Building A New Internationalism

War, some would have you believe, is inevitable and internationalism is obsolete. Not so argues Noah Richler.
By: /
June 13, 2012

In February, eminent Canadian historian Margaret MacMillan spoke at Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs, navigating the ideas of her new book about the causes of the First World War. Her advice? “Don’t trust the experts.”

From the end of the Second World War through to September 2001, a worldly common sense reigned in Canada: Canadians understood the limits of fighting, the depravity of war, and the worth of a tempering contribution to the stability of global politics that emanated from, and was suited to, the country’s position as a lesser, but significant power. The country benefited from decent relations with the leading powers and, without an imperial past of its own, was able to cultivate equivalent trust from emerging ones.

“Don’t trust the experts” was not the only lesson MacMillan shared that day. The author of 1919: Ten Days That Shook the World spoke of mounting political bluffs and individual fatalism as factors that, alongside more conventionally accepted causes, contributed to the terrible war that started in 1914.

Both of these very human tendencies are again resurgent, and shed light upon the erosion of that worldly common sense. By invoking terror at every turn, governments, including Canada’s, would convince us that the prospect of military conflict is inevitable. We are in the habit of seeing monsters everywhere: Not yet out of Afghanistan, we are now being warned of the prospect of a nuclear Iran, and have learned that our Department of National Defence is planning to build a string of military bases along an “arc of instability” cutting through Asia and the Middle East.

The proliferation of these mounting bluffs depends upon the fatalism that they encourage: the belief that war is inevitable. Ironically, this cycle of dangerous military boosting relies upon our finding the idea of war easy to support exactly because we have little actual experience of it.

Perhaps if we did, we might not dismiss quite so easily Canada’s now-derided inclination towards the sort of proactive conflict resolution of which the UN’s blue helmet became the moniker. The “experts” will tell you that UN peacekeeping of the 1990s variety, discredited in Bosnia, Rwanda, and Somalia, was a failed exercise – an outcome of the Cold War. They will say that wars will no longer be fought as they conventionally were, with two opposing armies in uniform (and the hapless Canadian peacekeeper, bays the right-wing chorus, in between and mandated not to shoot). They will tell you that the sort of UN work that former prime minister Lester B. Pearson is credited with inventing, and that Canadians exulted in for five decades, is redundant, and that it is naïve of Canadians to believe otherwise. They will tell you that peacekeeping – but one aspect of conflict resolution – is work that soldiers hate, and that it is really no more than the compromised military expression of a country that was not sufficiently committed even to that ineffectual fight.

Now, I am not an “expert” when it comes to best military procurement and the like, but I do know that a department of national defence is rarely prescient when it has succumbed to a fortress mentality, focusing only on its shortcuts and its payoffs. We can talk about the merits of F-35s or drones, about hackers and cyber-terrorists clandestinely fighting wars on the new (virtual) front lines, or about the feasibility of alliances (like the UN and NATO) continuing to exist as we know them, but first, we must decide what notions of security are defensible, and what, therefore, constitutes a “just” fight.

International security requires not only that nations do not feel threatened by each other, but also that they do not feel exploited or unfairly treated. In the modern age, defending one nation’s economic advantage by any means simply because it exists is no longer a viable strategy – nor, in the long term, is it achievable. Those who believe otherwise fail to recognize the inextricably intertwined and internationalist nature of the world we are living in – one in which an impoverished Afghan watches alien soldiers pass by with more value in their gear than whole extended families in the local population will know in a lifetime. One, too, in which the disparaged Greek is completely within his rights to be enraged at a world condescendingly lecturing him for not paying taxes when its oppressive corporations serve only themselves and pay next to no tax at all.

This is not hysteria. It is the case for the philosophy of internationalism and prosperity that Canada once encouraged for all nations and that (oh fine, let him have his way) the “Harper Government,” its supporters, and the Canadian Forces in their present quasi-isolationist configuration would have you believe is obsolete. But the truth of the world’s political direction is that authentic and nationally disinterested gestures are more necessary than ever before, and will only become more so with the passage of time.

This is true to the point that, far from being a moribund foreign policy, it is actually in the country and the world’s best interest for Canada to start thinking about how to conduct humanitarian operations in the international arena more emphatically – as an example to itself and as a challenge to kindred-minded countries. We live in a world in which the fact of biological and computer viruses, economic shocks, terrorism, nuclear threats, and the massive conveyance of information that prompts huge portions of populations to ask why they are not privy to the benefits of other societies (and to resort to fundamentalisms from Islamism to European white supremacist movements such as Greece’s “Golden Dawn” when they are not answered) ignore borders totally. Hiding behind one’s own border, or under the cloak of military alliances that are growing smaller and smaller in character, as North American “interoperability” would have Canadians do, is strategic foolhardiness that will backfire sooner rather than later.

In other words, forget about the caricatures of prior versions of UN peacekeeping that have allowed its critics to dismiss it, along with the very idea of the United Nations. “Don’t trust the experts” – the need for such humanitarian efforts is still great. Understanding as much is the starting point for coming to terms with “security” and the best institutional and logistical measures to make it happen. There has never been a more urgent time for a resuscitated Pearsonian internationalism than now.

Photo courtesy of Reuters

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