Canada Foreign Policy
Wednesday, April 27, 2005
  Der Untergang

It starts and ends in a room filled with political insiders. There’s the leader, under so much pressure he deludes himself into believing his bad fortunes are not only temporary, but also about set to rebound. There’s the architect of gaudy cityscapes who ultimately uses his talent to rebuild his compromised public persona. One of the principals is so amoral, even by the pitiful standards of his cohorts, that it’s doubtful he ever had any real loyalty to the chief, even for a second. The conscienceless subordinate contemptuously refers to his leader by barking out his last name, an action for which he’s capable of evading consequences because of the control that he, and not fearless leader, exercised over much of the state police. When the time came to even stop pretending it was possible to salvage the regime, it was the most amoral of the bunch who was among the first to attempt a power grab, somehow thinking his time, at last, had come. Then there was the weak link, in charge of spin and the media. During the early years, he not only despised the great leader, but also conspired to oust him from control of the party destined someday to form government. When that failed, the communications officer transferred his loyalty, accepted his position, and laboured to fabricate a pedigree that could demonstrate his subservience and servitude from the very outset. A lie to be sure, and an expensive one which in the end bought him no other friends and no alternative to going down with the reviled government that he now led, albeit only for a few hours.

I’ll stop right here and make clear that, no, I’m not talking about what is or has been going on in the ranks of the Liberal Party of Canada. Some may be tempted to mistake the preceding remarks for a description of the impact the Gomery Inquiry is having on Canada’s ruling party. The leader is besieged, and not so much by the opposition as by his own ranks. The left wing has more than abandoned him; it has gone on the attack, and a few of its members include the most ardent of public detractors of the current Prime Minister. For his part, PM Paul Martin at this very moment is seeking to consolidate relations with new allies. A working agreement with Jack Layton’s New Democrats may serve as a watered down version of the Liberal Party left that Martin now lacks yet desperately needs, if only to cling to office. Meanwhile the Bloc is anxious for an election call as soon as possible, for reasons that involve being able to win even more seats in Quebec and forcing out of government a ruling elite that more and more may appear to have connections with improprieties. The Tories, meanwhile, are divided and resort to polling to see if Canadians will support them in an action to bring down the government right now. While it appears an election seems highly likely in June, there still remains much uncertainty. A Tory motion that could bring down the government will not be voted on before 18 May, though the Commons may actually trigger an election call as early as 2 May.

The Liberals do appear to be imploding, but last week Martin acted in several ways, including going on television to assure the public he would get to the bottom of all wrongdoing. Guilty individuals would not go unpunished. Just let the Gomery Inquiry finish its work, stressed the PM, and within 30 days of the filing of the final report, he himself would call an election, likely due sometime in early 2006. Wanting to divert attention from problems within Liberal ranks, Martin also did what is almost unheard of for a current federal leader. He focused promises on a variety of issues, including foreign policy. About a week ago a much-awaited review of Canadian foreign affairs became public. Liberals now pledge to better relations with our North American neighbours; to become more active in the campaigns against terrorism; and foreign aid, targeted at some 135 countries, sees priorities redefined and streamlined with 25 countries, mostly in Africa, identified as the main beneficiaries. In what may sound positively bold and revolutionary to some, Martin seemed to recognize there are severe problems with the way Canada relates to the outside world, and actually said the time was over for “empty moralizing” [CBC News, 19 April 2005. See article posted at]. In fact, with elections guaranteed within a year, the PM ratcheting up the rhetoric concerning foreign policy change may mean little, and his government’s ability to implement any real foreign policy change gone. With the Tories likely to gain at least a minority government if balloting were held today, the reality is that little if anything of substance is taking place on the foreign policy front. As long as paralysis defines the political situation, that will not change.

No, I started out with a mention of one the best war movies ever made. War films are plenty, and almost all are beyond bad. The best among them not only transcend the genre, but go on to achieve insights where academics, philosophers, and pseudo-thinkers fall flat. On the surface about war, these films deal with human nature defined by stress. The rather short list includes Paths of Glory, Das Boot, The Big Red One, and now last year’s Der Untergang.

I saw Downfall last week and was reminded that Bruno Ganz remains one of the West’s greatest living actors. In the film, he plays Hitler, and much of the action takes place in a Berlin bunker. The story focuses mostly on the last ten days of the fuehrer’s life, a fascinating time that marks not only the final collapse of the regime, but a remarkable period during which that elite, or so argues the film, grew so delusional that some bypassed concerns of mere survival only to entertain thoughts of how their career interests and the government authority could be advanced, without Hitler. I suppose power is power, and even some on the most rapidly sinking ship are quite prepared to pursue it. And that insight exposes the great value in this piece of cinema. I don’t know how accurate a portrait of events the work is. I have read some of the sources that inspire the film, and understand they are self-serving testaments, albeit from eyewitnesses to events. In the film the self-promoting architect Albert Speer, the conniving and amoral Heinrich Himmler, the manipulative and ultimately cowardly propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, surround Hitler, or Ganz. Then there’s the leader’s personal secretary, Traudl Junge, who actually is shown during the closing credits, but is played in the film by a very young actress. This film succeeds in breaking familiar and all too pervasive patterns that continue to grip much of the scholarly world. More than a few social scientists, mainly historians, who opt to write about the Third Reich seem to do so on autopilot. A great achievement is all too often recognized when some obscure factoid about Hitler or a member of his inner circle is discovered, paving the way for a yet another 600-page dissertation making even clearer that inescapable fact that Hitler, yes based on this new datum, was in fact evil, heinous, irredeemable. And so another budding scholar may go riding off into the tenure sunset. Yet doesn’t the existing body of work not already establish Hitler’s evil?

Downfall points to what may be a productive line of study; namely, examining how a political elite is so impacted by negative developments they are unable to overcome, or even gain a real sense of control. If you think such people do not exist under such circumstances, that stress does not redefine political behaviour, now may be an excellent time to suspend that belief.

No, I’m thinking about Russia. I came out of Downfall thinking what life must be like in the Kremlin these days and suspecting the movie might provide some ways to get an insight. Russia’s leader, Vladimir Putin, is in a very interesting position. Not really too long ago, he watched as then Communist leader Mikhail Gorbachev blundered away an empire. Now, Putin is watching himself as the confederation that emerged from the Soviet Union, the Commonwealth of Independent States, is in danger of unraveling. Whether or not Putin himself fritters away the whole CIS, or leaves that to the next political generation, remains an open and important question. What isn’t in doubt is that the Commonwealth is slowly falling apart, and that Moscow’s regional and global influence has been in sort of a free-fall for well over a decade. Ukraine, for instance, has just gone through a revolution of its own, and the current leadership seems to have almost no interest in strengthening ties with Russia, opting to move closer to the West. Aided by the outside, it was only a month or so ago that Kyrgyzstan’s Askar Akayev was ousted by a popular uprising, which produced anarchy, rioting and looting, but for only a relatively short time. “Akayev's departure made Kyrgyzstan the third former Soviet republic in the past 18 months - after Georgia and Ukraine - to see popular protests bring down long-entrenched leaders widely accused of corruption” [quoted in Bagila Bukjarbayeva’s “Kyrgyzstan Opposition in Control,” AP, 25 March 2005. Posted at].

And how is Putin handling all this? For the record, he says his commitment to democracy is unwavering, albeit achieving it must be tailored to meet his country’s very specific culture and interests. But only days ago the US Secretary of State was openly critical of goings on in Russia. Condoleezza Rice “a specialist on the former Soviet Union who interspersed her interview with a few phrases of Russian, couched her criticism in diplomatic tones, [and] she singled out the powers that Putin had accumulated since taking over in 2000” [quoted in Oleg Shchedrov’s “Russia’s Putin Has Too Much Power, Says Rice,” Reuters, 20 April 2005. Posted at]. Meanwhile, Putin says he misses the Soviet Union. In fact, he remarked in a state of the nation address that its collapse was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century” and for Russia’s citizens “a genuine tragedy” [quoted in Alex Nicholson’s “Russia’s Putin: Soviet Collapse a Tragedy,” AP, 25 April 2005].

So what does this have to do with Canada?

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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