A time of remembrance… and of forgetting

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?

Notwithstanding the radical recasting Canada’s place in the world over the past decade, armed interventions, victory parades, and the adulation of the military as an instrument of statecraft have not always been at the centre of this country’s international policy. Following is a short list of some once prominent, but now largely abandoned features:

Peacekeeping has given way to war fighting – in Afghanistan, Libya, and now Iraq – as the cornerstone of Canadian defence policy. The Pearson Centre in Nova Scotia, which trained many thousands of Canadian and foreign peacekeepers, was closed in 2013, and Canada today is a marginal contributor to the staffing of UN-mandated peacekeeping operations.

Development assistance, savaged by years of budgetary compression and bureaucratic upheaval, has fallen precipitously to .27% of gross national income, leaving Canada near the bottom of the OECD barrel. Once admired as a generous and enlightened aid donor, spending has been slashed and support for several leading development NGOs, including Kairos and the now shuttered North-South Institute, reduced or eliminated.

Environmental activism was for decades a hallmark of Canadian internationalism. Achievements included the Acid Rain Treaty, the Montreal Protocol on Ozone Layer Depletion, and the raft of agreements which flowed from the 1992 Rio Summit (UNCED). Today Canada is the recipient of a record five Fossil of the Year awards, and is best known as an advocate of heavy oil production and pipeline construction.

Human security initiatives defined Canadian foreign policy for about a decade beginning in 1995. Remember the land mine ban, International Criminal Court, conflict diamonds, child soldiers, the Responsibility to Protect, and efforts to control the trade in small arms? Canada could never impose its agenda, but through adept public diplomacy, partnerships with civil society and the media, and capable leadership we were able to make a difference.

Multilateralism, and support for the UN in particular allowed Canada to play an oversize global role during the second half of the 20th century. More recently, several highly publicized incidents which snubbed the General Assembly were topped off by the astonishing failure to win a non-permanent seat on the Security Council in 2010. Today little remains our reputation as an honest broker and helpful fixer, ready to provide good offices and innovative policy advice in support of progressive programs and enlightened governance.

Take aways?

This November, with diplomacy and development displaced by the overwhelming tilt in favour of defence, Canadians would do well to remember what has been lost.

This country’s martial makeover has been widely noticed elsewhere, leaving our image blurred and our influence eroded.

Canadians are less secure at home and at greater risk abroad.

The red maple leaf is a soft power brand no more.