A time of remembrance… and of forgetting

For those with an interest in foreign policy, military history, and geopolitics, this month has been rich.

Canadians marked a pair of significant commemorations – November 9th, the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and November 11th, Remembrance (or Armistice) Day, which in 2014 fell during 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War One.

Much has been made of these events. The festivities in Berlin punctuated a quarter century of European transformation. A few days later at the National War Memorial in Ottawa, an unusually large crowd gathered to honour all those who have served in the Canadian military, and in particular those whose names alone ‘liveth for evermore”.

Late October’s tragic killings in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu and Ottawa heightened Canadians’ shared sense of both empathy and loss.

What larger implications might be drawn?

The Great War reminds us of what can happen when citizens and politicians “sleepwalk” over the precipice, defer critical decision-making to generals and admirals, or otherwise invite the sort of conflagration which ensues when obsolete doctrines fail and industrial processes are harnessed in service of mass violence. Less appreciated, but at least as debilitating as was the 1918-20 Spanish Flu pandemic, which killed many times the number of the war’s 8.5 million dead.

The problem of inattention to the management of non-traditional security threats, from climate change to resource scarcity, remains acute.

Berlin’s re-emergence as the dynamic capital of Europe’s most powerful country is in some respects even more consequential, signifying the end of the Cold War, German re-unification, and the eastward expansion of NATO and the EU. If the “end of history” has not quite delivered a knock-out punch in favour of markets and neoliberalism, Berlin’s ascent nonetheless stands as a powerful symbol of peace and prosperity.

Despite its annexation of Crimea and meddling in Ukraine, today Russia threatens few beyond its “near abroad”. And while the financial crisis and colossal strategic miscalculation in Iraq resulted in the premature eclipse of the USA’s unipolar moment, broader Western prospects remain reasonably bright, even in the face of a rising Asia-Pacific. At minimum, the Doomsday Clock, though still ticking, no longer hangs over a world mere moments away from the possibility of nuclear Armageddon.

The “international system”, in other words, though in flux and not functioning especially well, faces few fundamental challenges to its survival. The religious extremism and political violence used with such effect by the Islamic State, however horrifying, do not compare to the hazards of world war.

Still, this November, on the occasion of two particularly poignant anniversaries, Canadians have ample reason to reflect. The question might be put: from these many acts of remembrance, what, if anything, has been learned?

Perhaps even more to the point, what elements previously associated with this country’s global engagement might have been lost or forgotten?

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Countering domestic political violence and the Islamic State: Canada needs a strategy

In the wake of last week’s disturbing events in Saint-Jean-sur-Richileau and Ottawa, Canadian policy and decision-makers are turning their attention to remedial action. So far, rather than a rigorous re-assessment and course correction, indications are that we are headed for more of the same, but possibly worse.

By way of alternatives, what would constitute an effective response to the combined threats posed by ISIS abroad and political violence at home?  Changes will be required in both domestic and international policy, but the best defence will have little to do with the application of armed force or the imposition of more stringent security measures.

A coherent strategy could give expression to five recommendations:

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Pin stripes and pearls? Ten (uneasy) steps to increased diplomatic capacity


In my last posting, I made the case for radical diplomatic reform as an alternative to the use of armed force in international relations.

How would that work?

A bit of background. Last month I attended an international conference in Salzburg which marked the centenary of World War One. It was entitled Architects or Sleepwalkers: 1814, 1914, 2014 – Lessons from the Past, Visions for the Future.

Participants were searching for ways to avoid the disastrous mistakes of the past century, during which two world wars and a Cold War killed tens of millions. I argued that although there are no military solutions to the most vexing challenges at present facing the planet, a cosmetic makeover of the diplomatic status quo will not suffice. At minimum, ten transformative steps will be required:

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A better way forward in a troubled world? Why radical diplomatic reform is imperative

It is September, the seasons are changing, and Canadians have every reason to feel uneasy.

The erstwhile global village is today looking more and more like a patchwork of gated communities surrounded by a roiling wasteland of violent and terrifying shantytowns.

Over the course of the summer – and  undoubtedly much to the delight of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi – the media has delivered saturation coverage of the Islamic State on the rampage, Iraq fissuring, carnage in Gaza, civil war in Libya, Russian adventurism in the Ukraine, state failure in Afghanistan, rising tensions in the East and South China Seas…

The torrent of troubles has been unrelenting.

Twenty-five years after the end of the Cold War, and just when the ill-starred Global War on Terror seemed finally to be winding down, our political and opinion leaders seem convinced that Western civilization is once again being menaced, this time by new iterations of both threats: a revived, and particularly strident version of Russian revanchism, and a media-savvy, unusually treacherous form of Islamist terrorism operating out of a reconstructed Caliphate.

Be afraid, be very afraid…

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Blowback, Libya: More unintended consequences, less progress on the larger issues

When it comes to Western attempts at armed intervention, the record of recent years – in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya – speaks convincingly for itself.

Unprecedented gains by the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq have drawn the U.S. military back into the fray and have been accompanied by horrendous civilian carnage. The country is politically fractured and the state failing.

A controversial election in Afghanistan, with a highly contested outcome, has been followed by a putative deal on cobbling together a “unity” government. Meanwhile, another instance of “green on blue” insider killings has underscored the parlous prospects facing this “graveyard of empires” following NATO’s withdrawal.

Enough? Not quite. Although not covered nearly as prominently as developments in Iraq or Afghanistan, recent weeks have brought dissolution, civil war and generalized regression in Libya.

* * * * * * * * * *

What to make of these events? Above all, it appears that costly Western experiments with the attempted imposition of military solutions in the face of complex, multi-dimensional civil conflicts have served mainly to make matters worse.

The latest example of this form of “blowback” is Libya, which is by all accounts in uncharted waters and  descending into chaos. For the Libyan people, who until recently enjoyed Africa’s highest standing on the UN’s Human Development Index, this outcome represents an unmitigated disaster, with no end in sight.

Could such a catastrophe have been avoided?

Almost certainly.

Have decision-makers and opinion-leaders learned from their mistakes? Not likely. The burden of evidence from the misadventures in Afghanistan and Iraq was already clear at the time of the Libyan intervention, yet those lessons were ignored. Little wonder that the victory celebrations rung hollow.

If this all seems too discouraging, brace yourself.

The larger picture is even more troubling.

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One Hundred Years On, Reflections on the Great War: Memory, Meaning and a World in the Making – Part II

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.

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One Hundred Years On, Reflections on the Great War: Memory, Meaning and a World in the Making – Part I

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.

Iraq, Blowback and Lessons Unlearned: Reaping the Whirlwind

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.

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

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.

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

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

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.



Blood spilled, treasure wasted: Can Obama move America off its “permanent war footing”?

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.

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Thailand on the Brink: Appearance and Reality in the Land of Smiles

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.

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The Snowden Affair: 2013 as a “Napster Year” for Government Secrecy and World Order


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.

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