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Public Thought and Canada’s Crisis of Underpopulation

This essay originally appeared as a chapter in The Public Intellectual In Canada (2003), edited by Nelson Wiseman (University of Toronto Press).

The jazz pianist Paul Bley, two decades after he had left Montreal’s downstairs clubland for the frenetic experimentation of Greenwich Village, told an interviewer why it was necessary to leave Canada. There simply wasn’t, in any Canadian city, the critical mass of musical inventors, not enough people around to make the scene, and the difference was immediately, explosively apparent. “For us practicing our standards and sitting in and playing well and whatever, it just wasn’t the same breed of animal. You thought you were playing jazz … But when you heard the amount of wind that came off these stands [in New York], you realized you would have to totally lose your reticent Canadian personality before you could even expect to keep up. That the shock. That incredible power. And confidence.”[1]

The architect Frank Gehry, five decades after he left the staid streets of post-war Toronto for the modernist foment of Los Angeles, told me that his radical reconfiguration of the public building into a new curvilinear form would never have taken place had he stayed in Canada. “I remember reading the final exam for first-year architecture – they had the exams there [in secondary school] so you could see what it was like – and you had to design a traditional little cottage. And I remember thinking, this is just terrible, boring, nothing to it. So based on that, if I had stayed there, I never would have gotten into architecture.”[2] As it happened, his classmate at Harbord Collegiate, Morley Safer, made a similar discovery, about the world of television journalism, after spending a few years at the postwar CBC before fleeing to the greater creative possibilities of a larger country.

We have little trouble understanding why a great jazz pianist or architect, or perhaps even a TV personality, might find it necessary to leave Canada in order to achieve a full realization of their creative potential. While these pursuits and their attendant institutions all exist within Canada, it is widely appreciated that Canada does not yet have a sufficiently large population to provide the very big cities, major educational institutions, and large constellations of peers, audiences, funders, and tutors necessary to host these crafts in their most elevated and influential form. It hardly surprises us that a successful actor should relocate to Los Angeles or New York or London, or a tenor to Berlin or Milan, and in fact we tend to be suspicious, for good reason, of those who don’t. This, we know, is just the nature of a place like Canada. To be something of an outpost, albeit one that exports a good number of future stars, is no source of shame; rather, it is accepted as a consequence of being a very sparsely populated country. Canada’s underpopulation, for people in these fields, is an ever-present factor.

That is hardly a controversial point. Not, at least, when it is applied to the creative arts. When the subject turns to matters of public thought, national self-examination, and political development, though, we tend to look away. That Canada’s political, intellectual, and rhetorical development is constrained by a crisis of underpopulation should be a self-evident fact, but it is one that is rarely admitted in public. Are we less intelligent because there are so few of us, spread over such a large expanse of land? No, certainly not as individuals. But collectively, this sad confluence of demography and geography does leave us impoverished. We may indeed be able to think and imagine great things, but our sparsity renders us unable to articulate these thoughts, to build them into a network of reflection, to convey them to a wide public, to build a functioning national dialogue on a proper scale. The crisis of underpopulation is, in every important way, made manifest as a crisis of public thought.

The problem, in short, is that anglophone Canada[3] lacks the population and audience base to create and maintain the institutions that make public thought possible – periodicals, think tanks, institutes, publishers. The economies of scale simply do not exist, beyond a minimal level, to allow these institutions and venues to develop in sufficient size and for sufficient duration to create a body of influential and fully developed and debated public ideas. The history of Canada is one of such institutions endlessly being formed, sometimes with great ambitions, and then after a brief period either going out of business or failing to attain any more than a token size, staffing level, publication reach, or public influence. We have no place to put our thought, because we do not have enough people to support a container.

What do I mean here by “public thought?” While other authors in this collection will examine this question in detail, I am deliberately going to leave my definitions broad and general, because the nature of the thought is secondary to the question of its ability to exist. For the benefit of this argument, though, I will examine two widely used definitions of public thought: as a form of influential expression and analysis located in the publishing space between formal academia and mass-market journalism; and as a form of political and policy thought located in think tanks and institutes that support the political system and articulate both academic and ideological concepts in a public space. Both of these crucial forms of thought and the institutions that support them, I will argue, are severely underdeveloped in Canada, to the point that public intellectuals are largely absent from the most important debates on identity and policy. At root is the crisis of underpopulation, a concept that I will briefly discuss before examining its effects.

The Nature of Canada’s Underpopulation

The fundamental reason why these institutions are so much less robustly developed in Canada – and therefore the reason why public thought has less voice and influence in Canada – is that the community meant to support and draw from these institutions consists of somewhere between twenty-one and twenty-four million English speakers scattered more or less sparsely over an area of land encompassing five time zones, several geographic and cultural regions, a dozen isolated political jurisdictions, and the second largest land mass on Earth.[4] Underpopulation is a basic fact in Canada, one whose challenges have played a major part in political and cultural debates throughout the country’s history, but is hard to gauge precisely.

In 2001, I asked a group of demographers to assess Canada’s “ideal” population on cultural, economic, and ecological grounds.[5] While this is a nebulous question, given the impossibility of defining “ideal” and the many factors beyond mere population that could influence a country’s outcomes, there was a wide consensus that Canada’s optimum point would involve a population in the broad area of 100 million people. It was around the 100 million mark, reached shortly before 1920, that the United States was first able to assert itself economically as a fully independent force and to master and export its own forms of literature, music, cinema, and theatre – it was this population level that turned America into the capital of the modern world. The demographer Morton Weifeld made a comparison: If the tiny strip of land upon which most Canadians live – that is, less than a tenth of Canada’s land mass – were to develop the population density of the Netherlands (a dense European state, but one with plenty of open spaces and parklands), then Canada would have 400 million people. A population density one-quarter that of the Netherlands would leave Canada’s natural spaces untouched. (In fact, they would probably be far better protected: densely populated places like California and France tend to do better at conservation than empty zones like the Asian steppe, which produced such ecological catastrophes as the Aral Sea disaster unobserved.) –It would give this narrow southern strip of Canada the population density of Spain or Romania, two countries noted for their unspoiled tracts of nature. And it would expand Canada’s major cities to a size capable of exerting true influence, in wake of the World Bank’s well-supported conclusion that the very largest cities will be the ones that will prosper economically and culturally in this century’s economy. Most important, of course, would be the effects on Canada’s institutions: A tripling of the current population, giving Canada an anglophone or English-fluent allophone population of about 75 million, just more than Britain’s, would be just enough to support the aforementioned public-thought institutions at a sustainable and influential scale.

The 100 million figure keeps popping up; it seems to be a constantly rediscovered benchmark of Canadian success. In 1968, a group of scholars, policy advocates, and business leaders formed the Mid-Canada Development Corridor Foundation, which argued, based on research into resource industries, that Canada required a population of at least 100 million in order to have a sustainable and independent economy (its goals were partly those of economic nationalism).[6] In 1975, a study by Canada’s Department of Manpower found that economies of scale leading to “significant benefits to Canadian industry” would occur only after the population had reached the 100 million mark.[7] And more recently, in 2010, the journal Global Brief argued in detail that Canada will need a population of 100 million on geostrategic, defence, and diplomatic grounds:

A national population of 100 million – three times the current Canadian population – is a symbolic quantum. It could very well be 85 million or 130 million and yield the same desired effects. And these effects would be pincer-like: first, a far larger demographic base to build strong national institutions and structures (east-west-north-south) across the vast territory of Canada – institutions that, while today often absent or weak, would eventually serve as a bulwark for international strategic influence; and second, a far larger talent pool to populate the strategic arms of the Canadian state – the military, diplomatic, general civil service and political branches of government – as well as connected sectors and organizations (business, cultural, educational, scientific) in Canadian society at large. In the process, the Canada of 100 million, through the force of new domestic structures, coupled with growing international impact (and prestige), undergoes an evolution of the national geist – one arguably appropriate for this new, more complicated, more international century. In short, Canada becomes a serious force to be reckoned with.[8]

Whether Canada’s ideal population is 100 million or half that many is not important here; what is important is that it is not currently high enough to support fully functional institutions of public thought, given the costs of serving a minimum audience base across a very large area of territory joined by expensive transportation links and severed by linguistic and regional discrepancies.

The Effects of Underpopulation on Public Thought

The first category of public thought to consider – the one perhaps most commonly considered – is public thought as a popular and influential form of expression and analysis located in the intellectual and media space between academic studies and journalism. This is the critical, reflective public thought of the review essay, the intelligent magazine, the print-heavy weekly. The “public intellectuals” who work in this arena have traditionally been a prevalent and influential force in the English-speaking world and are the group most broadly discussed in the United States, in part because of the fame of such communities of public thinkers as the New York Intellectuals and the neoconservatives, all of whom worked in this intermediary publishing space. There are similar communities in Europe, notably the circle of German thinkers, writers, and journalists who contribute regularly to the feuilleton sections of the broadsheet newspapers. (In France, public thought is more heavily reliant on accredited academics, though the feuilletons and intellectual magazines serve a similar purpose.)

This class of public thinkers are sometimes university-based academics and sometimes independent thinkers drawn from literary and journalistic communities, writing generally in essay forms (including review essays and longer magazine think-pieces, as well as occasional newspaper essays, and more recently the highbrow blog post and online essay) that engage both intellectual concepts and current cultural and political debates, in a language and format accessible to educated non-specialist members of the general public. Their work is, for example, the subject of Richard Posner’s provocative book Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline.[9] The “decline” discussed by Posner is not a decline of public thought or its institutions in the United States per se, but rather a wilting of its quality caused by the shift of the mass of thinkers from the world of independent publishing into academia (causing them to resemble more their European counterparts), thus entrapping them in an increasingly micro-specialized disciplinary environment and damaging their ability to be universal, general-interest thinkers.

The crucial institutions of this sort of public thought are traditionally the political-essay weekly or fortnightly (the Spectator and New Statesman in Britain, and in the United States the New Republic and Nation on the left and the National Review and Weekly Standard on the right); the small political or intellectual magazine (the most famous being the New York–based magazines Politics, the Partisan Review, Commentary, Dissent, and the National Interest, some of which began as left-wing periodicals and became neoconservative in their later years); the review-essay weekly (the Times Literary Supplement, London Review of Books, and Literary Review in Britain, and the New York Review of Books in the United States); the “intelligent” mass-circulation monthly or sometimes weekly magazine (notably Prospect in Britain, and the Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, and New Yorker in the United States); and the book publishing company willing to engage in serious long-form policy or academic-based popular non-fiction – whether an academic publisher willing to publish more generalist, popular titles (like Oxford University Press or the University of Chicago Press), or a mass-market publisher willing to publish more serious and analytical titles. This sphere of public thought also extends into the more sophisticated broadsheet newspapers and their online offshoots in most countries.

In Canada, this sort of public thought has always struggled against a severe shortage of institutions suited to its publication. Compared to the British and American publications listed above, the space between the mass media and the academic journal in Canada has generally been a barren plain, with occasional sprouts of momentary creative activity punctuating a thin undergrowth of publications too small and limited to have any impact on the national debate.

Even in far larger countries, the variety of periodicals in which public intellectuals thrive have always struggled to remain viable, regardless their influence. In the United States, the political-intellectual weeklies that have tended to dominate debate on the right and left have long regarded their threshold of medium-term survival as being a circulation of 100,000 copies. This level is just enough to support a minimum staff (heavily bolstered by unpaid interns and backstopped by charitable contributions) and to commission the sort of writing that suits the magazine’s goals. At the moment, the fortnightly National Review (203,000 copies) and the weekly Nation (158,000) are managing to break this threshold, while the fortnightly New Republic (54,000) and the Weekly Standard (81,000) are not, leaving their publication futures in jeopardy if they are to rely strictly on subscription and advertising revenues. Even at these circulation levels, however, these magazines are rarely able to remain solvent from their own resources. All four, to greater or lesser degrees, have relied on the ownership or largesse of wealthy individuals who have shared their political affinities. Indeed, the Nation has made this dependency a matter of pride, boasting in its advertising that it has lost money during every one of its 150-plus years of publication. The situation in the United Kingdom is similar, but the threshold smaller. There, magazines generally regard something in the circulation range of 30,000 to 50,000 to be the threshold of survival or failure, and even then they tend to rely heavily on volunteer efforts. The Spectator, the flagship of Britain’s conservative public intellectuals, manages between 75,000 and 80,000 subscribers, while its left-wing counterpart the New Statesman has hovered around 30,000, its existence often threatened by its low numbers.

This may help explain why such publications play little or no major public role in Canada: the subscription levels are an order of magnitude lower than those in the United States, and less than half those in Britain. There are no public-thought weeklies or fortnightlies of this sort in Canada, and serious monthly or bimonthly periodicals have struggled to exist. If the threshold of survival is 30,000 in Britain and 100,000 in the United States, in Canada it is generally considered to be 10,000 by magazine professionals. In practice, the magazines that have tried to carry the flag of public thought have rarely managed to break the 5000 mark. This is the case for This Magazine on the left, which continues only because of its charitable status (and thus receipt of indirect state funding through charitable-donation tax deductions) and reliance on volunteer labour; and for the erstwhile Western Report and its various precursors and successors on the right, all of which fell below this threshold and failed. (It is striking that Canada today lacks a serious long-form periodical, in print or online, for public intellectuals on the right.) While some of these publications have nurtured journalistic careers, none can be said to have influenced public thought or policy in Canada to any notable degree in modern times.

There have been periods of glory for such small magazines. For a time in the 1960s, the Canadian Forum, under the editorship of Ramsay Cook and William Kilbourn, managed to exert some real influence on the Canadian centre-left, both in the Liberal Party and the newly formed NDP; it played a significant role in launching the career of its sometime contributor Pierre Trudeau (as did the francophone, highly influential, but rarely read Montreal counterpart Cité Libre). And the small magazine Explorations: Studies in Culture and Communication managed, under the editorship of Edmund Carpenter and Marshall McLuhan between 1953 and 1959, to have a considerable influence on the cultural politics and understanding of media at the time (as did McLuhan’s subsequent books, whose widespread discussion, publication, and influence mark a high-water mark for this sort of public thought in Canada). Today there remain a number of small Canadian public-thought publications of good quality that are focused on small but wide-interest communities of educated citizens, including a reinvigorated Queen’s Quarterly (which wielded some influence in the post-war decades), Global Brief, and Policy Options. Despite their importance, they do not have the influence or reach of their counterparts in other English-speaking countries, probably owing to the geographic and population challenges of Canada.

Without much chance of finding a home in viable single-focus publications, this sort of public thought in Canada has been left to the larger and more general-purpose weekly or monthly long-form magazine, which tends to balance entertainment and journalism with more serious fare that epitomizes public thought. This has been, especially in the United States, the most influential venue for the public intellectual, with publications ranging from the weekly New Yorker (with a circulation, however diminished, still exceeding one million) to Harper’s (220,000) and the Atlantic Monthly (400,000). In Britain, this field is left largely to Prospect magazine, whose circulation of around 40,000 is balanced by its considerable influence on larger-circulation mass media. Also, the weekly glossy magazines of daily newspapers sometimes rise to the level of public thought, notably the New York Times Magazine, which frequently publishes influential essays by both academics and journalists, but also occasionally the magazines of the Times or the Guardian in Britain.

In Canada, the fate of such long-form magazines has been a matter of constant public interest and concern throughout the post-war decades, precisely because of their status in formulating public thought and constructive policy debates in a way that could bring together the academy, the media, and government in a neutral territory. For much of that period the lion’s share of magazine advertising lineage in Canada was tied up in the Canadian editions of Reader’s Digest and Time, which together accounted for more than half the Canadian magazine business in both circulation and staffing. In the 1960s, when the federal government began talking seriously about taxing these titles to produce a fund for Canadian magazines, the need for significant public-intellectual titles came to the fore. Robert Weaver, the editor of Tamarack Review, expressed a popular view when he wrote, in 1961: “This fund should then be used to assist magazines that need support to stay alive, but the bulk of it should be used to establish and subsidize indefinitely one national monthly of the type of Harper’s or the Atlantic Monthly.”[10]

That would never occur, of course. When the Canadian magazine industry did come to be protected by Ottawa in the 1970s, the largest recipient of funds in English Canada was Maclean’s, which used the federal money (as much as $3 million a year in subsidies during the 2000s) to shift away from public thought – that is, to change from a long-form monthly resembling Harper’s or the Atlantic Monthly, which it had occasionally been in the 1960s, into a newsweekly in the vein of Time, closed (until its recent resurrection) to the sort of public thought that Canada seemed to lack. For a period of three decades, this left the middle ground, largely unaccompanied, to the vicissitudes of Saturday Night, a magazine whose fortunes are often treated as synonymous with those of public thought in Canada; its collapse in 2005 was entirely a product of underpopulation, with both reading and advertising audiences far too small to support a serious monthly. Its successor the Walrus, formed by former staff with a greater interest in serious public thought, and with the backing of private individuals willing to risk their savings on a marginal title, has proved a lone outpost of a certain sort of public-intellectual writing in Canada during the past half-decade. There were other titles that briefly carried the torch: the Imperial Oil Review, which was serious and influential, if limited, between the 1950s and the 1970s; Quest, a large-circulation newspaper-insert title billed as “Canada’s urban magazine,” which for a few years in the 1970s, under the editorship of Michael Enright, managed to be a genuine vehicle for serious public thought, until it lowered its brow and then folded.

Review magazines have had a similarly spotty history, and this may be why the review essay, so important to influencing public debate in Britain and the United States, has never had much of a foundation in Canada. Books in Canada and Quill & Quire have largely relegated themselves to consumer-oriented reviews rather than essays. In the 1980s and until its demise in 1993, the Idler served as an important voice for public thought on the right (and proved, in the end, to be something of a test flight for the more intellectual incarnations of the Ottawa Citizen and the National Post, both of which ran substantial essay sections in the late 1990s and early 2000s). The one success story here is the Literary Review of Canada, which from its inception in 1991 has been a small-scale counterpart to the New York Review of Books, publishing important essays on public affairs and academic developments. But, like other publications, it is limited in scope by its government funding, which requires it to stick exclusively to Canadian topics and titles, a restriction that keeps it out of many important international debates.

Book publishing may appear to be one bright spot in Canadian public thought – indeed, it could be credibly argued that there are too many non-fiction titles published – but the effects of underpopulation are tangible. Most of the important public-intellectual publishing in Canada is done by the Toronto-based branches of the major New York publishers (Random House and Penguin – which have now merged –  and HarperCollins). There is a good reason for this: independent Canadian publishers have failed to remain consistently viable because the size of the publishing market is simply too small. McClelland and Stewart, the flagship independent publisher for English Canada, managed to retain a voice in the post-war decades almost entirely because of large-scale government subsidies at every stage of the book-writing and publishing process (that is, so long as the contents of the books were largely Canadian, a fact that has prevented Canadian publishers from having much international influence), and occasional full-scale government bailouts, including a rescue loan of almost $1 million from the Ontario government in 1971. None of that prevented M&S from folding in 2000; since then, it has been operated on a near-charitable basis by the University of Toronto and Random House. The limited scale of Canadian publishing can be felt in the range of important titles by Canadians that must be published outside Canada. The most visible recent example was the Toronto historian Margaret MacMillan’s chronicle of the Versailles Treaty negotiations, Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World, a work that became a major part of public debate, but which failed to achieve publication in Canada until after it had been in print in Britain for almost two years and had won the two largest British non-fiction awards. As with many such books, it was likely absent from the Canadian book market because it did not directly concern Canada (despite being of central interest to Canadian debates about nationalism and culture), and therefore was ineligible for most forms of publication financing from federal and provincial governments. This, alas, remains a commonplace situation.

As Canada’s population has increased, public thought has become more viable in general, and a generation of intellectuals (discussed throughout this volume) have been able to work in Canada; but the fact is that the population remains too small and sparse to support a full stable of institutions without frequent failures and bankruptcies. This form of public thought did have something of a golden age in the 1960s, albeit one confined to a small circle of people who tended to meet at the roof bar of Toronto’s Park Plaza Hotel, propelled by the unlikely advent of the newspaper-published weekly magazine. For a brief moment, the rotogravure magazines, joined by Maclean’s and Saturday Night during a moment of seriousness, served as a vehicle for public thought. The Globe Magazine carried policy-oriented essays from 1957 to 1971; the Canadian magazine, published by Southam and the Toronto Star from 1965, was substantial and serious for a while in the 1960s, until it started losing money; and very briefly, the Star Weekly, under the editorship of Peter Gzowski from 1967 to 1968, was a home to substantial content, though that ended after it lost $2 million on a circulation of 646,000. For a while, these glossy titles parried with the burgeoning academic modernism emerging from New York and Paris, held dialogues with the likes of Susan Sontag, Hanna Arendt, and Irving Howe, and provided a platform that allowed academics like McLuhan and Northrop Frye to achieve a genuine public significance and influence. But this seriousness was both a cause and a reflection of these magazines’ lack of profitability: all these titles, with the exception of Saturday Night, would either shut their doors or abandon public thought by the mid-1970s. It is interesting that Gzowski and Enright, two key figures in this brief era of public-thought publishing, ended up in CBC Radio’s current-affairs programs, which may have been Canada’s sole consistent outlet for public intellectualism.

The second to consider is public thought as a means to support, renew, and provide a reliable intellectual policy basis and source of professional development for the major political parties through policy institutes or think tanks. This group of thinkers overlaps with the first in that they tend to express themselves through the same media institutions (as well as by publishing reports and books through their own institutions which are then reported upon by these periodicals). But the “think tankers” play a different role in a nation’s political life. Sometimes they are drawn from academia or the media, but just as often they come from the staff of the major political parties; these form the three poles of a triangle that tends to define the career movements of these public intellectuals. When a party is in power, these think tanks serve as a source of policy advice, a test bed for renegade or experimental ideas within the party’s sphere of policy interest, and a platform for acceptable dissent within the ideological parameters defined by the party. When the party is out of power, the major think tanks serve as a source of employment for political staff who would otherwise disperse into careers elsewhere, places where policies can be formulated and reconceived during periods of opposition, and a set of competing institutions that serve to reinvent and renew the political thought of their respective ideological group. The large, successful think tank is a vital base for a nation’s political thought located between the academy, the political party and the media, and speaking to the public directly through all three.

In the United States, the think tank and the public thought it produces have become as central to the political system as the parties themselves, if not more so. In his major study of these institutions, Do Think Tanks Matter?, Donald E. Abelson examines their role over three decades of election and administration. Jimmy Carter’s “outsider” bid for the presidency was built on the authority of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Brookings Institute, which had served as intellectual redoubts for deposed Democrats during the Nixon and Ford years: after Carter’s election victory, he appointed no fewer than fifty-four CFR fellows and more than a dozen Brookings staff to his administration. Ronald Reagan took this an order of magnitude further, building his entire candidacy on the conservative think tanks that had served as the Republican retooling operation during the Carter interregnum. During his campaign and transition to office, Reagan assembled 23 domestic- and economic-policy task forces with 329 advisers, and 25 foreign-policy and defence working groups with 132 advisers, all of them drawn from Washington’s major conservative think tanks. Individual think tanks used even more extensive resources to build the conservative revolution. In autumn of 1979 the Heritage Foundation drew on more than 300 staff and advisers to produce an 1100-page “blueprint for the construction of a conservative government,” which the Reagan team relied upon heavily; the foundation estimated in 1982 that 60 per cent of its proposals had been adopted. When Reagan took office, the think tanks formed his cabinet and staff: in his first term, he appointed 55 Hoover Institution staffers, 36 from the Heritage foundation, 34 from the American Enterprise Institute, 32 from the Committee on the Present Danger, and 18 from the Center for Strategic and International Studies. This provoked a Democratic Party response: the candidacy of Bill Clinton, who virtually emerged from this world of public thought. Clinton had been a founder and later a chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council, created in 1985 as a source of economically liberal ideas for party renewal. And he had taken part in the 1989 creation of the centre-left Public Policy Institute. And George W. Bush, another “outsider,” nevertheless relied heavily on the think tanks – especially the Hoover Institution, which provided most of his 100 campaign advisers. He also employed, and later appointed to cabinet, scores of officials from the American Enterprise Institute and the Center for Strategic and International Studies. His foreign- and defence-policy advisers (the “Vulcans” who devised the War on Terror) were drawn almost exclusively from the Project for the New American Century, a 1990s-era neoconservative think tank, and the AEI. And all the while the Democrats were biding their time in the Brookings, the CFR, and the PPI, waiting to create the core of the next Democratic administration; their staff are now the core of the Obama White House.[11]

In Britain, think tanks and their members have become increasingly crucial to political party development and election success during the past thirty years. While a number of venerable party-linked institutions had existed across the spectrum for a century or more, Margaret Thatcher made unprecedented use of a new constellation of large and well-financed institutes in her recreation of the Conservative Party during the 1970s, drawing heavily on the staff and resources of her own Centre for Policy Studies, which she co-founded with Sir Keith Joseph in 1974, and the very large and influential free-market think tank the Institute of Economic Affairs. Tony Blair’s recreation of his party as the liberal-left New Labour depended heavily on the social-democratic think tanks Demos, the Institute for Public Policy Research, and Progress. When Gordon Brown launched his own reinvention of Labour in a more classically social-democratic mould in the first decade of this century, he relied on the venerable Fabian Society and the newly created Brownite think tank Compass as well as the IPPR. The Liberal Democrats, for their part, are increasingly reliant on the key liberal think tank Centre Forum. During their rise to coalition-government prominence, the post-Thatcherite “Notting Hill” Tories, under David Cameron, drew their current political staff and ideological framework overwhelmingly from the large conservative think tanks Policy Exchange and the Centre for Social Justice, the newer centre-right institute Reform, and the new “red Tory” think tank Res Publica, launched a year before the 2010 election in an explosion of funding and attention. Together, the above institutions and a few others like them form the intellectual and staffing backbone for the three parties and their source of renewal.

Nothing of this sort has been able to materialize in Canada, because the economies of scale render such institutions uneconomical beyond a token level. There are think tanks in Canada – hundreds of them – but none are of sufficient size to fulfil the party-support and policy-formulation functions they do in larger countries. The threshold for permanent, sustainable influence in a think tank appears to be around 100 staff members. In the United States, the Brookings Institute has 250 staff and the Hoover Institution 320; others with more than 100 staff include the American Enterprise Institute (190), the Urban Institute (450), the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Council on Foreign Relations (more than 100 each), the Hudson Institute (125), the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (220), the Heritage Foundation (150), and the Carter Institute (160).[12] In Canada, only one conventional think tank, the conservative Fraser Institute, has more than 50 staff (it has 64 employees, and a budget of $10 to $15 million); the venerable centre-right C.D. Howe Institute, which ought to be a Canadian version of the Hoover Institution or of Britain’s Centre for Policy Studies, has only 21 staff and a budget of under $5 million, preventing it from playing a central role in any political party.[13]

Indeed, the organizations that have provided the most support to Canadian political-party development in recent years have not been conventional think thanks, but lobbying organizations. Prime Minister Stephen Harper built his political career, and honed his brand of conservatism, as president of the National Citizens’ Coalition, a conservative lobbying and tax-campaign group with a budget of $2.8 million. Liberal prime minister Paul Martin built his leadership bid and drew some of his key staff from the Earnscliffe Strategy Group, a lobbying and policy-research firm with about twenty staff. While these organizations serve some of the party-continuity and staff-development functions of a think tank, they are missing the crucial element of public thought: as message-driven lobby groups, they do not produce the deep and independent supply of policy knowledge, or the continuous independent research into future tangents of policy and politics, that a real think tank could. They also are simply not large enough to serve as the “third leg” of the democratic stool.

The Osgoode Hall scholar and former Privy Council official Irvin Studin, writing in the public-intellectual journal Policy Options, identified this lack of comprehensive think tanks as the source of a “democratic deficit” in Canada, in which political parties become “captured” by a permanent bureaucracy which has intellectual resources at hand that are simply unavailable in the political realm due to think-tank economies of scale:

Our political parties are in dire need of designated policy think tanks … in order that they be able to form stronger, deeper and, most importantly, more consistently prepared governments when they come to power … The political executive in our present political system and culture – one in which the civil service has the overwhelming policy advantage over the government of the day – is ill-equipped to meaningfully deliver on any large-scale, complex policy agenda of its own making … If such a large-scale policy agenda is promised to the electorate in the course of a general election, all the worse: what is the point of a month-long series of national debates and convulsions over a series of policy promises or “directions” that can nary be delivered in any recognizable form? … The democratic deficit lies in the fundamental asymmetry or incongruity or imbalance between the legitimacy of the elected political executive and the overwhelming policy-cum-administrative power of the modern unelected bureaucracy. This imbalance necessarily grows as the policy environment becomes more complex: files require increasing degrees of expertise, and the incumbency and division of power advantages of the bureaucracy become ever significant – unless, of course, the political executive itself becomes far more sophisticated. Rectification of this democratic deficit, it follows, must lie in a redressing of this imbalance.[14]

The rectification of this “democratic deficit” involves the same challenges, and involves overcoming or working around the same underlying demographic problems, as the cultural deficit chronicled earlier in this chapter. Studin advocates publicly funded think tanks, an idea that would not be unprecedented (they exist in other countries), but would be politically awkward given their role in partisan affairs. But this is the main solution that has been applied, in the post-war decades, to the cultural deficit: to the extent that institutions of public thought exist in Canada, it is because governments pay for them. There is, in itself, nothing wrong with this. Other, larger countries have publicly funded journals, magazines, newspapers, and book publishers. But, as we have seen, the need to rely entirely on state funding – that is, the lack of sufficient population to support any self-sustaining institutions – leads to nationally centred funding sources that tend to bias these institutions towards parochial and national issues and away from larger syntheses that might produce a larger international impact.

In both cases, Canada is unable to think. This does not mean that Canadians are unable to think; a very high literacy level and high education level tend to produce, and export, a great number of public intellectuals. But because public thought exists not in the individual mind but in the institutions that bond thinkers into a communication network linked to specific audiences, Canada remains intellectually crippled. Either the population will need to grow to a more viable level, or the institutions of public thought will have to rely on artificial support.

NOTES

[1] Bill Smith, “Interview with Paul Bley,” Coda, April 1979.

[2] Doug Saunders, “Gehry’s lament,” Globe and Mail, 29 Sept. 2001, R1.

[3] I am limiting this discussion to the three-quarters of Canada that uses English as its main language, and bracketing francophone Quebec out, because the terms of discussion are somewhat different. It might be argued that the Quebecois community has been better able to forge a “national conversation” at the public-intellectual level because its population is more tightly concentrated across a geographically limited and linguistically isolated space and because the dialogue around nationalism has both circumscribed the range of public-thought topics and forged a sufficient body of publications and institutions to propel this conversation at a reasonably heightened level. On the other hand, there are many in Quebec who would argue that these very factors have impoverished Québécois public debate. Because of these very different terms of reference, I am leaving aside the francophone Canada discussion.

[4] Statistics Canada’s 2006 census counts the total Canadian population as 31,612,897; those for whom English is the “language spoken most often in the home” number 20,840,743, or 66.7 per cent of the population; those who speak a third language in a province where English is the sole official language number 3,118,142, or 9.9 per cent. We can assume that some proportion of bilingual francophones participate fully in the English-Canadian culture, but also that some percentage of third-language speakers and bilingual anglophones do not.

[5] Doug Saunders, “Why Canada needs 100 million people,” Globe and Mail, 31 March 2001, F3.

[6] Edward Cowan, “Vast development plan is urged for mid-Canada,” New York Times, 15 Sept. 1968.

[7] Study cited in Richard Gwyn, “Just what kind of country would you like Canada to be?” Windsor Star, 4 Jan. 1975.

[8] Irvin Studin, “Canada – Population 100 Million,” Global Brief, Spring/Summer 2010.

[9] Richard Posner, Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003).

[10] Fraser Sutherland, The Monthly Epic: A History of Canadian Magazines (Markham, ON: Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 1989), 205.

[11] Donald E. Abelson, Do Think Tanks Matter? Assessing the Impact of Public Policy Institutes, 2nd ed. (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2009), 127–49.

[12] Ibid., 24–7.

[13] One organization classed as a think tank, the Conference Board of Canada, has 200 staff, but despite the quality of its economic research, the Conference Board acts more as a policy-support organization for the corporate community than as a conventional political think tank.

[14] Irvin Studin, “Revising the Democratic Deficit: The Case for Political Party Think Tanks,” Policy Options, February 2008: 62–7.

09:08 pm, BY dougsaunders

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New Post has been published on http://dougsaunders.net/2014/06/gavrilo-princip-isis-nationalism-1914-poisons-world-today/

From Gavrilo Princip to ISIS: How The Nationalism of 1914 Poisons the World Today

Earlier this month, a swarm of fighters bearing the black flags of the jihadi militia known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, busy invading a large chunk of northern Iraq, decided to pause and link their cause to the First World War.

On that Tuesday, the Sunni fighters seized a bulldozer and some military vehicles and plowed a rough roadway through the earthen berm that divides Syria and Iraq. After dancing on the newly erased border and firing automatic weapons into the air, the ISIL fighters took to Twitter and YouTube to make a historic boast: By moving aside this pile of sand and earth, they said, they “are demolishing the Sykes-Picot borders. All thanks due to Allah.”

Our world, those Sunni insurgents reminded us, is still very much governed by the ideas that were blasted into global prominence with Gavrilo Princip’s pistol.

Read full essay in The Globe and Mail

They saw themselves reversing a decision made only a few months after Princip’s bullet killed the future leader of Austria-Hungary, one of the huge empires that controlled much of the developed world in 1914. Soon after the Great War’s battles began in earnest that August, leaders of the Allied powers realized that those empires – Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, Russian Czarist and German Hohenzollern – were likely to collapse. They set about inventing something new to replace them.

Seeing that Constantinople was on the verge of losing hold of the huge expanse of the Ottoman Empire and worried that this territory (and the petroleum beneath it) would fall into the wrong hands, the Allies dispatched two diplomats, Mark Sykes of Britain and François Georges-Picot of France, to figure out how to divide the remains between the future victors. Two years later, their governments accepted a line those diplomats had drawn across the Middle East. In the years after the war, that line would define the borders of the newly created post-Ottoman countries: Iraq, Kuwait, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and, later, Israel.

You might think that, by trying to create a Sunni Muslim theocracy stretching across a wide swath of the Arab world, those ISIL fighters saw themselves as undoing one of the great consequences of the Great War: the replacement of empires with scores of newly formed and largely arbitrary nations; that they were putting an end to the postwar world.

From another perspective, though, groups such as ISIL are the true heirs to the ideas of June 28, 1914. Their beliefs, and their way of organizing those beliefs into terrifying action, are very direct copies of those that launched the Great War – and which had really not existed, to any significant extent, before Princip brought them to life.

Are we living through the long tail of 1914, or experiencing its even longer antithesis? The difference depends on how you weigh the two forces unleashed a century ago – one a new form of nation, the other a new form of nationalism.

The new nations

The modern idea of the nation – that is, a political entity claiming to represent people united by language or ethnicity – had existed only for a few decades before 1914, and at the time was regarded as something of an anomaly. Europe had been nothing more than 200-odd kingdoms and a handful of empires a century earlier; in June, 1914, it contained just three republics (Switzerland, France and Portugal). And it had only recently witnessed the birth of Germany (which is four years younger than Canada) and Italy (seven years older), both cobbled together from diverse collections of somewhat-similar kingdoms.

At the same time, 1914 Europe was teeming with nationalist movements, most of them without nations: Armenian, Georgian, Lithuanian, Jewish, Macedonian, Albanian, Ruthenian, Croatian, Basque, Catalan, Flemish, Sardinian and Irish. Few had widespread popular support: The nationalist idea was an elite one.

It was also almost entirely fictional. European states in 1914 were far more multicultural and multilingual than they are today; the idea of finding a common language, culture or ethnicity within any of them was implausible, and could be accomplished only by using extreme force.

On the eve of the Great War, barely more than half the citizens of France spoke the French language or considered themselves ethnically French, as historian Eugen Weber famously illustrated; it was the war itself that replaced France’s regional languages and identities with a national one.

And France was one of the more unified nations. In 1914, less than half the population of Romanov Russia was ethnic Russian. In post-unification Italy, only 2.5 per cent of citizens spoke Italian on a daily basis.

Multiculturalism was the prewar norm: For every 100 soldiers in the Hapsburg army in 1914, historian David Reynolds observes, “there were on average 25 Germans, 18 Magyars, 13 Czechs, 11 Serbs and Croats, 9 Poles, 9 Ruthenes, 6 Romanians, 4 Slovaks, 2 Slovenes and 2 Italians. … Many units operated with two languages, some as many as five.”

It wasn’t the war that changed all that, but the peace. In the postwar wreckage of Europe’s empires and economies, the Treaty of Versailles attempted to create a new peace by granting independent statehood to virtually anyone who sought it and asked loudly or forcefully enough. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, the man most responsible for shaping the postwar world, famously declared, in early 1918, that “all well-defined national aspirations shall be accorded the utmost satisfaction.” He took the phrase “self-determination” – a Bolshevik idea popular with Lenin – and gave it a much wider meaning.

This was not at all an inevitable development – in fact, both countries best poised to determine the peace, the United States and Britain, were opposed to (and sometimes threatened by) ethnic and linguistic nationalism. But, as historian Eric Hobsbawm once observed, the postwar explosion of new countries “was the result of two unintended developments: the collapse of the great multinational empires of Europe, and the Russian Revolution – which made it desirable for the Allies to play the Wilsonian card against the Bolshevik card.” Ethnic nationalism was ugly, but it trumped communist internationalism.

These new postwar nations were of a very different flavour from those created in the nationalist fervour of the 19th century. “Whereas Italy and Germany had been created through the unification of various local polities with similar language and culture,” David Reynolds writes in his superb history, The Long Shadow: The Great War and the Twentieth Century, these nations were created “through secession from dynastic empires that had hitherto controlled a volatile mix of ethnic groups in various stages of national self-consciousness and political mobilization.”

Even before the war was over, more cautious people warned that this thrust to create ethno-states was a ticking bomb. Wilson’s secretary of state, Robert Lansing, expressed alarm: “When the President talks of ‘self-determination,’ what unit has he in mind? Does he mean a race, a territorial area, or a community?” The phrase, in Lansing’s view, was “simply loaded with dynamite,” and would “raise hopes which can never be realized” and “cost thousands of lives.” He was certainly correct.

These newborn nations were destined for further violence: None was actually uni-ethnic or uni-linguistic, despite their claims; most contained competing nationalities and faiths seeking self-determination. Some, such as Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and Iraq, were purely artificial hodgepodges of groups that had ancient rivalries. Arab states such as Jordan and Syria were essentially gifts to tribal families that had favoured the old empire. The Israel-Palestine conflict was the most inevitable conflict arising from the borders of this post-1914 world, but there have been hundreds of others – including, most recently, ISIL’s Sunni-imperial challenge to the Sykes-Picot line.

“Although nationalist frenzy was more consequence than cause of the Great War,” Mr. Reynolds writes, “the war-makers had let the genie out of the bottle and the peace-makers could not put it back.”

The new nationalism

That nationalist frenzy was not merely the product of top-down peace treaties and diplomatic deals, though. What Wilson and his allies unleashed was a new form of thinking, and a new form of politics and violence, that had filled the air in 1914.

It is important to distinguish these nationalist movements from the liberal states that were created in their name. They were different things, with different consequences.

The term “nationalism” was not coined until the final decades of the 19th century; prior to that, the notion that people should form an independent political entity strictly on the basis of their language or ethnicity was confined to a few radical philosophers, especially in Germany. Unleashed, it spread like a disease.

The decade before 1914 was pocked with scores of assassinations, bombings, kidnappings and violent riots on every continent as the new nationalism took hold. Princip’s bullets were the first acts of nationalist violence of the war, but the first to succeed in creating a new country was Ireland’s, which erupted in the middle of the war, overwhelmed Britain with exceedingly bloody conflict, and created the first of dozens of new nations to be born as a result of the war.

The new nationalism, unlike the new nations, did not pretend to be orderly or rational. Whether applied by Serbians, Arabs, Basques, Jews or Sunni Muslims, it was a self-sacrificing, totalizing ideology that placed the imaginary nation above all else. Today’s ISIL fighters would recognize, in every detail, the beliefs and motives of Princip, and the nature of the Serbian ultra-nationalist organization to which he belonged. Historian Christopher Clark, in his new work The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, makes this vividly clear:

“What must strike any twenty-first-century reader who follows the course of the summer crisis of 1914,” he writes, “is its raw modernity. It began with a squad of suicide bombers and a cavalcade of automobiles.

“Behind the outrage at Sarajevo was an avowedly terrorist organization with a cult of sacrifice, death and revenge; but this organization was extraterritorial, without a clear geographical or political location; it was scattered in cells across political borders, it was unaccountable, its links to any sovereign government were oblique, hidden and certainly very difficult to discern from outside the organization.”

Princip and his co-collaborators were far from being rogue extremists: They were selected by organizations that received funding and support from within the Serbian state. But they were a type of nationalist we would recognize today: harsh ascetics, they rejected alcohol and sexual relations with women, “they read nationalist poetry and irredentist newspapers and pamphlets … sacrifice was a central preoccupation, almost an obsession,” Mr. Clark writes.

Indeed, their act of June 28, 1914, was meant to be a suicide bombing. It isn’t remembered that way – because the bomb exploded beneath the wrong car and a handgun was used instead, and because Princip’s suicide capsule failed to kill him – but the language of martyrdom used by these young men would be entirely recognizable to the foreign fighters of ISIL and al-Qaeda.

This new ideology had dire consequences. The previously polyglot countries of Europe discovered the new language of uni-ethnic nationalism: supremacy, xenophobia, ethnic cleansing. In the years before 1914, anti-Semitism, previously a Christian hatred of spiritual rivals that had peaked in the pogroms of the Middle Ages and gradually faded (though certainly not vanished) after the Enlightenment, burst back onto the scene in a new form: the Jew as disloyal, unpatriotic outsider, as civilizational invader.

The war gave new licence to this ideology. In 1915, as the Ottoman Empire began to collapse, the Turks expelled and slaughtered Armenians in a mass atrocity widely considered genocidal (they would later also expel millions of ethnic Greeks). Then, starting in 1916, the Irish rose en masse against their British occupier. As the decades of war and extremism unfolded, the ethnic cleansings and expulsions became more intense: While the Great War and the Versailles Treaty did not authorize the hateful movements of the 1930s and 40s, they provided a welcoming climate for their gestation. In the years after the Second World War, the movements would spread with equal vehemence across Asia and Africa.

We are left, a century after those bullets in Sarajevo, with two lasting consequences: a set of lines in the sand, damningly difficult to erase, and a set of ideas etched into countless minds, even harder to obliterate. Ours is a much more peaceful, well-ordered world, but its last remaining threats and menaces are almost all traceable to the dark origins of 1914.

05:36 am, BY dougsaunders[1 note]

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From Kiev to Cairo, The New Protest: Not For Democracy, But Against its Rotten Fruits

Kiev

It seems as if the world has broken out in mass, government-threatening protests: Caracas, Ankara, Bangkok and Kiev are among the capitals that have erupted in flames and clouds of tear gas in recent weeks.

But these aren’t the democracy protests we’ve known during the past two and a half decades. Two things distinguish them:

First, they are mass uprisings not against dictatorships but against governments that came to power through reasonably fair elections in existing (if young) democracies, but then turned against the principles of democracy – by suppressing media and opposition forces, by rewriting laws and by altering constitutions to partisan advantage. These people are protesting against the rotten fruits of democracy.

Second, these protesters are generally not interested in using democratic politics as their instrument of change. New political parties and candidates aren’t emerging from these movements, whose members often see representative democracy as a sideshow. They’re not anti-democratic, but they’ve come to believe that the protests themselves are more democratic than elections.

Read full column in The Globe and Mail

03:52 am, BY dougsaunders[1 note]

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How Europe is Using Immigration to Bring Back Entrepreneurship

Berlin

Germany is probably the only country that could produce a hip-hop hit about the buzz-killing nature of full employment. Yet Rostock-born rapper Marteria’s song Kids, which bitterly laments the boring, thrill-free world where everyone has a good job, says something important about the sub-zero unemployment rate:

All my people are playing golf, driving new Passats
Nobody’s getting Wu Tang tattooed on their ass …
Riot and uproar, those days are long gone –
What happened to my homies who were once everywhere?

As Europe shifts from crisis to recovery, its governments are beginning to express, albeit in rather different language, Marteria’s lament: Everybody’s looking for a job (and, in Germany, getting one), which means that nobody’s doing anything creative or interesting. Specifically, they’re not starting companies: Jobs are returning to established corporations in droves, but there’s little effort to create anything new. This has become a continent full of people who want to work for somebody else.

03:47 am, BY dougsaunders

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Inside the Far-Right Movement That’s Become the Sharp Edge of Ukraine’s Protest

Kiev

For the thousands of protesters camped out in Kiev’s Independence Square, there is a commonly understood rule: stay away from the fifth floor.

Inside the Soviet-era office building that has been seized as a barracks for protest organizers and guards, the fifth floor is blocked, from the moment you attempt to step off the elevator, by a phalanx of grim-faced men in camouflage fatigues, brush cuts and Mohawks, many of them holding iron bars or other improvised weapons. They don’t want visitors.

Photo: Doug Saunders Photo: Doug Saunders

This is the headquarters of Pravy Sektor, or Right Sector, the ultra-right-wing movement, described by some as fascist, whose hundreds of soldiers (they call themselves an army) have become the sharp edge of the two-month-old protest movement that has upturned the politics of Ukraine, cost several lives and forced President Viktor Yanukovych to dismiss the government and promise to reform the constitution.

The great majority of the hundreds of thousands of “EuroMaidan” protesters – who have rallied against Mr. Yanukovych’s rejection of a European Union treaty and his moves toward a deal with Russia – appear to be either supporters of conventional, centrist or liberal opposition political parties, or pro-European citizens without much interest in party politics at all.

But the physical organization of these protests, the building of barricades around squares, much of the camp construction and policing, and the pitched and sometimes deadly battles with police are almost entirely the work of the extreme right. In some of Ukraine’s smaller cities, the local protests and seizures of government buildings appear to have been entirely the work of Pravy Sektor.

Read full article in The Globe and Mail

03:40 am, BY dougsaunders

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How Western Leaders Dropped the Ball on Ukraine

Ukraine should be one of the most hopeful countries in Europe. It has the location, the transportation links, the farmland and factories and the eager population to become a post-Communist success story on the scale of its booming neighbour Poland.

Yet Ukraine is, as everyone can now see, a disaster. And, in good part, it is a disaster because Western governments allowed it to become one. The violence that has consumed the country emerges not from dissatisfaction with a leader – Ukrainians have endured a great many terrible leaders, and this is not a democracy protest – but from the country’s failure to end its crippling isolation from the world’s largest economy, the 28-nation bloc located across its high-security western border.

Ukraine’s prospects for improvement have been frozen for a decade – its companies unable to trade easily across that border, its people unable to seek work freely outside, its small businesses locked out of easy finance, its big businesses dependent on Russian petroleum exports, its institutions stuck in the past with little incentive for reform.

Read full column in The Globe and Mail

03:26 am, BY dougsaunders

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The Arctic Circle: Almost Everything You Thought About the Far North is Wrong

I have just finished convening a series of online panels on the politics, economics, ecology, culture and development of the Far North, and the results make for astonishing reading. Seven of the best Canadian thinkers on Arctic and northern issues gave up a week of their time to this detailed and iconoclastic conversation; I hope their dialogue will have lasting influence.

1. How We Misunderstand the Canadian North

2. The North’s resource boom: Is it prosperity or exploitation?

3. The myth of Arctic sovereignty: Do we really need to defend the North?

4. Is spending public money on the Far North worth it?

5. Is climate change a northern catastrophe or an Arctic opening?

These are the panelists:

Mary Simon has served as Canada’s first ambassador for circumpolar affairs, as president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and as lead negotiator for the creation of the Arctic Council.

Tony Penikett was NDP premier of Yukon from 1985 to 1992, and the Nunavut’s chief devolution negotiator until 2012.

Wade Davis is an anthropologist, ethnobotanist, explorer, photographer, filmmaker and author of 20 books focusing on remote and endangered cultures. He is a member of the University of British Columbia’s anthropology department.

Michael Byers holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at UBC. He is the author of International Law and the Arctic.

Shelagh Grant is the author of Polar Imperative: A History ofArctic Sovereignty in North America and adjunct professor of Canadian studies at Trent University.

John English is the author of Ice and Water: Politics, Peoples and the Arctic Council. He holds academic positions at the University of Waterloo, the Munk School of Global Affairs and Trinity College at the University of Toronto.

Rob Huebert is associate director of the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary. He has written and researched extensively on Arctic policy and defence issues.

02:56 am, BY dougsaunders[1 note]

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Why the Decline of the West is the Best Thing to Happen to Westerners

We have been hearing warnings about “the decline of the West” for almost a century now, since Oswald Spengler made that phrase the title of his hyperbolic 1918 bestseller. But for the first time, it appears likely that these warnings will become true: By the end of my life, it’s almost certain that Europe and North America will no longer be the world’s largest economic, cultural and military forces.

By 2050, according to a plausible projection by the Asian Development Bank, Asia will have a 51-per-cent share of the global economy, next to 18 per cent for Europe and 15 per cent for North America. This is often discussed as a defeat: If the others become stronger and more successful, doesn’t that mean we’ll become weaker and less prosperous?

But that ignores what’s really happening. In recent years, the West has declined relative to Asia. But it has not declined in absolute terms: Western economies have grown by an average of 1 per cent per year in recent decades; quality of life and income measures have stayed relatively stable or increased slightly. What’s occurring is not a decline, but a global rebalancing: “They” are becoming more like “us,” but we’re no less like ourselves than before.

Is it possible that this could be the best thing that ever happened to our quality of life? That’s a question posed with great rigour by economist Charles Kenny of Washington’s Center for Global Development. Being born in North America or Europe today is “like winning the birth lottery for the human species,” he writes in his book The Upside of Down: Why the Rise of the Rest is Good for the West – never has there been a better time or place to be born. Not only that, but, according to projections, “the only thing better than being born today in America or Europe will be the chance to be born tomorrow in those very same places.” He concludes that “the rise of ‘the Rest’ is one big reason why that is true.”

Read full column in The Globe and Mail

04:02 am, BY dougsaunders

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Beyond ousting al Qaeda, did the Afghan war accomplish nothing?

This is the year when we learn whether our long Afghanistan experiment has accomplished anything at all.

In March, Canada will end its rump training mission, withdrawing all but 100 soldiers shortly before international forces hand the country’s security over to the Afghan National Army. For the 47 countries and many thousands of soldiers who were stationed in there, it has been an enormous endeavour, costing about 3,500 lives.

So it is worth asking: What have we done in Afghanistan?

Read full column in The Globe and Mail

We did kick al-Qaeda out. This, the basic legal rationale for the United Nations-mandated war, was accomplished well before 2006. Al-Qaeda moved to Pakistan, then to the Middle East and North Africa.

At that point, another Afghan war began: One theoretically based on counterinsurgency – the notion that building infrastructure, institutions and better lives for ordinary Afghans would switch their loyalty away from the Taliban. This campaign, bolstered by U.S. President Barack Obama’s addition of 30,000 “surge” troops in 2009, was meant to improve the lives of women and children and the governance of villages and provinces, leaving a lasting legacy of stability. Yet it also coincided with a dramatic rise in air strikes.

In recent days, we’ve seen signs that this second war has not succeeded.

The United Nations released figures last week showing that cases of severe malnutrition have increased by 50 per cent or more since 2012. “In 2001, it was even worse, but this is the worst I’ve seen since then,” the head of the malnutrition ward at a major Kabul hospitaltold reporters.

Also last week, Afghanistan’s human-rights commission reported a 25-per-cent increase in cases of violence against women between March and September, amid conditions that approach those of the Taliban years.

The trend accompanies a culture of impunity as international troops and aid workers depart, commission chairwoman Sima Samar told Reuters. “The presence of the international community and provincial reconstruction teams in most of the provinces was giving people confidence … and that is not there any more, unfortunately,” she said. In other words, the soldiers and aid workers were unable to effect lasting improvement beyond their own presence there.

On the surface, there have been measurable improvements in some areas: infant mortality, participation in local government. But there are signs that these gains will not outlast the troops who delivered them.

This month saw the release, to those with security clearance, of the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate, the comprehensive annual analysis of known political and military conditions built on expert input from all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies.

According to The Washington Post, it concludes that any gains observed in Afghanistan since 2006 “will be significantly eroded by 2017,” even if some U.S. troops remain, because “the Taliban and other power brokers will become increasingly influential as the United States winds down its longest war in history.” It says Afghanistan may “descend into chaos quickly if Washington and Kabul don’t sign a security pact that would keep an international military contingent there beyond 2014” – a prospect that looks increasingly uncertain.

This pattern extends to the expensive aid and development programs delivered to Afghanistan  – often at great cost, because in the dangerous southern provinces several soldiers, plus de-mining teams to protect the soldiers, were required for every aid worker who visited a village.

The largest aid program in Afghanistan, the National Solidarity Programme, was recently the subject of a large-scale randomized impact evaluation by its main sponsor, the World Bank. After examining the 32,000 villages receiving aid and its 65,000 development projects, the assessment concludes with sobering words: “an absence of positive effects of infrastructure programmes… The impacts of NSP on economic welfare appear to be driven more by the infusion of block grant resources than by broader impacts of completed projects on economic activity” (in other words, any gains only exist as long as the aid workers are there). And, worse, “NSP increases the incidence of disputes and feuds… endline data indicates that NSP has a negative impact on local governance quality.”

For too many years, supporters of the extended war have misled the public with inflated claims. In 2011, military leaders boasted that average Afghan life expectancy had improved by 20 years over the decade. In fact, CIA figures show that it fell from 46.2 years in 2001 to45 years in 2011. Life expectancy rose somewhat during the next three years – but, as some observers have noted, not much more than it rose during the worst Taliban years.

In terms of human development, Afghanistan rose above the awful figures of the Taliban years during the initial 2001-02 campaign – then barely budged. Politically, the country’s near future appears certain to involve the Taliban, with all that entails. A new large-scale study has found that Afghans, after experiencing acts of war, overwhelmingly choose to shift their allegiances to the Taliban over NATO forces, and not vice versa.

Such post-transition Afghan leaders, a former CIA Afghanistan chief and a Defence Department analyst have written in a new analysis, are “likely to subject the Afghan people to brutality and oppression at pre-2001 levels … Should this take place, the United States and its allies can consider the last 12 years … a costly failure.”

That should be the starting point for our self-examination: Did this huge exercise fail to make things better in Afghanistan, or did it actually make things worse?

03:53 am, BY dougsaunders

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Turks Wonder How We Missed Erdogan’s Slide Into Demagoguery

A few years ago, it seemed as if Turkey’s Prime Minister was an unstoppable force, an almost unblemished leader who won successive majorities, oversaw an unprecedented economic expansion and somehow seemed to please, or at least avoid deeply offending, most of his country’s embattled constituencies.

And then, almost overnight, Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s once-secure government seemed to topple into a cesspit of corruption accusations, demagoguery and pitched infighting. To outside observers, it has seemed like a shockingly rapid fall – though some Turks say we should have been watching more closely.

Read full column in The Globe and Mail

02:47 pm, BY dougsaunders