The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

The Time for “Not My Problem” is Over


IT COULD BE JUST ANOTHER INTERNATIONAL SUMMIT on climate change that is more about style than substance, but it seems that something is different about this one.

To begin with, the meetings are being held just north of Paris, only a few weeks following the deadly terrorist events. There’s nothing quite like a devastating attack on progress and civilization to focus world leaders on what once was believed impossible. The citizenry in countries around the world has begun breaking through the “dead zone” of self-serving politics and is in the process, for good or ill, of electing representatives who can no longer accept the status quo. Ultimately, there is the growing evidence of environmental damage itself that is changing the equation. Sea levels are indeed rising, temperatures are increasing, millions are being forced to leave their historic abodes because of lack of water, grain, and livestock. The frustrating and myopic opposition to solid environmental policy is still present, but fading.

So, yes, we hope to get something more substantial from these talks and that the participating leaders will get beyond words to globally harmonized action.

Just one problem though, and it’s us – the voters, the citizens. The majority of us appear to want action on this file and hold our collective breath in hopes that some effective deal will emerge. And yet we participate in a popular culture that is banal and lacks individual responsibility. Our lack of making the difficult personal decisions on our lifestyles has resulted in our making counterintuitive political decisions as well. For years we have elected governments, as with the past federal variety, that spurned climate change in favor of offering us boutique tax cuts. In accepting that transaction we blew it, not just our leaders.

The democratic and financial choices we made in recent years weren’t the kind that emancipate society but basically rendered it irrelevant to politics, finance, even culture. We have known for years that our environment was in trouble, that refugees were becoming more plenteous, and that the gap between rich and poor was widening. In time we understood that military operations in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya would likely lead to an increase in violence and death, not the other way around. And it was dawning on us that for all the need to recognize the true equality of the genders or the requirement of recognition of indigenous grievances of our indigenous peoples, we knew our votes wouldn’t change either issue. And yet we continued on in our banality in an effort to hold on to our personal security.

Ultimately, our modern civilization moves by emotion more than logic in moments like these. The proof is seen in our recent responses to crisis. One drowned child on a beach prompted us to press for action. Innocent citizens killed on Parisian streets led to us being collectively aroused enough to press for some kind of response. And hurricanes, massive flooding, growing deserts, and millions fleeing their homes have finally got us to consider making some personal changes. As sensible as these responses were, they were primarily emotional, not merely logical, and it remained difficult for us to remain engaged over the long haul.

After years and years of scientific proof on the realities of climate change, we nevertheless balked at electing representatives who took it seriously enough to tackle our popular culture. We admired their courage but fretted as to what it would mean to our comfortable lives. In the end, our political choices enforced our banality and our materialistic culture remained unchallenged.

Capitalism just preferred that we shopped mindlessly. Politics preferred we leave it with the decision concerning the public space. Both of these systems were in fact self-concealing, prompting us to put our thinking aside as we encountered them. Yet our energetic practice of consumption ultimately led to our inability to make choices that could save our world. When we really needed to analyze our decisions, we were at the same time being reminded that all would be well – bombing ISIS would work, science would defeat global warming, taking in some refugees would do away with the problem. We now know we were wrong and that acknowledgement is subtly driving the climate change meetings in Paris.

There is no virtue in mindlessly moving forward in our societies. We are at our best when we continually check our systems to make sure they are aligning with our highest ideals by electing politicians who have the courage to reflect those values in an otherwise unresponsive system.

It does appear that there might be something different about this climate change summit, but if it proves even partially successful in the end it will be because our humanity and sense of justice finally showed up and our representatives in Paris now know that we as citizens are awake and changing.

Lead by Example or Force: Which is It?


IN 2003, THE U.S. ARMY SPONSORED a conference in Washington to consider the possibilities of soft power, among other things. When asked by the media what he thought of the insights into soft power that had just been presented, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld appeared a bit miffed and answered, “I don’t know what it means.” That lack of understanding and appreciation of power in its other low-key forms would ultimately contribute to the chaotic nature of the Iraq war.

But, in truth, the lack of knowledge of soft power is part of our problem as well, especially as Canada continues to mull over its role as part of the 65-member coalition fighting ISIS. And when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he wanted to help lead and not just merely support efforts to combat terrorism, he raised the bar to a level not many are sure we can reach. Canada has accomplished much in this field before, however, and can do so again.

Rumsfeld equated “soft” power with “weak” power, contributing to the perception that he could only envision the greatest form of power itself as something equated with planes, cruise missiles, bombs, and ground forces on the attack. In retrospect, numerous observers now believe that it was the very absence of soft power that made its harder cousin unworkable and unsustainable.

Soft power is the ability to achieve your goals through providing resources and understanding through the local culture as opposed to just winning a war. It isn’t the opposite of military might but a vital complement to it. It isn’t about attracting others to our values, but the recognition that the enduring values of humanitarianism are found in every culture and must be built upon. Yes, it could well involve building democracy in troubled regions, but it could just as easily entail the understanding that the Muslim faith carries deep and abiding values of human respect that go as far back as our own.

Power is about resources just as much as might. Insightful NGOs (non-governmental organizations), often working with military personnel, have used water as a means of conflict management. Often accomplished by the provision of secure corridors for travel or through equipment providing clean water itself, access to this natural resource often alleviates the tensions that trouble regions, clans, and tribes who normally fight over it.

Fourteen years ago, the NGO my wife and I direct in South Sudan was approached to build a secondary school in the region that would be the only one for 600 kilometres. We agreed to try, but only if a 50/50 student ratio would be honoured between boys and girls (girls were often kept from educational opportunities during that time of war). Negotiations ensued for a lengthy time until at last agreement was reached. In five weeks time we travel to South Sudan to officially open the school and hand it over to the Ministry of Education. They have honoured their commitment, and already the possibility of education for girls is transforming the landscape – something seemingly impossible through the medium of bombs, planes, or tanks.

Canadian troops – women and men – have performed remarkable acts of valour in a troubled world for over a century. But we can never overlook all the Canadian humanitarian efforts, sometimes employing military “soft” resources like the DART (Disaster Assistance Response Team). It is these activities, as much as our combat efforts, that have earned Canada’s hard-won reputation as a nation that comprehends the value of soft power.

So will it be hard or soft power for Canada? Some will say that it should be both. Perhaps. But our current prime minister is correct in maintaining that it’s difficult to create peace on the ground if you are a nation that is also pummeling the earth and people with bombs. Gandhi was right, too, when he maintained that, “an eye for an eye only makes the world blind.” A military action might promote even more terrorism if we aren’t careful. Canada’s role can be as equally daring, brave, and innovative as any bombing sortie, merely by helping remove the dire conditions on the ground that create the context for terror itself. We are a brave people, and if we must battle we will. But we prefer to fight with our minds and our collective conditioning for peace – a reality as powerful as any military force on earth.

It’s Not All About Bombs

Lieutenant (Navy) Melanie Espina, doctor for the 1st Canadian Field Hospital, Petawawa, and member of the Canadian Armed Forces Disaster Assistance Response Team, examines a local baby during Operation RENAISSANCE, in Sara, Philippines on November 21, 2013. Photo: MCpl Marc-Andre Gaudreault, Canadian Forces Combat Camera IS2013-2006-058

OUR FAMILY HAS BEEN WATCHING THE REFUGEE CRISIS with interest, and with good reason. Our one daughter was a southern Sudanese refugee and her brother and sister internally displaced persons (IDPs) before coming to Canada. Our work in South Sudan entails providing essential needs for refugees flooding into the area from surrounding nations. So, yes, the fate of millions with no home (11 million from Syria alone) draws us to our screens.

For Canadians, the discussion on what to do about ISIS has formed the dilemma easily into two parts: keep our military forces in attack mode or pull them out. The focus of hopes and fears has fallen on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and which option he will choose.

It’s likely he will opt for neither exclusively because, as President Obama himself acknowledged, there remain numerous options that the various countries of the 65-member coalition can play. Some pundits presume the experienced president gave the young prime minister a pass, but it could just as easily be that Trudeau provided him a broader array of options.

Not all that long ago the term “smart power” carried a certain appeal. Hillary Clinton, while Secretary of State, consistently maintained the only a correct balance between “hard” and “soft” power could make any headway in broken states. But with ISIS altering its tactics, transitioning from desert killings to metropolitan onslaught, and the bloody attack on Paris, the needle has tipped decisively in favour of an aggressive Western military response.

Justin Trudeau reasons that numerous countries carry diverse specialties other than mere military might. That was true with both NATO and UN actions in the past and nothing has changed. The coalition intuitively knows they are in for a long struggle, not against a nation with military supremacy, but a group of almost invisible vigilantes that have the potential to strike into the heart of the Western world.

But as with any terrorist organization, their life is made easier in any setting with the pervasive reality of poverty, lack of education and resources, and an enduring sense of hopelessness in the future. It remains virtually impossible to maintain any direct humanitarian effort in Syria itself at the moment, but the role Canada could play, not merely in training soldiers, but in assisting refugees in neighbouring nations could be significant. Our present contribution of fighter jets represents 1% of the overall military strength of the coalition; Canada can clearly contribute better by the using the diplomatic, humanitarian, training, and, yes, military expertise it has gleaned and perfected over decades. That hand is strengthened if Canada isn’t seen as being in the vanguard of the military attacks.

Virtually no leader of the multi-tiered coalition responding to the Paris attacks believes ISIS can be defeated by bombing alone. It will take the seizing of financial assets, likely ground forces, cyber guardianship, working with opposition groups, and a successful outcome of the Vienna talks, which now show a real sign of potential for stabilizing the Syrian homeland. But to that must be added the acceptance of refugees, the struggle against poverty in the region, the use of every diplomatic channel, and the ongoing fight of empowering women in the region. Close to $100 million could build an armed navy vessel. Conversely, it could equip 1,000 diplomats, 10,000 peacekeepers, or a giant water desalination plant.

This is the way Trudeau thinks, and he’s not wrong. The question will be whether he can deliver on soft power in a way that strikes at the very heart of terrorism by removing some of the conditions that breed it. Henry Kissinger noted that diplomacy is the art of restraining unbridled power. To the necessary military response to ISIS must be partnered an accompanying smart series of actions which recognize that military power without humanity is perpetual war.

Those claiming Canada’s response should be to stay in with the jets or get out of military action are greatly underselling Canada’s potential for response. We have a key role to play over the long haul – Obama knows it, as does Trudeau. As war is waged, efforts at peace are the only way to end it effectively.

Standing Still as Humanity Moves


THE FRUSTRATION ON HIS FACE SAID IT ALL, and his emotions weren’t unlike our own. President Obama, like other political leaders, is in a pickle – not because there isn’t the need to help refugees, but because their constituencies are divided as to how to respond. The Paris attacks changed everything, filling the refugee conversations with an intensity and sense of urgency that has made dialogue more difficult.

When reminded that Republican governors (three of whom are running for president) claimed they wouldn’t accept Syrian refugees, and that even many Congressional Republicans agreed, Obama showed visible pain on his face, believing that America couldn’t abdicate global leadership at a time he believed the country’s compassion was so required.

The purpose of this post isn’t to delve into the many sides of the refugee situation, but to consider the implications of the refugee phenomenon itself and provide something of a longer view.

When we are informed that the past few years have seen more refugees than at any time since World War Two, we get that, and it’s worrying. But it’s revealing when we consider where many of those fleeing that conflict ended up. Poles, Ukrainians, and Russians fled to deepest Africa to escape the horrors of Nazi death camps and deportation. Conditions were brutal and dehumanizing on the journey. Official recognition of their plight was all but impossible – they were on their own. Abysmal refugee camps were established but were soon filled to overflowing, with approximately 35,000 Polish refugees alone. Many came from other beleaguered countries in Europe.

It was revealed later by historians that a number of Jews were travelling in this group. For Jewish refugees themselves, the need to flee their homes was immediate and, in many cases, death-defying. Those attempting to get to Britain came in for something of a shock when movements of citizens wanted to bar their entry. Historian Thomas Harding wrote that, “In Britain, these Jewish refugees were greeted with a mixture of grudging acceptance by some and open hostility by others.” As more and more landed on British shores, Harding adds, “The British government had become fearful of how its citizens would react to a wave of Jewish refugees from Germany, and had clamped down on immigration.”

We know, of course, how Jewish refugees were refused entry to the United States on a number of occasions, but what of those biracial Americans who attempted to escape slavery in America by fleeing to Paris, France, as refuge? In their midst were some of the great artists and musicians of the age and in Paris they found a home they could never enjoy in Harlem.

This is all a reminder that how to respond to millions of refugees isn’t only complex, but frequently ironic. The flowing movement of a desperate humanity from injustice and death is hardly new, nor does the current merely flow one way. Obama knew all this, of course, and his frustrations only grew as a result.

As did those of Antonio Guterres, the head of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees: “It’s absolute nonsense to try to blame refugees for terror attacks when they were the first victims of such attacks and can’t be held responsible in Paris, Beirut, or elsewhere.” But he wasn’t done. “It’s not the refugee outflows that cause terrorism, it is terrorism, tyranny and war that create refugees.”

There is an essential truth in this insight, but it is unlikely to sway those Canadians speaking out against accepting Syrian refugees into Canada. Our country is under strain from a human dilemma that we didn’t ask for but have been forced to confront. The ability of thousands whom we have never met to divide us is a real threat, but the potential for such divisions have come from within ourselves, not from that sea of humanity seeking refuge somewhere … anywhere. The solutions will not prove easy, but will never be possible should we fail to find some kind of consensus, even compromise. We are Canadians, after all, and like it or not, the world prefers to view us as compassionate and accepting.

Richard Fontaine, president of the Centre for a New American Security, delivered a compelling and unexpected challenge to his fellow citizens:

“Civilized nations should see the violence in Paris not as a moment to question our long-held ideals but as a chance to reaffirm them and embrace the most vulnerable among us. It is not just the ethically correct thing to do. This embrace of humanity’s deepest values is itself a rejection of the tortured ISIS worldview.”

ISIS isn’t going away anytime soon, but their duration will extend as long as we give in to the fear and insecurity that undermines the very best of who we are as a people. It is likely that most of us have a refugee somewhere in our ancestry, as many have discovered in recent years. To turn our back now is to deny our very existence and identity. The decision is now ours to make and it will carry an impact far greater than any bomb.

Uneasy Lies the Head that Wears the Crown


AS JUSTIN TRUDEAU MOVES THROUGH A SERIES OF SUMMITS that will surely have an effect on global direction, I thought of John Kennedy describing the turbulent first few months of his presidency:

“I knew that this country faced serious challenges, but I could not realize – nor could any man realize who does not bear the burdens of this office – how heavy and constant would be those burdens” 

Both men were the second youngest to be elected to the highest office of their respective countries – Kennedy was 42, Trudeau one year older. International crises defined their first year, and, like Kennedy, Trudeau has fielded no shortage of opinions concerning how he should respond to the Paris attacks. Some think he should ramp up Canada’s mission, while others believe he should stick with his original promise to bring the planes back home.

Putting aside our personal opinions for a moment, one can’t help but feel some sympathy for the situation the newly elected Prime Minister finds himself in. The pressures on Trudeau to ramp up the military option are fierce, and yet he rightfully points out that he was elected on a mandate to place resources on other vital aspects of Canadian influence, like diplomacy, international development, and peaceful conflict resolution.

Trudeau knows well enough that the West has been bombing regions of the Middle East for three decades and that there is little to show for it. Yet neither can he wash his hands of the affair. He’s in a bind, and at the end of all the opinions, pro and con, it is he who must decide.

The new PM doesn’t think along the traditional lines of conflict management. As Obama reminded the world yesterday, the real issues lie in the miserable conditions that caused so many refugees to flee their homelands. In a few more years, the Arab world will replace Africa as the world’s poorest region. Left in that condition, we can only expect more turbulence. Any military response must be coupled with far more effective efforts in diplomacy, education, women’s empowerment, and micro enterprise – initiatives that underwent significant cuts by the previous government.

And then there is the reality that few wish to talk about: ISIS, as a broker of world calamity, is highly overrated. This feels counterintuitive, but it merits further discussion. Paul Krugman, of the New York Times, among others, reminds us that the main weapon brandished by ISIS is fear itself:

“The biggest danger terrorism poses to our society comes not from the direct harm inflicted, but from the wrong-headed responses it can inspire. And it’s crucial to realize that there are multiple ways the response can go wrong.”

He reminds us that one fallacy would be straight out appeasement – acting as though nothing serious has happened. Another would be stripping most of the liberties and rights of Western citizens in an effort to promise a security that can’t be guaranteed. There are some things that can’t simply be bartered away, like personal liberty and the case for a universal sense of human worth and dignity. As Krugman concludes: “The goal of terrorists is to inspire terror, because that’s all they’re capable of.” Paris makes it feel like they are capable of so much more, but in reality it is the fear their actions breed within us that carries the greatest danger.

Trudeau is of the belief that cooperation among nations must be more permanent than just responding to occasional emergencies. The roots of terrorism lie in poverty, ignorance, and closed societies, and in this surely the nations of the world, and the private sector along with them, can provide resources other than mere weaponry and military intervention.  Each nation can play its own unique role, Canada among them.

Harsh reality broke in on Justin Trudeau’s entrance onto the world stage and will surely test the fortitude of his convictions and his belief that the Canadian people voted for something other than ongoing warfare. Shakespeare’s depiction of Henry IV’s leadership as, “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown,” is hauntingly real at this moment. The rhetoric of only a week ago, maintaining that, “Canada is back” is no longer sufficient for this vital moment in time. What is required now is a Canada that is different – in how it approaches the status quo, in its belief in the power of a woman’s role in the world, and the vitality of education, health, and a sustainable natural order. A PM that believes in the power, compassion, and fortitude of his own people might very well prove more effective than any jet armed to the teeth.

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