A political fight for peace

By  John Zokovitch, Catholic Register Special
  • January 8, 2009
{mosimage}Creative Dissent: A Politician’s Struggle for Peace by Douglas Roche (Novalis, 381 pages, softcover $37.95).

Douglas Roche was just entering his adult life when the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan. That event — and the subsequent Cold War and nuclear arms race — would serve as the ever-present backdrop to a political life consistently focused on disarmament and development as the keys to international peace.

Roche’s latest book, Creative Dissent: A Politician’s Struggle for Peace, cleverly reads as a memoir. But at its core it is an urgent and passionate plea for peace in our world from a man who has spent his life pushing government leaders to take the steps necessary for world peace. Roche writes in his acknowledgments that the purpose of the book is “not to tell my personal life story, as such; rather, it is to examine my struggle as a political figure in Canada to give the values of peace and human security a higher priority in public policy.”

The book reads in more or less chronological fashion, opening with the requisite tales of origins and influences, and introducing themes which define the major movements of the book. Some of the early biography comes off a little choppy and disjointed, with early vignettes (like baking a cake with his roommates) that seem more for sharing among family and friends. But there are gems that take us beyond the public persona, revealing the man underneath and inviting a more intimate understanding of the author. Stories of his first wife, Eva, stand out here, including his admission that when he first proposed marriage to her, “she did not jump at the prospect.”

The book picks up considerably as Roche recounts his entrance into journalism, then politics and the issues upon which he will build his reputation. Especially poignant are his recollections of “journeys through the global village,” leaving Canada to live in the United States, then early visits to Nigeria, Venezuela, the Holy Land and most importantly India. Of India, Roche writes: “No other country has had such a profound effect on the development of my thinking about the stark contrasts between rich and poor in the modern world.”

Political leaders today use tales from trips such as those Roche shares as little more than anecdotes for political speeches, making themselves appear “in touch” with the “real world.” But Roche’s stories of people struggling around the world — people whom he calls his teachers — become the flesh and bone that keep the analysis of poverty and development from ever becoming abstract for him. His passion for the developing world and his criticism of wealthy nations is rooted in these fundamental relationships. Later encounters in China, Indonesia and Bangladesh confirm for him his part (and Canada’s) in playing a “bridging role” between the global north and south.

Most importantly, it is Roche’s commitment to the promise of the United Nations and the abolition of nuclear weapons which functions as the primary message of the book. He states clearly that curbing global warming and ridding the world of nuclear weapons are the two most important issues of our age. Roche’s story is that of a committed group of world leaders, scientists and non-governmental organizations that pursue world peace and true human security by persuading the nuclear states to disarm. The relationship between Canada and the United States is a central conflict at the heart of this effort.

As a member of Parliament and a senator, but primarily during his time as Canada’s ambassador for disarmament at the UN, Roche experiences the tension of the Canada-U.S. relationship. His own efforts are consistently aimed at encouraging his country (as well as other “middle power” states) to play a “mediating role.”

He wants to convince the world’s nuclear powers (especially the United States) to commit to disarmament. Roche writes that his overall impression was that Canadian leaders wanted nuclear disarmament but they had to “defer to the demands of the U.S.,” as with Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s acquiescence to American demands to test the Cruise missile delivery system in Canada.

Roche shares numerous examples of this “high-wire act,” negotiating the tension between Canada’s relationship to the UN (and the rest of the world) and its relationship to the United States (and by extension, NATO). He goes on to offer ample evidence of how the United States undermines the UN mission for peace. On the First Gulf War, Roche states, “For (President George) Bush, order meant the U.S. driving and enforcing the world agenda. When the U.S. decided on war, everyone was to get in line.”

As a peace activist, it is Roche’s stark and pointed criticism of the United States which suggests to me a particularly hopeful and effective role for our allies. While both the UN and American peace communities are marginalized in Washington (evidenced by the Iraq war, Kyoto, torture, etc.), it is more likely that close U.S. allies — such as Canada — willing to critique and even challenge U.S. policy might provoke hesitation and even new thinking in the U.S. administration. Roche’s insistence that Canada and other middle powers take such a role strikes me as just what is needed following the imperial presidency of George W. Bush.

Roche’s Catholic faith is prevalent throughout the book. His chapter on Vatican II, “The Catholic Revolution,” captures the excitement many within the church felt. The ending of that chapter, dealing with the checkered legacy of the church since Vatican II, leaves the reader asking, along with Roche, what happened?

A deep understanding of Catholic social teaching on peace and development informs Roche’s political positions throughout his career. His faithfulness as a Catholic is not to some narrow dogmatic piety, but rather to the church’s vision of the integrity and inviolability of the human person. His own identity as both conservative and as a member of Canada’s Progressive Conservative Party, while jarring to those of us who associate anti-nuclear and pro-UN positions with liberals, is in keeping with his devout Catholicism. His conservatism mirrors that of recent popes, Pope John Paul II especially, while standing in contrast to the conservatism we in the United States identify with the Republican Party.

His example of faith and conscience, in co-operation with pragmatism and patience, offer a powerful force for long-term political change.

Part history, part prophetic critique, part memoir and part travelogue, this book really is a plea for peace in our world through disarmament and development. Roche is adept at dealing with moments and ideas both grand and subtle. But he is unequivocal on one thing: “The nuclear powers must be challenged from a moral basis, because, in clinging to spurious, self-serving rationales, they are deliberately deceiving the world. The doctrine of nuclear deterrence cannot claim the slightest shred of moral acceptance: it is morally bankrupt.” It is this notion, not his own life, that he most wants us to remember.

(Zokovitch is director of communications for Pax Christi USA.)

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