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?