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.


The world is beset by a host of daunting, seemingly intractable problems, ranging from climate change and environmental collapse to diminishing biodiversity and pandemic disease.  These profound threats, unlike political violence or religious extremism, afflict everyone on the planet.

Many citizens, alarmed by the declining quality of their lives, have become cynical and dismayed as the downward spiral accelerates. National governments, frequently captured by special interests or trapped in old ways of operating, have failed to act remedially.

Bereft of creative alternatives, when faced with trouble the first instinct of many decision makers has been to reach for the gun.

Since the post-9/11 advent of the Global War on Terror, in many Western countries policy has become an instrument of war. Fears have been conjured and insecurity instilled, thus undercutting support for fundamentally different approaches to the construction of world order. Right wing think tanks have reliably provided ideological grist for the defence-industrial mill. The consequences have been calamitous, not only in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, but on the home front, where privacy has been invaded, rights and freedoms circumscribed and inequality exacerbated. Society is increasingly militarized and the armed forces have become dominant national institutions.

There is, however, another way forward. That alternative proceeds from the conviction that because long-term, equitable and sustainable development has become the basis for security in the age of globalization, diplomacy must replace defence at the centre of international policy.

In other words, in an increasingly heterpolar world, security is not a martial art. [click to continue…]


Manning verdict leaves the big issues unresolved

by daryl.copeland on July 31, 2013

There is something for almost everyone in the judgement delivered yesterday against Bradley Manning, the army private who single-handedly conveyed hundreds of thousands of classified diplomatic documents and military battlefield reports to the so-called whistleblowing web site WikiLeaks.

This is the largest unauthorized transfer of government-origin classified information ever recorded.

Manning’s detractors – those who see him as a criminal and a traitor – will look with satisfaction upon his conviction on charges of espionage, computer fraud , possession of restricted documents and theft.  These could bring him a total of over 100 years behind bars.

Manning’s defenders – those who see him as a patriot and a hero – will be relieved that he was acquitted on the two most serious charges of aiding the enemy. Daniel Ellesberg, for instance, commented that:  ‘It could’ve been worse’ – a lot worse, not just for Bradley but for American democracy and the free press on which it depends”.

Whatever the sentence, the mixed messages implied by the judgement may end up satisfying no one completely.

Manning’s lawyer, David Coombs, was ambiguous:  “We won the battle, now we need to go win the war…  Today is a good day, but Bradley is by no means out of the fire.”

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, himself a fugitive and holed up in the Ecuadorean embassy in London,  described the verdict on Twitter as “dangerous  national security extremism.”

If reflecting on what to make of the verdict seems difficult, consider this. The most critical issues of public policy raised by the Manning case have yet to be broached: [click to continue…]


The Snowden Affair: Winners and Losers

by daryl.copeland on July 18, 2013

Ed Snowden, the US citizen and cyber-surveillance whistleblower, has been somewhere in the transit area of Moscow’s labyrinthine Sheremetevo international airport for almost one month.  His disclosure of documents detailing mass telephone and internet monitoring by US, UK, NZ, Australian and French intelligence agencies, often with active private sector collusion, has resulted in him being proclaimed a hero in some quarters, and a traitor in others.

The US Government has charged him with the theft of government property, unauthorized communication of national defense information, and willful communication of classified intelligence to unauthorized persons. They are seeking his extradition, and have criticized the governments of Russia and China for their failure to cooperate. Washington appears intent on sparing no effort in its attempt to ensure that Snowden’s fate resembles something closer to that of Bradley Manning than that of Julian Assange.

Stuck in a legal and immigration netherworld with time on his hands and no obvious way to take up offers of asylum received from Venezuela, Ecuador or Nicaragua, Mr. Snowden may be reflecting on the implications of his decisions. [click to continue…]