Looking Forward, Looking Back: Cautionary Vignettes

The outset of a new year, and indeed, of a new decade, is as good a time as any to pause and reflect.  As far as I can determine, the roiling, whirling forces of globalization which have been dominant for at least twenty years continue to cut all ways.

Consider, for instance, this initial sampling:

  • Long-serving Tunisian President Ben Ali – one of the region’s less despotic rulers in one of its more stable and prosperous countries – has been driven from power in a revolt which few, if any saw coming
  • The Australian states of Queensland and Victoria, which have in recent years experienced severe drought,  now face disastrous flooding
  • Baby Doc Duvalier, a reviled former dictator forced to seek exile in France in 1986, has returned to his still earthquake-devastated homeland, Haiti, for reasons as yet unknown
  • A previously obscure Icelandic MP and one-time WikiLeaks volunteer spokesperson, Birgitta  Jonsdottir, has become a near-celebrity, mainly by virtue of the attention lavished upon her by the US Justice Department
  • After decades of intermittent civil war and failed peace negotiations, the results of an internationally-monitored referendum suggest that Southern Sudan is now headed inexorably towards independence
  • The latest mass shooting incident in the USA has unleashed torrents of political vitriol and interpersonal venom, but has not appreciably advanced the case for gun control

Add to this mix a smattering of, say, suicide bombings and IED blasts in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq,  and what emerges is a pretty good snapshot of the day’s news.

At first blush, it doesn’t sound much like anything that would have inspired Louis Armstrong to record “What a Wonderful World”.

For those old enough to remember, it is hard to believe that we have been living in this sort of highly unpredictable environment for nearly a generation. Twenty years ago, much of the planet’s population was just beginning to come to terms with the fact that the Cold War had actually ended. Weakening walls, not tumbling towers were the dominant image. Today, many of the students in my fourth year international policy seminar at the University of Toronto were not born when the Brandenburg Gate once again unified, rather than divided Berlin.

Since then, the job of the international relations analyst – and the diplomat, and the soldier – has only become more complex and difficult.

As historians are fond of remarking, however, change is seldom found in the absence of continuity, and in that respect it is perhaps worthwhile to cast a glance backwards.

The Cold War was about ideological rivalry, territorial competition, and a struggle for client states on the part of two giant blocs. But there was more to it than that. And despite its established conventions and unwritten rules, in my experience the Cold War was far from dull.

During the early days of glasnost and perestroika in the mid-late eighties, I had been posted as political officer at the Canadian Embassy in Ethiopia, an ancient country located in the contested Horn of Africa and wracked by the civil war and famine. At the time, I likened it to being assigned to a theme park designed by the four horsemen of the apocalypse. With the world-wide geopolitical and strategic landscape evolving rapidly from freeze to flux, it was a fascinating time to be doing diplomacy.

From 1989-92, I returned to the headquarters of the (then) Department of External Affairs, working as senior intelligence analyst for Central, South and Southeast Asia.

Looking back on that period, it has become clear to me that many had come not only to know, but to love that familiar scheme of things. The Cold War fit its adherents like a comfortable,  well-worn coat.  It served as a world order model, a moral compass and an all-purpose frame of reference. Like the Global War on Terror – or the Long War, or Stabilization Missions, or Overseas Contingency Operations –  today,  budgets, bonuses,  promotions and reputations depended upon fealty to the Cold War’s assumptions and unconditional belief in its precepts.

When confronted in 1989 with incontrovertible evidence, for instance, that the Soviet Union was withdrawing from Afghanistan or vacating its naval base at Cam Ranh Bay in Viet Nam, many balked is disbelief. Some responded acrimoniously when such lines were pursued. On those occasions,  I often imagined myself in conversation with one of the more zany cast members featured in Stanley Kubrick’s iconic film Dr. Strangelove.

Similar individual reticence, if not wholesale institutional resistance can be encountered in 2011 if one argues that security in the age of globalization has less to do with counter-terrorism than it does with finding solutions to more profound and enduring challenges such as underdevelopment, resource scarcity and climate change.

In fact, I have become convinced that three key elements of Cold War thinking have been carried forward into the present, and now represent the intellectual and psychological foundations that underpin the West’s continuing fixation on terrorism and Islamic extremism.

Those recycled ideas? A black and white, us-versus-them world view; the characterization of the principal threat as universal and undifferentiated, and; the militarization of the international policy response.

The consequences have been catastrophic.

More on all of that, what it might mean over the next decade, in the next posts.