Canada Foreign Policy
Thursday, September 30, 2004
  Stupidity Rules!

News wires on 13 September 2004 claimed something in North Korea exploded, producing what may have looked like a giant mushroom cloud, but wasn’t necessarily nuclear. Meanwhile, this past month saw numerous reports saying various intelligence officials war-gamed Iran, generating not a single outcome that should prompt much optimism. It was a perfect time to go to the movies, and so I did, on more than a few occasions.

Stupidity [], a work by Canadian auteur documentarist Albert Nerenberg, investigates the notion and substance behind what it means to be stupid, though he claims there is no easy and universal definition. I very much enjoyed the movie, hope to see it again, but was struck by a number of things. First, director Nerenberg explains that, and this applies throughout the ages, not all that much has been done to explore this concept. The centuries may have yielded only seven academic volumes dealing with stupidity. While so many are fixated on intelligence, what is it about stupidity, nowhere in the Western world in short supply, that makes it so overlooked? Second, why did more than a few people have such a visceral reaction to this movie? Maybe it was the crowd I happened to be with, but more than one audience member decided he needed to share his insights and displeasure with the screen, and then leave in disgust. This happened most noticeably during one scene, where the filmed interviewee, the author of a book that argues that getting stupid and then remaining so until death is the true path to bliss and enlightenment, expounds on the merits of his theories. Just how leaving a movie with a loud attention-grabbing reaction constitutes any form of activism, or anything other than stupidity is, well, something that escapes me. Third, there was throughout the film a marked preference for analyzing, exploring stupidity as a psychological phenomenon or commodity. But what of stupidity as a social or sociological variable? To be sure, social behaviour is examined in Stupidity, but almost exclusively from social-psychological paradigms.

And then it happened, when one interviewee in this documentary made a comment about foreign policy and conflict, the remark came up that “war is stupid.” I suppose I could have hoped for no clearer example of the “all politics is personal” phenomenon. Gone is any real notion that war and conflict have sociological roots apart and distinct from the psychological; at least, some say, gone from the twenty-first century and Stupidity. In the past, wars may have been interpreted as means for readdressing power imbalances, or for ways of imposing rules and order, while now the emphasis is on recognizing that violence is counterproductive at the personal, individual level, and therefore must also be just as immaterial or inappropriate in all its forms.

Personalizing macro-social interaction, chiefly foreign relations and discussions of the world systems, may be so pervasive that few even recognize or notice it, or understand how this came about. Traces of this “all politics is personal” pervade popular culture. For example, in movies striving to be much more than entertainment, like the recent insomnia cure Before Sunset, Ethan Hawke’s character illustrates this by waxing ‘that people evolve like countries.’ In analytical works, broad social issues are often framed in terms of the psychological, likely to make the material more accessible to contemporary audiences. The recent moving documentary Shake Hands with the Devil does this, in part explaining the Rwanda genocide in terms of its impact on one person who was there, Canadian General Romeo Dalaire [NB, the film is based on the General’s book of the same name].

Some may complain that giving ‘a personality’ to institutions predates the era of ‘all politics is personal’. And indeed illustrations, some may suspect, could be offered up. For instance, didn’t peasants in pre-revolutionary Russia look to the state and its embodiment in the Czars as their ‘little father’? True enough, but his role was social, to serve as protector, mentor, guide, and saviour of the Russian villages that needed to be shielded from the menaces and intrusions of the outside world. The ‘little father’ phenomenon is precisely what I’m not talking about. But if you should happen to notice someone observing that the planet is regressing, going through a reawakened adolescence because we’ve reverted to war in places like Iraq, you’re bumping into the current ideal.

George Bush, Tony Blair, and a host of Iraqi politicians regressing? Now could that be stupidity?

Stan Markotich
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Wednesday, September 29, 2004
  Update: More Links

For those following my linked pages, most entries are still archived back at the 9 May 2004 date. Meantime, there a few more outstanding works that deserve mention:
In the past, I’ve posted to essays by Victor Adair. I suggest maybe you just spend some time visiting his outstanding site. If your interests are finance, economics, or how they relate to broader global affairs, you ought to check out Victor’s writing and the authors he posts at:

For some excellent research on world affairs, check out the University of British Columbia-based Dr. Andrew Mack and the Liu Institute for Global Issues:

Finally, for anyone interested in European affairs I strongly urge checking out the writing of Ulrich Buechsenschuetz, one of that continent’s premier analysts. I’ve long worked in and on the Balkans and continue to follow that region. “Uli’s” insights and observations on that part of the world remain among the most impressive. He writes for Radio Free Europe, and a search of that institution’s website will steer you to a lot of his essays. Here I’m including only a sampling. Check out:

“The battle over post-9/11 German intelligence” (ISN, 19 August 2004)

“Asylum seeker 'clearing houses' enter EU debate” (ISN, 1 September 2004)

“EU Welcomes New Members, But Where Is the Enthusiasm?”
Sunday, September 26, 2004
  Canadian Imperialism? The Paul Martin Doctrine? What’s Going On?

This past week President George Bush spoke at the United Nations, asking for aid intended to help rebuild Iraq. However he remained unapologetic about the US role in that Middle Eastern country, insisting he was right all along, stressing the world is better off without Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. This, the bravado, was in part designed to appeal to his domestic audience, and what those assembled offered up was polite applause. Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin, also at the UN, on 22 September 2004 delivered a speech in a near-empty meeting hall, and he too garnered a round of polite applause from those few who dared or cared to attend.

There was something uncharacteristic, arguably un-Canadian, about what Martin said. He called for UN reform, in a tone uncompromising and lacking in the diplomatic niceties one might expect to find in Canadian pronouncements. Perhaps the stated topic of the speech diverted attention from its unusual qualities. Many Canadians insist the purpose of this country’s foreign policy is to improve this world for all in it. Usually such aims are to be accomplished through a considered application of soft power. Very often the beneficiaries of this generosity are meant to be the stricken peoples of the developing nations. This time around, the PM made his case citing the specific events taking place in Sudan, where a raging civil war has claimed at least 50, 000 lives, and forced an estimated million others to flee their homes seeking safety. He chided the world for its inaction. “While the international community struggles with definitions, the people of Darfur continue to suffer. They are hungry, they are homeless, they are sick and many have been driven out of their own country,” he said [cited in Beth Gorham’s CP piece of 23 September 2004].

The status quo response, argued Martin, is no longer acceptable. Where there are humanitarian crises, disease and epidemics ravaging populations, dictators who refuse to relent, or states that simply cannot function, idle debate must not serve. “Our common humanity should be a powerful enough argument and that is precisely what is missing. Put simply, there is still no explicit provision in international law for intervention on humanitarian grounds,” he said [see Gorham]. This was a clear call for interventionism, as “The Security Council has been bogged down in debating…” [see Gorham]. Yet Martin also insisted that what he demands is well delineated, and no general call to arms. Only where countries are invoking policies beyond the Pale could swift action be just and justified. That others may not accept that his intent is to convey so narrow a definition was in fact acknowledged when he spoke to reporters, noting his comments represented a near-impossible sell to some and “Moving international opinion is sometimes like pushing a string up a rope…There's no doubt there are some countries that will be more resistant to the notion...Ultimately what we're dealing with is a very fundamental shift in the way the world sees itself” [cited in Gorham].

Yet what is not entirely clear is that Martin’s aggressive, assertive call for UN reform must be confined to the particular case of Sudan. In the past, the PM has spoken with urgency of restoring Canada’s clout on the international stage. Has he in fact found the means for doing so by starting with Sudan? Judging from how limited his UN audience, Canadian relevance long ago slid right off the world stage, and Martin has more than a little work if he intends to even rekindle interest in Ottawa as a factor in global policy. Or, were his words merely rhetoric, a way of appealing to a number of constituencies without having to make additional commitments? The Canadian left, once identifying at least in part with cultural relativity and decrying violence, may now see a role for Canadian intervention and armed forces. If one ever hears an activist noting the failure to intervene where genocide is taking place, for example describing Rwanda in the 1990s as a disaster because it brought to light the “racism” of the Western powers, he or she has encountered the new face of the left, which sees a role for violence and the military. Does Martin have to play to this constituency? Or, can he use the rhetoric that satisfies this group as the vehicle for reconstituting Canada’s armed forces, to be deployed in situations and contexts that are ultimately unlike Sudan? As long as his words mollify the interventionists who advocate on humanitarian grounds, will they remain diverted from or unaware of the broader possibilities of a beefed-up army, navy and air force? Will Martin’s approach in fact signal to our allies, to NATO and especially Washington, that now Canada intends to define a military role? In the past, more unambiguous signs, including a willingness to consider missile defense, have played poorly, prompting even Liberal MPs to chastise Martin. Is the PM’s in essence a new circuitous approach, relying on Sudan, a way to appease both the leftist interventionists and the more traditional militarists?

Late September continues to provide an advantageous time to consider where Paul Martin may be able to take Canadian foreign policy. Other major events over the past month have been unsurprising, if not necessarily predictable. The world appears to be grinding along a familiar path: the Asian economies are growing apace, and their spiraling demand for raw materials will continue to strain the Western economies’ abilities to control the pricing of resources. Global wealth transference to Asia has now been established, with entrepreneurs from that part of the world eyeing Canadian resource companies as potentially attractive investments. The war on terror remains very much in the media, along with a Western focus on Coalition casualties in Iraq, which may in fact be contributing to the public’s not being entirely informed about how bad, how violent and chaotic, conditions may really be in that country. About a week or so ago President Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, noted she could find no evidence of a civil war brewing in Iraq. On 21 September news broke that Canadian hostage Fairuz Yamulky was rescued after about two weeks of captivity in Iraq, in an operation that involved the US army and possibly Canadian security agents who, for the record, do not operate in that theatre. On 26 September US Secretary of State Colin Powell likely stunned no one by confessing the obvious, saying on American television that “We have seen an increase in anti-Americanism in the Muslim world ... I'm not denying this” [quoted in “Powell Says Iraqi Security Situation Worsening,” by Tabassum Zakaria, Reuters, 26 September 2004. Posted at]. At this point, I can’t help but stop to think the time may be just right to reflect on Stupidity.

Stan Markotich
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A discussion of geopolitics and Canada's role in the world. A series of essays to examine the components of Canadian foreign policy making. Psychological, sociological, historical, and cultural variables impacting Canada's perceptions of the world.

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