For Canada’s new Foreign Minister? A three point plan

As the dust settles in the wake of John Baird’s abrupt departure from the Foreign Affairs portfolio, little has been ventured about his successor, former Defence Minister Rob Nicholson. Given the new minister’s long record in government, we might reliably anticipate a steady, if somewhat slow hand on the tiller at Fort Pearson, and the quiet, if unquestioning execution of the PM’s ideologically-driven agenda.

My former colleague Paul Heinbecker recently offered Mr. Nicholson some useful advice on repairing the damage associated with Mr. Baird’s controversial legacy. These proposals are related mainly to specific foreign policy issues, and I have no particular qualms with the priorities set forth.

That said, the challenges associated with the restoration of this country’s place in the world are profound and far-reaching. Addressing them will require remedial action affecting all elements of the diplomatic ecosystem – the foreign ministry, foreign service, and diplomatic practice – as well as grand strategy and the Canadian brand.

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Out of Afghanistan? Still counting the costs

Thirteen years after the campaign began, NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) formally ended combat operations in Afghanistan on 28 December. A residual foreign military presence of about 18,000 troops, the Resolute Support Mission, will stay on for counter-terrorism purposes and provide training and logistical assistance to Afghan police and security forces.

With rising Afghan civilian and military casualties, and Taliban gains amidst generally deteriorating conditions, there was little to celebrate at the secret handover ceremony. That event received only passing media attention – surprising given the exceptional human and financial costs associated with this intervention.

As coalition members rush for the exits, there have been many attempts to explain what went wrong, which by my reckoning includes just about everything. That said, few in positions of authority are admitting failure. Clearly, among responsible senior officials, more than a few of whom managed to eke a promotion or two out of the war, there is no appetite for a searching retrospective.

While awaiting the attribution of some form of culpability for the wilful blindness which plagued the ISAF mission, it may be useful to look ahead with a view to identifying some of the main winners and losers.

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US – Cuba rapprochement: The implications behind the headlines

Reporting on the historic resumption of diplomatic ties between the USA and Cuba has tended to focus on the details of the agreement and the likely impact on domestic politics and bilateral relations. Beyond the spectacle of longstanding political and ideological adversaries coming to terms after a hiatus of over fifty years, there are a number of additional implications which deserve examination.

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Canada and the world today: Cold comfort, little joy

As Christmas approaches and 2014 winds down, a survey of major political and economic developments suggests that the prospects for a more peaceful and prosperous world are receding.

Thanks to the emergence of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, the much-maligned Global War on Terror (GWOT), which only a year ago seemed to be waning, has received an enormous boost. The name may have changed, but terrorism and radical Islam remain at the top of the threat list for most Western governments. While large scale invasions and occupations have – for now – fallen into well-deserved disrepute, that space has been filled by a combination of drone and air strikes, special operations, cyber attacks and mass surveillance.

Torture and abduction – a.k.a. enhanced interrogation and extraordinary rendition – have been curbed, but not forgotten. Guantanamo Bay still festers like an open sore, a poster for jihadi recruiters everywhere. Occasional episodes of Islamist-inspired domestic violence, however vaguely motivated, receive saturation coverage in the Western media and ensure that the politics of fear and social control remain the order of the day.

Such circumstances have eroded the foundations of freedom and democracy and permitted the imposition of constraints on civil liberties, constitutional rights and the rule of law.

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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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