Groundhog Day in Ottawa.

AuthorWhitaker, Reg

In the movie Groundhog Day, Bill Murray is forced to live the same day over and over. He tries to break the loop by changing events; he even tries suicide. Nothing works: his next day is always his previous day.

Canadian foreign policy debates in the year 2014 look very much like Groundhog Day. Two conflicts--Israel-Palestine in Gaza and Russia-Ukraine--have raised much heat, many sharp words, vehement passions, but precious little light. Hanging over the debates is a pervasive sense of deja vu. Trapped in a time warp?

Russia-Ukraine is a good example. Following the coup that drove out the pro-Russian president, Vladimir Putin's annexation of Crimea and barely covert Russian backing for violent pro-Russian separatists in the eastern part of the country quickly led to talk of a "new Cold War." Putin was cast as the dictator Stalin menacing eastern Europe circa 1947-48, with the West being called on to revive the heroic spirit of the Marshall Plan and NATO. We in the West, it seemed, were blameless innocents confronted by Putin's aggression and lust for domination. The failure of appeasement in the 1930s to stop Hitler had taught the West that dictators must always be confronted.

The problem with the screenplay for Cold War Two begins with its crude interpretation of Cold War One. In the late 1940s, it was seen as a simple case of Soviet Communist aggression and Western response. Stalin bore sole responsibility for starting the Cold War, and early Cold War history echoed this version of reality.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, haunted by the spectre of the Vietnam debacle, revisionist schools began to appear that turned Cold War historiography on its head. Now it was the United States that was the villain, with the Communist world responding to imperialist aggression. Revisionism did point out flaws in the Western facade of innocence, and did cast light on the defensive elements in the Communist posture. But simply inverting the anti-Soviet model into an anti-American one was a misconceived, if not morally suspect, enterprise.

After the collapse of Soviet Communism, Cold War historiography has become more balanced and nuanced. Few would claim any more to find a smoking gun at the starting line. There were deep differences--systems, interests, goals--between the capitalist West and the Communist East that doomed postwar cooperation. There were also grave mistakes made in reading the intentions of the other side: what were primarily...

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