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Janet Bufton: In defence of doves

Commentary

My friend Tom Palmer once told me a story about giving a talk to some students in Canada. One of the attendees was a bit of a foreign policy hawk. She believed that Canada should have joined the Coalition of the Willing to support the U.S. war in Iraq. She was also, Tom recalls, rather upset with the idea of shooting prisoners captured while planting IEDs, a rumoured tactic for combatting a deadly insurgency technique.

That’s war, said Tom. We don’t get to pick and choose the good parts and reject the bad parts. “It shows a lack of understanding to endorse a war and then express shock when it entails violent, bloody, and even lawless behavior”, he argues in his book.

On February 22, Russia invaded Ukraine. The news was horrifying. A friend asked me how we were all supposed to keep working like everything was normal. I had no answer. The videos and stories from the ground were and are heartbreaking. They’re meant to show us just how awful things are, just how badly Russia is behaving. 

Did you think those families hiding from bombs in the Kharkiv subway aren’t exactly like yours? Notice the baby with the rainbow pop-it toy among them and think again. 

A kindergarten and an orphanage were bombed. An ambulance was bombed. Rows of tiny beds are lined up, ready for preschoolers, in a shelter. Hours-old, tiny babies from a neonatal ICU unit are rushed underground and nurses try to care for them under blankets. 

A father cries, and so do his children, as they are separated by the conflict. For some reason, someone records it. I wish they could have privacy, but I can’t look away. His children will try to find safety with their mother. He will stay behind to fight. They all sob. 

That’s war. 

Ukrainian guards fire warning shots to disperse crowds of Ukrainian people trying to flee Kyiv by train. Families are torn apart because while mothers and children can leave, men 18–60 must stay and defend the country. Conscription steals the lives of the people it sweeps up and warps them into the lives of killers. The fact that there’s an obvious right side and an obvious wrong side does not mean that everything the right side does is worth cheering for. 

Even respect for the willing resistance is grim. People should find out how brave, how remarkable they are in better ways.

But that’s war. 

In the words of Zelenskyy in his remarkable address to Russians:

“War is a big distress, and it has a big price, in all meanings of this word. People lose their money, reputation, quality of life, freedom, and most important, people lose their loved ones. Lose themselves. A lot of things are always lacking in war. But what is in abundance is pain, dirt, blood, and death. Thousands, tens of thousands of deaths.”

Foreign policy hawks have been having a heck of a time. Mitt Romney’s scoffworthy-in-2012 insistence that Russia was the greatest geopolitical threat looks pretty smart in 2022. There are plenty of we-told-you-sos to go around. 

Naivete probably did play a part in foreign policy that made Russia’s invasion more likely. But when I see frantic pointing to the terrible acts in those first days of conflict that are also war crimes, I see naivete there, too. I don’t know what else to call an expectation that war crimes wouldn’t happen during a war. If you have the power to prevent war crimes, why not just prevent the war? 

I am a strident peacenik. It’s not because I’m surprised that all of this is possible. It’s not because my eyes are screwed tightly shut. It’s because my eyes are open. I haven’t been in a war, but I believe those who have been when they tell me what it’s like. I see the headstones and I feel a visceral reaction because every single person mattered. Every single person cut down was once some mother’s, some child’s, somebody’s whole world. 

I don’t think we should pretend that war can always be avoided, especially with someone like Vladimir Putin as a geopolitical player. It doesn’t follow that we should not only hope for but really expect better. 

Peace is precious, rare, and fragile. We’ll never hold onto it if we believe it’s also impossible.

I don’t know what the world—or anyone, really—should do. I don’t know how bad it will get, and it could get very bad. Everything feels a lot more scary and uncertain today than it was a week ago. But I’m still sure of this: All of those terrible things you see in the coverage from Ukraine are baked into war. 

So no one who can manage it should apologize for pushing for, striving for, and believing in peace.

Patrick Luciani: Ukraine’s inspiring fight proves democracy isn’t dead yet

Commentary

When I planned this piece a few days ago, I intended to write about the fall of democracy worldwide and the difficulties it faced around the world. Is democracy over? Are we looking at a new world order driven by authoritarianism? Although there are over 100 countries that classify as some form of democracy—from complete, flawed, or hybrid—many are losing ground and losing it fast.

Until last week.

We now live in a new world, a world unintentionally created by Vladimir Putin when he decided to upend the old-world order and declare war on Ukraine.

We are witnessing a global political shift. More importantly, we are seeing a resurgence of democracy itself, a renewed loyalty to the principles of freedom and the right for people to determine their destinies. A bit romantic, but true nonetheless. Democracies around the world have found their voice. Every country in the EU supports Ukraine’s right to join the European community and choose its own future. The citizens of Ukraine show that they would rather die than live under Putin’s authoritarian regime and his band of sycophantic oligarchs. And free democracies are joining the fight. Germany has broken its longstanding commitment not to ship arms to conflict zones. They are now sending anti-tank and Stinger anti-aircraft weapons to Ukraine’s army. That’s a head-spinning reversal in Germany’s defence policy that shifted in just 48 hours.

Democracy is not only not dead, it has found its voice, a voice many believed to have been buried under the weight of economic, political malaise, and indecision.

In their book, How Democracies Die, authors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt argued that authoritarian leaders like Trump had attacked the very foundation of trust that provides the glue holding democracies together. One of those principles is respect for the electoral process. Vote counts are never perfect, but Trump’s constant attack on the system’s integrity began to tear at the fabric of the Constitution that has lasted over two centuries. According to Levitsky and Ziblatt, the unwritten rules of forbearance and trust are the main principles that hold democracies together. They are the rivets that kept constitutions together. Trump was ripping away at those unwritten rules.

Yale University historian Timothy Snyder argues that democratic backsliding in young and old democracies, along with aggressive political extremes, are chipping away at the democratic norms and structures, not much different than what happened in Italy and Germany in the 20s and 30s. Throw in some modern social media and authoritarian rulers like Orban, Putin, Trump, and you begin to see a different future where democracy slowly fades away. Cambridge university political scientist David Runciman, author of How Democracy Ends, sees modern democracy as going through a mid-life crisis, not knowing what to do with itself as it swings from one crisis to another. He may be right that all forms of government eventually disappear. But his speculations about what replaces democracy, including a form of “pragmatic authoritarianism” or something called “epistocracy,” rule by the best and brightest, are dead ends.

There’s little debate that democracy has many flaws because most political and social issues are complex. What isn’t under question is democracy itself as a popular form of government. Runciman reminds us that casting a ballot is still the only way to confer respect for the individual’s voice. As flawed as democracy is, Ukraine shows that people will fight hard to retain that voice.

Before the war in Ukraine, I intended to point out that history seems to produce leaders when we need them, but this time we were out of luck. I was wrong. Who could have imagined that an actor and unassuming comedian would become a symbol of courage and leadership worldwide, or that Angela Merkel’s successor, Olaf Scholz, would surprise the world with a resolve to lead Europe against tyranny? Even Switzerland and Sweden have come out of their self-imposed shells of neutrality—that even Hitler couldn’t budge—to join the fight. Democracy has a way of surprising.