Working as a Rapporteur: Group of 78 Annual Policy Conference

Back in September of 2014 I participated in an annual conference hosted by the Group of 78 and Project Ploughshares in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. I, along with three of my colleagues from Conrad Grebel University College and the Executive Director of Project Ploughshares, John Siebert, went to Ottawa for the WWI and Contemporary Policy On War and Peace conference. I served as a rapporteur of the conference proceedings, charged with writing about two of the main conference discussions.

From Left to Right: Holger Afflerbach, Tamara Scheer, Daryl Copeland, Ernie Regehr, Mustafa Aksakal, and CBC's Michael Enright.
Attending this conference as a rapporteur was my first major extra-curricular outing as a graduate student. Over a decade had passed since I last visited Canada's national capital - which brings the current score of the Canada vs. U.S.A. capital visits competition to 2-0 in favour of Canada.

The annual conference report has finally been published and I can now share my work. Here is the conference's concluding summary that I wrote, in its entirety:

Concluding Roundtable Summary: What can we learn from WW1 to make the 21st century a century of peace?

What did we learn from WW1 to make world a safer place?

The traditional 19th century opinion of ‘The Fatherland’ faced a watershed moment. The notion of “Dying for Fatherland” that was prevalent in 19th century Europe was abandoned except in its cynical or ironic uses. This was quite a political departure.

WW1 served as an exercise in the failure of our ability to accommodate shifting power. The only thing we ever learn is that we never learn. It is now more necessary than ever to learn from previous conflicts to prevent emerging and escalating conflicts. The key is to understand and evolve past these issues to address the big ones that humanity faces collectively.

WW1 was transformative in the Middle East and shaped how it is today. WW1 touched off civil war and mass traumas that lasted well into the 20th century. Understanding this period as the origin of contemporary problems is invaluable. Often times the region is described as having populations predisposed to violence, which is categorically untrue. What the denizens of the 34 Middle East have been subjected to for the past century is shortsighted Western policies of imperialism, colonialism, and interventionism. Organic growth in the region continues to be scarred from the consequences of WW1.

Conflicts are multifaceted and are by nature hard to understand fully for factors and igniters, especially when the WW1 alliances were so veiled and secretive. Rather than apportioning specific blame, humanity should extract useful lessons. For instance in WW1 the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand caused events that spun out of control. When politicians default on their responsibilities as decision-makers, the result is handing their control over war to the military.

Regardless of the justifications used for war, all belligerents bear responsibility. Nations should unite not in military alliances, but rather in understanding that they should not be sending their sons and daughters off to war. This ideal is what has fostered peace in the European Union. The role of the media must be considered, for instance, in the case of the Hapsburg Empire from the turn of the century up until 1914. Newspapers treated war like it was expected, yet people were surprised when armed conflict actually broke out. Bertrand Russell remarked that England was also happy for war.

WW1 gave us new technologies to build better weapons. Humanity has perfected the means to kill each other. What mankind has yet to do is wholly unite against non-traditional threats, whether that be climate change, diminishing biodiversity, resource shortages, or the challenge of managing the global commons. There are no military solutions to many of the threats which now imperil us all. Airstrikes are no remedy for a warming planet. Expeditionary forces cannot occupy the alternatives to a carbon economy. Garrisons and border guards are useless against the advance of pandemic disease. These sorts of issues are best addressed using the tools of diplomacy and development: dialogue, negotiation, knowledge-based problem solving and cooperative action in concert.

Framing a conflict as war will always leave a winner and a loser. However, it is what those parties choose to do, either in victory or defeat, which will shape the future. While the Americans won WW II, they have been a global leader in armed interventions during the second half of the 20th century. Conversely, Germany and Japan have adopted foreign policies centered on pacifism. The frame of conflict analysis is always focused on why war happened or who was responsible. Perhaps our thinking should be the other way around: Why did the peace work before? Credit has to be given for the prevention of large-scale wars since the end of the two World Wars of the 20th century. Diplomacy has identified conditions that would lead to war. Attention must be given to de-escalation and prevention. Nations must never stop talking; transnational cooperation needs to exist in good times and bad.

There exists a grotesque imbalance of resource allocations in major nations, as the lion’s share of resources fall to defence agencies and defence corporations. In the USA there are more soldiers in uniformed marching bands than there are diplomats. In any given year the budget increase alone that is afforded to U.S. defence exceeds the total budgets of the State Department and USAID combined. A major disparity between defence spending and spending on diplomacy and development of nearly 24:1 exists in the U.S., while Canada is 4:1, and the Nordics are 1:1. Contemporary wars are primarily intra-state or civil wars and they emerge out of internal conflicts based a variety of social, political, and economic grievances and the failures of 35 national institutions in weak states to mediate effectively and respond to chronic grievances. Military force is incapable of mitigating these grievances or of forcing dissident movements, once they have gained the support of major communities and sections of the populations, to conform. Political accommodation is the only sustainable response, yet most states, even or especially weak states, are better prepared for mounting military responses than political responses. The result is long drawn out civil wars, even though they cannot be, and are not settled on the battlefield. Most wars today, in fact, have little in common with the circumstances and conditions of World Wars I or II.

Special attention must be afforded to the distinction between commemoration and glorification of war. Countries recently engaged in conflict or those nations that were plagued by conflict for decades regard war in a manner that contrasts with countries that have not had conflict waged on home soil in quite some time.

Did they all die in vain? Soldiers that perish on the battlefield and civilians that bear the brunt of a conflict will die in vain if the lessons learned from that conflict are not applied towards the future. If the conflict does not just lead to peace, but an understanding of how to sustain peace, then the victims of war will indeed die in vain. In the case of WW1, little was learned – and that led to WW II.

History does not create workable models for the future. What is clear is that war must be avoided at all costs. In the tradition of Bertha von Suttner, the first female to win the Nobel Peace Prize, she insisted that you never stop talking. Never give up. Meeting a person’s basic needs of food, water, shelter, and economic prospects contribute more to human security than any military force could. Security is not a martial art. Human security is the key. Freedom from fear and freedom from want.

Canada’s capacity to contribute and innovate when it comes to assisting humanity towards peace must be resurrected. Unfortunately in Canada today much of that capacity has been lost. Canada has moved away from internationalism and diplomacy, and renowned institutions and civil society organizations are among the casualties. As a result Canada is losing its established influence on the international stage.


I would like to thank the Group of 78 and Project Ploughshares for this marvellous opportunity. Additionally, I would like to thank my colleagues Allie Bly, Darren Kroph, and Sandrine Uwimana for contributing to an awesome weekend.

Here is a link to the entire conference report - in which my name is only misspelled once...

From Left to Right: Darren Kroph, Allie Bly, Sandrine Uwimana, John Siebert, and Nolan Kraszkiewicz (me).

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