Thursday, June 21, 2012

Canada, the War of 1812, and... Pakistan? On National Narratives

Yesterday, inspired by the Sailabration of the War of 1812, I did a bit of alternative history, wondering what would have happened to the United States if it had won the War of 1812 and conquered Canada.  I may have understated the case.  One of the great fears of the founding fathers was that the United States would collapse into a bunch of squabbling states.  Absorbing Canada might have made this outcome far more likely.

But as a follow-up I want to reverse the question, what if Canada had lost the War of 1812?

Successfully resisting the American invasion of 1812 (with some rather striking victories) is central to Canada’s national identity.  It has allowed Canada to tolerate and prosper sharing a border with an incredibly wealthy, powerful, and frankly overbearing superpower.  Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau put it best:
Living next to you is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant: No matter how friendly and even-tempered the beast, one is affected by every twitch and grunt.
But imagine if the United States had decisively defeated Canada and perhaps taken some strategic Canadian territory (say Halifax).

Canada could easily have become paranoid and obsessed with its southern neighbor.  Imagine a Canada devoted to a Pyrrhic arms race with the United States.  It is easy to imagine this paranoid and disadvantaged state seeking asymmetric means against its more powerful neighbor.  This hypothetical vicious Canada might reach out to hostile Native Americans, secessionist southerners, and attempted to build alliances with Mexico and European powers with a presence on the American periphery.  Meanwhile, Canada itself would be impoverished.  The social programs Canadians cite with pride would not be possible with enormous defense outlays.  Perhaps there would be Canadian politicians who recognized the folly of this policy, but large bureaucracies have a knack for justifying their existence.  The military would become a state within a state, untouchable by other authorities.

In short, Pakistan.

I bring this up to illustrate the importance of national honor and the national narrative in shaping national policies.  Realists of various stripes may argue that it is all about geopolitics and pursuit of power on the international stage – and certainly those things are important.

But so is a nation’s sense of itself.  In the case of Pakistan, a country with which I am obsessed, this has been crucial.  Many Pakistanis recognize the conflict with India is futile and drainingthe nation’s wealth so that it falls behind India on a per capita basis (on top of the massive difference in size.)  But the overfed military dominates the nations politics and devours its resources.  The military has fostered an Islamist narrative of Pakistan’s history to cover both the country’s development failures and its enormous ethnic and sectarian splits – while insisting India (and now the US) is behind every mishap.

If Pakistan felt it had defeated India, perhaps it would be in a stronger position to make peace and perhaps redefine its conflict with India in terms of culture and economics.

The validity of Pakistani grievances may have some merit, but the means with which they have sought to rectify them do not.  But their national narrative is that the world is against them and thus any means needed to survive can be justified.

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