Monday, November 2, 2009

Breaking Things and Killing People - We Must Learn the Pipes of Peace

There was a piece in the Globe and Mail today that spoke of war, and breaking things, and killing people, and if maybe we needed to take a step back and ask ourselves if this is really who we are. Canadians have never been war mongers. Not that we ever back away when we felt it was necessary. But eight years in Afghanistan and so much loss and we're no closer to achieving anything, than we were eight years ago.

With Remembrance Day around the corner, maybe we need to rethink this 'mission' and look long and hard at a peaceful solution.

As everyone is worried about the cost of saving the planet, what about the costs of this war, financial and human? We need to seriously think about peace talks. But has that ever crossed Stephen Harper's mind? I rather doubt. This is not who he is. Sigh.

I do have to share one of the comments at the end of the article first though. It is funny, and it is almost brilliant in it's simplicity. If only life really was that easy.

"In the 1960's and early 1970's, Afghanistan was a haven for pot smoking hippies and the last hideout of the man Dick Nixon called "the most dangerous man in America". The Irish American professor of new thoughts, Timothy Leary. Travellers from that Afghanistan spoke enthusiastically about the friendliness of the people. The Afghanis apparently welcomed the soft power these friendly foreigners from North America represented. Mr. Gibson may have a point. It is highly probable that NATO or Uncle Sam could have won this war, years ago, by adroitly using a division of pot smoking hippies instead of clumsily employing armies of gun wielding soldiers. The wise warrior smokes the peace pipe, talks peace around a campfire and buries the hatchet. "

Whatever happened to speaking softly?
Hard power – breaking things and killing people – may be reaching its limits in places such as Afghanistan and Pakistan
Gordon Gibson
Globe and Mail
November 02, 2009

Soft power in Canadian foreign policy isn't much discussed these days. It used to be all the rage in Ottawa circles – the idea that moral example, worthy thoughts and treaties with high goals would make a real difference in the world. The land mines treaty was a prime example.

Instead, “hard power” – armed forces that can break things and kill people as need be – is the new focus of attention and money, especially in Afghanistan. Yes, indeed, our leaders are fond of saying, we can't win by military means alone, but still, a lot of that is essential.

This is just reality, but it is a pity that the soft side has faded from view. It lost reputation for at least three reasons.

In the first place, soft power is too obviously cheap. Diplomats are fewer and far less costly than soldiers. To governments using scarce dollars to chase votes at home, this is an attractive feature, but does not impress outsiders.

Next, much of the motive for the focus on soft power was a Canadian aversion to hard realities and choices, and to American foreign power and its very hard-edged component. So we could feel less anxious about our choices and morally superior to the Americans. What's not to like about that – except the disdain of the hard men? (Of course, much of soft old Europe has the same approach.)

Third, we clearly just weren't pulling our share in equipping our armed forces to meet our alliance needs. We had a strong reputation for peacekeeping, 50 years ago, and continued to believe that, even as we sank to below 30th in the United Nations capacity ranking.

Then, after 9/11 and especially after the Conservatives were elected in January, 2006, Canada changed. We began to take overt pride in our fighting men and women again, boost recruitment and buy equipment. This is all very good; no argument there at all.

But hard power may be reaching its limits in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere, and we may want to rethink employing the soft side. It maybe helps to think of this as a battle for human minds instead of bodies.

In this newspaper last week, there was a striking picture that illustrates this idea. The scene was about a protest in Algiers, but the interesting thing was the background. There, one saw a dilapidated-looking concrete high-rise at least 10 storeys tall by at least 10 apartments long, with every single window opening festooned by a satellite dish giving an opening to a whole world of ideas. This image precisely defines the soft-power battleground. Local dictators can't control it. (You can hide the dishes inside.)

The power of ideas is immense. Anyone who questions that should think about terrorists, who are motivated by wrong ideas, or the still enduring economic thoughts of Karl Marx. This is put another way by the old maxim “I care not who writes a nation's laws if I may write its songs.” If we want a peaceful, civilized world, we must popularize peaceful, civilized songs. Current American culture gives cause for alarm on that score, but I digress.

Canada is one of the countries that can be effective in this field. We come before the world with relatively clean hands and few axes to grind. We are wealthy and educated enough to have the means to broadcast soft power. We have a message that is immensely powerful because it has succeeded so well – namely the twin fundamentals of the rule of law and the importance of the individual human being.

Of course, this is a secular message and thus is seen by many, especially in the Islamic world, as being fundamentally subversive. Such people say governance must be by God (or, conveniently, by priests) rather than by humans. But the basic Western message is not anti-religious. It merely insists on the separation of religion from the state, and sees religion as a matter of individual choice.

We in the West have plenty of religious evangelists of our own, including one George W. Bush on the unquestionable supremacy of American-style democracy. But this is not the right message for Canada, nor is it the one carried by other soft-power countries such as the Scandinavians, and the Germany of today.

The Canadian message is better focused on things such as institutions of governance and federalism (the Forum of Federations was founded by Canada), the role of independent courts and the rights of the individual. Our aid should target such things far more, and bring many more foreign students on scholarships to Canada. The long-term payoff is immense.

And, of course, we must not forget the soft power of blue jeans and songs. Strangely, it is exactly there that the Americans, almost absentmindedly, really are conquering the world. They should perhaps think about that with a bit of pride and hope.

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