As Christmas approaches and 2014 winds down, a survey of major political and economic developments suggests that the prospects for a more peaceful and prosperous world are receding.
Thanks to the emergence of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, the much-maligned Global War on Terror (GWOT), which only a year ago seemed to be waning, has received an enormous boost. The name may have changed, but terrorism and radical Islam remain at the top of the threat list for most Western governments. While large scale invasions and occupations have – for now – fallen into well-deserved disrepute, that space has been filled by a combination of drone and air strikes, special operations, cyber attacks and mass surveillance.
Torture and abduction – a.k.a. enhanced interrogation and extraordinary rendition – have been curbed, but not forgotten. Guantanamo Bay still festers like an open sore, a poster for jihadi recruiters everywhere. Occasional episodes of Islamist-inspired domestic violence, however vaguely motivated, receive saturation coverage in the Western media and ensure that the politics of fear and social control remain the order of the day.
Such circumstances have eroded the foundations of freedom and democracy and permitted the imposition of constraints on civil liberties, constitutional rights and the rule of law.
This renewed emphasis on counter-terrorism, however restyled, is worrisome. That it has been accompanied by a resumption of the Cold War constitutes a particularly debilitating double whammy. Longstanding concerns over Russia’s stability and the security of its enormous nuclear arsenal have been exacerbated by the resurgence of revanchism in Crimea, eastern Ukraine and throughout the “near abroad”. The ongoing economic meltdown engendered by the oil price collapse has amplified the sense of volatility and uncertainty.
NATO’s response? Bolster air and missile defences and ground forces in Eastern Europe and the Baltic, create a new rapid reaction force, deploy naval assets to the Black Sea and eastern Mediterranean, and encourage member states to increase military spending.
For those who prefer dialogue, negotiation and compromise to the exercise of hard power, all of this represents a significant setback.
Can consolation be found elsewhere? After 11 costly years of war, ISAF members have precious little to show in Afghanistan. More critically, neighbouring Pakistan is fractured, perhaps failing. A newly assertive China is creating waves throughout the Asia Pacific with its expansive territorial claims in the East and South China seas. The once-promising Arab Spring, with few exceptions, has frozen over, if not glaciated. Egypt has reverted to military dictatorship and in Libya, which until recently was the highest ranking African country on the UNDP’s Human Development Index, near anarchy prevails. Somalia, Yemen, Nigeria and South Sudan are similarly seething.
These developments are disturbing enough in themselves. Worse yet, they have distracted policy makers, leaving a host of more profound challenges, including growing inequality and climate change, unaddressed.
When the distribution of wealth within and between states becomes sharply skewed, economies and people suffer. This was the core message of the Occupy Wall Street campaign, and although that observation has since become mainstream, polarization continues. Meanwhile, last week’s round of climate change negotiations in Lima produced little, despite the findings of the latest – and highly troubling – IPCC report. Similar paralysis has afflicted efforts to remedy problems of diminishing biodiversity, resource scarcity, public health and pandemic disease, and other planet-imperilling issues rooted in science and driven by technology.
Add to all of this the impact of a broad decline in commodity values, sliding equity markets, faltering investment flows, a shaky and unreformed international financial system… The need to manage growing global vulnerabilities is acute, yet our capacity to respond collectively using knowledge-based problem-solving and innovative forms of governance is feeble.
There are no military solutions to humanity’s most pressing problems. Still, defence departments most everywhere continue to receive the lion’s share of international policy resources, and as the legions rest and rearm, diplomatic services and development agencies have been relegated largely to the sidelines. As long as defence and intelligence establishments continue to serve as the instruments of choice, peace will remain elusive.
What of this country’s role and place? By my reckoning, Canada’s once-admired internationalist brand has been spoiled, mutating into something of a cross between warrior nation wannabe and fossil of the year. We have foundered on the shoals of lessons unlearned – think Afghanistan and Libya – and moved decisively to make matters worse.
After wisely passing on joining the disastrous misadventure in Iraq in 2004, Canadian air force and army personnel are now engaged, thus reversing earlier gains and creating new enemies by effectively signing on to GWOT II. On the home front, many NGOs are struggling – or closing down – due to the withdrawal of government support. Rights and Democracy, chartered by Parliament in 1988 to promote human rights and democratic development world-wide, was eliminated in 2012. The Pearson Centre for peacekeeping training was shuttered in 2013. The development research dedicated North-South Institute folded earlier this year.
With the holiday season upon us, Canadians might usefully ponder whether or not there is a better way forward.