By Dominic Cardy
Kim Echlin, The Disappeared. Toronto: Hamish Hamilton Canada, 2009. 235 pages
Paul Collier, Wars, Guns, and Votes: Democracy in Dangerous Places. New York: Harper Collins, 2009. 255 pages with index.
A decade ago, we were worrying about the Y2K bug that was going to reset the modern world to the year 1000. We were debating our participation in NATO’s mission to stop the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo. We were embarrassed that our F-18 fighter-bombers had radios so old they couldn’t communicate with our allies, and we were unsure, when our side accidentally bombed a tractor-pulled convoy of refugees, whether this was the sort of war that Canada should be part of. Afghanistan was a faraway country about which we knew little; coverage of the Taliban government was critical but disengaged. This was a state where war and oppression had glided entwined across the dance floor for a long time; it was indecent to watch too closely. There was nothing we could do. Who in 1999 could have imagined that by 2009 Canada would have been at war in central Asia for eight years? If our combat forces withdraw in 2011, as our politicians promise, our time in Kabul and Kandahar will have equalled the Soviet Union’s war from 1979 to 1989.
Our decisions to allow countries to slide into anarchy or terror, and the tools we can use to stop or arrest that slide, are covered by two very different books that, read together, help us understand Canada’s current attitude toward the world – and what it could be. Toronto writer Kim Echlin has written about Sumerian goddesses and the lives of elephants. In her third novel, The Disappeared, which was shortlisted for the Giller Prize, she followsthe murky trails of the Cambodian genocide and its aftermath, seeing Cambodia from the perspective of a young Montreal woman who falls in love with a young Khmer man. Her failure to save him symbolizes the world’s inability to intervene positively in disintegrating states. Echlin’s novel also symbolizes Canadians’ inability to understand that good intentions, even love, are not enough.
The second book is Paul Collier’s Wars, Guns, and Votes: Democracy in Dangerous Places, the sequel to his earlier The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can be Done About It.1 Collier offers a realistic toolkit for liberal interventionists. His hardheaded idealism stands in contrast to Echlin’s romantic cynicism. Collier places the lessons learned from Tony Blair’s successful intervention in Sierra Leone, and to a lesser extent the NATO intervention in Kosovo, into a practical framework: how to defend, or create, the conditions necessary for genuine democracy to grow. To summarize brutally, Collier is interested in determining when a benevolent dictator is a better bet than a corrupt democrat.
These books tell us something about our failure, and potential, as Canadians to be actors on the world stage. Even as we reached out in the last decade with foreign aid and weapons, blue helmets and second-hand Leopard tanks, we were protected by geography from a cold world we didn’t understand. At the end of World War II Canada mattered, in part because we had one of the world’s largest armies. We had proven our values in action against fascism, and we used that reservoir of cultural goodwill in the standoff against communism.
But that standoff ended two decades ago, and we haven’t moved on. During the Cold War, no matter how bad things were in the poor corners of the world, we knew that no real change was possible. The tension between the Soviet Union and the United States served to limit the scope of international action; the poor, Canadians agreed, would always be with us. We did what we could to ease the roughest edges of human suffering but this had more to do with assuaging our guilt than with changing the world.