At a time of international tension, U of T scholars are leading the search for alternatives to terror and war
“We looked for peace, but nothing good happened,” lamented the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah. “We hoped for healing, but terror came instead.”
Today, the search for peace in the shadow of war and terror continues, but the stakes have grown to embrace the globe. In the absence of prophets, the ancient role of studying and advising is falling to a different breed of sage: academics whose insights are rooted in research and who feel a need to communicate their findings to a broader audience than students and scholars.
As international tensions escalate, the work of many University of Toronto scholars, programs and organizations is having a significant impact on the public debate over the need for war and the importance of alternatives. The September 11 attacks on New York and Washington gave renewed urgency to such work, for scholars know that that watershed event took place within a complex historical continuum. As anxieties over Sept. 11 spilled over into war in Iraq, one truth endured – to solve international conflicts, you first have to understand them. That’s why academics continue to probe the historical, religious, economic and political layers that lead from Europe to the Middle East to America and back, seeking insights that can help explain such events – and wisdom that might keep such tragedies from happening again.
Few Canadians have studied peace, conflict and disarmament longer than John Polanyi. The Nobel Prize laureate in chemistry was a newly hired chemist in 1959, much more interested in his lab work than in public issues, when some U of T science colleagues spoke out on the Conservative government’s intent to acquire nuclear weapons. Polanyi joined a small U of T group that journeyed to Ottawa to protest. “There we were,” he chuckles, “confronted by the jowls of the prime minister, Mr. Diefenbaker.”
Despite the academics’ opposition, Diefenbaker agreed to accept nuclear-tipped Bomarc missiles. (A year later, however, he reversed himself, and refused to arm the missiles with their nuclear warheads; it was Liberal Prime Minister Lester Pearson who eventually allowed the nukes into Canada.) Whether his protest succeeded or failed wasn’t the point, says Polanyi. “It’s important to force people in power to explain their views in public. Of course, sometimes it seems like speaking out has no effect. But doing so has more effect than not doing it. Pathetic as my little oar is, I want to put it in and row.”
Since then, Polanyi has studied long and written much about international issues, especially nuclear disarmament and peacekeeping. He was founding chair of Canadian Pugwash, which has advocated arms control for over 40 years, and in 1979 he co-edited a book, The Dangers of Nuclear War. But Polanyi is no starry-eyed peacenik: in 1995 he co-chaired an initiative that recommended establishing a United Nations strike force for peacekeeping or enforcement in global trouble spots.
Polanyi’s career of advocacy was recognized in January when he received the inaugural International Peace Award, given in honour of an influential Jain monk from India, the late Acharya Sushil Kumar. In his acceptance speech, he said that leaders could learn much from academia, a global and culturally diverse community that works together successfully because it shares two principles: “that none of us is in full possession of the truth, but all are groping toward it…[and] that the pursuit of truth is to be achieved through reason, and not through violence.” (See “World at the Crossroads.”)
Polanyi continues writing and speaking on the need to replace war with the rule of law. That doesn’t mean armed intervention is always wrong, he says. When NATO troops used force to intervene in Kosovo, in the former Yugoslavia, in 1999, it showed that humanitarian interests sometimes outweigh the power of the sovereign state. “We need to build on what we have achieved,” he says. “We need to keep nibbling away at the power of sovereign nations. Let’s continue down this path and see if there isn’t an imaginative way to achieve our humanitarian objectives.”
At U of T, science and religion agree on the need to explore alternatives to war. In the first week of February the Campus Chaplains Association, comprising the clergy and leaders of 20 on-campus faiths, came together to launch Peace Week, seven days of dialogue and diversity. Co-organizer Terry Kersch, chaplain at St. Michael’s College, says the event was a first in Canada. “As far as we know,” he says, “on no other campus has something like this been tried.”
The idea for Peace Week was broached last September at the chaplains’ monthly meeting, says Kersch. Eager volunteers raised $40,000 and organized a campus-wide marketing blitz. Peace Week started with a multifaith service in the Great Hall of Hart House, and then each evening leading activists and commentators delivered lectures on international issues. Anti-landmine crusader Jody Williams, who won the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize, spoke about how one person can make a difference in global affairs. U of T alumnus Stephen Lewis, Canada’s former ambassador to the UN and now special envoy dealing with Africa’s HIV/AIDS crisis, drew 1,000 people for his talk on “Economics Without War,” in which he lamented the fact that governments today spend $839 billion a year on war, but can’t find the $27 billion it would take to fight AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria.
Journalist and broadcaster Gwynne Dyer, clad in his signature worn leather jacket, attracted 400 people to St. Mike’s Sam Sorbara Auditorium for a talk on “The Prospects of Disarmament.” “A country with more than 10,000 nuclear weapons,” Dyer observed, “is going to attack a country with none to make sure that it doesn’t get any.” In today’s tense world, he warned that such action would only radicalize the Middle East and play into the hands of the terrorists Washington is trying to stop.
The final speaker was Craig Kielburger, a first-year U of T student who founded the children’s rights organization Free the Children at the age of 12, and a Nobel Peace Prize nominee himself. He challenged U of T students “not just to feel bad” about war, but to get actively involved in the peace movement. Peace Week ended with a multicultural concert and “celebration,” and the message was deliberate, says Muslim chaplain Imam Abdul Hai Patel. “We want to tell people that they need to maintain peace in this world, and the only way to do that is to be tolerant and accept and respect the dignity of everyone.”
Special events such as Peace Week have an impact that is both educational and motivational, notes first-year medical student Andrew Pinto. “Empowerment comes from witnessing individuals, such as these speakers, who have made a concerted effort towards improving our world and have succeeded.”
U of T scholars are also playing an influential role in the search for truth about global conflict. Political science professor David Welch, holder of U of T’s George Ignatieff Chair in Peace and Conflict Studies, is an expert on decision-making in crises, and on psychological approaches to the study of international conflict. He has co-authored several books on the Cuban Missile Crisis, and his book Justice and the Genesis of War (1993) won an award for outstanding contribution to U.S. national security studies. Welch probes the ways that personality and circumstance shape leaders.He says “figuring out how leaders interpret the world and how they evaluate their options” is the key to understanding their actions and motivations.
Political psychology is a fast-growing field that was pioneered in part by Janice Gross Stein, one of U of T’s distinguished University Professors and the director (currently on sabbatical) of the Munk Centre for International Studies. Understanding the psychological components of conflict, negotiation and decision-making has helped both Stein and Welch become occasional advisers to policymakers in Ottawa and Washington, as well as popular analysts in the media.
Meanwhile the Munk Centre itself, though barely three years old, has quickly become one of Canada’s most important forums for the study of international affairs. It is the home of a number of centres for regional studies (including Russian, Asian and even American), as well as academic programs and inquiries into citizenship and activism (see “Road Test”). In its pursuit of understanding, the centre pulsates with activity: one recent week included lectures on NATO, the new political economy in Europe, socialist realism, the African-American Islamic struggle, women’s health and human rights, and the future of India. A February conference on anti-Semitism, which included a major speech by former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, attracted community members as well as international scholars. Its fresh inquiry into the new form of an old problem garnered newspaper headlines for three days running.
A vigorous public presence is important to the Munk Centre. Accordingly, it has the latest in technology, meaning that broadcasting, video-conferencing and Web-casting are regular aspects of its institutional life. The centre has become “a window on the world for U of T, in the process taking on a public role in Canada,” says Louis Pauly, the centre’s acting director and holder of the Canada Research Chair in Governance and Globalization. “It is now a significant institution in the world of international relations studies. It has encouraged synergies in a lot of related areas.”
One of the many scholars based at the Munk Centre is Paul Kingston, a political science professor who teaches international relations. Kingston’s specialty is probing politics and development in the Middle East, particularly in war-ravaged Lebanon. One question that intrigues him is whether peace and civil society can rise from the ashes of war. The answer is complicated, he says, because many countries at war today are still struggling with the legacy of colonial rule: specifically, the leftover cleavage between rights and privileges. “Most colonial powers, especially the French, talked about rights, but operated based on privilege worked out through networks of collaboration,” he says. “The result in contemporary Middle Eastern societies, for example, is a confused political arena where privilege and rights exist side by side.”
The main difficulty for political reform in the region, Kingston continues, is “how do you build institutions and change attitudes? It hasn’t been done before.” In his book Britain and the Politics of Modernization in the Middle East, 1945-1958, Kingston chronicles Britain’s attempt to leave a legacy of development and civil society when it quit the region after the Second World War. Ultimately, the British weren’t very successful, he says, because “indigenous politics remained embedded in old, inequitable patterns.”
But new patterns are being formed. One of Kingston’s current research projects is tracking the emergence of newer vehicles of expression, such as disability politics, women’s groups and environmental issues. The evidence, he says, is that these emerging political entities are helping to build a more civil society, by breaking up older patterns of dominance and allowing newer voices to be heard.
This is good news for those who are trying to reduce the threat of armed aggression. The more civil society takes root in difficult and desiccated places, the less likely are the people to embrace terror and war. But rebuilding is a delicate proposition, and it is made that much more difficult when the assumptions of the parties involved are vastly different, notes James Reilly, chair of the department of Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations. “Most people in the Middle East, for example, have a different historical memory of Western interventions in the region,” he says. “Here, the assumption is that the West is a force for good. There, they see the West as aggressive, as being concerned always with great power issues and economic access.”
In times of tension, then, some academics can make a contribution by standing up and telling the truth about a muddled situation. When political debate dissolves into name-calling (the “Great Satan” versus “the Axis of Evil”), universities can strive to explain complex issues in ways that lead to greater understanding rather than hostility. Reilly’s departmental colleague, assistant professor Amir Hassanpour, agrees. To understand the roots of conflict today, you have to know your history. “The Western powers have never cared about democracy in the Middle East,” he says. “The nationalist movements that succeeded in getting independence could not develop properly in terms of gender equality, economic development and political freedom. They were never allowed to become real alternatives to the colonial footprint.” He notes that in 1953, Iran had a democratically elected prime minister, Mohammed Mossadegh, who nationalized the oil industry. “The Americans didn’t like it and had him overthrown,” Hassanpour adds.
Richard Sandbrook, a political science professor based at the Munk Centre, has no illusions that peace will spring from a military solution in Iraq. He lists a number of places where the U.S. has made a mess of “regime change”: Guatemala, Chile, Congo, Angola, Cuba. Nor have other powers, such as Britain, France and Russia, had better luck. “The picture is a bleak one,” he concludes.
Can scholarship point to a different path? Sandbrook obviously thinks so: he has just edited a book called Civilizing Globalization: A Survival Guide (2003). At a time when free-market globalization has become a flashpoint for protest, Sandbrook has gathered an international group of academics, policy analysts and activists to explore the problems of unfettered markets and create a vision of a new global community, founded on social and ecological concerns. He concludes sustainable peace and democracy can take root in the developing world only if the global economy is reformed to create a more equitable distribution of resources between North and South.
Another scholar who insists peace is more likely to come from new approaches to international co-operation is Thomas Homer-Dixon, director of U of T’s undergraduate Peace and Conflict Studies program. His studies, documented in books such as Environment, Scarcity, and Violence (1999), indicate that there are root causes for civil breakdown and international terrorism: a society’s truncated political aspirations, governmental weakness, and scarcity of natural resources. If developed nations target improvement in these areas – even in things as simple as water supplies and reforestation – Homer-Dixon believes the threat of terror and war can be substantially reduced.
Homer-Dixon, who has briefed politicians such as former U.S. vice-president Al Gore on his theories and addressed audiences at Harvard, Oxford and the World Economic Forum, expands on his findings not just in scholarly journals, but in the popular press. He feels a strong commitment to “bringing the findings of academic research to policymakers and the general public,” he says. “It’s important for academics to do so.”
Even (perhaps especially) when people don’t like what you say. One of Homer-Dixon’s opinion pieces in the Globe and Mail sparked a major dust-up in the national media after September 11. Various right-wing newspaper columnists objected to his focus on root causes, and his refusal to simplify the terrorist attack in terms of good and evil. But Homer-Dixon remained unapologetic, believing that continuing to ignore the causes of terrorism is a prescription for more of the same.
This February, Homer-Dixon followed with an opinion column of a different sort. He confessed in the Globe that he had had real trouble making up his mind on the Iraqi situation – an uncharacteristic admission for a published expert. “If you’re perplexed and confused by the issue, you’re not alone,” he wrote. “In recent months, I’ve found my own opinion shifting from one side to the other, a picture of indecisiveness.”
In the end, he identified four reasons for going to war, and four major reasons to hold off. On balance, he concluded, it remained a time for patience, not bombs. By relating his own personal struggle, Homer-Dixon showed Canadians the best face of academia: informed yet inquiring, rational yet compassionate. He explained a complex situation and came to a conclusion, but provided enough information to let readers make up their own minds.
It’s no wonder Tolstoy took more than 1,000 pages to chronicle war and peace. The relentless entwining of history, economics, politics and religion is staggeringly complicated, but for academics, that’s the challenge. They have both the right and the responsibility to do the hard thinking about these issues and to make their views known wherever a willing audience is found. Answers are elusive, but the search for truth continues.
Brad Faught (PhD 1996) is a Toronto writer.