21 April 2015

The Arctic—the U.S. conserves, Canada exploits

Federal cabinet minister Leona Aglukkaq wears a number of hats. She is Minister of the Environment as well as Minister of the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency. Being a member of a Harper cabinet, the latter is of course the top hat. She illustrated this in her recent two-year term as chair of the Arctic Council, the organization that brings together eight northern countries to discuss shared issues and mutual co-operation.

Handing the chairmanship over to the U.S. for the next two years, she announced that Canada's most important achievement during her term was the creation of an economic council as a forum for businesses interested in the north. Most of the representatives on the forum are from large mining or energy companies with only a few from northern businesses. True to form, the government puts exploitation of the north ahead of environmental responsibility.

Not so the U.S. The Americans intend to place climate change at the centre of their term. They have outlined a program of measures to protect the environment, such as developing better ways of dealing with marine pollution. They will also work on developing a network of marine protected areas and on finding alternative fuels for northern communities.

The Americans may be acting altruistically or simply recognizing the simple fact that the economy depends 100 per cent on the environment—if we are to have a healthy economy in the future we must have a healthy environment. A delicate ecosystem such as the Arctic requires special attention. The Prime Minister, despite his economics background, has great difficulty grasping these fundamental facts. It is the Environment Minister's job to explain them. Unfortunately, she doesn't seem to have the stomach for the job.

It's hard not to sympathize with the poor woman. Mr. Harper is the boss, is the boss, is the boss, and the boss is rigidly committed to resource exploitation ├╝ber alles. Overcoming his dogma is no doubt an unenviable task. I fear there is only one means of escape from our status as an environmental pariah and for that we will have to wait until October 19th. In the meantime, the Arctic will have to depend on the Americans and other members of the Council for the respect it deserves.

19 April 2015

Two Americas—one admired, one feared

A global survey conducted by the Worldwide Independent Network and Gallup in 2013 asked the following question: “If there were no barriers to living in any country of the world, which country would you like to live in?” The winner, by a narrow margin, was the United States. And why wouldn't people choose the U.S.? The country is free, prosperous and creative, a wonderful place to spend your life.

But the survey also posed another question: “Which country do you think is the greatest threat to peace in the world today?” The winner again, if winner is the right word, was the United States, this time by a wide margin. No other country came close. Even Americans placed their nation at number three—tied with North Korea. It seems even a lot of Americans are afraid of America.

And here, too, the opinion is justified. No other country causes as much death and destruction in the world; it wages perpetual war; its president has become the world's leading assassin. The international community has good reason to fear this arrogant empire. It certainly scares the hell out of me, and it's getting scarier.

Which I find hugely disappointing. There is so much to admire about this place: its belief in human rights and basic freedoms, not always practiced but always pricking its conscience; its vitality; its leadership in the arts and sciences; its creativity and daring in business—a long list. The blues, baseball and Hollywood have always done it for me.

We need what the Americans have to offer on the world stage. If only they could learn to leave their guns at home.

Worlds apart—women in Iran and Saudi Arabia

On receiving her Master of Architecture degree from the University of British Columbia, Leila Araghian won the UBC Architecture Alumni Henry Elder Prize. Ms. Araghian has since continued in her prize-winning ways. Her Pol-e-Tabiat, or Nature Bridge, in Tehran has won three awards in Iran as well as a Popular Choice prize in highways and bridges category from the New York-based architectural organization, Architizer. A panel of international jurors also nominated it as one of the top five finalists in the architecture and engineering category.

Reading about the success of this remarkably talented woman led me to contrast the status of women in Iran with their status in another Middle Eastern country—Saudi Arabia. The comparison came to mind because Iran is considered an adversary by Western nations whereas Saudi Arabia is a good friend and arms customer. Somehow this relationship seems upside down. Shouldn't we be friends of the country where women can become leading architects rather than the one where they aren't even allowed to drive a car?

Equality of women is one of the major issues of our time. Yet in this instance we seem to have relegated it to the background. Saudi Arabia is the world's most misogynistic nation but remains an intimate friend of the West. When the new king assumed the throne earlier this year, Barack Obama led perhaps the most impressive entourage ever to accompany an American president to pay his respects. Or, less kindly, to genuflect before his highness.

There are, of course, other important issues in the region, but none justify abandoning our commitment to women's equality as we do when we kiss up to the Sauds. We simply make our claim to believe in human rights look ridiculous. But then, in the Middle East, we seem to do that a lot.

11 April 2015

Echoes of the Monroe Doctrine in the Middle Est

Pondering American mischief in the Middle East the other day I had a strange feeling this pattern of behaviour had appeared before. And then I realized where ... in Latin America.

In 1823, the fledgling United States unilaterally declared the Monroe Doctrine, after president James Monroe. Its objective was to keep the European powers out of Latin America, leaving it to the tender mercies of the United States. This, you might think, wouldn't be a bad thing. After all, the Americans believed in democracy and human rights thus they would be good mentors for setting the Latin nations on the right path.

It didn't quite work out that way. In relentless pursuit of its own interests, the U.S. supported brutal dictators, collaborated with oligarchs who had exploited and oppressed the native peoples since the days of the conquistadores, and suppressed democracy without remorse. Only recently, as the South American countries have begun to liberate themselves from American hegemony, are democracy and human rights becoming widely entrenched, and native peoples gaining a place in the sun.

The similarities with American behaviour in the Middle East are remarkable. The U.S. supports brutal dictators such as the Egyptian generals and the appalling Sauds; it collaborates with oligarchs such as the sheiks of the Gulf states; and it has suppressed democracy, in Iran in the twentieth century and in Palestine in the twenty-first. It pursues its interests (and of course Israeli interests) as relentlessly as it has in the Americas.

In a world opinion poll by Win/Gallup International in 2013, the U.S. was voted by far the biggest threat to world peace. Even Americans voted it third, tied with North Korea. The views of the international community are based on reality. No other nation has caused more death and destruction in the world since the end of the Second World War. It now engages in perpetual war.

It does cleave to noble values, of course, but only at home and in Europe, only in the West. Elsewhere it behaves as all empires—pursuing its self-interest with great self-righteousness, applying a version of the Monroe Doctrine wherever it suits its purposes. Some history, apparently, does repeat itself.

10 April 2015

Iran holds the nuclear powers to account

So the United States finally bullied the Iranians into a nuclear deal. Iran has always said it had no intention of building a weapon, but that wasn't good enough for the Americans, or for the other nuclear powers. They wanted it in writing and now they have it. Iran has agreed to not enrich uranium beyond 3.67 per cent, to reduce the number of its centrifuges by two-thirds, and give up 97 per cent of its uranium stockpiles. Any one of these measures would put the possibility of a bomb out of reach. And it has further agreed to inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

There has always been a strong odour of hypocrisy about the negotiations. The Non-Proliferation Treaty does more than preclude non-nuclear signatories from possessing the bomb, it also requires the nuclear powers to disarm themselves of the weapon. But the five sitting across the table from Iran—the United States, Russia, China, France and the United Kingdom—are not doing that. The U.S. and Russia have reduced the numbers of their weapons but along with their fellow nuclear powers are upgrading them, making them more precise and harder to shoot down. They are, in fact, creating a more dangerous world.

Iran has, quite correctly, called them out on this. Accusing them of malingering, it called for negotiations on setting a target date for nuclear disarmament. And the opportunity for those negotiations is upon us. Later this month, the parties to the Non-Proliferation Treaty will meet for their regular 5-year Review Conference.

We shall then see if the powers are serious about relieving the world of this Damoclean sword or whether all the talk about the dangers of Iran having a weapon were just an effort to keep an unwanted member out of the club. This is their opportunity to show good faith, to put their commitment to disarmament in writing just as they demanded Iran put its commitment in writing. Unfortunately, there is no bully big enough to ensure they keep their promises. But that, perhaps, is why nations covet the nuclear option.