Can the National Interest Be Served Through a Prisoner Exchange?


Image credit: Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press


by Eugene Lang
CGAI Fellow
July 2020


Table of Contents

Can the National Interest Be Served Through a Prisoner Exchange?

“With Meng Wanzhou’s Extradition, Canada Must Be Laser-Focused on the National Interest.”

That is the headline on a Globe and Mail op-ed by Richard Fadden, former director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.1 Fadden and some other Canadian foreign policy experts have been arguing it’s contrary to Canada’s national interest to end Meng Wanzhou’s extradition process. Leading Canadian lawyers – including former Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour and former Justice minister Allan Rock – and foreign policy hands have said Ottawa should end the process that Washington initiated for crimes Meng is accused of committing in the U.S.2  By doing so, they say Canada could obtain the release of two innocent Canadians, Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, jailed by the Chinese government and held hostage over Meng’s case. 

The national interest argument in this instance boils down to the claim that pre-empting this extradition process through a ministerial order (which is permitted under Canadian law) to effect a de facto prisoner exchange would encourage the Chinese and other countries to engage in hostage diplomacy against Canada, putting our national interest at stake.  This move would also allegedly damage Canada-U.S. relations.  Jeopardizing Canada’s national interest to get our citizens back is therefore dangerous and not justified.           

Unfortunately, the utility of national interest as a concept to inform policy-makers on complex decisions is about as useful as invoking “Canadian values” or the “public interest”, terms politicians resort to when lacking convincing evidence to do this, that or the other thing, and for which they are normally and justifiably criticized. As Joseph Nye has written:

It is tautological, or at best trivial, to say that all states try to act in their national interest.  The important question is how leaders choose to define and pursue that national interest under different circumstances.  Access to oil, sales of military equipment, and regional stability are all national interests, but so too are values and principles that are attractive to others.  How can these two categories of interests be combined?3

The national interest, therefore, is usually too vague, subjective and contested a concept to be of much use in real policy-making.  One person’s national interest is little more than another’s opinion or ideology.4

But let’s assume that this can and should be a guiding principle for decision-making in the Meng case.  Is it true that Canada’s national interest is best served by refusing to release Meng in exchange for our imprisoned citizens? Is it likely that the consequences for Canada would be worse if Ottawa engaged in a prisoner exchange with China, rather than letting the extradition process play itself out in the courts?

It is worth emphasizing that the chief reason Beijing is engaging in such reprehensible behaviour to free Meng is that she is a member of their aristocracy.  She is the chief financial officer of Huawei, perhaps China’s most important firm and the world’s largest telecommunications equipment manufacturer with well-known ties to the Chinese state. Her father, Ren Zhengfei, is the company’s founder.  Consequently, the Chinese seem to be prepared to move heaven and earth to obtain Meng’s release, and are willing to absorb international opprobrium in that effort.  

From the Canadian side, a prisoner exchange is a radical idea, to be sure.  We’ve never done this before, so it is uncomfortable to contemplate.  But without any evidence from other countries that have engaged in prisoner exchanges to demonstrate that this inevitably leads to a proliferation of hostage diplomacy, the national interest argument against the idea rests on the inexact science of predicting the future behaviours of other states.  Robert Fowler, former deputy minister of national defence and former UN ambassador, who himself suffered as a hostage for 130 days in Africa, spoke to the CBC recently on this issue. He pointed out that countries the world over, including the U.S., have engaged in prisoner exchanges from time to time, and this has not led to an increase in or a normalization of hostage diplomacy.         

The claim that Canada-U.S. relations will be badly damaged by ordering Meng’s release is even more dubious.  I heard this same refrain – that if Ottawa didn’t do X, the relationship with Washington would be severely damaged – repeatedly from civilian and military officials and politicians when I worked in the office of the minister of National Defence during the lead-up to Canada’s decision on the Iraq war in 2003. I heard it again prior to Canada’s refusal to participate in the American ballistic missile defence system in 2005.5  Then, as now, the dominant narrative was if Canada refused Washington on these matters, Canada-U.S. relations would go into the deep freeze.  In both cases, this proved to be histrionics.  Canada-U.S. relations, including with the Bush administration, easily survived the Chrétien government’s decision to reject support for the Iraq war, and the Martin government’s refusal to participate in ballistic missile defence. 

President Donald Trump will no doubt rant at Canada on Twitter if Meng is released, but this too shall pass.  Official Washington, or what the president calls the “deep state”, might even be willing to cut us some slack given how Trump has alienated America’s closest allies over the past four years.  In short, our broader relationship with Washington is far too deep and resilient to be seriously damaged over the Meng affair, especially when China is holding innocent Canadians hostage because of it.     

In any event, to invoke the national interest as the chief consideration in this case is a tacit acknowledgment that this issue is about power in international relations, not the rule of law in Canada, as the Trudeau government maintains.  So the question is, who has the power in this situation?   

The hard reality is that China doesn’t need Canada for much of anything that it cannot get elsewhere; yet, over the years, we have unfortunately become dependent on China for some important things for which there are no readily available substitutes.  Notable among these are markets for some of our commodities, various low- and high-tech goods imports and 140,000 international fee-paying students who help fund our under-funded universities.  Canada has little to no power in this equation, whereas the Chinese have lots, and they know this.      

The proponents of the no-prisoner-exchange view might be right that the national interest is better served in not caving in to Chinese bullying, on the theory that this could lead to Canada facing more blackmail in future from China and other international bad actors.  That is a reasonable opinion about the risk to the national interest, on which reasonable people can agree or disagree. 

But consider if the government lets the legal process play out, the court orders Meng’s extradition to the U.S. and Ottawa facilitates her extradition.  How would Beijing react to that? 

If we are going to be in the business of forecasting the behaviour of foreign states, it’s reasonable to predict that were Canada to extradite Meng, we would experience unprecedented trade retaliation from China; Canadian citizens in China would face a lot more risk to their personal liberty and safety than today; the two Michaels would be imprisoned for many years; and what is left of Canada-China relations would be put into some kind of Cold War-like situation.  It is an outcome that is probably best avoided if we care about the national interest.    


End Notes

1 Richard Fadden, “With Meng Wanzhou’s Extradition, Canada Must Be Laser-Focused on the National Interest,” Globe and Mail, June 25, 2020.

2 A Letter to the Prime Minister of Canada,

3 Joseph S. Nye, Jr., “What is a Moral Foreign Policy,” Foreign Policy, vol. 3, issue 1, November 25, 2019.  

4 The Oxford Dictionary of Politics basically concludes that the concept of the national interest is a phrase used “by politicians in seeking support for a particular course of action, especially in foreign policy”… and “the difficulty with the analytical usage of the term is the absence of any agreed methodology by which the best interests of the nation can be tested,”  Iain McLean, ed., Oxford Concise Dictionary of Politics, Oxford University Press, 1996, 332-333.  

5 For more on this history, see Janice Gross Stein and Eugene Lang, The Unexpected War: Canada in Kandahar, Penguin-Viking, 2007, chapters 4, 5 and 9.


About the Author

Eugene Lang is Adjunct Professor, School of Policy Studies, Queen’s University, and Fellow, Canadian Global Affairs Institute. He was chief of staff to two ministers of National Defence in the Chrétien and Martin governments and served as an official in the Department of Finance.


Canadian Global Affairs Institute

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  • Janet Thorsteinson
    commented 2020-07-03 12:31:16 -0400
    As always, an insightful, articulate and balanced article by one of Canada’s leading thinkers in the defence and security domain. Congrats!
  • Choe Je-u
    commented 2020-07-02 21:25:26 -0400
    Sadly, plenty of naïve assumptions and speculations. In brief:

    (1) Mr. Lang fails to recognize that this is not a case of “hostage” diplomacy. Canada did not kidnap Ms. Meng but merely followed the law, whereas it is clear as broad daylight and even tacitly admitted by the CCP Ministry of Foreign Affairs that the two Michaels were in fact kidnapped in retaliation of Ms. Meng’s arrest (to pressure Canada).

    (2) Mr. Lang twists facts by calling Ms. Meng a member of Chinese “aristocracy,” when there is officially no aristocracy and no social class in the Communist China. Perhaps only, if Mr. Lang defines “aristocracy” as one of the 90 million plus CCP members in China, and not as the Oxford dictionary defines “aristocracy” and/or as we have understood it for ages. It is, thus, no surprise that the word “Communist” or “Chinese Communist Party” (CCP) does not appear at all in his analysis. Is this a conscious attempt by Mr. Lang to “normalize” CCP, its tyranny including over 80 million native Chinese killed so far, and all the totalitarianism that it stands for and wants to export?

    (3) Mr. Lang fails to mention that Ms. Meng’s father (Mr. Ren Zhengfei) is not the real founder of Huawei but a former senior officer in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) who established this company as a front of PLA/CCP and the company continues to enjoy deep ties with CCP and PLA. Did Mr. Lang bother to analyse Ms. Meng’s roots in the CCP?

    (4) Did Mr. Lang bother to reflect on the crimes Ms. Meng is accused of? It is disingenuous to not mention the crimes Ms. Meng is accused of, not even once in passing, and rather try to mislead and create a false impression as if Canada had just picked up some random stranger for fun. The two Michaels did not commit any crime but Ms. Meng is accused of bank fraud and violation of U.N. and International sanctions. She should explain her conduct before relevant court(s). This is not something for Canada to be ashamed of or get blackmailed. Canada is a strong country – it is time that Mr. Lang gets over any insecurity or fragility and plans/advises others accordingly.

    (5) Canada is a country of immigrants from around the world. What the Government argued was not an assumption but a genuine risk in which millions of immigrants/naturalized Canadians in particular and several others could be susceptible to similar kidnapping, ransom and blackmail around the world. A CCP court has sentenced a Chinese Canadian and Falun Gong practitioner to eight years in prison two days ago. The extra-territorial reach of the new Hong Kong National Security Law and its enforcement on even foreigners is a stark reminder of the totalitarian mindset we are dealing with. If you give them an inch, they will take a mile. In fact, any Canadian capitulation now will signal subservience to CCP and may seriously erode our democratic institutions and freedoms in the long run.

    (6) National security and defense matters are not for the weak-hearted. Mr. Lang has showed little grasp of CCP, its working, China under the CCP rule, and the threats its poses to Canada and the world. Canada has sufficient policy levers at its disposal to pressure CCP, disconnect CCP and China in policy matters including Magnitsky sanctions, and get the two Michaels released without compromising on our principles. Persevere.

    Mr. Lang: please reflect and stand up — you seem to be on the wrong side of facts and on the wrong side of history.
  • Ian Mack
    commented 2020-07-02 18:17:59 -0400
    Great article Sir. And the saddest part is that if we had done this within a month of the two Michaels’ arrests we would have this well and truly behind us. I know that I am biased as an ex-military officer, but indecision is itself a decision which too often fails to seize the most opportune moment. Bravo Zulu!

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