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The Power of Ideas

The Power of Ideas


Interviewed by Trina Moran

Photographed by Erik Price

Community Centre board member, international relations guru, and fellow coffee shop explorer, Dr. Don Munton has made many significant impacts on his community. Born and raised in Vancouver, Don holds a Ph.D in International Relations with a focus on environmental policy, Canadian foreign policy, and international security. Don has recently retired from the International Relations program at the University of Northern British Columbia. Today, Don enjoys being an active board member at the Kerrisdale Community Centre dealing in particular with the community centre program, its fitness facilities, and the pool. He is also still an active researcher. Currently, Don is doing research into the Canadian involvement in the Cuban Missile Crisis. Don discovered a government letter in the Archives dating back to the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis that revealed Canada had been providing intelligence on Cuba to the US. ‘This changes everything’, Don remarks excitedly in between sips of his latte as I speak with him. Don has also co-authored a book on the Cuban Missile Crisis and it has been a fascination of his for most of his career.

clip_image003Additionally, Don was a NATO fellow from 1987-1988 and Fulbright fellow from 1992-1993. He was granted a NATO fellowship in the 1980s while he was teaching at UBC. He conducted research on public attitudes on the public of NATO countries on their attitudes on nuclear weapons. Polls that Don conducted showed that the Western countries’ attitudes had shifted from the Cold War decades. During this time these countries were now thinking in ‘post Cold War times’. The polls showed that many people in the West perceived US actions to be as much of a danger as Soviet actions. Throughout his NATO fellowship Don travelled to England, Germany, Norway, and the Netherlands. In the early 1990’s Don was granted the Fulbright fellowship which led him to Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. Here, Don conducted research into Canada-US environmental relations.

This October marks the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis. To avoid a complete retelling of what happened, I’ve focused on asking Dr. Munton what Canada’s role was during the crisis. Munton explains that from 1962 and some twenty years after the crisis, Khrushchev snuck nuclear missiles into Cuba. However, a secret deal was made between Khrushchev and Kennedy and that was if Khrushchev removed the missiles from Cuba, Kennedy would remove missiles stationed in Turkey. Now, if Khrushchev had refused this secret deal with Kennedy, Kennedy would have taken this publicly. At this time there was also much criticism of the Diefenbaker government for having a weak stance, for not fully supporting Kennedy, or wanting to go to the United Nations. Don states that criticism ‘was wrong’. Don’s research has shown that the US started using Canadian intelligence in Havana as soon as the US no longer had an embassy there.

Aside from that short history lesson, I asked Dr. Munton what is the most important thing Canadians, or anyone should be able to learn from the Cuban Missile Crisis? His answer: the power of ideas. Although a common understanding post-Cuban missile crisis was that countries had to now arm themselves heavily and support the Americans, Munton claims that this is not entirely the case. It is the power of ideas. In this event, both political leaders found themselves at the brink of a nuclear WWIII and that if they had made the wrong decision at the right time, all would be lost. In The Cuban Missile Crisis: A Concise History, a book co-authored by Don Munton and David Welch (Waterloo), both political leaders are described as having a sense of empathy for one another. Their opposing objectives led them to start talking to each other and together they gained a more global perspective and responsibility as leaders of the superpowers of their age. Munton adds that had there been more empathy politically, there would have been less time spent in ‘the Cold War years’. Applying this lesson to modern political issues, Munton states that there needs to be more ‘[understanding] of why Iran reacts the way it does when we say they can’t develop nuclear weapons’.

When asked about current event issues abroad Don was extremely knowledgeable and insightful.

clip_image005Q: Canada recently closed down its embassy in Iran and expelled the Iranian diplomats in Ottawa. How do you feel about this course of action and whether or not do you believe it was prudent to do?

A: It may have been prudent, but this is not clear yet. Other governments are constantly doing things you may not like, but you usually would not close down your embassy in that country because of this. The biggest reason brought up by the Canadian Government for this action is the safety of the Canadian diplomats in Iran, although it is not obvious whether the level of safety of those diplomats has recently changed. The British embassy in Iran was also closed down earlier, as groups of Iranians attempted to attach [attack] the embassy, but no such action s has ever been done to the Canadian embassy. The Canadian government, however, may have gotten information that the Canadian embassy was potentially going to be targeted as well, but we do not know this for certain. Our diplomatic relations with Iran are not yet broken off however, as this would have been very foolish considering the 20 years that it took our country to re-establish relations with China after losing our relations just after the Chinese revolution in 1949-1950. The Canadian tradition, following the British tradition, has been to maintain your relations and have embassies even if you do not agree with everything that a country is doing. Overall, there was no clear and imminent danger sufficient for closing down our embassy and a few of the former Canadian ambassadors to Iran have already criticized the move; although there may have been a danger that we (the public) do not yet know about.

Q: The civil war in Syria has been perpetuated for over a year now, with no military intervention from the international community. Do you believe that diplomacy alone is sufficient to end the crisis? Why or why not?

A: First of all, the situation in Syria is much more complicated that it was in Libya (where the international community did intervene militarily), both geographically and politically. I think that as [is] unfortunate as the casualties currently are [very high], it is probably wise not to intervene militarily as it might only make the situation worse. The connections Syria holds with other countries such as Russia and Iran, is among the many reasons that make the military intervention option not appropriate in this situation.

As of today, Don wakes up every morning with hunger for more answers and more information. ‘It’s the reason why I wake up all excited in the morning’. He is also still active in writing scholarly articles and books about the crisis and other major political events.

When asked what he liked about living in Kerrisdale, Don responded that his family moved here in the 1980s from the ‘EAST’ both he and his wife accepted teaching jobs at UBC. Also it seemed like ‘a great family place’. His daughter frequented the community centre pool, played on the local soccer team, and was a girl guide, all in the local area. Don also enjoys what Kerrisdale has to offer as a community. That he is able to ‘grab [his shopping bag, walk to 41st, go to the bank, buy a book, get groceries at places where shopkeepers know [him], meet folks for coffee, drop by the KCC fitness centre, and walk back home’. Also, that he has a myriad of dinner choices that he passes by on the walk home such as Greek, Thai, Japanese, or Chinese. Don defines the Kerrisdale community as a community defined by its people.

Overall, Don Munton is one of the gem members of the Kerrisdale community. He is a wealth of knowledge, well-rounded, and appreciates all aspects, big or small, that the Kerrisdale community has to offer and that we should all value and understand the power of ideas. Whether your ideas bring s about new equipment to the community centre fitness centre, improve foreign policy tactics, or advance the relationships between superpower countries, you are affecting your community and others simply by the power of your idea.