War and Diplomacy – Part IV

Two weeks after the shock of Canada’s UNSC debacle, discussions concerning the larger implications of that disaster continue. And so they should. Among the many possible messages, it is clearly time to turn the page on Pearsonian Internationalism and to get on with the job of rebranding this country as the globalization nation.

Where else but in Canada could a professor named Naheed Nenshi get elected as mayor in a place like Calgary? That happened only days after the electoral meltdown in the General Assembly, and the two events taken together represent a powerful symbolic combination – an epochal coda, and quite possibly a new beginning in the history in our national life.

So… Out with the old, in with the new.

But, in the meantime, back to some final thoughts on diplomacy and war.

* * * * * * * * * *

In 1971, at the height of the Cold War, celebrated University of Toronto historian James Eayrs wrote Diplomacy and its Discontents. Among its many prescient passages, this one especially stands out:

The… fact of modern international life accounting for the impotence of force and the weakness of great powers is…the heightened constraint of opinion and the nature of the only kind of war the great powers are free to fight. This is not big war, thermonuclear war. It is little war, guerrilla war. And for great powers no experience is more frustrating. It frustrates not least because the targets are so few, and so fleeting… the enemy always knows more about what’s going on. After all, it’s his country… There’s always an intelligence gap in these conflicts… the great power is invariably disadvantaged…

Twentieth century war is increasingly an instrument of doctrinal conviction. Doctrinal war, more than war fought for gain, or pre-emptive attack, is likely to be…brutal war. Crusades are notorious for their cruelty…

Those who serve the state as warriors are largely spared these stresses and strains. They are protected by their training and their ethic which, more than in any other profession, cultivate the ideal of unquestioning obedience to higher command. The diplomatist may well experience malaise when required to execute policies which seem to him likely to result in war; for the onset of war is to him a signification of his failure.

War, as Eayrs observed, represents the failure of diplomacy, and recourse to violence is diplomacy’s antithesis. Distilled to its essence, and at its best, diplomacy embodies, and gives voice to three of the most  elemental human qualities: reason, understanding and the capacity to communicate. Diplomacy may be, in the words of retired American Ambassador Charles Freeman,  “the most difficult of the political arts.”  It is also one of the most undervalued, but it helps keep the wheels on the civilizational cart, and holds the key to approaching a perilous future by design rather than by default.

When considering these questions, most analysts of international relations have focused on the observation that over the course of the 20th century both the nature of conflict and the motives which inspire it have been made over completely.  And of course this is true. World War I was a contest between nation-states fought by regular, uniformed soldiers in set-piece engagements. Today’s violent confrontations are more often asymmetrical or intra-state, and may include the participation of child soldiers or shadowy mercenaries employed by contractors with political connections. In those days men fought for the glory of their country, their empire, their King, Tsar, or Kaiser. Today, men fight less for flags than for ideals, like freedom or social justice, or for religious beliefs, or over ethnic and tribal differences, or over control of resources like water, oil and minerals. In the case of volunteer and private armies, the main motivation for participation might be a paycheque, or the mercenary lifestyle, or the prospect of leaving their past behind.

* * * * * * * * * *

In about two weeks, before I am able to pen my next post, it will be Remembrance Day. Back in 1914, the contest was profoundly state-centric and territorial, up close and personal. Across opposing lines often only a few hundred yards apart you could sometimes see your enemy’s face.  Fixed positions and trenches which barely moved over the course of years of attacks and counter-attacks ensured the loss countless young lives. But yesterday’s bayonet charges on blood-drenched bunkers have been supplanted by a kind of carnage more random, impersonal and disconnected – predator drones, cruise missiles, precision guided munitions.

For mass audiences in today’s world, war has taken on the qualities of a remote-control video game. Death has become more anonymous.

The lines have blurred, and now anyone, anywhere can become a target.

* * * * * * * * * *

Historians are fond of reminding their readers that change is rarely experienced in isolation. Elements of continuity are almost always located nearby and are usually closely related. The industrial revolution of the mid-late nineteenth century – driven, not coincidentally, by developments in science and technology – ensured that early in the twentieth century warfare, too, would become mechanized and thus facilitate assembly-line killing on an epic scale. At the level of the individual soldier, those “whose names liveth for evermore,” or for the hundreds of thousands whose names are “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 thinking had not caught up. In 1914 it remained mired largely in the doctrines of the pre-industrial past – essentially the use of large formations for purposes of taking and holding additional physical territory in order to tip the perceived balance of power in your direction. Similarly, those responsible for framing today’s strategic calculus have yet to move their mind-set far enough beyond the Fulda Gap in Central Europe. Estimating the order of battle in conventional conflict, or even the throw weights of ballistic missiles seems somehow a more comforting task for war planners than contemplating counterinsurgency or how best to defend against suicide bombers or improvised explosive devices.

* * * * * * * * * *

Immediately after the war, from 1918 – 20, the world was ravaged by a flu pandemic, against which its exhausted population had few natural defences, and for which the response was hindered by the damage caused by the conflict. Total casualty numbers, estimated at about 50 million, far exceeded those  incurred in the fighting.

There is undoubtedly a lesson there, too, especially a propos the grave risks associated with the failure to prepare for unanticipated or unconventional threats, not least those with their roots in science and their branches in technology.

It is to that theme, and the discussions on the role of diplomacy held recently at the 2010 Canadian Science Policy Conference, to which we shall presently return.