“We must proclaim our principles so that we may influence others, and…by every peaceful means…spread those great truths across the world.” — Margaret Thatcher, speaking at the founding conference of the International Democrat Union (IDU) in 1983
It’s not stretching the truth to say that conservatives in Canada are a somewhat dispirited lot. Having just lost what seemed like an eminently winnable federal election, will we ever win again and, if we do, will there be a country left for us to govern? While we Canadians think of ourselves as worldly, we often know little about what’s going on internationally, beyond perhaps the latest UN declaration, insults of Donald Trump or news from our particular old country. Conservatives should pay more attention, because worldwide our political philosophy is doing just great, thanks. It is winning elections in countries large and small, facing the challenges of the time and developing innovative policies and approaches to governing.
In the grey days of early December, I was fortunate to be in Washington, D.C., attending the annual conference of the International Democrat Union (IDU). It gave me a fair and, actually, optimistic and hopeful feel for the pulse of global conservatism. Without breaching Chatham House rules, I can say there were no MAGA hats or yellow vests, nor directives from the Trilateral Commission. It was a mainstream centre-right event.
The broad span of discussion covered the mechanics and techniques of electoral success, the state of and challenges posed by certain undemocratic countries, the approach and track record of conservative governments in various democracies, and the implications of particular business phenomena and technologies for democracy and conservatism. Astoundingly, the IDU even managed to find a conservative tech giant from Silicon Valley, who shall remain nameless for his protection.
The IDU was formed in 1983 to bring regional groupings of centre-right parties into a single international organization. The aim was to enable them to exchange views on policy and organizational matters – what’s termed “best practices” today – to establish contacts – “networking” – in a pre-internet and even pre-fax era of snail mail and $2-per-minute international calling and, significantly, to “speak with one strong voice to promote democracy and centre-right politics around the globe.”
Most of the era’s conservative luminaries, including Thatcher, George H.W. Bush, Germany’s Helmut Kohl and France’s Jacques Chirac, participated in the founding meeting at the Hotel International in London. Canada was represented by someone distinctly less famous but serious and committed, Progressive Conservative stalwart Erik Nielsen. Nielsen was a Yukon MP who would rise to Deputy Prime Minister, and who passed along “new leader” Brian Mulroney’s regrets for not attending. Nielsen believed the new organization would underline the “common principles of individual rights, the rule of law and the free market economy.”
The statement of principles of the IDU’s founding declaration, signed by 19 individuals representing 17 countries, echoed Nielsen’s sentiments, adding the need to support the family as a “fundamental social and cohesive force” as well as the responsibility to help the weak and less fortunate “by encouraging self-help and individual enterprise” and providing “choice in the provision of services.” Who would have predicted that the main external threat to these principles would be vanquished just a few years later, but that they would become far less “common” and fall under dire threat in Canada just two decades into the 21st century?
The IDU’s latest meeting in Washington drew many current and recent politicians as well as heads of state. There were several U.S. senators, amongst them the quixotic Mitt Romney (aka “Pierre Delecto”), Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, former Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, Congresswoman Liz Cheney (the former Vice President’s daughter), Lord Michael Ashcroft, former Europarliament member and Brexit movement co-founder Daniel Hannan, the former Prime Minister of Slovakia, government ministers from Hungary, Chile and Bosnia, Ontario Premier Doug Ford (who gave a keynote address), former President of the Treasury Board Tony Clement, and others. Senior political organizers participated from Australia’s Liberal Party (Oz’s conservatives), Austria’s People’s Party (the country’s mainstream conservatives), the Union of Latin American Parties, and of course the U.S. Republican National Committee.
It was nice to get a break from the gloom in my own country and to absorb firsthand the health and strength of the conservative movement around the world. The mood of delegates was upbeat though not buoyant, certainly not reflecting the turmoil swirling around domestic U.S. politics at the time. The impeachment circus was just then playing out in the House of Representatives. Of more concern was the impending UK election, about which delegates were cautiously optimistic but nervous given that the pivotal was issue Brexit.
Most sessions were internationally-focused in areas of usual interest to conservatives: free trade/protectionism, challenges with migration, and the obligatory panel on the future of conservatism. Refreshingly, there was also discussion of the threats and opportunities presented by digital technology and artificial intelligence (AI), as well as a cogent session on Latin America. The session on winning campaigns, featuring Australians, Austrians and Americans, was also excellent, but what was said in the room stays there.
Several common themes spontaneously emerged from separate sessions covering disparate topics, winding around and binding together the entire conference. One was China, with U.S. senators and other attendees independently turning to this topic. The clear-headed observations about the Middle Kingdom, so admired by our “basic dictatorship”-loving Prime Minister and a healthy cadre of the Laurentian Elite, were arresting. The emergence of a populous, economically robust and geopolitically ambitious power that continues to be controlled by its Communist Party and that is striving to project its not-exactly-benign influence is increasingly viewed not merely as a challenge but as a threat.
China’s expanding, muscular foreign policy – which has included acquiring 42 ports in 34 countries, providing aid in the developing world in return for dependency, building and militarizing artificial islands in the South China Sea – is a reality. Legions of Chinese students are paid by Beijing to study abroad, with the understanding that the lessons from key disciplines will be brought home. The “Thousand Talents Program”, for instance, spends lavishly to repatriate knowledge and expertise, raising the spectre of scientific espionage. Similarly, the “military-civil fusion strategy” (notes Bloomberg) fosters employment of resources, technology and key people to achieve simultaneous advances in both sectors.
This is of significant concern, and more than theory. In mid-February the chief information officer of California’s massive state pension manager was accused by a U.S. Congressman of funnelling US$3.1 billion into blacklisted Chinese companies, some of them producing military or state-surveillance equipment. The man, a U.S. citizen of Chinese descent, is alleged to have been a Thousand Talents Program recruit.
Where the American economy currently stands in relation to this is uncertain. One senator noted that the U.S. had lost 9 million manufacturing jobs since 2000 – most of these to Asia. Not an uplifting statistic. By his estimate, the Trump administration had brought back 500,000 of these so far. A modest success, but the fact that up to 40 percent of these are with R&D-intensive companies is encouraging.
Another challenge for U.S. companies will be achieving some kind of convergence with Beijing in manufacturing and industrial standards, to overcome the proverbial (but real) “baby formula made in the pesticide drum” problem. Of course, “convergence” really means getting the other side to move. That will be no small feat, especially in an era when the other side acts confident if not belligerent, the West diffident and plagued with self-doubt. Corona virus, of course, was not yet an issue.
Silicon Valley has its own unique perspective on China. One of the five remaining conservative tech gurus from the Bay Area was brought to the conference, under close guard, to discuss the state of his industry in areas that might interest conservative delegates. He maintained that, where once the Chinese were “copiers”, the country’s tech firms are now solidly in the top echelon of tech innovation. The rapid evolution of AI is of particular concern, with the possibility of a “Chinese dystopian future” involving widespread surveillance, coercion and shaming of populations.
For conservatives evaluating and attempting to formulate responses to these phenomena, the tech guru warned, a big task will be to resist the “centralizing” tendency of things like AI, while favouring “decentralizing” innovations like block-chain. Similarly, the likelihood that Asia and China in particular would be most amenable to human gene editing and manipulation does not inspire calm. If this occurs, the question becomes, can the West react with indifference and restraint, or will we be forced to compete?
Populism was another important but perhaps more subterranean theme permeating the conference, as you might expect. Remarkably, the discussions had nothing to do with the sire of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The focus, rather, was mainly on European delegations that seemed to straddle the line between legacy conservatism and populism. It was instructive to see how tensions between these two streams are playing out in different countries.
Cursed, as the saying goes, with too much history and too little geography, European conservatism seems enveloped by the past, but this varies from region to region. It has been argued, for example, that Hungary’s reaction to the migrant crisis – the erection of border fences and re-imposition of entry controls while stoutly proclaiming her national interest, in an era when EU bureaucrats cringe at the very word “nation” – hearkens back to Hungary’s historical mistreatment of national minorities.
Conversely, it can be argued – more convincingly, in my view – that the very experience of Fascist and Communist totalitarianism underpins Hungary’s present-day defence of European traditions and culture. In other words, Hungary’s government, backed by an electoral majority of its citizens, know what they are talking about. Some would even hear echoes of Hungary’s bloody and often losing battles with the invading Ottoman Turks from the 15th through late 17th centuries, when Hungarians were literally on the front line of Western civilization.
Today, Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz Party government mixes a more overt populism and Euroscepticism with free-market and traditional conservative policies, as well as strong ties to Israel. It is preposterous to call him anti-Semitic, although that doesn’t stop the left from repeating this endlessly. Speaking at the IDU conference was Katalin Novak, Hungarian Minister of State for Family, Youth and International Affairs. She spoke on the rather delicate topic of demographics. The Hungarian average birth rate is 1.4, well below the replacement rate of 2.1 and Novak summarized the various incentives her government is implementing in an attempt to make more Magyars. It’s hoped that young Hungarians will respond to the financial and other inducements and take up the procreational challenge with gusto.
Populist-traditionalist tension appeared more acute amongst the German-speaking delegates. Austria’s People’s Party (Volkspartei) had its national campaign manager showcase its recent electoral success, propelled by the party’s dynamic young leader, Sebastian Kurz. The People’s Party has not only been rejuvenated, including deep internal reforms and re-branding, but seems also to have channelled populist momentum away from the more right-wing, nationalist Freedom Party (Freiheitliche Partei). Since the conference, however, the People’s Party formed a governing coalition with the Greens, so the jury is still out.
Murkier still is the situation in Germany, where it’s fair to say that populism is perceived not only by the left and the entire cultural elite but by many traditional conservatives as something to be kept at bay. Observers have pointed out the double standard in Germany, where unreconstructed Communists have formed state governments and coalition partners while populists are viewed by many as beyond the pale.
The weeks following the conference, in fact, brought about a veritable crisis for Germany’s Christian Democrats and Chancellor Angela Merkel. She intervened personally and, her opponents say, illegally and unconstitutionally, in an electoral drama in the province of Thuringia – where the populist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD, the Alternative for Germany, not an IDU member), had won over 23 percent support in recent elections. The situation at the time of writing, with Merkel’s CDU apparently preferring to favour the left and even far left over the populists, is reverberating across the country. Another jury still out.
Delegates were also holding their collective breath about the UK, given that the conference occurred just days before the December election. Honorary IDU Chairman Lord Michael Ashcroft presented remarkably detailed polling on attitudes in Britain, which cautiously anticipated Boris Johnson’s win, and provided analyses that helped explain the outcome. By contrast, the Australian Liberal contingent was justifiably satisfied with its “unexpected” – that is, by Aussie legacy media – election victory last May. They convincingly repeated their winning campaign axioms: fighting for every last vote pays dividends, as does knowing your turf and the voters better than your opponents.
The different experiences related by the European attendees, revealing the state of their parties and countries, underscored that today it is post-Communist Eastern Europe, plus Austria, that are leading, carrying the torch and lighting the path of conservatism. Orbán, for example, has openly dedicated Hungary to defending Western values, culture and civilization, including the West’s historically Christian character – concepts that are literally anathema among Eurocrats. Orbán has bet not only his career by his country’s wellbeing on his commitment to these traditional ideas.
This sounds echoes of the IDU’s founding meeting, where Thatcher made a characteristically strong case for liberty and conservatism. Totalitarian countries, she said, can never “extinguish the flame of freedom”, freedom being “too strong and too resilient to be crushed by the tanks of tyrants”. She declared, “The values which we cherish – and which others yearn for – are democracy, freedom, justice and personal responsibility. The challenge which faces us today is how we defend and extend those values in a fragmented world.”
Today’s Western European conservative parties, by contrast, by and large seem to be undergoing a crisis of confidence, perhaps due as much to an inability to handle the rise of new domestic political movements as international challenges. Legacy conservatives appear strongly tempted to delegitimize new, politically immature challengers. The UK election result, if it portends an era of principled Conservative government, might begin to shift the geographical balance westward over the medium term. That said, Great Britain may instead focus more on itself and its overseas trading partners, while ignoring European politics as much as it can.
Canada’s situation perhaps parallels our nearest political cousins, the U.S. and Australia, rather than Europe. Of course, we Canadian Conservatives also got over our populist-traditionalist split almost 20 years ago. Perhaps some of the European parties could learn from us. Unlike the Americans and Aussies though, we are still debating the best way back to power. Clearly, some of the European examples, like Germany, are not to be emulated. Allowing right-wing challengers to grow from low single digits to almost 25 percent is no recipe for the centre-right’s success. Nor might “national conservatism”, while working in more ethnically homogeneous Eastern Europe, hold lessons for us.
The IDU has undergone a distinct revitalization under our own ex-Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who has been Chairman since early 2018. Today, the IDU has over 80 member parties as well as conservative educational and advocacy groups and partners, such as Germany’s Konrad Adenauer Foundation, named after the post-Second World War Christian Democrat political titan. Similar organizations exist on the Left, including the Socialist and Liberal internationals and, apparently, about a dozen assorted Marxist, Trotskyist and even Anarcho-syndicalist groupings. You can look it up.
Fittingly, the two-day, two-evening conference wrapped up with a speech by someone who had lived under Communism, Mikulasz Dzurinda. The trim, athletic Dzurinda, Prime Minister of Slovakia from 1998 to 2006, reminded delegates that it was conservatives from the IDU’s founding parties who stood firm against Communist totalitarianism and won the Cold War. Relating his own experiences growing up under oppression and later helping form the first free government in modern Czechoslovakia, Dzurinda emphasized the need to educate the young, first about the truth of totalitarian Leftism and, second, about the necessity for constant vigilance against its enduring threat. His speech, in a way, came full circle to the founding remarks of Lady Thatcher. It also re-emphasized the growing leadership role of Eastern European conservatives.
The lesson is that conservatives must stand firm against new forms of authoritarianism and repression around the globe as they arise. And they are arising. The direction Canada and other “Western” countries are taking today only intensifies Dzurinda’s message. The IDU was founded during the Cold War trials of the late 20th century and, as a forum for networking and cooperation, offers only one part of what is needed to meet the challenges of the 21st. As in 1983, it will be up to conservative leaders and governments to hang together – or separately.
John Weissenberger is a Calgary-based geologist and Montreal native who has been active in federal and provincial politics for over 40 years.