Three breaking points in diplomatic news highlight the fragility of the myth of international relationships. What can Canada, India, Poland, Ukraine, and the UN teach us about the state of global political power?
Many myths carry the modern world, and high on that list is the myth of international relationships. One country cannot “be” friends or enemies with another country, but its representatives can play out an illusion of fraternity or animosity for economic or ideological ends. Alternately, when the game no longer serves, world representatives can take their figurative ball and go home.
In three ways this past week—with Canadian-Indian relations after an assassination, with Poland and Ukraine’s struggle over arms and grain, and with the absentees at this year’s United Nations General Assembly—we’ve witnessed the myth of international relationships wobble. Its power exists only when there’s a consensus that it exists, and ours is being sorely tested.
Can we sustain the illusion of international relationships?
Or are we in the middle of a change in the stories we’re telling about ourselves?
The Canada-India assassination conflict
On June 18, the Canadian Hardeep Singh Nijjar was killed on Canadian soil. This week, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that his government was looking at “credible allegations potentially linking” India to this killing. If accurate, this would amount to a violation of sovereignty: a foreign nation carrying out unsanctioned and violent enterprise within Canadian borders.
Nijjar was gunned down in front of a Sikh cultural center in British Columbia; he was known to his Sikh community as a human rights activist, pushing for the creation of a Sikh homeland called Khalistan by building consensus among Sikhs in diaspora. India considered him a terrorist for similar reasons: membership in a banned group, the Khalistan Tiger Force, and accusations of participation in violent acts.
The recent history of this ethno-religious trauma runs deep. A Sikh insurgency in the 1970s and 1980s, also for independence, yielded a level of bloodshed ended only by brutal state crackdown. In 1984, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her two Sikh bodyguards after ordering state action against Sikh separatists. There is no love lost between India’s Hindu-majority country and government, and its Sikh and other minority citizens.
After Trudeau’s announcement, the Indian government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi retaliated. Both countries have now expelled the other’s diplomat, and India has suspended visa services for Canadians, while posting a Canadian travel advisory for Indian citizens. An Indian spokesperson, Arindam Bagchi, puts the matter bluntly, claiming that Canada has become a place where “elements linked to organised crime, linked to terrorists, secessionists, or extremists who are operating freely … are being politically condoned; they seem to have a free run.” When asked about possible Indian involvement in the assassination of Nijjar on Canadian soil, Bagchi deflected by calling on Canada to consider its growing global reputation as a safe haven for terrorists.
Nijjar had received threats before his assassination, telling him to stop advocating for Sikh independence. He and his son reported these threats to Canadian authorities, and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service spoke to him not long before to his murder, to warn Nijjar of credible threats to his life by mercenaries.
India has long criticized Canada for harboring what India views as violent separatists, and what others view as simply “separatists”. (Canada famously houses a whole separatist party, the Bloc Québécois, within its federal government.) This is a difficult accusation, because while most Canadian Sikhs live and work in peace, with a deep commitment to their communities, one of Canada’s greatest tragedies was the Air India Flight 182 bombing of 1985, which killed 329 people (268 Canadian) and was attributed to Sikh separatists operating within Canada. Up until 9/11, it was the worst aviation terrorism incident on record.
And yet, far from being an isolated incident, this tension between groups driven from a country while fighting for independence or representation within it is a common struggle in our international “community”. Earlier this year, debate about NATO membership continued to be hindered by Turkey’s concerns about Sweden and Finland giving safe harbor to groups it considers to be terrorists. Conversely, the US has a long history of engaging in attacks on foreign soil to root out what it considers to be terrorist operatives or even simply non-ideal economic partners. Sovereignty is a strange and often fluid concept in this regard.
Canada is a complex nation-state when it comes to the rights of separatists. Although the Bloc Québecois is a peace-oriented sovereignty-seeking party that routinely holds a substantial stake in parliament, in the 1970s the Front de libération du Québec (FLQ) kidnapped two government officials in a much more violent play for independence. This led to the first Trudeau in office, PM Pierre Elliott Trudeau, famously enacting the War Measures Act. Canadian history thus includes both sovereign extremism and peaceful forms of separatist expression.
It’s the classic conundrum of liberal democracy: how much toleration of dissent can one allow, before dissent dismantles sovereign rule?
India’s potential complicity in the assassination of Nijjar extends the question to a further breaking point: how much dissent can one country safely permit, before another country dismantles sovereign rule for it?
Poland, Ukraine, arms, and grain
State relationships also have ripple effects. When Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, Poland’s early and enthusiastic offer of military aid set a template for the rest. If local sovereign states hadn’t been as quick to side with Ukraine, it would have been easier for states further off to eschew the question of Ukraine’s right to sovereignty in favor of regional consensus.
Unfortunately, on Wednesday, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki announced that Poland would be concentrating on its own defence from here on out. It would honor its outstanding arms agreements to Ukraine, and continue to serve as a transfer and repair point for military arms from other countries, but it would provide no further weapons transfers from its own arsenal.
This move has both an internal and an external component. Internally, the country is coming up on election season, and the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party has concerns about a rising far-right opponent that is leveraging “Ukraine fatigue” to sway voters. It also has to deal with a farmers’ bloc that is not happy about Ukrainian grain being rerouted through Europe after Russia closed shipping lanes on the Black Sea last year. More Ukrainian grain in the local market means price drops across the board, and reduced earnings for an already struggling workforce.
But the external component is where it gets messy. The European Union was well aware of the problems that Ukrainian grain would create for other European markets, and for a while upheld import restrictions on Ukrainian grain to nearby countries. The EU then decided this month to let that ban lapse, stating that there were no longer sufficient market distortions to warrant the measure. Bulgaria endorsed this decision, noting that the ban had an unintended negative consequence in its markets, by depriving the government of tax revenue and leading to price hikes harmful to consumers. Ukraine also promised to control its own grain markets to limit its reliance on European neighbors.
But not everyone agreed with the EU. Hungary leveraged the EU’s latest decision to escalate internal restrictions on Ukrainian products: not just on grain, but also seeds, flour, oil, meats, eggs, and honey. Slovakia said that it would continue the existing ban at least until the end of the year. And Poland, eyeing the farmer vote for October 15, vowed to keep local restrictions as well.
Collectively, the scenario shows two challenging sides of symbolic international relationships. The US is also struggling with “Ukraine fatigue”, especially from a right-wing contingent that wavers from campaigning on war to campaigning for greater national insularity from global events. This Thursday, September 21, the White House is expected to announce a new, $325 million aid package to Ukraine, but these aid packages will become more difficult as the US ramps up its own interminable election season (ahead of November 2024, but starting now).
The symbolism of a local nation no longer offering material support to Ukraine (especially when it was so critical to war efforts at the outset) could easily yield a collapse of other state confidence in active participation in this conflict. But internally, Polish politicians can also argue that it was abandoned first, by the EU’s decision not to intervene further in local grain markets.
Either way, the result is a more insular and self-preservation-oriented landscape.
What level of integrated global decision-making do we need to sustain, to keep individual states from closing up shop at cost to us all?
The UN’s absentees
It’s been an unusual year for the United Nations General Assembly, which opened its 78th session in New York City on September 19. Ostensibly the first fully in-person meeting since pandemic shuttered international events, the meeting was still hit with prominent no-shows. Notable absentees include the accused war criminal, Russian President Vladimir Putin, along with China’s President Xi Jinping, President Emmanuel Macron of France, and the UK’s Rishi Sunak. Of the “P5” (permanent members of the UN Security Council) only US President Joe Biden is in attendance. Also absent is Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India.
Collectively, that’s around 3 billion humans lacking major representation at this supposedly central platform for multilateral power brokerage in the world.
Worse still, this means that all the other countries, especially those not formally allied with the world’s core economic blocs, are missing out on their opportunity to be heard by the major movers in international politics. Instead of being able to bring their issues to a table of equals, many countries are being given the impression that this table is no longer a worthwhile site of international exchange and uplift. There are even some who argue that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s presence will be disruptive to other countries in crisis: as if the council has already set its priorities and has no time for other business.
Last September, UN Secretary-General António Guterres offered a similar warning, when he opened that session with a speech attending to growing global divisions:
Our world is in big trouble. Divides are growing deeper. Inequalities are growing wider. Challenges are spreading farther. …. Excellencies, we need action across the board. … The United Nations Charter and the ideals it represents are in jeopardy. We have a duty to act. And yet we are gridlocked in colossal global dysfunction. The international community is not ready or willing to tackle the big dramatic challenges of our age.“Secretary-General’s Address to the General Assembly, 20 September 2022
Has anything changed for the better since?
If not, how quickly is it getting worse?
Secular myth-making, for better and worse
The most pressing question isn’t whether or not the UN and its ideals are on wobbly ground. Nor is it a question of sovereign rights versus sovereign security, or of what one state owes to another state in the way of symbolic solidarity.
The question is whether or not “we” (each of us, our countries, our cultures) have any interest in recommitting to the myth of international relationships at all. With so many breaking points around us, right now it’s not looking like a slam-dunk.
And yet, in this struggle, secular folk can play a key role. After all, many who now call themselves nonreligious started their lives in structures shaped by shared belief in a common ideal: an abstract concept with tangible real-world consequences.
When those secular folk “left the flock”, they perhaps didn’t expect that plenty outside of religion would also be predicated on intangible beliefs that do such work in shaping human life and its outcomes. Yet here we are.
Our world is filled with hard-to-pin-down ideas to which we lend our fealty and dedicate our energy every day. Separatist groups defining themselves by their fight for a sovereign state. Nationalist movements leveraging the strain of complex international obligations to gain local power. International platforms that are only ever as strong as the people who commit to participating in them.
The world of mythic language is one we never fully leave. Nationalism. Internationalism. Community. Justice. Peace. Decency. Humanity. Humanism.
The question is: What myths do we want to be a part of—and what can we do to strengthen the centrality of those stories in our crisis-ridden world?