The case against neutrality

Barbara Amiel March 31 1986

The case against neutrality

Barbara Amiel March 31 1986

The case against neutrality


Barbara Amiel

Last March 16 the CBC finished airing the three-part NFB series made by journalist Gwynne Dyer on Canada’s defence policies. The final show in the series called The Defence of Canada summed up Dyer’s point of view. He recommended Canada withdraw from NATO and NORAD—and become a non-aligned neutral country.

For those of us who have been watching the NFB’S political stance over the past 15 years, such conclusions came as no surprise. The NFB may make hundreds of films on apolitical subjects such as hockey players and prairie flowers, but insofar as its films have any sociopolitical content, most of them are left-wing. Many films tend to be openly admiring of totalitarian models (Cuba, Nicaragua, the People’s Republic of China), while focusing almost exclusively on the problems in Western liberal societies.

However, Dyer’s credentials as a journalist and lecturer in war studies make it necessary for critics to treat his film more seriously than just another NFB rant for “peace in our time.” Also, with the NORAD treaty up for renewal and Star Wars very much a political issue, Dyer’s arguments have to be countered.

Briefly stated, Dyer argues that military alliances lead to war and so long as Canada has troops located in Europe we automatically risk conflict there. As he sees it, our problem is one of geography-living next door to the United States makes us prime strategic territory. But that, according to Dyer, i makes us the responsibility of the I United States. Let the United States foot the bill for defences. Meanwhile, Canada will maintain an independent nuclear-free army for its own needs.

Dyer examines and discards various role models for Canadian neutrality. Switzerland doesn’t have our problem of living next door to a superpower. Iceland is a strategic territory and copes with the problem by having no army itself and discouraging U.S. military personnel from fraternizing with its citizens. But that wouldn’t work in Canada, where we share the same language and culture as the States. Dyer settles on Finland. That country has a strong army of its own and a treaty with its Soviet neighbors in which the Finns pledge to defend the Soviets from any attack made through Finnish territory. A similar arrangement, says

Dyer, could be made between Canada and the United States.

Dyer’s ideas are an offshoot of oldfashioned American isolationism, with its deep mistrust of Europe, mixed up with a narrow-minded Canadian nationalism. Added to this is the fashionable theory of moral equivalence.

Moral equivalence sees no difference between the superpowers. The Soviet Union and the United States are both paranoid imperialists. Indeed, Dyer is utterly consistent in this moral equivalence—the Third Reich wasn’t our enemy, it was the enemy of the British Empire. We only got involved in the Second World War because we had some nostalgic feelings for Britain. “People told themselves they were fighting for something special,” says Dyer. “We believed we were engaged in a moral crusade against evil.”

This astonishing analysis of the battle against Herr Hitler may indicate

The 20th century is the story of Western democracies ñghtiny militarism, totalitarianism and the gulag

that Dyer has a case of the rare cast of mind that George Orwell described as the pretotalitarian mind—the sort of person who can’t grasp the nature of totalitarianism. If the Third Reich had been successful, perhaps Dyer would today be negotiating trade agreements with it, even as the chimneys at the extermination camps smoked away. Such things would, after all, be European problems.

But a lot of Canadians who fought in the Second World War understood perfectly well what they were fighting for: it wasn’t simply reflex loyalty to Britain, as Dyer argues, but loyalty to the values of liberal democracy for which Britain stood.

But let’s take Dyer’s arguments as they appear. He claims that alliances lead to war. Who knows? America had no formal alliances but ended up in both world wars. Belgium’s neutrality didn’t help her much in either war. and Afghanistan were unaligned and suffered dreadfully. Finland is neutral not out of choice but because she was invaded by the Soviets in 1939, when Stalin was an ally of Hitler.

Finns had to accept a Soviet-Finnish pact. To equate the enforced neutrality of Finland with a Canadian alliance with the United States is like equating rape with making love: in both situations the people may be in bed with one another, but surely the circumstances are different!

Also, Dyer’s assumption, in his programs, that the Americans are most likely to use nuclear weapons first is totally unproven and totally untrue. America had a nuclear monopoly from 1945 to 1949 and unquestioned nuclear superiority until the Cuban missile crisis, but never used the bomb. Stalin could never believe his good fortune.

But let us accept all Dyer’s assumptions. Canada declares itself neutral and withdraws from NATO and NORAD in an attempt to begin the domino destruction of the Western alliance. If the two superpowers are equally paranoid, as Dyer believes, why is he so sanguine that this destabilizing act would not set off the nuclear confrontation he dreads? Or let us assume that Dyer is right and the Soviets, respecting Canada’s neutrality, decide to attack the United States from the South. What would Canada’s position be if they won? We would be between the victorious Soviets and the United Socialist States of America. What then?

Dyer’s whole position is based on the idea that there is nothing worth defending “over there” in Europe. I would think that we have been blessed because, in fighting for the values of liberal democracy, we have been able to fight “over there” rather than on our own soil. To many of us, the ideals of liberty and freedom that make it possible for Dyer to hold and express his views are worth defending.

In the end, Dyer’s argument is a selfish raison d’être for others to protect us. If Dyer feels that there really is no threat to Western democracy, he is wrong. The history of the 20th century is the story of Western democracies fighting Prussian militarism, Nazi totalitarianism and the gulag.

Perhaps, Dyer and the National Film Board think all these things are bogeymen like Frankenstein on latenight movies. Perhaps, they genuinely believe that they don’t really exist. But Europe and Asia are stained with the blood of those who wanted freedom and liberty. To borrow a phrase from the English political columnist John O’Sullivan, Dyer’s sort of neutrality is really only appeasement in drag.