On the surface, much has changed since the beginning of “the war that ended peace”.

Today, various social media, the most contemporary expression of the continuing revolution in information and communications technologies, have become a popular pre-occupation. Twitter-expedited rebellions and a string of sensational WikiLeaks and state surveillance revelations have changed the game and served as a kind of ‘Napster moment” for governments everywhere. In the digital age, control and secrecy, like privacy and confidentiality will never be the same again.

The industrial revolution of the mid to late 19th century, on the other hand, ensured that early in the 20th century, mechanized, assembly-line killing could be undertaken on an epic scale. For the individual soldiers whose names, according to the monuments, “ liveth for evermore,” or for the hundreds of thousands whose identity is “known only unto God,” this meant going up and over, with a high likelihood of being shot, or gassed, blown to bits, or vaporized.

Then as now, military and security thinking had not caught up. In 1914, policy makers embraced the conventions of the pre-industrial past, certain that deploying large formations to take and hold additional physical territory would favourably tip the balance of power. Similarly, those responsible for framing today’s strategic calculus are busy trying to engineer a transition from the Global War on Terror to a new Cold War. Whether that involves estimating the order of battle and the throw-weights of ballistic missiles, or the complexity of counterinsurgency and how best to defend against suicide bombers and improvised explosive devices, war planners have little difficulty finding threats to arm against.

Whether conventional or asymmetrical, from Ukraine to Iraq and beyond, conflict is with us still.

So, too, is the inviolability of received wisdom. [click to continue…]


In this great future, you can’t forget your past.

Bob Marley

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the assassination in Sarajevo of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, by Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip. The Archduke’s  death set off a chain of events which in the space of a few months plunged much of Europe into World War I.

In the end, empires collapsed, while ethno-nationalism flourished.

I have long been fascinated by that conflagration, once believed to be the war to end all wars. My grandfather enlisted at seventeen and spent four years in trenches of the Western Front. For the third time since the early 1970s, I recently revisited many of the principal battlefields in France and Belgium.

There are now many interpretive centres and museums, brimming with photos, artifacts and maps that assist the visitor in coming to terms with the magnitude of the tragedy. Were it not for all of the memorials, and all of the dead, the casual passer-by would not guess what happened there. The dimensions of the violence were almost unimaginable. Two hundred thousand French dead at Verdun. Fifty-eight  thousand British casualties on July 1st, 1916, the first day of battle on the Somme and the worst day ever in the history of the British army. Of the 1.5 million total casualties in that four-month campaign, four hundred and twenty thousand British soldiers were killed, wounded or missing for the sake of gaining just two miles – a loss of two men per centimeter.

The former front lines are eerily peaceful and mainly pastoral now. Years of tillage have restored the once mangled landscape.  The orderly patterns of established agriculture have a calming effect. Ragged shell holes and huge mine craters have mostly been smoothed away, like so much else of what we would rather forget, and their shapes now melt seamlessly into the flowing rural contours. The trees, reduced by artillery to pulp and matchsticks, have re-grown. The atmosphere is pacific and prosperous, very much the new Europe.

These bucolic images obscure the big questions that haunt us still. Why did the political leadership choose war over peace, fighting over talking?

After the stalemate on the battlefield became clear, why did both sides opt to continue the slaughter for another three and a half years?

When it was all over and a peace deal struck finally at Versailles, the waste of a generation of young men had resolved little, and, over the longer term, achieved less.

Could a serious effort at pre-war diplomacy have resolved outstanding differences and accommodated the rise of new powers by offering plausible alternatives to violence?

Almost certainly. Yet from all of this too little has been learned.

If we are to more successfully broach the 21st century’s complex suite of threats and challenges, there is very much to be done.

More on all of this in the next post.


Under relentless pressure from the jihadist movement Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the political collapse and territorial disintegration of Iraq in recent weeks has been striking. If not reversed, the emergence of a radical Islamist enclave is likely to cause serious security problems for decades, both in the Middle East and beyond.

That has been the focus of most reporting to date, but the big picture implications are even more profound.

To be sure, the roots of the present crisis are complex and tangled. They can be traced back at least to the unravelling of the Ottoman Empire following World War One, and the subsequent division of the territorial spoils by Britain and France according to the terms of the Sykes-Picot Agreement.

That said, and notwithstanding Tony Blair’s apparent amnesia, much of the current disaster appears directly attributable to the ill-fated decision on the part of the USA and its coalition allies to intervene militarily in Iraq 2003 – 11. As it happened, much of the “shock and awe” was reserved for the invaders. That colossal strategic error cost some $1.7 trillion, resulted in the deaths of over 150,000 Iraqis and 4800 coalition soldiers, and, together with the Great Recession, spelled the end of unipolarity – American international dominance.

While those costs are extraordinary, the longer term damage may prove even greater. The ISIS gains in Syria and Iraq may be only the beginning, and could give rise to further developments inimical to peace, progress and prosperity, both in the region and further afield. The obvious hazards are related to Islamic extremism, sectarian strife, civil war, ethnic partition – and oil.

Of even greater concern, however, is the continued militarization of international policy. [click to continue…]


Re-awakening of the ursine chess master

As Russia has brought to bear its hard power assets in and around Ukraine – conventional military machinations combined with special forces deployment – policy and decision-makers in NATO countries have responded by ramping up sanctions and sending in reinforcements to the Baltic states, Poland and Romania.  It is not surprising that analysts most everywhere have been pre-occupied with this spectacle. Many experienced a rude awakening – few anticipated the speed, acuity or sense of purpose which attended Russia’s annexation of Crimea, or could explain the uncertain nature of the West’s immediate reaction.

Whether or not Russia is now stepping back from the threat of armed intervention, will accept the results of the May 25 elections, and is really urging its irredentist allies to behave with moderation, today no one seems entirely sure whether or not another shoe will drop. Even if no further territorial gains eventuate, however, Russia’s designs on eastern and southern Ukraine seem certain to find some form of political expression.

To be sure, European security and international law have been undermined by the Kremlin’s machinations, and the predictability of future Russian behaviour under President Putin is now in doubt. [click to continue…]


Cold War redux? The high price of old habits – Part I

by daryl.copeland on April 30, 2014

I have spent the past 10 days in Austria, delivering a short course on science, technology, diplomacy and international policy at the  Diplomatic Academy of Vienna.

Unsurprisingly, the rapid pace of developments in the immediate neighbourhood – Kyiv and points east – has produced a particularly strong sense of unease in central Europe.

Much of the commentary generated by the crisis in Ukraine has focussed on the potential for localized violence spinning out of control and spreading. While that possibility cannot be ruled out, it is the prospect of a geostrategic reversion to patterns of thought and action once associated with the Cold War that probably represents a more profound challenge to international security over the longer term.

The preoccupation on all sides with military gestures is worrisome. That such machinations are underpinned ultimately by the stultifying, terrifying calculus of mutually assured destruction stirs dark memories of days which until recently appeared long past.

If stability must once again be achieved through reliance upon a Cold War-style stand-off, mankind will have taken a giant step backwards.

Correct? Could Dr. Strangelove ride again?


But it is also possible that at the most fundamental level of world order analysis there is actually rather less going on here than meets the eye.

Behind the headlines, and beneath the frantic manoeuvring for advantage, there may be more continuity than change in the prognosis. In the end it is that implication which may prove the most costly.

More on all of this in the next post.


Out of Afghanistan

by daryl.copeland on March 13, 2014

Yesterday the Canadian flag was lowered in Afgnainstan for the last time, signalling the highly ambiguous termination of a long and ill-starred mission.

Given the huge human and financial costs incurred over the past 12 years, Canadian politicians, opinion leaders and senior officials should have a lot of explaining to do.

By any reasonable measure, those responsible should be pressed.  Instead, and very much in the tradition of the entire episode, the end of the affair is passing with barely a shrug.

From the perspective of public accountability, this is unfortunate. The corrosion of Canadian governance resulting from the imbroglio in Afghanistan has been deep and pervasive.

Following are a few articles in which I have tried to set out some essential considerations. In my view,  the issues raised deserve much closer consideration than they have been accorded to date:










Bottom line?

If war crimes regarding the handling of detainees were commited without adequate investigation, and if negligence and incompetence at the highest levels have been allowed to prevail, then we have only ourselves to blame.

Under more progressive and just political circumstances, this outcome would not be tolerated.




For those concerned with the future of  international relations, global issues, and Canadian foreign policy, President Obama’s January 28th State of the Union address contained some critical new commitments.

The President pledged to avoid “open-ended conflicts”, to “give diplomacy a chance to succeed” and to put an end to the United States’ “permanent war footing”.

But can he deliver?

To answer that question, I am reminded of an axiom familiar to many political scientists: watch what governments do, not what they say, and follow the money.

The record to date suggests that if Obama is restore  the reputation of his presidency, radical course corrections will be required. [click to continue…]


In response to the rising violence which has attended the Bangkok Shutdown  movement, on January 21st  the beleaguered Thai government imposed a state of emergency. Armed with sweeping new powers, for the next 60 days state security agencies may impose curfews, detain suspects without charge, censor media, ban political gatherings of more than five people and declare areas off-limits.

With what amounts to a declaration of martial law, Thailand’s fledgling democracy has taken a debilitating hit, and the festering political confrontation which began with a coup in 2006 has deepened disturbingly. A military intervention has been mooted.

It wouldn’t be the first. [click to continue…]



When historians look back at the first few decades of the 21st century, 2013 will almost certainly be seen as a game-changing year.

That judgement can in the main be attributed to a series of disclosures made by American fugitive Ed Snowden, formerly a low level CIA employee and National Security Agency sub-contractor whose flight and subsequent revelations have given rise to sensational reverberations across the globe.

According to Snowden’s principal journalistic collaborators, Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, the material released so far is barely the tip of the iceberg relative to what is yet to come.

As we await the jarring geopolitical screech that will undoubtedly attend the next set whistles to be blown, it is perhaps worth reflecting on some of the larger, longer-term implications. [click to continue…]


We need action not only to end the fighting but to make the peace…

Lester B. Pearson, November 2, 1956

This inscription on Canada’s national peacekeeping memorial, and indeed the monument itself have now taken on new meaning.

Earlier this month the Pearson Centre, a Canadian institution devoted to the promotion of peace, security, human rights and the rule of law around the world, closed its doors in Ottawa for the last time.

Very much in keeping with the overall response to this country’s steady global retrenchment, news of the closure evoked barely a whimper among members of the public or the press.

This retreat from the front lines of thought and action on critical issues of international affairs is cause for concern.

Here’s why. [click to continue…]


At long last, is diplomacy finally on the rebound?

by daryl.copeland on October 3, 2013

Among those prefer dialogue, negotiation and compromise to the use of force in international relations, the last few weeks have been both exceptional and instructive.

For more than a decade – in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya – major powers have reached first for the gun. Defence, rather than diplomacy or development, has been the international policy instrument of choice.

That said, recent events suggest that something better may be in store.

The USA, for instance, is talking constructively with Iran for the first time since 1979.  The greatest achievement, however, has been the US – Russian deal to avert a widened war in Syria. Just over a month ago, a US-British-French attack on the Assad regime looked inevitable. It mattered little that more civilians may have been killed in the strikes than saved as a result of them, or that this course of action may have bolstered the position of extremist elements fighting to depose the regime in Damascus.

The release of another riveting episode of “shock and awe” seemed just a matter of time.

Then along came an amazing series of events which underscored not only the signal importance of the unanticipated, but also the powerful sway of shared interests, suddenly revealed.

Add to that alchemy a sprinkling of chance, luck and timing, and within days the game had changed.

What exactly has happened, and how best to make sense of it all? [click to continue…]


Whatever else might be said about the age of globalization, one of its defining qualities is the speed with which circumstances can change.

The last few days have been particularly head-spinning.

Just over a week ago, in response to allegations of chemical weapons use by the Assad regime, some kind of armed Western intervention in Syria seemed imminent.

In Washington, London and Paris, sabres were rattling, and the ground was being prepared for war. All signs pointed to another round of shock and awe.

Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya…  redux.

And then, the tide turned.  By the time of the G20 summit in St. Petersburg September 5-6, divisions over Syria within the international community were so sharp and deep that the meeting was effectively hijacked.

What has happened, and how might these events be interpreted? [click to continue…]


Western military intervention in Syria? Bad idea, but…

by daryl.copeland on August 28, 2013

It seems to be happening.


In Washington, the drums of war are beating more loudly with each passing day, and if the breathless media commentary is to be believed, the die has already been cast.

Yet little or nothing will be gained from Western military intervention in Syria at this juncture, while the downside risks associated with possible collateral damage or widening the scope of the conflict are very real.

A strike using so-called precision munitions might bolster Obama’s credibility on the home front, but it would be unlikely to affect the military balance in the civil war and would do nothing or address the continuing humanitarian crisis.

Even the deterrence argument is shaky because of  the Assad government’s increasingly uncertain control over the Syrian state’s arsenal.

At an absolute minimum, no action should be taken in advance of receipt of the UN weapons inspectors report. If that submission points clearly to regime culpability in the use of chemical weapons, then the issue should be placed immediately before the Security Council.

Only at that point, and only if a substantial majority of Council members favour action but are blocked by Russia and/or China, should alternatives be considered.

Still, it is difficult to imagine that the use of armed force would make matters anything but worse. And, notwithstanding the predictable moralizing and equivocation, recourse to measures outside of international law would doubtless inflict further damage upon NATO’s already battered reputation.

There is still time for sober second thought. But instead of holding your breath, it is probably more prudent to stand-by for “shock and awe”, the sequel.

Could it possibly end more badly?

Do we ever learn?


Does Canadian diplomacy still matter? What might be done to restore its relevance and effectiveness in the age of globalization and heteropolarity?

Listen here.