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Comment: Diplomacy freed the Two Michaels. Now, time for a little amnesia

A commentary by a former high commissioner to London and former Canadian ambassador to Moscow, Italy and the European Union. He wrote this for Policy Magazine.
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Michael Kovrig, left, and Michael Spavor are shown in 2018 images taken from video.

A commentary by a former high commissioner to London and former Canadian ambassador to Moscow, Italy and the European Union. He wrote this for Policy Magazine.

The suddenness with which the thousand-day drama of Meng and the Two Michaels concluded was truly a surprise. There were no leaks, no prim granting of anonymity by the Globe and Mail to spinners and speculators.

Most astonishing was that the status of these negotiations was kept secret even from the media in leak-addicted Washington and New York, where the legal proceedings against Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou were located.

Recalling the “Canadian caper” Iran hostage episode in 1979-80 and how the small circle of those in the know expanded with ever-increasing peril, the discipline this time in protecting the negotiations over the fate of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor was extraordinary.

This was a U.S.-China deal in the end, but one that was clearly heavily influenced by astute and effective communication by Canada.

I don’t pretend to know exactly what Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said to President Joe Biden, or when; nor how our ambassador in Beijing, Dominic Barton — a former McKinsey managing director who has considerable credibility in the U.S. as well as in China — made the case in both places for U.S.-China agreement on dual release, nor how our diplomats in Washington connected to top Biden officials.

But it was a three-way conversation, and it worked.

In the end, there is no single factor that decides for the principals it is time to end a crisis like this. The feeling that it just isn’t worth it any longer grows and many factors add to that burgeoning realization.

I’m not sure that pressure, sanctions or threats work, especially with a hard-ass regime in Beijing so determined to show it can’t be pushed around that its own pushing others around to get its way becomes almost second nature. But a cumulative erosion of global public opinion can have a real effect on multiple fronts, including self-awareness.

Of course, it was always clear that this was about an eventual trade; the Chinese said as much in June 2020. That they chose as — in their view — counter-­ hostages two Canadian men whose professional and ­legitimate activity had probably skirted internal security danger zones was obviously a convenience for the Chinese counter-narrative, and Chinese leaders would have been astonished that anyone believed it was anything other than tit-for-tat, explicit or not.

Early on, it was clear, at least to Canadian authorities, that the outcome lay in the U.S. dropping the charges against Meng. Under the Trump administration, that wasn’t going to happen.

Whether the PM did or did not tell the ex-president that he had a choice — to release Meng and take the credit, or Canada likely would, as the legal case progressed, despite our wish not to abrade Canada-U.S. relations — is now moot. It was always in the background.

And as the extradition ­hearings progressed, it became increasingly clear that ­Justice Heather Holmes had her doubts about the survivability of the U.S. case that had been argued over-the-top by Canadian Crown attorneys on behalf of the Department of Justice (as specified in the Canada-U.S. extradition hearing procedures). Huawei bought the best legal research and representation available, and at a given point, the DOJ pros must have had had their misgivings.

But everything points to the change in political attitudes from Trump to Biden; not, as it turned out, on China, but on Canada. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, who has unequalled respect internationally, gave meaning on her visit to Beijing this year to Biden’s line that “we’ll treat the Michaels as American.” It counted with China, I’m sure, and not to ­Canada’s detriment.

The stumbling block was that China wasn’t going to accept that Meng was guilty and especially not in the extraterritorial application of a unilateral U.S. law. Trump had as much as said why the U.S. had asked the Canadians to grab her at YVR for them. So, the end game was in legal ­language.

In these cases, where a human drama suddenly takes on disproportionate meaning based on the geopolitics at play — that we call them “files” belies the stakes for the people whose lives hang in the balance — diplomatic effectiveness hinges on a form of strategic amnesia.

The essential understanding is that the deal is done, the trade is made and everyone shuts up. No one re-litigates or claims they were really the ones in the right. A tacitly agreed-upon minimum of spin is observed, and all parties are presumed to have processed the lessons required to move forward responsibly.

But already, the more ideological players in the bleachers on both sides are having a go at their adversaries. Given the cost-benefit aspects of what unfolded on Friday for everyone involved, the point-scoring would be best left for the major issues of the China/U.S. rivalry. Those haven’t gone away.

Meanwhile, this exhaustive, meticulous, trilateral process worked. It’s called diplomacy.