and, more recently, a political scientist, he’s become a prolific commentator in the national and international press. His opinion pieces on some of the world’s most pressing concerns show up in The Globe and Mail, The Guardian and the London Review of Books. In subject, he ranges from eloquently criticizing Canada’s actions in Afghanistan to addressing Arctic environmental concerns to laying out ideas for Canada to maximize its international profile. And unlike the stereotype of the overly polite Canadian, Byers is willing to take swings without apology.
Poised to become a major Canadian intellectual figure—but not currently thinking of entering politics (he has young kids)—Byers, at 40, projects a boyish earnestness. It’s a trait that might be annoying in an undergrad, but is essential to the charisma of a leader. His recent history is one of high achievement as well as following his heart. In 2004, he gave up a tenured position at South Carolina’s Duke University to become Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at UBC. To be sure, it wasn’t like he left one of America’s top academic institutes to become a circus juggler—none other than Trudeau-era star politician Lloyd Axworthy recruited him to the Liu Centre for Global Issues. But still, a lot of people would have given their left n...ostril for tenure at Duke.
During his time in the US, Byers developed a directness that he values as a more honest way of communicating. Part and parcel of that trait is his willingness to take on prominent Canadian figures in the media. (And that includes the media itself; take a look at his comments on Globe and Mail columnist Christie Blatchford’s Afghanistan reports below.)
Last summer during the war between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon, Canada’s highly respected criminal-defence lawyer, Edward Greenspan (currently defending Lord Conrad Black of Crossharbour) chided UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour for suggesting that some of Israel’s actions in Lebanon could give rise to individual criminal responsibility. As part of his argument, he expressed opinions on matters of war law. Byers responded with a resounding defence of Arbour’s comments, ending his article with this outright scolding: "Mr. Greenspan, an acclaimed domestic criminal defence lawyer, might want to brush up on his international law. His services might soon be required."
Byers has also notably gone after Canada’s Chief of Defence Staff, General Rick Hillier, and wonders why the media gives him a "free pass." During our conversation, he compared Hillier to former US General Douglas MacArthur, who was removed from his command by then-president Harry Truman for becoming inappropriately wrapped up in the politics of the Korean War, "just like General Hillier has become involved with the politics of the Afghanistan war."
Byers evidently hopes to inspire more of a fighting spirit among an engaged public, media and government. This, he believes, would improve the quality of argument to levels found in Europe. Rather than the typical Canadian idea of debate as "opinion versus opinion," he’s looking for those offering opinions to include a cogent basis of reasoning, to build a case for persuasion. "We’re a little bit lazy about defending our positions in this country," he said.
This slothful tendency goes hand-in-hand with an ingrained national aversion to emotional expression. For contrast, Byers tells a story about an experience he had as a visiting professor in South Africa in the summer of 2005. The example is perhaps a tad too strong for Canadian sensibilities, but the point is taken:
I remember my first day in Cape Town walking into the law faculty and there was a student and professor who were yelling at each other in the hallway...yelling! I thought they were going to start punching each other. Turns out they were yelling about a South African constitutional court decision that had been released that morning...They were yelling about ideas! It just so happened that they were so passionate about their ideas that they were raising their voices. It wasn’t a negative thing—it was a positive thing—they cared. None of this subdued, polite, mince-your-words, don’t say things that are provocative. In South Africa and in Israel people care about politics. They care about ideas. They contest them. They debate them.
All he is saying is that so should we.
ON GIVING UP A GREEN CARD
I was four-and-a-half years into my permanent residency and therefore only six months away from being able to become an American citizen. American citizenship is widely sought after, and it’s very difficult for Americans to understand why anyone would not want to receive the gift of American citizenship. But I realized at this point that I didn’t want to become an American. I was perfectly happy being what I was, and [knew] that Canada was where I wanted to be and where I had my stake. Giving up my green card was not so much the cutting of ties with the United States but more [a display of] my love for Canada.
ON CHOOSING CANADA
In part, [it’s] an attempt to actually get my hands dirty and apply my knowledge, my expertise, in a more direct way, in a place that mattered to me, and where I could have more impact. I’ve been moving from being an international lawyer to being someone who’s interested in the diplomatic and political dimensions of international relations. Coming back to Canada was an extension of that move. In fact, it was one of the main reasons for coming back; when you’re an expatriate living in another country you don’t have the same gravitas. [I wanted] to be engaged in debates concerning Canada.
ON YANK-STYLE COMMUNICATION
I now realize that I was heavily influenced in terms of my approach to my interpersonal relationships. Americans are very direct. They don’t waste time with small talk. They aren’t very patient about the slow search for consensus. They’re get-things-done people, and I’ve come back with a great deal of that as part of me. It’s been a real transition to come back to Canada and re-learn how things are done here, and conceal some of my frustration about how Canadians get things done. Not entirely conceal.
ON NAMBY-PAMBY MORALISM
I’m willing to take positions that are not within the spirit of what Canadians think is appropriate to say. I wrote a strong piece in The Globe and Mail about the mission in Afghanistan from a hard-nosed cost-benefit analysis—none of this sort of namby-pamby moralism that Canadians have been carrying around with them for decades, but just a simple ’does this make sense?’ And it was very strong in coming to the conclusion that the current counter-insurgency mission does not pass the cold, calculated rationality test. It’s a bare-knuckle piece.
ON UNHINDERED EXPRESSION
I happen to be a big proponent of the marketplace of ideas. I think you can stake out strong positions and argue them forcefully without it being personal. This is what people need to understand about the role of debate in society. You have to be able to speak straight about the most difficult issues, whether it’s a relationship with Israel and its neighbours, or whether it’s the deployment of young Canadians [to a place] where they’re in great physical/psychological risk, like Afghanistan. It’s a question of the health of a democracy, to have an almost unhindered expression of views.
ON THE SUPERIORITY OF PEACEKEEPING
Part of what’s happened since Rwanda and Bosnia is that the United Nations now gives its peacekeeping missions very robust mandates, precisely so that those sorts of things don’t happen again. The UN is engaged in more peacekeeping than ever before: 70,000 troops [are] wearing blue helmets in 16 or 17 countries. A major mission in the Congo with a contingent of 2,500 German troops [resulted in] successful elections. A major mission in Lebanon now involves troops from Spain, Italy, France, as well as a number of developing countries. You haven’t noticed it because it’s working; there is no violence in Lebanon today.
ON GETTING STUCK IN SOUTHERN AFGHANISTAN
We shouldn’t be in a position where we’re being told by the Chief of Defence Staff, Rick Hillier, that we can’t contemplate going into Lebanon as part of the next rotation of UN peacekeepers, or leading a peacekeeping mission in Darfur, because we’re fully committed to southern Afghanistan. Our sphere of options has been unnecessarily constrained. The counter-insurgency mission is not the only game in town, [but] we’ve been playing the forward position for more than a year now. Because we’re not thinking of options, we’re not pushing for change, we’re not indicating a desire to leave, by default we’re stuck there. No one wants to be there in our place.
ON BEING THE CLASS IDIOT
The whole range of NATO countries is quite happy to have young Canadians die, rather than their own soldiers, in a mission that is failing. As a result of this, we’re beginning to look like the classroom idiot who ends up having to do the most shitty job because he or she doesn’t have the intelligence or courage to actually not just analyze the position, but demand a change. And I don’t think that Canada’s role should be as the flunky who gets the job nobody else wants. I think there’s a leadership role for us to play, a persuasive role for us to play. I happen to think, on my best analysis, that in the months and years ahead we shouldn’t be in Kandahar doing these search-and-destroy missions on behalf of the United States, which is, of course, the lead country in NATO.
ON RICK HILLIER’S MISTAKES
General Hillier himself carries a good deal of the blame concerning our failing mission in southern Afghanistan. I know I’m taking on a person who is popular in Canada, and whom the media treats with kid gloves. He was the one who browbeat [then-prime minister] Paul Martin into volunteering for the most dangerous mission in Afghanistan. It was Hillier who signed the detainee transfer agreement that is fatally flawed. It’s Hillier who has, in an almost unprecedented way, engaged in a far-reaching PR campaign in support of the mission—even deploying wounded soldiers as part of [that] here at home. It’s Hillier who talked about the mission extending for 10 years or more.
ON SHINING THE SPOTLIGHT
I’m not criticizing the fact that General Hillier is outspoken. In fact I admire that because that’s what I’m doing as well. What I’m trying to break through is the deference he’s been shown by the media and the Canadian political establishment. You’ve got to expect to be called to account. I’m not attacking him because I think that he is evil or necessarily incompetent or in bed with the Bush administration. What I’m saying is, if you’re playing a central role in Canada’s most significant military deployment since the Korean war, and you are cheerleading it in a politicized manner, then it’s incumbent upon people like me, and people in media and government, to shine a spotlight on this man and his actions—that he’s not in some way distorting the decision-making process or advancing a personal agenda rather than an agenda that’s right for the country as a whole.
ON CHRISTIE BLATCHFORD’S STOCKHOLM SYNDROME
She’s fallen in love with [the soldiers]. She’s lost her capacity to be objective. I think she’s demonstrated that she’s not a very good journalist because a professional journalist should resist the Stockholm Syndrome, which is what she’s exhibiting now. She’s identified so much with the people she’s embedded with, and it shows. It’s gotten to the point that I question the judgment of the editors to let this continue. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t hear about our individual soldiers and admire what they’re doing, but it can’t be uncritical cheerleading.
ON UPBRAIDING EDWARD GREENSPAN
It happens that Eddie Greenspan and I are friends. I’ve actually worked with him as an expert witness. He’s a big boy. He might have smarted for a few days [after my Globe and Mail article was published], but Eddie’s not someone who’d let this fester.
ON BEING IGNORED BY TORONTO MEDIA
There’s a sort of out-of-sight, out-of-mind dimension. One of the things I’ve been fighting to do is to convince producers of shows like Canada A.M. or The Current that yeah, there is actually someone in Vancouver who doesn’t mind getting up at 4 a.m. Partly [this is] because I have young children and I’m often up at 4 a.m. anyway, but [also] being part of the national debate is important enough to me that I’m willing to make that effort. Vancouver seems a lot farther from Toronto than Toronto seems from Vancouver, and breaking that down has been a challenge.
ON WESTERN ROOTS
You have to understand that I am a Western Canadian. Home is a farm in Saskatchewan; I went to high school in Alberta. I do think of myself as a Western Canadian, albeit one who has lived in the East, who learned to speak French properly in Montreal [and] was accidentally born in Halifax. I don’t think of the country in provincial terms. One thing I definitely am not is a southern Ontario family compact, Upper Canada College member of the elite. I am not Bob Rae or Michael Ignatieff. My entire upbringing is one that is very much the antithesis of that cozy, Rosedale-centred view of the country and the world. .
ON LIVING AT THE CUTTING EDGE
I like to think I’m a reflection of a newer Canada. Of a Canada that in the middle of the 20th century decided that public education was a good thing, that broadening our pool of talents was central to the Canadian project. My mother was an immigrant from Germany [and] my father is part Iroquois Indian—I’m one-sixteenth Mohawk. Does this fit with Vancouver? Of course it does. It’s a place that is infused with immigrant energy, that has a perspective on the world that is definitely not downtown Toronto. There’s an almost unique ethnic mix here that’s very international, very Pacific Rim, that I find very invigorating. They don’t call it the left coast for nothing. Vancouver has been at the cutting edge of where English Canada is going as a society.
Copyright © Lalo Espejo, 2007