We need embassies in countries like Iran
By Jeffrey Simpson, Globe and Mail, September 14, 2012
The Cold War remained cold for a long time after Mr. Khrushchev’s burial pronouncement. The Soviets were the West’s enemy, and Canada was anchored in the Western alliance. We stationed troops in Europe, developed an Arctic detection and intercept capability, and generally considered the Soviets hostile to the world we wanted.
Yet, Canada always maintained an embassy in Moscow. We staffed it for 16 years with an ambassador, Robert Ford, who translated Russian poetry, knew the Soviet leaders as well as any Westerner and became the dean of the Western diplomatic corps. He was to Canada what George F. Kennan was to the United States: the indispensable man on the USSR.
Why did Canada, whose country had nuclear weapons aimed at it by the Soviets, keep an embassy there? Surely, it wasn’t in the vain hope that Mr. Ford and his team would cause the Politburo to change how it saw the world. No, it remained open, despite overwhelming differences between the Soviet Union and Canada, to gather information, better understand (insofar as was possible) what was happening inside the government and country and, therefore, to offer information to Ottawa about how best to respond to Soviet developments in the furtherance of Canada’s interests. The embassy was there, in short, to do diplomacy.
In 1970, the Trudeau government established diplomatic relations with “Red” or “Communist” China, something most other Western countries hadn’t done, although the Diefenbaker government had authorized shipments of Canadian wheat to China at least a decade earlier.
When the embassy did open, Mao’s China was raining daily rhetorical thunderbolts on the West. It fought wars of varying intensity with the Soviet Union and India, and in Korea. It was pledged to overturn the world order.
Yet, Canada opened an embassy there, despite the rhetorical enmity of Mao’s China and the bloody regime that had led to the deaths of tens of millions of Chinese people. Canada established diplomatic relations, with personnel on the ground for the same reason Canada had kept an embassy in hostile Moscow: to listen, learn, interact, inform and, if necessary, protect Canadians. Again, no one was under any illusions that Canada would “influence” Maoist China to adopt Western values or institutions.
The Soviet Union and China were “enemies” of Canada and appeared to threaten the world order Canada preferred. But we kept embassies there, and we tried to improve our understanding of what was going on in complicated, hostile, places, because that’s a cardinal reason for practising diplomacy. Canadian governments always understood in these, and many other, instances (such as Cuba or South Africa) that diplomatic relations didn’t mean agreement, let alone concurrence, in the domestic or international practices of other countries.
Which brings us to Iran, and the Harper government’s sudden decision to throw out Iranian diplomats and shutter Canada’s embassy in Tehran. Iran is an exceptionally complicated country with many factions and diverse political opinions below the surface and sometimes on the streets, as witnessed when two million people demonstrated in 2009 against a fraudulent electoral result. Its political system is almost as complicated as the U.S. one; its theocratic leadership is mysterious; and the inferiority complexes of Shia Islam produces what one observer correctly calls a “lachrymose intransigence.”
Iran is a hard country to fathom, with a government whose foreign policy is objectionable, even potentially menacing. It’s also a country that can’t be ignored and needs to be analyzed as correctly and as independently as possible – work more easily done from Tehran than from Ottawa. That is, unless you have a government that doesn’t wish to analyze grainy reality but to shun the real work of diplomacy and stand on the shaky certitudes of ideology.
Most analyses point to a complex "Iran" with Shia religion and a political system under the thumb of Shia mullahs. And, for very good reasons most people are transfixed by questions of religious conflict, Sunni versus Shia, Islam versus "the West" including all forms of Christianity including Coptic, and while those analyses merit further study, there is another phenomenon that we see going on in the Islamic upheavals that does not get mentioned too often.
And that is the concept of colonialism, and the colonial mentality, that is part of the experience of most of the countries where the people are taking to the streets, and "acting out" hostility against what they perceive as their "colonial masters" (read United States).
Canada has a long history of holding fast to a colonial mentality, and our masters included England and France, although certainly Great Britain played a much more prominent role than France.
And there are some very serious and troubling aspects to the colonial mentality that might warrant a further reflection at this time of turbulence.
John Ralston Saul writes cogently about the "colonial mind" in his book, A Fair Country, Telling Truths about Canada:
Studies in a variety of situations around the world all produce roughly the same analysis of the nature of the colonial mind.
At its core is a personal insecurity that cannot be intellectually explained or dealt with. This may easily involve a physically strong, well-education, rich person as the opposite. In fact, the insecurity is more likely to blossom in successful persons because they quickly run up against the elite's confusion over its own purpose.
Such uncontrollable insecurity in turn produces a profound self-loathing. The sufferers can rarely identify or express their emotional state as either insecurity or self-loathing.And so it must be expressed in a compensatory manner. Sometimes this takes the form of aggressive cynicism, as in, nothing basic to their own origins could be worth struggling for. Sometimes the sufferers search for an individual or a cause they feel comfortable treating as greater than themselves--something they can adore and so emotionally attach themselves to. This must almost inevitably involve an important foreign element. In the shadow case by what they accept to be a great force, their insecurity is assuaged.
At a more profoundly confused level, this insecurity or self-loathing weakens the individual's desire to live. It is often said that in a deeply unconscious way, the colonial mind harbours a love of death. Humans are normally driven by a basic desire to exist. This gets us through life's complex circumstances. That desire is reinforced by our belief that life must be deserved. And there lies our motivation--accomplishment, creation, family, reward, admiration from others. But colonial insecurity makes it hard to believe that you are deserving, in part because your accomplishments do not carry the emotional weight of those who belong to a real place.
In practical terms, insecure people living in smaller societies find emotional security through the acceptance of their inferiority before another civilization. Their sense of belonging then takes on a happy, contented form of passivity. If you don't deserve life at its fullest, then you can accept all sorts of mediocre situations as normal, indeed as proof of your sophistication. For example, the idea that you could own, shape or build seems pretentious when you can make yourself feel secure by following, imitation and becoming dependent. (p. 231-232)
Overthrowing the colonial "master" of the countries in the Middle East, the United States, may take a very long and arduous journey, and along the way, there will be many other tragedies similar to, or even more calamitous than the death of the four U.S. envoys in Banghazi this week. And we can watch the dramatic narrative unfold, hopefully, from a more clear perspective, as the world sheds even more of its colonial mentality, in places not as likely as the Middle East, in Canada, for example whose new 'internal colonial master' could turn out to be her own duly elected government.