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The Strong Do What They Can

Canada and Armenia are relearning a couple of hard realist lessons. 

Credit: Karen Poghosyan 1

Within a 24-hour timespan, two countries in very different locations and of very different cultural backgrounds relearned a very similar, timeless, and universal lesson in hard power. 

Canada’s progressive leader, Justin Trudeau, arguably the worst totalitarian in the entire Anglosphere after Jacinda Ardern, accused Indian intelligence agents of killing a Canadian Sikh on Canadian soil. Hardeep Singh Nijjar was a supporter of the Khalistani cause, an erstwhile Pakistani-backed Sikh separatist movement that plagued India in the 1980s and early 90s. It was snuffed out by the Indian army in decade-long “cleansing” operations, still internationally considered a template and studied in military academies as a successful counter-insurgency. 


Most separatist Sikh leaders migrated to Canada. Most Sikhs in general assimilated back into Indian society; the sorry chapter is unmentionable in polite society, like a gigantic ink blot one can see on someone’s jacket pocket but is hesitant to mention so as to not cause embarrassment. 

Nijjar was gunned down in a drive-by shooting in British Columbia. Tensions between India and Canada exploded in the recent G20, where Trudeau was sidelined from every meeting. India has long complained about Sikhs in Canada keeping alive the banned movement. Canada has a Sikh population of more than 770,000, about 2 percent of its total population and a huge liberal vote bloc for Trudeau’s party. There are persistent questions about how much they truly identify as Canadians and how much they are using Canada as a staging ground for pursuing separatism in India. 

After alleging Indian responsibility for the hit on Nijjar, Canada expelled a “diplomat” and had one of its diplomats expelled in turn from New Delhi. Canada also urged the Five Eyes, the core Anglosphere intelligence-sharing group, to act against India—so far to no avail. It is unlikely that this will change, given India’s importance to the U.S. and the U.K. as a potential counterbalance to the rise of China. 

In another part of the world, Azerbaijan launched another war on Armenia, the third in as many decades, and the second one after a crushing territory-capturing victory last year. Azerbaijan’s long-held grievances against Armenia turned to a war in 2020, when they won with a cruising blitzkrieg and regained the historically Armenian-claimed territories lost during the early days of Soviet collapse. 

Moscow, preparing for its own war in Ukraine, looked away as Armenia was pummeled by an Azerbaijan armed with Turkish weapons systems and drones. It was a blow to Russian prestige, and created a permanent rift between Armenia and Russia, once historic Orthodox Christian allies. Sensing Russian weakness from the Ukraine quagmire, Azerbaijan, which opposes both Russian and Iranian interest in the region, has now launched another war in the Karabakh region. It is unlikely that Russia will help Armenia or is even capable of helping Armenia. The U.S. has been mediating this conflict since the 1990s, and recently there has been a marked shift in Armenian rhetoric about closer ties with the U.S. and Turkey. 


Both these cases demonstrate two clear principles of realism: that regime and ideology truly do not matter in foreign policy, and that what matters are relative and aggregate power. America has effectively hinged her entire grand strategy and even her prestige and ruling party’s popularity in defeating Russia in Ukraine, but has been strictly non-interventionist on the issue of the Azeri–Armenian war. While there are not many instances in recent history where one can commend American non-intervention, the fact that America whistled while Azerbaijan pulverized Armenia would have warmed Cardinal Richelieu’s cold heart. 

Azeri and Turkish power and alignment in the region serve as a counter-balance to Iran and Russia, so Washington’s non-interference is practically a tacit support of Azerbaijan. This is a classical play of amoral imperial balance of power in the region—something of a lost art these days. Defending “norms” and opposing “territorial conquest” are again apparently judged on a case-by-case basis. Our bastards are our bastards, after all. 

Trudeau banked his entire political capital on the post-Trump era and the idea that there would be a “progressive international”; in this imaginary bloc, there would be no signs of “authoritarianism” and he won’t have to deal with “hard power” at all—a world where norms are almost magically respected. Then Biden canceled his oil pipeline. His current pleas will fall on deaf ears, as America is bending over backwards to appease and trust Modi and prop up India against China (another future costly mistake that American strategists have yet to comprehend). When Russia assassinated Britons on British soil in 2018, Canada backed the U.K. in imposing serious costs on Moscow including outing Russian assets and agents. From what we have seen thus far, the favor is unlikely to be repaid anytime soon. 

Trudeau’s banking on the tiny Sikh diaspora for his ethnic liberal vote bank politics has alienated a major foreign economic power in India. It was a moronic thing to do, given that Sikhs in Canada for the most part only truly care about Sikhs in Punjab. But Western liberals are yet to either comprehend or grapple seriously with the concept of an ethnocentric “dual-loyalty,” given how they oppose any form of nationalism and national borders at all costs. 

Likewise, the Armenians are relearning how compromise from a position of power would have been better, and that nemesis usually follows hubris (something Ukraine might also relearn in the coming days). They rejected a compromise with Azerbaijan in the late ’90s and the 2000s to consolidate the fluid borders from a position of relative strength. Now their myopic intransigence has returned with a recurring cost. 

The Armenians and the Canadians are learning what the Melians did thousands of years ago: that there is always a price to pay after a bad gamble, and that relative power and compromise are greater determinants of history than vague appeals to norms and arcs of justice.