Tuesday, August 28, 2012

A war to end war

Today in the Globe and Mail, "There was a war in 1812? Really?"
Earlier this month, Peter Jones in the Globe and Mail:
But the real legacy of the War of 1812, government claims aside, is simply that there was never a repeat. Tensions remained, small cross-border incursions took place, and fortifications continued to be built and maintained for another half-century, but the primary lesson both sides drew (and which was slowly reinforced) was not to bother again.

This may sound rather uninspiring – it is difficult to gather a group of colourfully dressed re-enactors to flail around in a field but not actually fight each other – but it probably explains much in terms of the incredible success North America’s two northern nations have enjoyed since.
For from the War of 1812, and its aftermath of avoiding another conflict, slowly emerged what might be called the North American regional consensus. It is now largely unspoken; most who live here probably couldn’t articulate it if they had to, but it has dominated the lives of both countries, and especially Canada, ever since.

Simply put, the North American regional consensus boils down to a realization that the cost of fighting for any possible treasure on the other side of the border is patently ridiculous when it is simply easier and cheaper to exchange these things by trade; that two quite different systems of government can coexist perfectly well; and (for Canadians) that maintaining stability and security in the northern half of the continent ourselves means that the United States will not feel compelled to do it for us
We may take all of this for granted, but we shouldn’t. It took those sophisticated Europeans another 150 years (and two of the bloodiest wars in history) to figure it out. Most regions of the world still haven’t.
Of course, the fact that the British had a growing concern for their own relations with the United States probably had something to do with the lack of fighting after 1814. We tend to forget that, after 1814, the British often sided with the U.S. in various arbitration exercises, when they probably should have acted differently if strictly Canadian interests were uppermost in their minds. The Alaska panhandle is a case in point.

Whatever the reasons, the North American regional consensus is now so deeply ingrained on both sides of the border that anyone who tried to promote the idea of fighting a war over anything would rightly be regarded in both countries as insane. Social scientists refer to such regions as “security communities” – places in the world where the idea of conflict is so remote that societies and individuals have developed, as Karl Deutsch put it many years ago, “dependable expectations of peaceful change.”
So there you have it. The real legacy of the War of 1812 is that it helped set the stage for a regional security community. Hardly stirring stuff, but, if you look around the world today, you will quickly realize just how rare a thing ours is. And it is a thing very much worth celebrating.

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