Oct 03, 2002

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Debating the Challenges of Post 9/11

It is crucial that a university curriculum enhance openness to the range of views regarding different global issues and problems.

By Lenard Cohen
The tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001 starkly demonstrated North America's
vulnerability to terrorism and also highlighted the complexity of forces and interests influencing international relations in the 21st century. Since the terrorist attacks against the U.S. - which resulted in the death of 3,025 civilians from over 90 countries and 115 nationalities - many quarters of the international community have devoted a good deal of energy to upgrading security against future threats.

How to react to the challenges of 9/11 has, of course, been controversial.
There is vigorous debate regarding the appropriate extent and focus of anti-terrorist security measures; the war in Afghanistan; the role that Canada and other members of the international community should play in the globalization of the struggle against terrorism; the most recently articulated priorities of U.S. foreign policy; and the best manner for dealing with the dictatorial regime in Iraq. Many observers believe that emphasis on the war against terrorism has distracted attention from concerns about human rights, poverty and other social ills.

The significant changes in security resulting from 9/11, and the debate concerning important issues and policies flowing from that event, underscore why a modern university curriculum must provide students with the knowledge, ideas, and skills necessary to engage in thoughtful discussion and analysis of world affairs. Those tools can assist university students to become engaged citizens throughout their careers and lives after university.

Most members of society, both within and outside the university community, hold and express sentiments regarding international events. A university program of study in international relations can make an important contribution by providing the basis for a sophisticated and well-grounded understanding of the debates and dynamics that pertain to the significant issues of our time.

Simon Fraser University is particularly fortunate to have faculty members in many disciplines who can offer a wide range of expertise regarding the historical and contemporary evolution of international affairs. Such specialists, pursuing their areas of study from a variety of different perspectives, can provide both the basic and advanced underpinnings for an informed consideration of world affairs. In a complex and sometimes dangerous world, no single perspective can offer a panacea for dealing with global challenges. Canadians, just as citizens in most other countries, have a broad spectrum of attitudes and preferences about the way in which their society and government should relate to present international concerns.

So it is crucial that a university curriculum enhance openness to the range of views regarding different global issues and problems, rather than close discussion by selectively promoting any particular political, personal, or ideological viewpoint. By considering a variety of different perspectives concerning the global challenges of the 21st century, and gaining familiarity with different options that are offered to address such problems, students will be better equipped to make choices about how and where to make a contribution in dealing with the difficulties and dilemmas characterizing the international landscape.

A conference focusing on 9/11's impact on international relations, which was jointly organized by Simon Fraser University and the University of British Columbia and held at SFU's Wosk centre for dialogue on Sept. 20-21, considered some of the questions and themes that a university focus on world affairs can usefully explore.

Participants at the conference debated a variety of issues. For example, did 9/11 constitute a fundamental alteration in the character of international relations, a seismic change, or only a jolt to the kaleidoscope of players and interests that are actively engaged in international politics? Though it is certainly true that a fundamental change in emphasis has occurred in U.S. foreign policy, many foreign policy leaders and citizens outside the U.S. do not, for a variety of reasons, share the U.S. view of the terrorist threat, or the urgency of regime-change in Iraq.

Conference participants also discussed the merits and weaknesses of policies and programs designed to deal with pressing international issues. For instance, how appropriate are multilateral methods and organizations for combating terrorism? In contrast, is the U.S. penchant, particularly since 9/11, for a more unilateralist approach based on the new doctrine of pre-emptive action, a viable approach for managing international affairs? Thus, United Nations Secretary-General, Kofi Annan recently reminded us that “when states decide to use force to deal with threats to international peace and security, there is no substitute for the unique legitimacy provided by the United Nations.” A contrasting view, offered by U.S. President Bush, and challenging the U.N. to live up to its principles, is that a country “cannot stand by and do nothing while dangers gather.” Bush suggested that by “heritage and choice” the U.S. would take its own stand on international matters when necessary. Although the simplistic explanation for Bush's view emphasizes his cowboy style, conference participants offered more thoughtful explanations for the U.S. commitment to unilateralism, and the preference for multilateralism on the part of other international actors. The nature and potential durability of shifting alliances and new coalitions between and among various countries were also considered at the two-day conference. Have some countries, such as China and Russia, simply used the anti-terrorist thrust of U.S. policy to crack down on their minority groups, while still keeping a safe distance from Washington's policies in the wake of 9/11? Commentators at the conference - which included foreign policy experts from Canada, the U.S., and Europe - also discussed the current tension between Europe and the U.S. that threatens the cohesion of transatlantic relations. The way in which Canada has related to the current war against terrorism was considered, as well as whether Canada might be able to assist in bridging differences in the international community regarding Iraq and other matters. In addition, the conference participants commented on the role of the modern state both as a target of terrorism and also a security provider against extremist violence, as well as the impact of fundamentalist and radical religious beliefs, and cultural differences more broadly, as factors in recent international relations.

Naturally, any one conference can only consider a small portion of the complex topics that deserve attention when pondering the current post-post-Cold War security environment. Each university gathering that explores different issues on the global scene, much as any one course in the university curriculum, surveys only some of the dimensions important for an enhanced understanding of our world. A host of issues - ranging from the root causes of terrorism, the global distribution of political and economic power, the utility for foreign policy-making from information gathered by intelligence agencies, the imperatives of rebuilding failed states, and the evolution of international law, to mention only a few - need to be addressed when contemplating the current course of world affairs.

Explaining complex motives, such as the political psychology that drives certain leaders and movements who are prepared to wreak havoc and commit mass murder in the name of political causes, or to expand their power by developing and employing weapons of mass destruction, requires that a university curriculum in international affairs should draw on cross-disciplinary expertise in a manner that goes beyond the conventional configuration of most university programs.

By continuing to develop and expand a first-class, broadly based university curriculum in international affairs - in a manner that stimulates the open discussion of diverse ideas related to global developments - SFU can help make an important difference in the complex and challenging post-9/11 world.

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