Reasons to be Cheerful: Foreign Policy in a Changing World

By: Gwynne Dyer

Reasons to be cheerful – despite what the television and other media show you every day about a world in flames. We all know that the media deceive, even when they don’t intend to: it is a very small screen, and even the smallest tragedy anywhere in the world fills it immediately. So by turning on the television news (or indeed by reading your Globe and Mail, should you be so inclined), you get no sense of the scale of tragedy that is unfolding, or of how many tragedies are actually unfolding compared to how many there might have been.

Even in a near-perfect world, there will always be enough bad news to fill the headlines and the news programs every day. So you have to think about it a little bit more carefully before you come to the conclusion that this is a world where you would have every reason to cut your throat.

Let me rehearse for you a recent and connected series of events, all of which you’re aware of, and yet you may not have connected them up in the same way that I do. Most of these events I went to wearing my journalist’s hat, and I must admit that at the time I too didn’t connect them up in the way that I’m now going to do for you.

Let us begin with 1986 in Manila, where a dictator, Ferdinand Marcos, in power for 20 years, was evicted from power non-violently, through a process of popular protest in the streets, by the widow of a man he’d murdered. Cory Aquino accomplished Marcos's overthrow leading unarmed crowds and using the classic techniques of non-violent resistance. The Filipinos are Asians, so they have access to the Gandhian tradition, but more importantly they were an American colony, and so they also have access to the Martin Luther King tradition: they have available that knowledge of how to do non-violence.

So what? Everybody “knew” that non-violence never worked against Third World dictators. It was a technique you used against morally vulnerable democracies caught on the wrong footing, whether the British imperialists in India or the American government in the time of Viet Nam and the civil rights movement. The idea that you could use non-violence against a Third World dictator, and that he would be deterred somehow from shooting you just because you stuck flowers in the barrels of his soldiers’ rifles, was not readily accepted at the time. And I must say I expected to see blood in the streets.

It didn't happen and yet the only difference between Manila in 1986 and many other occasions where there had been blood in the streets not long before was that this was in fact the first popular uprising against a Third World dictator after the introduction of live television satellite uplink, so that all the news unfolding in Manila was instantly seen all around the world.

Now I don’t insist on a direct cause-and-effect relationship between live global TV and successful non-violent revolution, but there was something going on here, because to our vast surprise there wasn’t machine gun fire and blood in the streets. There was a rapid retreat by Marcos from confrontation, and then from power. He left from the back lawn of the Malacañang Palace, got his wife on board the helicopter but left all of her shoes behind in the cupboards, and the Philippines moved on to an imperfect but genuine democracy, which it still enjoys today.

In the three years after 1986 in Manila, there were five attempts in Asia to copy this technique. Three of them were quite successful, in South Korea, in Thailand and in Bangladesh, where military regimes were removed from power by non-violent popular resistance. And in their place came, again, imperfect but genuinely democratic regimes. There were also two terrible failures. One was in Burma, where the same tactics were deployed in a similar situation, but where notably there were very few foreign television cameras and no live uplink. In Rangoon, the protests were drowned in blood (and Burma is still a dreadful dictatorship today). And there was the very near-run thing in China, on Tienanmen Square in May-June 1989.

I’m sure you all remember what you saw on your television screens in those three weeks when Chinese students occupied the main square in the centre of Beijing, demanding civil rights, freedom of speech, democracy. They made their demands with perfect courtesy, employing the non-violent tactics that are now available to any reasonably well-educated person on the planet – and they came very close, in my estimation, to succeeding. It was a much nearer-run thing than people remember. At the time, nobody in Beijing knew whether those willing to risk violence within the regime would win out over those who wanted to compromise with the students, those who saw the way forward for China in a gradual shift away from the kind of confrontation between regime and people that had been building through the 1980s.

In the end, of course, the Chinese attempt to democratize in Beijing was drowned in blood, though it was done with great difficulty. Not only were there huge arguments within the regime before the decision was taken, but also it was done by night precisely so that they could minimize television coverage. And the non-violent persuasion had been so effective in terms of sapping the will of the soldiers of the Beijing garrison to use force against the protesters that the regime took the precaution of pulling all those troops out and bringing in fresh soldiers from outside the city who had not been contaminated by contact with the students and the citizens of Beijing. Moreover, the troops were sent in shooting in order to guarantee that there would be no human contact before the killing started.

It succeeded in suppressing Chinese democracy. Nine years later now, China is certainly not a democracy, although the subject has not gone away. Just last week the new Chinese prime minister was asked in a fairly open press conference: what about Chinese democracy? And he said: “Yes, in time”. You don’t have to believe him, but you do have to believe it’s not off the agenda.

Okay, non-violent democratic revolution doesn’t always work. This is not a perfect chain of successes. But remember this: in May and June 1989 in China, they almost managed to democratize not just a dictatorship but a Marxist totalitarian state by non-violence. And they knew exactly what kind of ground they were breaking. I have spoken to a number of people who organized the Tienanmen Square demonstrations (because of course these things do not spring from nothing), and they told me that there was a great deal of groundwork done, particularly in the high schools and universities in Beijing, in the preceding couple of years. They told me, “Look, in ’87, ’88 we were looking at the videos of what was going on in Seoul and Bangkok and what had gone on in Manila. We were reading Martin Luther King. We were studying Gandhi. We were trying to figure out whether you could transpose these tactics and experiences to the situation we find ourselves in, whether they could still work in the context of Chinese culture in a totalitarian Marxist regime.”

So in the spring of 1989 the Chinese students took their hypothesis out and they road-tested it and it didn’t work, alas, though it came close. But six months later almost to the day, it did work in Berlin. And the citizens in Berlin who brought the Wall down had all watched the events in Beijing on television six months before. It was on West German television, but of course everybody in East Berlin saw it.

The cascade of non-violent revolutions that brought down the communist regimes throughout Eastern Europe between November 1989 and December 1991 (when even the old Soviet Union itself finally went under) was directly stimulated by and modelled on the Asian experience of the preceding years. It’s probably the first time Asia has given the political lead to Europe in 300 years.

And just to complete the chain of causation: by 1994, such is the power of example transmitted by the global media, even South Africa was able to democratize, to move to a non-racial one-person, one-vote democracy, without a revolution. I have been told by people quite close to the South African secret police that just as de Klerk came to power in late 1989 the South African secret police went to him and said: “Mr. President, you know the footage you saw on the television last night about Ceaucescu on the balcony.” (Do you remember the Romanian dictator on the balcony, the mob in the square about to deliver their usual adulation, and then it turns out they want to lynch him, not congratulate him? And the stunned look on his face, and he’s dead within 24 hours.) The South African secret police said, “Mr. President, if the ANC [African National Congress] pulls that, puts a mob like that out on the street in Johannesburg, then we will have to kill 10 000 people under the television cameras or quit. So start negotiating.” And he did.

Something is going on here. Not only are parts of the world that don’t have a democratic heritage, regimes which we never imagined could democratize, doing so but the transition, quite contrary to our previous experience, is overwhelmingly a non-violent one. And as a consequence of all that, the old Cold War has gone away, and with it the alliance politics and the fears of nuclear war that filled most of my life as a journalist (and perhaps a good deal of yours as an observer) for the past 40 years.

But is it really a changed world? Are we talking about a shift in behaviour so big that we now have to change the way we think about the world, or just a flash in the pan? A God-almighty big flash in the pan, but a flash in the pan nevertheless? We are now 12 years into this new era where democracy and rationality seem to be winning in most parts of the world (despite the Rwandas and Bosnias that fill the TV screens), but there are no guarantees. I think that I have reasons to be cheerful, but I have to admit that the long past extending from 1986 back until the year 1dot doesn’t lend us a great deal of encouragement.

I’ll tell you a story. Some years ago, I was filming in Turkey, in Gallipoli. Most Newfoundlanders probably aren’t aware of this but before our soldiers were sent to France in the First World War, they were sent to Gallipoli to help take Istanbul from the Turks. So we were filming in the Gallipoli Peninsula, along the old front line where the Royal Newfoundland Regiment had fought, and in the war cemetery and so on, for a television series.

We had a local Turkish driver, who was fairly used to Australians and New Zealanders coming there (you know, the ANZAC [Australian and New Zealand Army Corps] legend) – but he found it odd to see Canadians. So he asked us (I used to live in Turkey, so I speak the language), “Please explain what you're doing”. And in between other things I explained that we were making a film about how Newfoundlanders, my people, had come 4 000 miles to kill his people. And he said: “It’s all right, it was really the British Empire that killed them both”. And it was.

I don’t mean to say the British Empire was worse than other empires, but it wasn’t spectacularly better, and that’s what empires do. All of our history is filled with empires doing that, and even some democratic successors to empires doing that. For 5 000 years our history is of tyranny and of constant armed confrontation and war, together with slavery and oppression and what not. A very long and uniformly tragic past to stack up against the 12 years of moderately good news that we have just come through.

Foreign policy in that long past was fairly straightforward ... enormously complex in the details, but in principle fairly straightforward. You know that the world is constantly a dangerous place, that the weak go under, that 95 percent of the states that have ever existed have been destroyed by war. So you keep your powder dry, you build your strength, you make alliances, you prepare for the disasters that you know will come.

The practice of foreign policy is rooted in this pessimistic, conservative view of human nature, because all of history supports it. So perhaps what we really need to talk about when we try to choose between these two versions of the world – the world of the long past and this perhaps ephemeral, happier world of the recent past – what we need to do is talk a little bit about human nature.

Why was the world like that then, why might it be different now? I think I have a hypothesis. I don’t have an answer. In fact, it’s the sort of area where you can’t have hard answers. But I have a suggestion for why things might have been that way then and yet now be different.

Think about who we were before we became civilized. Some of us here are descended from ancestors who have been civilized (in the sense that they grew crops and were ruled from cities) for 5 000 years; others, for the last 50 years. It doesn’t matter. Our ancestors, however far back, were at one point all hunter-gatherers. They all lived in small bands living off the land.

Small by definition. Hunter-gatherers don’t come in bands of more than a couple of hundred, because you can’t handle more people than that socially, and the bonds that hold them together are personal bonds. Now these small hunting-and-gathering societies have a couple of interesting characteristics. We’ve run across a fair number of them in the past couple of centuries in the course of conquering the world, and written down what they were like before we exterminated them, so we have a fair amount of knowledge of how hunter-gatherer societies operate.

They cover a wide spectrum of behaviours and values, of course, but there are constants. One is that they tend to be egalitarian, almost leaderless societies. They are not tyrannies. They are societies where at least all the adult males, and sometimes all the adults, have approximately equal rights and equal say in whatever few decisions have to be made – not democracies exactly, but groups with a proto-democratic cultural style and mentality. And the other constant is that they are constantly at war in one way or another with all of their neighbours.

In evolutionary terms this makes perfectly good sense: you find it right through the primate family. These are groups that have to spread out on the land in order to have enough territory to survive. How do you ensure that there aren’t encroachments? By policing the boundaries. By having little mock battles – sometimes real battles, but not many people get killed – against the neighbouring groups of the same species (humans, in our case) in order to guarantee that you maintain enough territory to feed your people.

This is the pattern through the highlands of New Guinea, through North America before the arrival of the Europeans, presumably through Europe 6 000 years before that: hunting and gathering groups who are egalitarian and actually quite respectful of one another's rights within the band, but who are nevertheless in a chronic state of war with all of their neighbours.

Not huge numbers of people get killed by all of this, although not tiny numbers either. Somebody’s calculated that in the case of the Yanomamo, who are an Amazonian group, 25 percent of the adult males eventually get killed in war. But then at least 25 percent of the women die in childbirth. Getting born is dangerous. And this manner of doing business works for the society.

Now let’s take these hunting and gathering bands, with their deeply rooted, maybe even genetically encoded, traditions, and transpose them to Mesopotamia 8 000 years ago, or any subsequent urban civilization. Population density shoots up: we’re now talking societies of 100 000, 500 000, a million very quickly. How do you run such societies? (And they need to be run, lots of decisions to be made now.) The old system for making decisions, where perhaps 70 or 80 adults in the band of 200 sit around and talk about it, isn’t going to work at a population of 100 000, let alone a million. The people in these new “mass” societies can’t all talk to one another. There is no way that they can even discuss a common agenda.

The only way big societies like that can be run, at least for a very long time, is from the top down, by force. All the surviving mass societies we know about, all civilizations, from the very beginning are tyrannies. They are pyramidal organizations of power and privilege enforced by violence. Nothing else exists in the historical record for societies of more than a million people. You can have a democracy for a few thousand privileged citizens in a place like classical Athens, because a few thousand people in a public space can, with a great deal of effort, hear each other's arguments and reach a joint decision. But as soon as you hit a million it’s a tyranny, and probably a good deal before that.

So all the civilizations are tyrannies and they all still have the existing tradition of hostility toward their neighbours, which they brought with them from the hunter-gatherer times. And it’s still a good tradition in the sense that you’d better be careful because otherwise they’ll eat you, hair and all. So all these societies are militarized, they all fight wars – and for 5 000 years history is like that, which is bound to lead you to certain tentative conclusions about human nature.

But I think that those tentative conclusions are wrong. I think that the circumstances are sufficient explanation for why we behaved the way we have in history, without seeking an explanation going into the nature of humanity. I don’t deny that we’re capable of violence and many other things, but it’s not all we’re capable of. We are capable of many responses and they will vary according to the situation.

The basic problem so far as the shift from egalitarian hunter-gatherers to almost totalitarian (certainly authoritarian) tyrannical mass societies, the problem was numbers. The problem was that, whatever your preferences may be, you cannot run this place democratically, run it as an egalitarian society. It’s got to be a pyramid or nothing will get done. It’s got to be an autocracy.

Suppose, however, that into that by now very ancient mix, we were to introduce mass media. Suppose we were to give these societies, millions strong, the ability to talk to one another across the millions.

Nothing grand like television to begin with, just literacy and printing, newspapers and books – so that it becomes possible, for the first time since we moved into the cities, to agree on what the question at issue is. Not only that, but these relatively simple technologies also allow us to discuss and debate the issue across the society and reach some conclusion about what we ought to do as a collectivity, as a group, rather than simply waiting for the decision to be handed down from on top. That is the process that begins to unfold only about 250 years ago. Indeed, until then there is not a single society of over a million people in human history which is not a tyranny.

And then, as the new mass medium of printing becomes available in various societies, you begin to see what I would call a reversion to democratic type, or to egalitarian type. The very first society ever to have a genuine and successful democratic revolution was the first one where over 50 percent of the population was literate: the United States of America 222 years ago.

Since then we have seen democracy spreading around the planet in direct consequence of the spread of mass media, which now of course may not be print and literacy but simply the electronic media. My hunch – and I think the chain of events between 1986 and 1994 is very powerful evidence for it – is that the default mode of human beings is probably egalitarian, that the 5 000 years of tyranny was very probably a functional response to the situation we found ourselves in, and that now that we have the options given us by mass media, we are reverting to type.

The implication, by the way, is that it’s got nothing to do with your particular cultural history, that it is not relevant whether you do or do not have Greeks up your family tree. If you’re human, your default mode is egalitarian. Now if that’s a correct analysis, and I think it is, we already have a changed world. Not a cast-iron guarantee it could never change back, but a fairly solid guarantee that this is real and large-scale change.

What about the question of war, which was the central question of foreign policy until very recently? Well, one of the interesting things about democratic countries is they don’t fight wars with each other. They fight wars quite cheerfully with a whole variety of other countries that aren’t democratic (Canada has been at war five times this century), but never against genuinely democratic countries. It doesn’t happen, or hardly ever does it happen.

So that the mere fact of moving from a mostly dictatorial world to a mostly democratic world, which we have accomplished, in itself is liable to diminish steeply the scale and frequency of war, and I think that has happened.

If the world has changed like that, and is changing further in that direction now, what are the implications for foreign policy? Well, let me just offer you a couple of thoughts about the scale of change. I’ve been quoting examples before; now let me offer you some statistics. The world in 1980 had under one third of its people living in more or less democratic countries. Everybody else lived under dictatorships of one kind or another: communist dictatorships, right-wing military dictatorships all over Latin America, and so on. Only one third or slightly less of the world’s people lived in more or less democratic countries, and I’m being pretty generous in my definition of democratic. (What’s a more or less democratic country? It is a country more democratic than Joey Smallwood’s Newfoundland.) Now, in 1998, by the same rough and ready criteria, over two thirds of the world’s people live in more or less democratic countries. We’ve doubled it in less than two decades. And I don’t think we’re finished.

At the moment, two thirds, or 70 percent, of the world's people live in more or less democratic countries. But we only need two more countries, Indonesia and China, to get with the program and we’re over 95 percent. I think we may see Indonesia do it this year. It could also get very messy in Indonesia, but I’ve been there recently and I’ve learned by now to trust the optimistic. You know, I went through the whole Russian experience waiting for blood to flow, I went through all of the South African thing waiting for blood to flow. Now I actually don’t wait for blood to flow. I assume that quite likely they will get it right. So Indonesia perhaps a democracy by the end of the year. A shoddy, shaky one, but nevertheless, I think Suharto’s had it.

And China. China will sort itself out. It’s far too late to shut the door in China. Far too many people know what they want, know what the rest of the world is like, know how China could be. So I think we’re heading for a world where almost everywhere is democratic. We’re already in a world where over 80 percent of the members of the United Nations, just counting countries, are democratic regimes (which is, by the way, why the United Nations in the 1990s finally has begun to act in defence of democracy).

The UN certainly doesn't act in defence of democracy every time. But, for example, sending troops into Haiti to get rid of a military regime and institute a democracy is actually a violation of the UN charter, which is all about protecting sovereignty however the rulers of the particular country got power. But when you get a democratic majority in the UN, suddenly we change the rules, or at least we don’t remember the rules, and we will go to defend democracy.

It’s imperfect. What we’ve got in Haiti as a result of UN intervention isn’t very pretty either, but nevertheless you see the shift from one foot to the other: the balance, the centre of gravity is shifting. What are the implications for foreign policy for Canada, which has always been a fairly safe country that could pick and choose where it put its emphasis in foreign policy, compared let’s say to Bosnia, which doesn’t have a lot of options?

What can Canada do that is useful to itself and to the world if these assumptions are valid? A good example of what we can do to take advantage of these changed conditions is what we did do last year: the Canadian initiative that led to the signing of an international treaty banning the production, possession, sale or use of anti-personnel mines anywhere. Now mines are not disappearing everywhere just yet, because some people wouldn’t sign the treaty. Most notably the Americans wouldn’t sign it. But consider for a moment that Canada would take on and push through a project with security implications that the Americans didn’t like. This could not have happened before about 1993, and our tactics were very straightforward: basically, we shamed other governments into coming along. We launched a publicity process in alliance with non-governmental organizations, pressure groups our Foreign Affairs people never even spoke to 10 years ago, and we outflanked the governments one after another. They’re all unhappy about defying the Americans, but one after another they are forced by their own domestic and public opinion to come into line with this Canadian proposal to ban landmines. And the long-term strategy of course is to do exactly the same to the Americans, to use their own public against them.

It hasn’t worked yet, but wait. Clinton would have signed the treaty just like that if he had been free to. His problem was he had Jesse Helms in the Senate, who is fairly Neanderthal in these matters, and there were some other things he had to get through the Senate last year and so he didn’t sign the landmines treaty. But this is the use of global mass media to push through a policy we wouldn’t have dreamed of attempting even five years ago. So there is recognition in Ottawa of the change, and a fairly intelligent attempt to exploit our position and the new situation.

In a way, the task is to bring the legal realities of the world into step with what I think are already the moral realities of this changed world. And now there are new ways of addressing this agenda. When you can address global public opinion, stepping around the individual national interests of individual governments, and get a consensus on something like banning landmines – that’s interesting. That’s new.

Finally, a cautionary note. In the navy, as some of you may know, they have a thing called “stand easy”, which is a sort of coffee break, smoke break, whatever. And my story concerns a former naval person who died and, of course, went to hell. Arriving at the gates of hell, he was met by the duty demon, who took him around the various punishment pits. (If you’re not particularly wicked, you get to choose which one you will spend eternity in.) And so you go past the pit of eternal flame, and the one with the thumbscrews and the racks. Fairly depressing tour, as these things go. Eventually our ex-naval person came to the pit of liquid manure, which was full of people standing up to their chins in the aforesaid liquid manure. But given the options, he said, “I’ll take that one”, and slid gently in so as not to cause waves and discomfort to the others. And he was just turning to his neighbour to say, “Do you get a break here from this?” when the demon cracked his whip and said, “Okay, stand easy is over. Sit down.”

The moral being, things aren’t always as good as they seem. So I am not issuing guarantees here. I am just observing a chain of events that I think gives cause for real optimism. I think – and I believe many people in Foreign Affairs think – that it is worth shaping policy on the assumption that these changes are probably real and they create an international context where pessimism and realism are no longer synonyms. And that’s a pleasant change. Thank you very much.