Canada and the world post-9/11: What has been learned?

Looking back over decade since 9/11, what events and developments stand out globally? Among others:

  • The ongoing Global War on Terror and associated Western military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
  • The hollowing out of the middle class, the financial crisis and the continuing Great Recession.
  • The lost opportunities to support non-violent political reform during the Arab Spring.

9/11 changed everything, and the carnage and consequences engendered by that day haunt us still.

The Twin Towers episode was tragic, but not just on account of the mass fatalities. It provided the neoconservative ideologues in the Bush administration with the pretext they needed to seize control of the domestic and international agendas, and entrench the politics of fear. On their watch, human rights were systematically violated and torture legalized, while military and intelligence spending increased vastly. With this came not only Guantonamo Bay and Abu Ghraib; a network of “black” prisons and interrogation centres was established world-wide, and “extraordinary renditions” kept up the flow of detainees.  On the home front, taxes were cut, civil and constitutional rights were rolled back, and the national security and surveillance state constructed. Meanwhile, and as demonstrated indelibly during the failed response to Hurricane Katrina, the federal government’s program and service infrastructure was gutted.

For the USA, 9/11 was the trip wire which marked the beginning of the end of the unipolar moment. Its aftermath has bankrupted America’s economy, destroyed its reputation, squandered its global leadership, and ensured that the country remains the object of anger and resentment throughout the Arab and Islamic world.

Remarkably, some elements of this misguided response – the drone strikes, covert operations and targeted assassinations – have been ramped up under President Obama. Despite some new packaging, the past four years have seen more continuity than change in American policy.

For friends of the USA, that is worrisome.

Still reaching for the gun

Take, for instance, the Arab Spring. We have witnessed a convincing expression of the people’s thirst for reform. Moreover, that conviction has been expressed in an overwhelmingly secular manner, with the more extreme iterations of radical Islamism notable mainly for their absence. That observation, which not coincidentally relates directly back to the implications of 9/11, may represent the Arab Spring’s most enduring legacy. Either way, one would have thought that lending support to the forces of democratic progress, particularly in the face of concerns over violent Islamic extremism, would have been an obvious choice.

Instead, the West stood by as Tunisia and Egypt erupted, and chose to intervene militarily in the Libyan civil war. The result in most cases has been that beyond cosmetic changes in the top level leadership, very little of substance has really changed.  Labels notwithstanding, these uprisings are a far cry from revolution. And meanwhile, confronted by the stirrings in Jordan, revolts in Bahrain and Yemen, and a full scale rebellion in Syria, NATO’s response has been mute or incoherent.

There is a better way. In the age of globalization, development – long term, equitable, sustainable – has become the new basis for world security. At the level of grand strategy, that means that diplomacy must replace defence at the centre of international policy.

Until that lesson is taken to heart, the toll of 9/11 will continue to mount

True north in transition

How has 9/11 changed Canada? Profoundly, but – like so much else – in a manner mainly resembling a miniature replica of the USA..

Although the metamorphosis here began well before the change of government in 2006, the nature and orientation of contemporary Conservative foreign policy differs significantly from that of previous Liberal and Progressive Conservative  governments.

At the highest level of analysis, it could not be clearer that the overall international policy emphasis and mix associated with this country has shifted. Adulation of the military, and a general preference for the use of armed force has been placed front and centre, at the expense of both diplomacy and development assistance. Ten years ago the rallying cry for defence recruitment was “There’s no life like it”. Now, it’s “Fight”. Accordingly, there has been an acceleration in the transformation of the structure of the Canadian Forces, away from peacekeeping in favour of expeditionary war fighting. This redirection has been evident in both the prosecution of an ambitious – if ill-fated – counter-insurgency campaign in Kandahar, and in the enthusiastic participation in the NATO bombing and embargo in support of regime change in Libya.

At a speech in Trapani Italy delivered on September 1st to members of the (Royal) Canadian Forces, Prime Minister Harper averred that “a handful of soldiers is better than a mouthful of arguments”. The following week in an interview he stated that “Islamicist” terrorism represents the foremost threat facing Canada.

So much for any kind of preference for nonviolent conflict resolution… not to mention according priority to the pressing need to address global issues such as climate change, diminishing biodiversity, nuclear proliferation, and environmental degradation. Unlike terrorism, any one of these threats could take down not just Canada, but large swathes of the world.

The Conservatives have emphasized Canada’s relations with the Americas – for the first four years at the expense of relations with China and India, which were ineptly managed. Free trade agreements have been pursued with a number of Latin American countries, while relations with African states have been marked by embassy closures and the concentration of aid expenditures on a more limited number of countries. A tilt towards the unconditional support for Israel has become the hallmark of Canadian policy on issues of Middle East politics and the regional peace process more broadly.

Under the Conservatives the foreign ministry (DFAIT) does not appear to enjoy the confidence, trust and respect which it once did. Once a leader in public diplomacy, the imposition of the – chillingly Orwellian – Message Event Proposal requirement means that the department’s staff cannot have an unscripted conversation outside the Pearson building and are now effectively gagged. There seems to be little appetite for the Department’s advice, and it is not being called upon to develop new international policy initiatives.

All of this may well have contributed to Canada’s shocking failure to win a seat on the UN Security Council.

Breaking with the past

The extent of the remaking of Canada’s role and place in the world becomes especially clear when the meagre international policy content of the last four years (under four foreign ministers) are compared, for instance, to the three and a half years of activist diplomacy in the late nineties under Lloyd Axworthy. During that period, with a lot of assistance from DFAIT, Canadian leadership helped to achieve a treaty to land mines, an International Criminal Court, and major initiatives on blood diamonds, children in conflict and humanitarian intervention (The Responsibility to Protect).

The contrast between the pursuit of the Human Security Agenda and the current level of inactivity is striking. Yet the post-9/11 departure from previous foreign policies has deeper roots.
Under PM Mulroney, Canada spearheaded the organization of the UN’s Rio Conference on Environment and Development, which produced the Framework Convention on Climate Change; the Statement of International Forestry Principles; the Biodiversity Convention, and; Agenda 21. Canada negotiated the FTA and NAFTA; it concluded treaties on acid rain and the protection of the ozone layer (Montreal Protocol), and; it worked within the Commonwealth to end apartheid in southern Africa.

These were significant diplomatic enterprises; the extent of the discontinuity with the present is unmistakable.

Grand strategy?

Moving forward, we are entering uncharted territory. As power and influence diffuse to other parts of the planet, the key challenge will be to manage the necessary accommodation more successfully in this century than was the case during the last, which was marked by two world wars and a Cold War.

Initial indications, however, are not encouraging.

There are few signs of any kind of grand strategy guiding Canada’s response to the re-emergence, after 400 years, of the Asia-Pacific region as the dynamic centre of the global political economy. Next year, in order to save $10 million, Canada will be alone among G-20 countries in its absence at  the Expo 2012 world’s fair in Yeosu, Korea. The theme of the Expo is “The Living Ocean and Coast” with sub themes of “Preservation and Sustainable Development of the Ocean and Coast,” “New Resources Technology,” and “Creative Marine Activities.”

Canada has the longest shoreline in the world, with frontage on three oceans…

Identity makeover

Over the course of the decade since 9/11, and more drastically over the past five years, Canada’s international image and reputation – our brand – have been fundamentally recast.  The once familiar helpful fixer, honest broker, generous aid donor and boy scout to the world has today become something quite different.

It would be in the interest of all Canadians – and perhaps even beyond – if the reconstruction of the Canadian brand were to be more widely acknowledged, debated and discussed.