End of History? End of War?

By Dyer, Gwynne | Queen's Quarterly, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

End of History? End of War?


Dyer, Gwynne, Queen's Quarterly


THIS year, the last of the twentieth century, our country has done something quite extraordinary, something quite out of character. We attacked a country that was doing us no harm whatever -- a country that did not even appear to represent a threat to international peace. Such a threat to the general peace would be the only justification the UN would accept for an attack of this kind -- but we didn't undertake this action with UN backing. In fact, we didn't ask for UN authorization and support to make this attack upon Serbia because we knew we wouldn't get it.

Given the effort that Canadians have put into promoting the UN as the centrepiece of international affairs for the past half century, this is a rather shocking departure. Certainly the Americans and British took the lead in promoting NATO's course of action, but Canada showed no signs of reluctance. In the end, about 10 per cent of the NATO bombs dropped on Yugoslavia were Canadian.

We seem to have come to the conclusion that the UN is no longer the only international body with authority, that sometimes we should circumvent this organization in which Canadians have invested so much. On the other hand, consider why we have come to this conclusion, and why we have taken such aggressive action: we have done this primarily to keep people from being murdered or driven from their homes by forces that were almost entirely malevolent, and we have done it because there appeared to be no other way of preventing this from happening. And so, in a recent speech at Harvard University, Canadian Defence Minister Art Eggleton summed up Canada's willingness to use force in the world in defence of justice and human rights: "with the UN if possible, but not necessarily with the UN."

States always act with a variety of motives -- some laudable, some defensible, and some shameful. But I have no doubt in my mind that the primary motivation for the intervention in Kosovo -- as for the more recent intervention in East Timor -- has been humanitarian. There was and is an overwhelming and urgent need to stop innocent people from being murdered or driven from their homes. For us, there is no strategic importance in either place, no serious economic importance. Indeed, in both cases economic arguments would be more inclined to discourage our intervention.

So are we doing all the wrong things for all the right reasons, or simply all the wrong things? Why do we suddenly find ourselves spurning the UN and joining a posse of international vigilantes? There are two different genealogies that may help us understand how we ended in the skies over Serbia in 1999, and they tell the real story behind our extraordinary times, the most hopeful and, at the same time, the most dangerous in human history.

THE first is a very short genealogy, one that spans only the 1990s. This is a genealogy of events beginning with the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the disappearance of the bipolar world in which whole areas were off limits to one global alliance because they belonged to the other. You did not meddle in your adversary's sphere of influence. The Soviets were perfectly free to meddle within their own zone, and Westerners within ours. And so the Americans could beat up on Nicaragua, and the Soviets could beat up on Hungary. The globe was carefully divided into two zones, and the two great antagonists did not cross those lines because the risk of a nuclear war was a very persuasive deterrent.

So the world was managed largely by these blocs. The UN could play a real role only when the blocs agreed -- but a great many problems remained pinned under the weight of one or the other of the superpowers. Then comes the period from 1989--1991 when one of the blocs effectively vanishes, and the bipolar world disappears with it. And suddenly things become possible -- at least in theory -- that were not before. And timorously in the early '90s you see the beginnings of humanitarian intervention. …

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