Of Nails on Chalkboards

I first learned about fingernails on a chalkboard in elementary school. I had a friend who was fond of dragging his across one at random intervals, just to drive us (his friends) crazy. Since then I have used the expression “like nails on a chalkboard” from time to time, in two specific ways: either semi-literally (i.e., to describe an intensely irritating sound), or purely figuratively (to describe someone who, or something that … well … drives me crazy). I have used the expression, for example, with reference to the badly-tuned piano at summer camp, the squeak of wet shoes on the polished concrete floor at work, the guy upstairs who does carpentry all day long with what sounds like a dental drill for a whale, Linkin Park, Jared Kushner, and—most recently—Ben Shapiro.

But I have never, to the best of my recollection, ever used it with reference to a woman. Not on principle, mind you. I could probably come up with some apt exemplars if given some time to think. I just don’t think I’ve ever had the occasion.

So I was immediately struck by the outraged reaction to Ontario Premier Doug Ford when he recently said to NDP leader Andrea Horvath, “It’s like nails on a chalkboard, listening to you,” as reported by the CBC:

“We need to address the misogynistic, sexist attitude of this Premier and his government,” NDP education critic Marit Stiles tweeted in part.

Ontario Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca also weighed in on Twitter, stating: “Misogynistic rhetoric like this has no place in the Ontario Legislature. For it to be hurled by a Premier is unthinkable,” he said, adding that Ford should apologize immediately.

Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner agreed, saying: “I thought the premier’s language was misogynistic and unacceptable and he should unequivocally apologize.”

Regular folks lit up Twitter, too:

There are some interestingly different hermeneutical principles at work in these responses. @KellB_M says that if you would only ever say “It’s like nails on a chalkboard, listening to you” to a woman, then the expression is sexist and misogynist. That sounds plausible to me. I don’t know if Doug Ford has ever said (or would ever say) this to a man, but if not, then he was probably being sexist and misogynist to Andrea Horvath when he said it. However, I have said it to (or at least of) men, so on the @KellB_M principle, the term itself is not inherently sexist or misogynist.

@Mikegibbs appears to be working with two different hermeneutical principles. The first is encapsulated in the locution, “Dear other men, ‘Nails on a chalkboard’ is absolutely misogynist and sexist.” This would seem to imply that the expression itself is inherently—and thus always—misogynist and sexist. It would imply that I was being misogynist and sexist when I used it to describe Linkin Park. This is patently ridiculous. The origin of the expression is—wait for it—the grating sound of nails on a chalkboard, which is ungendered, both literally and etymologically. Contrast this with the word “hysterical.” One can describe a woman (or a man) as hysterical without any sexist intent at all, but if you know your history of the English language, you will know that the word was originally inherently misogynistic, coming as it did from the Latin for “of the womb.” One could argue that using the word perpetuates the sexist trope that only women are crazy. More on this in a minute.

@Mikegibbs’s second hermeneutical principle is more interesting: “When women say it is sexist and misogynist IT IS SEXIST AND MISOGYNIST.” (He then spices this up with the chaser, “Your *opinion* is worth NOTHING.”) This principle establishes a class of people as authoritative arbiters of meaning. It is not entirely clear how one determines in any particular case who the authoritative arbiters of meaning would be, but the idea strikes me as problematic, paying as it does not the slightest attention to intent, etymology, context, or anything else that we ordinarily use as interpretive aids. It also generates the paradox that if one woman says the expression is sexist and misogynist but another says it is not, then it is both sexist and misogynist and not sexist and not misogynist at the same time and in the same respect, violating Aristotle’s law of contradiction.

@ColleenDerkatch’s principle is an appeal to authority. “As a communications expert,” she confidently says, “I can confirm: referring to a woman leader’s criticism as like ‘nails on a chalkboard’ is indeed misogynist.” Perhaps there is scholarly literature on this topic backing up this claim to authoritative expertise. If so, I would very much like to see it. But my online queries of scholarly journal databases turned up nothing.

I am not trying to defend Doug Ford here. At the very least, he was rude. To quote @Mikegibbs, “It would be nice if you could learn some f-ing decency.” But I just don’t see that the expression itself signifies what Horvath’s supporters and Ford’s critics seem to think it does.

Here I am heartened by the social media responses of people who agree with me. So far I have not yet seen much sign of the anti-woke/PC pile-on that we saw in response to horrified reactions to the use of the word “niggardly,” which sounds terrible but actually isn’t. Mostly I have only seen respectful challenge, puzzlement, or, at most, exasperation.

Now, the day may come when “like nails on a chalkboard” is only ever used in a transparently sexist or misogynistic way (though I suspect it will die off before then, killed by whiteboards and PowerPoint). English is a living language, and if this is the fate of the expression, I will readily concede that it has come to have that meaning. I have long since abandoned my quixotic tendency to resist usage-driven changes in the meanings of words such as “decimate” and “literally,” though both literally still grate like nails on a chalkboard. For this reason I myself now freely use the word “hysterical.” Nobody knows where it came from, so nobody cares. The last time I heard someone object was in 1979, and that fellow was a professional pedant, not an actual human being.

As for Doug Ford, neither I nor anyone else–probably not even he himself–knows whether he uttered the words with sexist or misogynistic intent. So never mind. If you really want to know what he thinks of women, look at his policies.

Recognize Taiwan

Originally published as “The world must embrace Taiwan before it’s too late,” The Globe and Mail, February 6, 2021, p. O4 (published online February 4, 2012, as “Who rules Taiwan? Not Xi Jinping.”)

Because I teach international politics, I meet a lot of Chinese students. Whenever I get the chance to speak to them privately, I ask them what they think about Taiwan. “Taiwan is an inherent part of China,” they invariably reply. But today’s students are no longer strident and emotional about it, in contrast to 30 years ago when I first asked the question. Now they tell me they don’t have strong feelings about Taiwan personally. When I ask them what they do have strong feelings about, they talk about finding a good job, getting a nice apartment, buying a car, and so on.

One person who evidently does have strong feelings about Taiwan is Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has abandoned the cautious rhetoric of his predecessors and now speaks openly of waging war to prevent Taiwanese independence. China has recently been flexing its muscles, modernizing its military, making plans to invade, and laying the groundwork for cyberattack and fifth column operations. Most worryingly, Mr. Xi has begun to signal that his patience is limited. It looks increasingly like he wants “reunification” to be part of his legacy.

But Taiwan is not an “inherent part of China.” For all but two centuries—during the Qing Dynasty—it has not been subject to mainland authority at all. It certainly isn’t today. Taiwan is a modern, wealthy, self-governing democracy whose citizens reject Beijing’s claims and merely wish to be left to live in peace.

What Taiwan does not have is a lot of international support. Only 15 countries—mostly small island states—have full diplomatic relations with Taipei. Many others have the functional equivalent, however, dressed up in euphemistic garb. Taiwan’s embassy in Ottawa, for instance, is called the “Taipei Economic and Cultural Office.” The ambassador is called a “Representative.” Ottawa’s embassy in Taipei is the “Canadian Trade Office” headed by an “Executive Director.” This kind of thing made sense when the regime in Beijing and the regime in Taipei both insisted that they were China’s sole rightful rulers. You can’t formally recognize two governments of one state. But Taiwan lost interest in governing the mainland long ago, so the only question left on the table is, “Who rightfully rules Taiwan?”

On this point there is no room for debate. The people of Taiwan have spoken, and the answer is not Mr. Xi. Most countries realize this, but are either too frightened of Beijing’s wrath or too tempted by Beijing’s largesse to say so.

There are, unfortunately, real costs to euphemisms. First, they enable China to block Taiwan’s international participation when it is sorely needed. Few countries have handled the COVID-19 pandemic as effectively as Taiwan, for example, and yet China has prevented it from attending the World Health Assembly. Taiwan lies on one of the world’s most heavily travelled air corridors, and yet China blocks it from participating in the International Civil Aviation Organization. And so forth and so on. By systematically excluding Taiwan from the world stage, China silences a vibrant democratic voice respectful of human rights and the rule of law, weakening both.

Second, euphemisms confuse. When violence flared in 2014 in response to China exploring for oil in waters claimed by Vietnam, rioters destroyed Taiwanese factories by mistake.

Third, euphemisms encourage China to interfere in other countries’ affairs. Confucius Institutes, for example—ostensibly intended to promote international educational partnerships—have censored academic material relating to Taiwan. Last year, in Fiji, Chinese diplomats violently crashed Taiwan National Day celebrations.

Fourth, and most importantly, euphemisms fan the flames of Chinese delusions. Waffling on Taiwan’s status connotes irresolution and, in turn, risks encouraging reckless Chinese behaviour.

The international commitment to Taiwanese self-rule is almost certainly stronger than Beijing thinks, for both moral and prudential reasons. No self-respecting liberal democracy could stand idly by and watch another be devoured by an illiberal authoritarian state. Taiwan also has enormous strategic value and plays a vital role in global supply chains, including in the critical semiconductor sector. Taiwan is too important to abandon.

Some countries are finally beginning to signal their support more clearly. Japan, for example, recently called Taiwan a red line. There is also a (rare) bipartisan pro-Taiwan consensus in Washington.

But more is needed. Democratic countries such as Canada should, in concert, act to bring Taiwan in from the diplomatic cold so that Beijing could have no illusions about the cost of adventurism. Nothing signals this more clearly than full diplomatic recognition—accompanied, of course, with appropriate security commitments.

Naysayers will react with horror. A furious Beijing, they will say, would surely punish countries that recognize Taiwan with every economic lever at its disposal, and possibly also lash out militarily at Taiwan.

This is certainly a risk. But inaction has its risks as well, particularly if Mr. Xi is playing the long game. The military balance is starting to tip in Beijing’s favour. The longer the world has to get used to Taiwan as a full member of the international community, the higher the cost to leaders in Beijing—whose younger subjects now, at least, are more likely to blame them for disruption than applaud them for action.

It’s time to slam the brakes on Brexit

As the runaway train that is Brexit hurtles toward what appears to be imminent catastrophe, the question arises whether there is anything an embattled British Prime Minister Theresa May can do to save the day. The answer is yes: She can rescind Article 50 notification.

She should do so. Now.

The countdown to Brexit began precisely when Mrs. May notified Brussels almost two years ago of the United Kingdom’s intention to withdraw from the EU under Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU), which states that ‘Any Member State may decide to withdraw from the Union in accordance with its own constitutional requirements.’ She did so on the authority of parliament following a narrow victory for the Leave side in the national referendum of June 23, 2016.

Since then, the British government has been unable to negotiate a deal providing for an orderly Brexit that will satisfy both Brussels and the British parliament. As a result, the UK stands ready to crash out of the EU without any arrangements in place to avoid massive economic disruption, chaos at British ports, and—perhaps most importantly—a return to sectarian violence in Northern Ireland.

The UK could request an extension of the March 29 deadline, but the EU may only grant a short one, perhaps until the elections for the European parliament at the end of May. Given the current gridlock, there is no prospect of reaching an agreement by then if one has not been reached by now.

Calls from the Remain side are growing for a second referendum, or for cancelling Brexit altogether. Leavers call this a betrayal of the democratic will and hint ominously at civil unrest.

By rescinding Article 50, Mrs. May would not be cancelling Brexit, merely cancelling Brexit right now.

One can imagine two objections to this move, one legal and one political. The legal argument would be that she has no authority to do it. The political argument would be that it would be unacceptable to the British public. Neither argument holds water.

Legally speaking, the only thing compelling Britain’s exit from the EU on March 29, 2019 is Mrs. May March 29, 2017 Article 50 notification, which was indeed ‘in accordance with [British] constitutional requirements.’ In the Westminster system, parliament is supreme; the 2016 referendum was merely advisory. That the May government has thus far chosen to treat it as binding was a political decision, not a legal or constitutional obligation.

Parliament authorized Mrs. May to invoke Article 50 in the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Act 2017 of March 16, 2017—formally known as An Act to confer power on the Prime Minister to notify, under Article 50(2) of the Treaty on European Union, the United Kingdom’s intention to withdraw from the EU—which simply states, ‘The Prime Minister may notify, under Article 50(2) of the Treaty on European Union, the United Kingdom’s intention to withdraw from the EU.’ Notice that it said ‘may’; it did not say ‘must’ or ‘shall.’ Notice also that it ‘conferred power’—it did not ‘direct.’

Mrs. May did not invoke Article 50 right away. She waited more than two weeks. She might have waited a month. Or two. Or twelve. Or left the task to a future prime minister. So she would be well within her legal rights to rescind her earlier notification, on the ground that intervening events have proven it premature. The EU has already said it would allow this.

Politically, revocation would be the least explosive of all the available options. The majority of British voters—who would now almost certainly choose Remain if given a second chance—would likely be ecstatic. Leavers would predictably howl, but they would not be able to claim that she had subverted the democratic will. Neither the 2016 referendum nor the Notification of Withdrawal Act called for Britain to leave the EU precisely on March 29, or on any other particular date.

Mrs. May could rightly claim that many Leave supporters, and possibly most, had not voted for a disorderly exit, and she could rightly insist that it would be irresponsible for her to proceed without an orderly one in sight.

By revoking Article 50 notification, in short, Mrs. May would simply stop the clock. This would allow time for passions to cool and open space for rational deliberation about which option is best for Britain in the long run—taking the best exit deal the EU will offer, holding a second referendum, or simply staying in the EU.

In the short run, the pound would soar, markets would rise, and the entire world minus the likes of Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, Jacob Rees-Mogg, and Vladimir Putin would heave an enormous sigh of relief.

Revoking Article 50 notification would give Mrs. May an opportunity to demonstrate some judgment, courage, and leadership. Sadly, her track record to date provides little ground for optimism.

Leaving America

“Trump or taxes?” That is the question people inevitably ask when I say that I relinquished my U.S. citizenship. The answer is neither.

[This piece was originally published in The Globe and Mail, November 25, 2018.]

I was born in the United States, which, according to the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, automatically made me an American citizen. My mother was from Canada, however, and shortly after my American father died, she moved us back to Canada. I was 11 years old.

One day the following year my mother came home and said, “Congratulations, David, you’re a Canadian now! Here’s your new passport.” I did not know why I was suddenly Canadian. Did my mother go through some kind of naturalization process on my behalf, because I was a legal minor? Was I always entitled to Canadian citizenship because she was Canadian? I had no idea.[1] All I know is that at that time I believed that getting a Canadian passport meant that I was no longer a U.S. citizen.

Apparently, a lot of American officials agreed. After I completed my bachelor’s degree at the University of Toronto, I applied to graduate school at Harvard as a foreign student. I crossed the U.S. border on my Canadian passport with an F1 International Student Visa. I remember the immigration officer giving me a stern lecture. “Don’t even think of working off campus,” he said. “For that, foreigners need a Green Card.” (Shortly after I arrived at Harvard, I approached the International Students’ Society to inquire about joining. They looked at me, dumbfounded. “Where are you from?” they asked. “I’m from Canada,” I said. They burst out laughing: “This is the international students’ society!” But that is a subject for a different essay.)

I had been at Harvard for four years when one day my mother rang me on the telephone:


“Sit down, David.”


“I have some news.”


“You’re still an American.”

I was gobsmacked. How could I possibly be an American? I had an F1 International Student Visa—issued by the U.S. Department of State, no less.

It turns out that my mother had learned through a friend that several years earlier a U.S. Supreme Court decision held that acquiring a second citizenship was, by itself, insufficient for expatriation.[2] “In establishing loss of citizenship,” the Court declared, “the Government must prove an intent to surrender United States citizenship, not just the voluntary commission of an expatriating act such as swearing allegiance to a foreign nation.”[3] Put another way: if you wanted to give up your American citizenship, you had to make that absolutely clear through an official act of renunciation—which I had not done.

I went home to Ottawa for the holidays shortly thereafter, and on my way back to Cambridge, I stopped in the office at the U.S. border crossing and asked whether I was, in fact, still an American. The desk officer said he did not know, so he called over some colleagues. They scratched their heads; they did not know either. They called their supervisor. He pondered for a while and said, “Why not apply for a U.S. passport? If you get one, that must mean you’re an American.”

I did, and I did. I felt a little thrill, like I had beaten the system. I now had the right to come and go at will. I had the right to live and work in the United States if I so chose. I had the right to vote in two countries. It was a bit like suddenly having twice as many perks. But something wasn’t right: if I was still an American, why didn’t I feel like an American?

As I child, I had felt very much like an American. I had had the proverbial full patriotic education. Every morning in elementary school we pledged allegiance to the wall. Every day our teachers told us that we were the Luckiest People on Earth to be citizens of the Greatest Country on Earth. I had Canadian relatives, of course, and I loved them dearly, but Canada was strangely different—particularly Montreal, where my grandparents lived. I couldn’t understand what half the people there said. Once, when I was six years old, I made the mistake of turning to my mother in a crowded restaurant filled with francophones and asking in an overly-loud voice, “Why aren’t these people speaking properly?”

Not surprisingly, as a good little American, my sense of existential dislocation was overwhelming when we first moved to Canada. To some extent I brought this upon myself.

I vividly remember opening day of Grade 6 history class in my new school. The teacher began by asking, “Does anyone know who won the War of 1812?” That was easy, I thought. That was the last topic we had covered in Grade 5 history back home.

“The Americans won,” I said.

Stunned silence. Then mayhem.

“You idiot!” my classmates roared; “CANADA won the War of 1812!”

I tried to defend myself. My Grade 5 teacher had taught us that the British had never reconciled themselves to U.S. independence and were trying to strangle the new country economically, but American troops marched on Canada and forced Britain to back down. My Canadian classmates countered that the Americans were trying to conquer Canada and were bravely thrown back. My Grade 6 teacher sat back and watched—smiling—as a beautiful, utterly unplanned lesson in historical relativism unfolded before his very eyes. He and I eventually became good friends.

For two years, I was mocked and bullied, not only for my historical heresy, but also for my strange accent. Every time I said “AD-ver-tise-ment,” my classmates would pounce: “It’s ‘ad-VER-tise-ment,’ you bloody Yankee!” They laughed when my writing assignments came back covered with red ink for misspelling “labour” as “labor,” or “centre” as “center.” Even my Headmaster mocked me. He would go out of his way to make me say the word “falcon” just so that he could correct me: “It’s FAWL-con, not FAAL-con!” He always giggled. We eventually became good friends, too.

The turning point came in 1972, during the Summit Series between the Soviet men’s national hockey team and Team Canada. The series was, of course, a proxy for the Cold War, and global bragging rights for moral and athletic superiority were on the line.[4] When the Soviets trounced Canada 7–3 in Game One in Montreal, the entire school—nay, the entire country—went into shock. Canada came back to win Game Two in Toronto, and the two teams tied Game Three in Winnipeg, but the Soviets handily won Game Four in Vancouver, and it was with the weight of the country’s pride on their shoulders that Team Canada boarded the plane for the final four games in Moscow, down two games to one.

The Soviets won Game Five, but Canada stormed back to win the next two games. With overall victory on the line in Game Eight, our Headmaster cancelled classes, and we all huddled around the television set in the common room in trepidation. The game was tight. For two periods the Soviets dominated, but in the third period Team Canada tied the score, and with 34 seconds left, Paul Henderson buried the winner behind Soviet goalkeeper Vladislav Tretiak. The room exploded with euphoria, everyone sang O Canada!, and I knew for the first time that I. Was. Canadian.

Stockholm Syndrome may be an inauspicious beginning for a new national identity, but I never looked back. I have felt Canadian—and only Canadian—since that day. By that point my mother had already told me that I had Canadian citizenship, so that was the first moment since moving to Canada that I felt the universe properly ordered. When I learned 15 years later that I had actually been an American all along, something seemed off.

The three elements of citizenship

I spent quite a lot of time trying to understand my discomfort with my dual citizenship. I am ashamed to say that the convenience of having two passports kept my introspection in check. But to some extent the thought that I was technically a dual citizen inclined me to try to overcome my unease. So it was with relatively little discomfort that I took on greater civic engagement in my latter years at Harvard. I became actively involved, for example, in Michael Dukakis’s 1988 presidential campaign, where my role was to teach Mike everything he would ever know—and never need to know—about nuclear weapons.

I moved back to Canada in July 1990, when I took up a teaching position at my alma mater. Civic engagement now meant Canadian civic engagement, so my latent angst about having dual citizenship largely faded. Identities are only activated when they are salient, and most of the time my American citizenship was simply irrelevant. When I traveled abroad, for example, I would always travel on my Canadian passport.

The angst only surfaced when I travelled to the United States, because, under U.S. law, if you have an American passport, you must use it to enter the country. I got into the habit, however, of writing “Canada/USA” on the U.S. customs and immigration form where it asked for my citizenship.

One day I encountered a particularly nasty U.S. immigration official who looked at my form and snarled, “Which citizenship are you claiming today?”

“I have two citizenships,” I replied.

“No, you don’t,” he said, taking a red marker and striking “Canada” from my form. “I bet you’ve been to Cuba, too!”[5]

I knew he was wrong. At that time, the United States did not acknowledge dual citizenship, but neither did it care if one had it. All Washington cared about was whether you were a U.S. citizen. But I could tell that this was an argument I was not going to win. I also had enough sense not to say, “Yes, in fact, I have been to Cuba, several times. I even spent four days in the same room with Fidel in Havana, twice.” I simply said nothing and moved along. But there are no words to describe the anger and disgust I felt at this petty authoritarian bureaucrat denying my identity and treating me like some kind of traitor for deigning to affirm my Canadian citizenship.

This unsettling experience concentrated my mind anew. Here was an official from one of the two countries to which I ostensibly belonged essentially treating me as an outlaw and moral inferior simply for having two passports. He was ignorant and hateful and I wanted to smite him. And yet I shared his discomfort with dual citizenship.

Ultimately, I realized that my discomfort lay in my understanding of citizenship as such—as a form of membership in a political community that carries with it three distinct sets of things: (1) rights; (2) benefits; and (3) obligations. Rights include, for example, entry and domicile, and, in a liberal democratic country, to vote, to run for political office, and not to be incarcerated without due process of law. Benefits might include such things as preferential access to government services, dedicated international arrivals screening counters at airports, and eligibility for national grants, fellowships, or loans. Obligations would include loyalty, obeying the law, paying taxes, and—if called upon—service in defence of the state.

Dual citizenship poses no difficulty to the enjoyment of rights and benefits. The more, the better. If citizenship were only about rights and benefits, we would all be foolish not to collect as many passports as we possibly can.

The difficulty is with obligations. It is here that citizens must seriously entertain the idea that they must make efforts—and occasionally make sacrifices—for the countries to which they belong. On rare occasions, these obligations might include putting one’s life on the line. Obligations are the quid pro quo for rights and benefits. Having dual citizenship means that you could, in principle, be called upon to serve in the armed forces of both of your countries at the same time. They might even go to war with one another. In such a case, you would have no choice but to be a traitor to at least one of your countries. This is exactly what happened in 1812. In the early 19th century, Britain did not recognize naturalized U.S. citizenship and considered anyone born a British subject to be a British subject for life. Accordingly, it felt no compunction against boarding American ships and “impressing” some 9,000 American sailors into service with the Royal Navy.

Whatever else citizenship means, it means owing primary political loyalty to the state to which you belong. You cannot owe primary political loyalty to two or more states. This is the essence of the paradox of dual citizenship.

When I first began articulating this view, there was more than one awkward moment with family or friends who also had two passports and clearly had no intention of giving one of them up. No one challenged the paradox directly. Some simply said honestly that the convenience of having two passports was irresistible. Others objected that the idea of their two countries going to war was preposterous. This is certainly true in the case of the United States and Canada today, but it is also beside the point: something being empirically unlikely does not make it logically impossible. The paradox is a matter of principle, not (necessarily) empirics. In any case, the United States and Canada may not go to war again, but they are constantly facing off for Olympic hockey gold. There is something profoundly wrong about cheering against your own country’s national team. Call it postmodern treason.

Interestingly, philosophical debates about citizenship essentially ignore the paradox. They focus on the one-to-one relationship between the citizen and the state. They shine the spotlight on such issues as the legal rights attending citizenship, the participatory requirements of citizenship, the challenges that globalization and mobility pose to some ideal “fit” between citizenship and territoriality, the gendered construction of citizenship and its supposed reliance on a stark public/private distinction, or the tension between a cosmopolitan conception of human rights and the exclusive claims of states to regulate their own affairs according to their own values, norms, and traditions. These are all interesting issues, but they dodge the central question here: What should someone do when their countries make conflicting claims upon them?

Practical problems for both citizens and states

Logical paradox is not the only problem with dual citizenship. It poses a range of practical problems for individuals and states alike. For example, American citizens abroad must file U.S. income tax returns. While the United States has treaties with many countries to prevent double taxation, American tax forms are extremely complicated and most dual citizens pay exorbitant fees to accountants or lawyers every year simply to file them—even if they owe no tax. Moreover, differences between (for example) U.S. and Canadian tax codes mean that Canadian citizens who also have U.S. citizenship are exposed to certain liabilities that their non-hyphenated Canadian compatriots do not have—for example, estate taxes and taxes on lottery winnings. Recent changes in U.S. tax law have put at risk the retirement plans of thousands of Canadians who incorporated under Canadian law to benefit from lower tax rates, only now to find themselves exposed to new, draconian American taxes. In fact, escaping onerous tax-related liabilities is the number one reason more and more Canadians are renouncing their U.S. citizenship every year. I am a rare exception: I am not wealthy enough for this to be a problem, and I always file my own taxes.

Dual citizens can also find themselves in jeopardy unexpectedly. Once upon a time, I narrowly escaped a Turkish prison. When I was 16, I signed up for an educational cruise to the eastern Mediterranean. We docked in the port of Izmir, where I was listed on the ship’s manifest as “D. Welch.” The Turkish military police marched aboard and demanded that I be handed over for military service. I was a Turkish citizen, they insisted, and had missed my reporting deadline. It turned out to be a case of mistaken identity: my elder brother—also a “D. Welch”—was born in Turkey, on a U.S. Air Force base. He had no idea that Turkey considered him a citizen. It was sheer good luck that I, rather than he, had signed up for the cruise.

States, too, can find themselves in difficult situations because of dual citizenship. A rather infamous case concerns Zahra Kazemi, an Iranian-Canadian freelance photographer who travelled to Iran in 2003 on her Iranian passport, was wrongly arrested for spying, jailed, tortured, sexually assaulted, and beaten to death by Iranian authorities. The Iranian government, not recognizing dual citizenship, refused Kazemi Canadian consular assistance, causing a major rift in Canada-Iran relations. Another Canadian citizen, Huseyin Celil, an ethnic Uyghur from Xinjiang, languishes today in a Chinese jail without access to consular assistance because China does not recognize his Canadian citizenship. The case continues to strain Sino-Canadian relations.

More recently, dual citizenship caused a major political crisis in Australia, whose constitution provides that anyone “under any acknowledgement of allegiance, obedience, or adherence to a foreign power,” or who is “a subject or a citizen or entitled to the rights or privileges of a subject or citizen of a foreign power… shall be incapable of being chosen or of sitting as a senator or a member of the House of Representatives.” It turns out that several sitting Australian parliamentarians had dual citizenship either by birth or descent, five of whom claimed to be unaware of it. The courts ruled ten ineligible, briefly causing Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to lose his lower house majority.

Dual citizenship has benefits, of course, including consular protection when states recognize it. But in cases where dual citizenship causes people or states trouble, the root cause is the simple fact that sovereign states determine their own citizenship rules and decide for themselves whether to acknowledge dual (or multiple) nationality. It stands to reason that in a globalizing world where mobility is on the increase, we should expect this cacophony of citizenship rules to cause more and more problems.

There are two possible solutions.

First, the international community could ban dual citizenship. Everyone would be expected to have one and only one. It is difficult to imagine how this could be done without convincing all states to agree to a single overarching eligibility rule to avoid conflicting claims on people’s loyalty. The simplest and least complicated would be jus soli, the principle of determining citizenship by place of birth. Alternatively, states might agree to allow people to decide for themselves to which state they will owe primary political allegiance. Since many people today carry two passports without the knowledge of at least one of the issuing countries, this would also require establishing an international registry in which to record, and against which to check, everyone’s citizenship.

It is difficult to imagine states being enthusiastic about this. Forcing states to agree to a shared citizenship criterion would represent an unprecedented qualification of sovereign prerogative. Allowing people to choose their own citizenship willy-nilly would also undermine states’ abilities to redeem citizens’ obligations in time of need. In many cultures, both options would run against the grain of deeply-entrenched views of political community as founded on blood ties (jus sanguinis).

It is difficult to imagine many current dual nationals agreeing to this, either. Few people voluntarily give up rights and benefits. Those who would like to give up one of their citizenships can usually do it if they feel strongly enough, though, in some cases—most notoriously, in the case of the United States—the process is time-consuming and fantastically expensive. Certainly the idea of an internationally-accessible citizenship register would also raise privacy alarms. It would almost certainly be inconsistent with current European Union privacy laws, for example.

A second possible solution is for states to agree on an internationally recognized second-tier affiliation status. Everyone would be expected to owe primary allegiance to one state, but could enjoy another state’s rights and benefits, and be subject to its obligations, except when they conflict with first-tier citizenship obligations. The obstacles to this arrangement are precisely of the same kind as to the first, though perhaps of lesser magnitude.

It is difficult to see a path forward. With states jealously guarding their sovereign prerogatives and people increasingly keen to secure more than one passport, either for reasons of convenience or because they feel a genuine attachment to more than one country, we are likely stuck with the current cacophony of citizenship rules, and without some arrangement addressing the problem of double jeopardy, painful conflicts will be inevitable.

Citizenship, attachment, and identity

Some will object that my own tale betrays a glaring gap in my argument against dual citizenship: namely, its failure to take into consideration the powerful role that citizenship plays in shaping one’s identity. A sense of belonging to community is, for most people, a basic psychological need, and disrupting the bonds between a citizen and his or her state comes only at high emotional cost. I experienced this myself. My first two years in Canada were extremely painful. I was plucked from my country of origin, forcibly exiled to another, and summarily informed that I was no longer who I was but was now someone else instead.

In the ideal world, there would be no misfit between citizenship and affective attachment. It is perfectly possible for someone to identify with two countries and to feel a powerful sense of belonging to both. What is wrong with dual citizenship, in such a case?

Part of my response would be that even a sincere and powerful sense of attachment does not eliminate the paradox. One could still in principle be forced to be a traitor to at least one of one’s countries. But more fundamentally: people don’t get to choose their citizenship(s). States decide. That’s simply how it works. From a liberal, cosmopolitan perspective, this may seem arbitrary and unjust—but we do not live in a cosmopolis. For better or worse, the world is carved up into sovereign, territorial communities akin to clubs. States themselves are members of a club: to be recognized as a state, a state must be acknowledged to be one by other members. Similarly, to be a citizen, one must be acknowledged to be a citizen by a state. No one has a right to be a member of a political community just because they feel a strong attachment to it. Were it to be otherwise, I would have a right to demand Japanese citizenship.

Still, affective attachment can be powerfully diagnostic. It can help guide you when you have political choices to make. I expect that if I still felt after all these years that being American was central to my sense of self, I would have had a much harder time deciding whether to give up my U.S. citizenship. In conflicts between the heart and the head, the head does not always win. But neither should the head refuse to acknowledge a paradox just because the heart does not wish to confront it.

[1] I have since learned that, under Canadian law at the time, my mother was entitled to register my Canadian citizenship because she herself was Canadian—but only because my father had died, making her the “responsible parent.”

[2] Vance v. Terrazas, 444 U.S. 252 (1980).

[3] Id. at 252.

[4] See, e.g., https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WPzaVDilFEI.

[5] U.S. border officials commonly mistakenly believe that U.S. citizens are prohibited from visiting Cuba. This is incorrect. Under the terms of the U.S. embargo, they are not allowed to spend U.S. dollars in Cuba—and even here there are six categories of exemptions, one of which is academic research.

It’s time to drum Turkey out of NATO

This is the original, correct version of the piece that appeared in the print edition of The Globe and Mail missing a paragraph.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization—better known as NATO—was originally founded in 1949, as the first Secretary General Lord Ismay famously put it, “to keep the Soviet Union out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” Since then it has grown from 12 to 29 members and is universally considered the most successful military alliance in history.

What makes NATO so successful is that it is much more than a military alliance. It is a club of like-minded states, as the preamble to the North Atlantic Treaty puts it, “determined to safeguard the freedom, common heritage and civilisation of their peoples, founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law.” These shared commitments have socialized its members profoundly over the years to identify with each other, cementing bonds of solidarity and reinforcing what are, historically speaking, unusually robust norms of peaceful dispute resolution. Together with the European Union, NATO must get credit for solving “the Franco-German problem,” eliminating war in most of Europe, and creating what political scientists call a “security community”—a region in which the threat or use of force has truly become unthinkable.

But there is an odd man out.

In its latest “Freedom in the World” report, Freedom House dropped Turkey from the “partly free” to the “not free” category, citing President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s “growing contempt for political rights and civil liberties in recent years” and “serious abuses in areas including minority rights, free expression, associational rights, corruption, and the rule of law.” With an aggregate score of 32/100, Turkey is a stark outlier in NATO, well behind second-last Montenegro (67) and the overall NATO average (87). Moreover, the trend is bad. Turkey dropped 6 points from 2017, more than any other NATO member, only three of which dropped 3 points or more (Hungary, Poland, and the United States).

While Turkey’s deepening authoritarianism alone should be enough to disqualify it from NATO, its recent behavior is of at least equal concern. While perhaps not overtly complicit with the so-called Islamic State (ISIL) as some have charged, it passively enabled it by failing to seal off the flow of jihadists to, and oil from, ISIL-controlled territory. More recently, it has intervened militarily in Syria for the sole purpose of preventing the most effective anti-ISIL fighting force—the Kurdish YPG, armed and trained by the United States—from consolidating territory along its southern border. Far from contributing to a peaceful solution to the tragic situation in Syria, Ankara is inflaming it.

In 2017, Turkey also broke ranks by purchasing an advanced Russian surface-to-air missile system, the S‑400, over strong objections from fellow NATO countries. The deal not only benefits NATO’s chief strategic competitor but threatens to undermine the interoperability on which NATO’s military effectiveness depends.

It is possible, of course, that a future Turkish leader will right the ship and bring Turkey back to the fold. Erdogan himself is entirely to blame. Fifteen years of increasingly authoritarian rule have shown once again the wisdom of Lord Acton, who wrote, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” But apparently healthy, only 64, and through his own political machinations essentially President for Life, Erdogan could be around for a long while yet.

There are two practical obstacles to pushing Turkey out of NATO. One is the North Atlantic Treaty itself, which provides for accession but not expulsion. All decisions of the NATO Council are by unanimous consent, so Turkey wields a veto. One would have to rely upon Erdogan’s sense of shame to induce him to withdraw.

The other is that Turkey holds a metaphorical gun to Europe’s head. In 2016, Turkey and the EU concluded an agreement by which Ankara agreed to take in “irregular migrants” trying to make their way from Syria to Europe in return for material and financial support for resettling them in Turkey and liberalized visa processing for Turkish nationals. With more than 3 million refugees in Turkey, Erdogan could conceivably, in a fit of pique, unleash a human torrent upon Europe that would make the 1980 Mariel Boatlift look like child’s play.

At the end of the day, Turkey’s fellow NATO members may not—probably will not—bite the bullet and try to maintain the integrity of the club. But they should at least make clear that Turkey is now a member only by forbearance, not by desert.


Blaming for Dummies

Who is responsible for the downing of MH17, and how can we tell?

Almost as soon as it became apparent that someone shot down Malaysia Airlines flight 17, the blame game began.  There are, of course, the usual crazy conspiracy theories.  Then there is the transparently politically motivated finger-pointing.  There are the predictable pundits and armchair experts.  Largely lost in the noise are the cautious few who insist that we don’t have all the relevant facts and have to wait and see.

Actually, we don’t have to wait and see.  There is plenty of information available on the basis of which to start assigning blame.  Most of it, in fact.  You just have to know how.

Let’s begin by noting that apportioning responsibility is a special case of determining causality.  For any event, we can usually distinguish three different kinds of cause.  The proximate cause immediately precedes it.  Intermediate causes set the stage for it.  Deep causes make the stage-setting possible.  Think of an explosive going off: the proximate cause is the completion of the circuit in the detonator; the intermediate cause is the fact that somebody connected the detonator to some explosive material; the deep causes include all of the research and knowledge that went into understanding and designing explosives. You need all three. Without any one, nothing happens.

We don’t bother asking who bears moral responsibility for an explosive going off if no evil comes of it. Nobody points the finger of blame at construction crews who blast rock for a highway. We assign blame when someone did or failed to do something as a matter of choice that resulted in harm.  Naturally, we adjust our assessment of blame depending upon whether the act in question violated some well-established rule or norm, whether it was avoidable, whether it was intentional, and whether the evil that followed from it was (or could have been) foreseen.

Now, with respect to the shooting down of MH17, there is little doubt that it was brought down by a sophisticated surface-to-air missile, and whoever pulled the trigger must clearly bear some of the blame.  At present we do not know who was involved on the ground, and we may never know.  No one wants to own this.  But all signs point toward ethnic Russian separatists acting independently or with the support of the Russian military.

How much blame rests with whoever fired the missile?  Some, but not all.  This was a tragic mistake.  No one had any incentive to bring down a passing civilian airliner.  Almost certainly the SAM crew thought they were shooting at a military target.  They may have thought this because they were insufficiently trained, because they had inadequate information, or because they were not using the equipment properly.  But there is no indication that the resulting harm was deliberate.  In a court of law, they would be found guilty of manslaughter, but not murder.

More to the point, no one would have been shooting SAMs at anything if Ukraine had not been in the throes of a civil war. We know what happens in war: innocent people get killed.  MH17 was one shocking and horrific example, and as far as we know the only one so far involving innocent people from so many far away countries. But whoever set the stage for this tragedy must bear a great deal of the moral responsibility—not only for the loss of these particular lives, but for putting at risk the lives of so many innocent people in Ukraine.

Where else do we look for culpability in addition to those who pulled the trigger?  One possibility is to reach all the way back into the deep causes.  There is a civil war in eastern Ukraine because Russians and Ukrainians have not gotten along very well for much of their deeply entwined histories. (Outsiders may perhaps be forgiven for thinking that this brings to mind once again what Sigmund Freud called the “narcissism of small differences.”)  It would be interesting but for present purposes pointless to ask, “Whose fault is that?” Too much has happened between now and then to draw clear lines of culpability.

In any case, things were actually working fairly well in post-Soviet Ukraine. It may have been corrupt and inefficient, but Ukraine was well on its way to becoming a modern, well-functioning democracy of the kind that could reasonably hope to qualify for admission to the European Union someday.  It was making progress on the checklist of requirements, which included respect for human rights, protections for national minorities, and a uniform standard of good governance.  It was, in short, headed very much in a direction away from civil war.  It’s hardly convincing to blame people who died decades or centuries ago when ethnic Russians and ethnic Ukrainians had already shown that they could get along when left to their own devices.

So we must look to intermediate causes.

Things started to go wrong on November 21 last year when Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych reneged on a commitment to sign a trade deal with the EU, opting instead for closer ties with Russia, triggering a wave of anger and frustration that resulted ultimately in the Maidan rebellion, Yanukovych’s ouster, his eventual replacement as president by Petro Poroshenko, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and the outbreak of separatist violence in the Donbas region.

Who bears primary responsibility for this sequence of events?

Where you stand on that question depends upon where you sit. There are two main narratives.  The dominant narrative in Russia is that guilt lies with the “fascists” who overthrew a democratically elected government and the Western powers who allegedly encouraged them. This is a tortured tale. Much of what goes into this story is simply false.  Yanukovych was ousted not by fascists but by ordinary people who saw their hopes for a better future being dashed.  Western governments were obviously not particularly happy with Yanukovych and were mostly pleased to see the back of him, but it gives them far too much credit to say that they orchestrated any of the relevant events.

The other main answer lays the blame at the feet of Vladimir Putin, first for pressuring Yanukovych to kill the EU deal, then for engineering the secession of Crimea and its annexation to Russia, and finally for arming, supporting, and tacitly encouraging Russian nationalist separatists.

This answer is much more persuasive.

Ukraine would not be aflame today if Putin had not repeatedly and deliberately meddled in its internal affairs; if he had not blatantly violated a core principle of modern European international relations — namely, the inviolability of national borders; and if he had not treated Ukraine like a pawn in some anachronistic great power game. No one has more clearly or more effectively subverted Ukrainian sovereignty and independence, violated basic international norms, and put innocent lives at risk.  None of this was necessary.  It was all avoidable.  Most of it was intentional.  While the particular tragedy of MH17 might not have been foreseeable, tragedies of one sort or another were inevitable.  No one has more blood on his hands.

Obama’s Bad Reasons for Bombing Syria

Barring a spectacular miscalculation of the kind that thwarted British Prime Minister David Cameron the other day, it’s looking almost inevitable that U.S. President Barack Obama will unleash a minor barrage in response to Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own people. In doing so, he will be seeking to accomplish five specific goals.  He will achieve only one.  In the process, he will make a very bad situation worse.

Why does Obama want to attack Syria, and why is he largely doomed to fail?  In no particular order, his reasons are as follows:

The first is to uphold U.S. credibility.  While no doubt heartfelt, this bespeaks an appalling ignorance both of human psychology and of how little goodwill the United States now enjoys around the world, particularly in the Middle East.  Credibility is in the eye of the beholder; it is not in the eye of the beheld.  Washington cannot control the reputational implications people will draw from U.S. military action.  True, if you say you will do something often enough and never actually do it, people will eventually stop believing your threats; but if you do something when you said you would do it, they will not necessarily conclude that you always keep your word, particularly when they already firmly believe that you do not.  Far more likely, people will conclude that Obama is an idiot for doing something stupid just because he said he would (and bear in mind that when he first drew a “red line,” he never actually specified what he would do); that he has as little respect for international law and the UN Security Council as his predecessor did; that he has even less concern for international legal fig leaves in the form of “coalitions of the willing”; and/or that he has some insidious ulterior motive, most likely having to do with Israel, U.S. corporate interests, the Democratic Party’s prospects in the next election, or the country of his birth—wherever that is.

The second reason is to defend the norm against the use of chemical weapons.  This norm needs no defence; it reflects a widespread and growing revulsion, which Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own people has, in fact, buttressed dramatically.  Bombing Syria is not going to make Assad and his ilk suddenly internalize this revulsion.

The third is to deter Assad (and others) from using chemical weapons again.  Assad has demonstrated that he will do whatever he thinks necessary to stay in power.  Largely symbolic military strikes have no chance of changing that.  We do not know which other despicable leaders out there are capable of using chemical weapons against their own citizens, but you can be sure that if they thought they faced a choice between gassing their own people and going down, Obama’s strikes against Syria are not going to weigh in the balance.

The fourth is to punish.  The United States is not talking about the kind of military action that would really hurt Assad.  At this point, the only thing that Assad would even notice is something that would cost him either his job or his life.  He is already living in a war zone.  Pinprick U.S. attacks will not alter that.

The fifth is to feel good.  This one will work.  I have no doubt that the president, Secretary of State John Kerry, and various other American officials, legislators, and citizens are rightly morally appalled by Assad’s actions, and that their sense of justice demands some kind of action in response.  Doing nothing is almost impossible psychologically.  Even if strikes accomplish nothing else, at least they will be able to say that they did something, and will sleep better at night.

Until they realize that they have made a bad situation worse.

Why will it be worse?  It does not take long to see that nearly-unilateral U.S. military action has essentially no upside and a great deal of downside.  Among the two who have made this case most cogently are Harvard political Scientist Stephen Walt in a recent pithy if unsentimental piece in the New York Times, and the writers at The Onion, whose satirical op-ed purportedly by Assad himself is by far the best account of the box Obama is in that I have yet seen.

If military action had a reasonable chance of actually accomplishing something constructive, I would be all in favour; but it does not.  It will neither deter nor punish Assad; it will succeed only in killing more Syrians (very likely more innocent Syrian civilians than guilty Syrian officials); it will not buttress U.S. credibility where it matters, or the norm against the use of chemical weapons; it will inflame anti-American sentiment in the Middle East; it will further alienate Russia and China; and it will deal yet another blow to the idea of a rule- and procedure-governed international order.

It is frustrating, to be sure, that the international community is unwilling to act.  But life occasionally presents us with situations that have no good options, only bad ones.

It would be a tragic irony indeed if America’s noble impulse to act in the face of atrocity merely resulted in further atrocity, or made more likely the unprecedented capture of a chemically-armed state by Islamist extremist zealots, as Russia and China so obviously fear.

It is already a tragic irony that the best possible response—symbolically significant as well as normatively and legally progressive—is unavailable to President Obama because of his country’s antediluvian antipathy to the International Criminal Court: namely, indictments and bounties for the capture and delivery of Assad and his chemical-happy cronies to The Hague.