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Gwynne Dyer

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Libya and Altruism

25 March 2011

Libya and Altruism

by Gwynne Dyer

They have committed themselves to a war, but they have no plans for what happens after tomorrow night. They swear that they will never put ground troops into Libya, so their strategy consists solely of hoping that air strikes on Colonel Gadaffy’s air defence systems (and on his ground forces when they can be targeted without killing civilians) will persuade his troops to abandon him. They don’t even have an agreed command structure.

So why is this “coalition of the willing” (which has yet to find a proper name for itself) doing this? Don’t say “it’s all about oil.” That’s just lazy thinking: all the Western oil majors are already back in Libya. They have been back ever since the great reconciliation between their governments and Gaddafy in 2003.

That deal was indeed driven partly by oil, although also in part by Western concerns about Libya’s alleged nuclear ambitions. (Gaddafy played his cards well there, because he never really had a viable nuclear weapons programme.) But do you seriously think that Western governments have now launched this major military operation merely to improve the contractual terms for a few of their oil companies?

Maybe it’s just about local political advantage, then. President Nicolas Sarkozy of France was the driving force behind this intervention, and he faces a re-election battle next year. Is he seeking credit with French voters for this “humanitarian” intervention? Implausible, since it’s the right-wing vote he must capture to win, and saving the lives of Arab foreigners does not rank high in the priorities of the French right.

Prime Minister David Cameron in Britain was the other prime mover in the Libyan intervention. Unless the coalition government he leads collapses (which is quite unlikely), he won’t even have to face the electorate again until 2014. So what would be the point in seeking political popularity with a military intervention now? Even if that were a sure route to popularity in Britain, which it is not.

As for Barack Obama, he spent weeks trying to avoid an American military commitment in Libya, and his secretary of defence, Robert Gates, was outspoken in denouncing the idea. Yet there they all are, intervening: France, Britain, the United States, and half a dozen other Western countries. Strikingly unaccompanied by Arab military forces, or indeed by anybody else’s.

There is no profit in this for the West, and there is a high probability (of which the interveners are well aware) that it will all end in tears. There is the danger of “mission creep,” there is the risk that the bombing will kill Libyan civilians, and there is the fact that many of the countries that voted for Security Council Resolution 1973, or at least abstained from voting against it, are already peeling away from the commitment it implied.

They willed the end: to stop Gaddafy from committing more massacres. They even supported or did not oppose the means: the use of “all necessary measures” to protect Libyan civilians, which in diplomatic-speak means force. But they cannot stomach the reality of Western aircraft bombing another third-world country, however decent the motives and however deserving the targets.

So why have the Western countries embarked on this quixotic venture? Indians feel no need to intervene, nor do Chinese or Japanese. Russians and South Africans and Brazilians can watch the killing in Libya on their televisions and deplore Gaddafy’s behaviour without wanting to do something about it.

Even Egyptians, who are fellow Arabs, Libya’s next-door neighbours, and the beneficiaries of a similar but successful democratic revolution just last month, haven’t lifted a finger to help the Libyan revolutionaries. They don’t lack the means – only a small fraction of their army could put an end to Gaddafy’s regime in days – but they lack the will. Indeed, they lack any sense of responsibility for what happens to people beyond their own borders.

That’s normal. What is abnormal is a domestic politics in which the failure to intervene in Rwanda to stop the genocide is still remembered and debated fifteen years later. African countries don’t hold that debate; only Western countries do. Western countries also feel guilty about their slow and timorous response to the slaughter in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Nobody else does.

Cynicism is a necessary tool when dealing with international affairs, but sometimes you have to admit that countries are acting from genuinely selfless and humanitarian motives. Yes, I know, Vietnam, and Iraq, and a hundred years of US meddling in Latin America, and five hundred years of European imperial plunder all around the world. I did say “sometimes”. But I think this is one of those times.

Why is it only Western countries that believe they have a duty to intervene militarily, even in places where they have no interests at stake, merely to save lives? My guess is that it’s a heritage of the great wars they fought in the 20th century, and particularly of the war against Hitler, in which they told themselves (with some justification) that they were fighting pure evil – and eventually discovered that they were also fighting a terrible genocide.

This does not mean that all or most of their military adventures overseas are altruistic, nor does it mean that their current venture will end well. In fact, it probably won’t. No good deed goes unpunished.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 8. (“That deal…companies”; and “They willed…targets”)

Gwynne Dyer’s latest book, “Climate Wars”, is distributed in most of the world by Oneworld.

Superstition: Nuclear Power vs. Coal

15 March 2011

Superstition: Nuclear Power vs. Coal

by Gwynne Dyer

Suppose that a giant hydro dam had crumbled under the impact of the biggest earthquake in a century and sent a wave of water racing down some valley in northern Japan. Imagine that whole villages and towns had been swept away, and that ten thousand people were killed – an even worse death toll than that caused by the tsunami that hit the coastal towns.

Would there be a great outcry worldwide, demanding that reservoirs be drained and hydro dams shut down? Of course not. Do you think we are superstitious savages? We are educated, civilised people, and we understand the way that risk works.

Okay, another thought experiment. Suppose that three big nuclear power reactors were damaged in that same monster earthquake, leading to concerns about a meltdown and a massive release of radiation – a new Chernobyl. Everybody within a 20-km (14-mile) radius of the plant was evacuated, but in the end there were only minor leakages of radiation, and nobody was killed.

Well, that was a pretty convincing demonstration of the safety of nuclear power, wasn’t it? Well, wasn’t it? You there in the loincloth, with the bone through your nose. Why are you looking so frightened? Is something wrong?

In Germany, tens of thousands of protesters demonstrated against nuclear power last Saturday, and Chancellor Angela Merkel suspended her policy of extending the life of the country’s nuclear power stations until 2036. She conceded that, following events in Japan, it was not possible to “go back to business as usual,” meaning that she may return to the original plan to close down all 17 of Germany’s nuclear power plants by 2020.

In Britain, energy secretary Chris Huhne took a more measured approach: “As Europe seeks to remove carbon based fuels from its economy, there is a long term debate about finding the right mix between nuclear energy and energy generated from renewable sources…. The events of the last few days haven’t done the nuclear industry any favours.” I wouldn’t invest in the promised new generation of nuclear power plants in Britain either.

And in the United States, Congressmen Henry Waxman and Ed Markey (Democratic), who co-sponsored the 2009 climate bill, called for hearings into the safety and preparedness of America’s nuclear plants, 23 of which have similar designs to the stricken Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan.

The alleged “nuclear renaissance” of the past few years was always a bit of a mirage so far as the West was concerned. China and India have big plans for nuclear energy, with dozens of reactors under construction and many more planned. In the United States, by contrast, there was no realistic expectation that more than four to six new reactors would be built in the next decade even before the current excitements.

The objections to a wider use of nuclear power in the United States are mostly rational. Safety worries are a much smaller obstacle than concerns about cost and time: nuclear plants are enormously expensive, and they take the better part of a decade to license and build. Huge cost overruns are normal, and government aid, in the form of loan guarantees and insurance coverage for catastrophic accidents, is almost always necessary.

The cost of wind and solar power is steadily dropping, and the price of natural gas, the least noxious fossil-fuel alternative to nuclear power, has been in free fall. There is no need for a public debate in the United States on the desirability of more nuclear power: just let the market decide. In Europe, however, there is a real debate, and the wrong side is winning it.

The European debate has focussed on shutting down existing nuclear generating capacity, not installing more of it. The German and Swedish governments may be forced by public opinion to revive the former policy of phasing out all their nuclear power plants in the near future, even though that means postponing the shut-down of highly polluting coal-fired power plants. Other European governments face similar pressures.

It’s a bad bargain. Hundreds of miners die every year digging the coal out of the ground, and hundreds of thousands of other people die annually from respiratory diseases caused by the pollution created by burning it. In the long run, hundreds of millions may die from the global warming that is driven in large part by greenhouse emissions from coal-fired power plants. Yet people worry more about nuclear power.

It’s the same sort of mistaken assessment of risk that caused millions of Americans to drive long distances instead of flying in the months just after 9/11. There were several thousand excess road deaths, while nobody died in the airplanes that the late lamented had avoided as too dangerous. Risks should be assessed rationally, not emotionally.

And here’s the funny thing. So long as the problems at Fukushima Daiichi do not kill large numbers of people, the Japanese will not turn against nuclear power, which currently provides over 30 percent of their electricity and is scheduled to expand to 40 percent. Their islands get hit by more big earthquakes than anywhere else on Earth, and the typhoons roar in regularly off the Pacific. They understand about risk.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 8. (“In Britain…either”; and “The alleged…excitements”)

Gwynne Dyer’s latest book, “Climate Wars”, is distributed in most of the world by Oneworld.

Democracy and the Arabs

26 February 2011

Democracy and the Arabs

by Gwynne Dyer

One of the incidental pleasures of the past few weeks has been watching the Western media struggling to come to terms with the notion of Arab democracy.

The Arabs themselves seem clear enough on the concept of a democratic revolution, but elsewhere there is much hand-wringing about whether Arabs can really build democratic states. After all, they have no previous experience of democracy, and it’s basically a Western invention, isn’t it? The Arabs don’t even have Athens and the Roman republic up their family tree.

Sure the revolutions are brave, and they’re exhilarating to watch from afar, but in the end the military will take over, or the Islamists will take over, or they’ll mess it up some other way. This is the assumption – sometimes implied, sometimes flatly stated – that still underpins much of the outside comment and analysis on the Arab revolutions.

The current rationale for this arrogant and ignorant assumption is the “clash of civilisations” tripe that Sam Huntington and his pals have been peddling around the official circuit in Washington for almost two decades now. The Arabs just belong to the wrong civilisation, and so they can’t get it right.

If this sounds vaguely familiar, that’s because it’s really the centuries-old justification for European imperial rule over the rest of the planet, re-cycled for modern use. Europe once ruled the lesser breeds with a firm hand, but it can no longer do that directly. Instead it backs tough local rulers who promise to provide “stability” – and coincidentally protect the West’s interests in the area.

So when the Arabs start overthrowing their rulers in non-violent revolutions that are just about democracy, not about Islam or Israel, there is astonishment and disbelief in the Western media. Time for a little deconstruction.

What makes the Arabs suitable candidates for democracy is their heritage as human beings, not their specific cultural or historical antecedents. Democracy didn’t need to be invented; just resurrected.

The default mode for human beings is equality. Every pre-civilised society we know about operated on the assumption that its members were equals. Nobody had the right to give orders to anybody else.

What drove this was not idealism but pragmatism. In hunting-and-gathering groups, nobody can own more than they can carry, so there is no way to accumulate wealth. If you want meat, then you’ll have to cooperate in the hunt. These were societies where nobody could control anybody else, and so they HAD to make their decisions democratically.

They were all very little societies: rarely more than fifty adults (who had all known one another all their lives). On the rare occasions when they had to make a major decision, they would actually sit around and debate it until they reached a consensus. Direct democracy, if you like.

People have been running their affairs that way ever since we developed language, which was almost certainly before we were even anatomically modern human beings. So 99.9 percent of our history, say. That is who we are, and how we prefer to behave unless some enormous obstacle gets in our way.

The enormous obstacle was civilisation. All hunting-and-gathering societies were essentially egalitarian. The mass societies that we call civilisations arose less than ten thousand years ago, thanks to the invention of agriculture. Until very recently all of them, without exception, were tyrannies, pyramids of power and privilege in which the few decided and the many obeyed. What happened?

A mass society, thousands, then millions strong, confers immense advantages on its members. Within a few thousand the little hunting-and-gathering groups were pushed out of the good lands everywhere. By the time the first anthropologists appeared to study them, they were on their last legs, and none now survive in their original form. But we know why the societies that replaced them were all tyrannies.

The mass societies had many more decisions to make, and no way of making them in the old, egalitarian way. Their huge numbers made any attempt at discussing the question as equals impossible, so the only ones that survived and flourished were the ones that became brutal hierarchies. Tyranny was the solution to what was essentially a communications problem.

Fast forward ten thousand years, and give these societies mass communications. You don’t have to wait for Facebook; just invent the printing press. Wait a couple of hundred years while literacy spreads, and presto! We can all talk to one another again, after a fashion, and the democratic revolutions begin. We didn’t invent the principle of equality among human beings; we just reclaimed it.

Modern democracy first appeared in the West only because the West was the first part of the world to develop mass communications. It was a technological advantage, not a cultural one – and as literacy and the technology of mass communications have spread around the world, all the other mass societies have begun to reclaim their heritage too.

The Arabs need no instruction in democracy from anybody else. They own it too.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 13. (“If…area”; and “A mass…tyrannies”)

Gwynne Dyer’s latest book, “Climate Wars”, is distributed in most of the world by Oneworld.

London: Not Exactly the Blitz

7 July 2005

London: Not Exactly the Blitz

By Gwynne Dyer

Tony Blair flew down from the G8 summit in Scotland especially to
be with Londoners in their time of trial, and you can hardly blame him for
that. It’s not that we needed him to take charge — it was only four
smallish bombs, and the emergency services were doing their job just fine
— but the tabloid newspapers would have crucified him if he hadn’t shown
up and looked sympathetic in public.

No doubt he was feeling sympathetic, too, but the words he used
rang false. The accent was British, but the words were the sort of thing
that comes out of the mouth of George W. Bush — all about defending
British values and the British way of life. He didn’t mention God, so he’s
still British under it all, but I’m pretty sure I even heard him use Mr
Bush’s favourite words, “freedom” and “resolve”. I’m also pretty certain
that this cut very little ice with most Londoners.

This is a town that has been dealing with bombs for a long time.
German bombs during the “Blitz” in September-December 1940 killed 13,339
Londoners and seriously injured 17,939 more. In 1944 this city was the
first in the world to be hit by pilotless cruise missiles (the V-1s or
“buzz-bombs”), and later that year it was the first to be struck by
long-range ballistic missiles (the V-2s, which carried a tonne of high

During the whole of the Second World War, about 30,000 Londoners
were killed by German bombs and three-quarters of a million lost their
homes. Then, between 1971 and 2001, London was the target of 116 bombs set
by various factions of the Irish Republican Army, although they only killed
50 people and injured around 1000. And not once during all those bombs did
people in London think that they were being attacked because of their
values and their way of life.

It was quite clear to them that they were being attacked because of
British POLICIES abroad, or the policies of Britain’s friends and allies.
The people who organised the bombs wanted Britain out of the Second World
War, or British troops out of Northern Ireland, or the British army out of
the Middle East (or maybe, in this instance, the whole G8 to leave the rest
of the world alone). Nasty things, bombs, but those who send them your way
are usually rational people with rational goals, and they almost never care
about your values or your way of life.

Londoners actually understand that, and it has a remarkably calming
effect, because once you have grasped that basic fact then you are no
longer dealing with some faceless, formless, terrifying unknown, but just a
bunch of people who are willing to kill at random in order to get your
government to change its policies. We don’t even know which bunch yet. It
could have been Islamist terrorist, or some breakaway faction of the IRA
(that’s been waiting to happen for while), or even some anarchist group
trying to make a point about the G8. But that doesn’t matter, really.
The point is that they are only terrorists, and they can’t hurt all
that many people. In a large city the odds are very much in your favour:
it will almost always be somebody else who gets unlucky.

This knowledge breeds a fairly blase attitude to bombs, which was
much in evidence this morning when I had to go in to Harley Street at noon
to pick up my daughter from school. (They didn’t let school out early; it
was just the last day.) The buses and the underground weren’t running and
a lot of streets were blocked off by the police, but everybody was finding
ways round them, on foot and in cars. You pull over to let the emergency
vehicles pass, and then you carry on.

I do recall thinking, however, that it was a good thing that the
bombs had gone off here, not in some American city. Even terrorist bombs
in London will be used by the Bush administration as an argument for
locking people up indefinitely, taking away Americans’ civil liberties, and
perhaps even for invading some other unsuspecting country. One bomb in an
American city, and it would have a free run down to 2008.

Whereas in London, it doesn’t work like that. In fact, maybe it was
my imagination, but I thought that I could even hear a number of Londoners
muttering under their breaths: “Bloody terrorists. Always get it wrong. If
only they’d done this two days ago then we wouldn’t be lumbered with the
bleeding Olympics.”

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles
are published in 45 countries.