Sean Howard on the Fight for a Post-War World

Setsuko Thurlow speaking at the Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony in 2017.

Global Zero Tolerance: The New Peace Movement and the Fight for a Post-War World

Transcript of a talk given at Cape Breton University: Thursday, March 29, 2018

It’s an honour to contribute to this series of talks on Living as if We Give a Damn… I nearly titled my talk We Can’t Go On Living – and Killing – Like This: that is, as if ‘we’ care more about war than peace, coercion than caring. Of course, we here assembled – I trust – do care more about peace than war, would much rather care for each other than coerce others. As other talks have highlighted, the question of power looms large in any Quest for what all too often seems the Holy Grail of quite reasonable human expectations. My vast topic – the search for a world without war; ‘general and complete disarmament’ (GCD) in the preferred term and obligatory acronym of international diplomacy – may seem distant from everyday, ever-pressing community concerns. And I share those concerns: I certainly don’t believe War and The Bomb are all that matter. The problem is, they have the Power to destroy everything that does matter.

After setting the grim scene a little, I want to bracket my remarks with short excerpts from speeches delivered by the Nobel Peace Prize winners of 1959 and 2017. But first I’d like to ask about another year, falling roughly between: how many of you were alive in 1985? A third of a century ago (somehow!): I ask because that year marked the start of an improbable political revolution without whose brief but dramatic success it’s quite likely none of us would be alive today; the kind of revolution, I’ll argue, we need to remember and rekindle if we hope to survive.

Today, millions of people are caught in the vortex of conventional war, and we are in the midst of a major Nuclear War Scare in Korea. The latest ‘Yearbook’ of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), covering the year 2016, documents 49 armed conflicts, the highest since 1992, including 12 major wars. The number of forcefully-displaced persons stood at 60 million+, the greatest refugee crisis since World War II. $1.6 trillion was spent on war, weapons and warriors, far more than enough to transform the quality-of-life of hundreds of millions of people (an investment, in turn, likely to lead to fewer conflicts). Almost all this obscene sum was spent by a few dozen states, a militarized elite dominated by the United States, whose 2016 military budget of $611 billion has now risen to over $700 billion: over three and a half million an hour, 60,000 a minute, a thousand bucks a second.

Over $90 billion of that $1.6 trillion was spent buying arms. The top exporter, with 33% of market share, was a nuclear-weapon state, America; the top importer, with 13% of all purchases, was another nuclear-weapon state, India. By the end of 2016, there were 14,935 nuclear weapons (most of them hydrogen bombs hundreds or thousands of times more powerful than the ‘crude’ devices of 1945) in the all-too-human hands of the nine (for now) Nuke Club members: the US and Russia (the nuclear superpowers); the other three permanent members of the UN Security Council, Britain, France, and China; Israel, India, Pakistan, and in the last few years North Korea. All nine are increasing and/or ‘modernizing’ their arsenals to keep them in active service deep into the 21st century. Nuclear arms control has ground to a halt, as both superpowers develop and deploy more ‘flexible’ weapons while lowering the threshold and expanding the justifications for their use.

That’s a lot of war, a hell of lot of weapons, to abolish! I’m reminded of a supposedly true tale of someone driving the backroads of Ireland, getting more and more horribly lost. He asks a villager directions, and is advised: “Well, if I were you, I wouldn’t start from here.”

So let’s start from somewhere else: 1959, the year British anti-war crusader Philip Noel-Baker received the Nobel Peace Prize. Noel-Baker, then 70-years old, opened by acknowledging his debt to the great pacifist intellectual Norman Angell, winner of the 1933 Peace Prize: “On August 4, 1914,” Noel-Baker recalled, “I was with him in his chambers in the Temple and listened to Big Ben strike midnight as the Horse Artillery thundered along the Embankment to Victoria to entrain for France. And we knew that the guns were already firing, that the First World War had come.” “When that war was over,” he continued after a sombre pause, “fate decreed” he would work at the forefront of efforts to, quote, “create and shape the League of Nations, build up the International Court, develop world cooperation in many spheres…(turning] the policy of armament reduction from general phrases into practical proposals on which a treaty could be made,” building a “worldwide body of informed opinion which the major governments could have used in 1932 to carry through a plan of drastic disarmament, if they had had the vision and the nerve that were required”.

It was not, though, ‘fate’ alone that ‘decreed’ his role: Noel-Baker was a white man of means and privilege who, while he rose to prominence as both a pacifist and socialist, did so from a high rung on the ladder. As you’ll see, the contrast with the recipients of the 2017 Peace Prize could not be greater: a change he would have celebrated. For every pacifist of his day, however – and there were millions of them, up and down the ‘ladder’ – it was, as he suggested, the Great War which both haunted and animated their struggle. Noel-Baker may have known the German pacifist and author Hermann Hesse, who in exile in Switzerland in 1917 penned an essay entitled Shall There Be Peace? Only, he argued, if we do “away with the idea that political aims can be attained by the criminal instrumentality of war.” “Good ideas,” Hesse wrote as the War ended, “are in the air: the brotherhood of man, a League of Nations, friendly cooperation among all peoples, disarmament. There has been much talk of them both here and in the enemy countries, some of it not very serious. We must take these ideas seriously…[f]or never again must we revert to what we were: a powerful people with a great deal of money and many cannon, governed by money and cannon.”

By ‘we,’ Hesse meant primarily the defeated Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary; Noel-Baker’s ‘we’ encompassed all the combatant nations in a conflict he believed humanity lost. “I start with a forthright proposition,” he declared –

it makes no sense to talk about disarming unless you believe that war, all war, can be abolished. The Western governments declared precisely that in the UN Commission [on Disarmament] in 1952. “The goal of disarmament,” they said, “is not to regulate, but to prevent war, by making war inherently, as it is constitutionally under the Charter, impossible as a means of settling disputes between nations. To achieve this goal, all states must cooperate to establish an open and substantially disarmed world in which armed forces and armaments will be reduced to such a point…that no state will be in a condition of armed preparedness to start a war.”

The point here is that in addition to its abolitionist spirit – its famous pledge to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war” – the letter of the UN Charter plots a course to the Promised Land. Under Article 11, the General Assembly is entrusted not only with considering “the principles governing disarmament and the regulation of armaments” but with making “recommendations with regard to such principles” to the Security Council. Conversely, under Article 26, “in order to promote the establishment of international peace and security with the least diversion for armaments of the world’s human and economic resources,” the Council is entrusted with “formulating…plans to be submitted” to the Assembly.

Good ideas, clear authority, ways and means: but echoing Hesse, Noel-Baker cautioned, “Unless there is an iron resolution to make it” – abolition – “the supreme object of international policy… all talks about disarmament will fail.”

At no point was there more ‘iron in the soul’ of the Cause than September 1961, when for the first and last time (so far), Washington and Moscow concluded ‘joint accords’ calling for multilateral “agreement on a programme which will ensure that (a) disarmament is general and complete and war is no longer an instrument for settling international problems, and (b) such disarmament is accompanied by the establishment of reliable procedures for the peaceful settlement of disputes”. At the UN that month, President John F. Kennedy outlined a detailed proposal for progressively “dismantling the national capacity to wage war,” a practice which, he said, “appeals no longer as a rational alternative.” Quote: “The great question which confronted this body in 1945 is still before us: whether man’s cherished hopes for progress and peace are to be destroyed by terror and disruption, whether the ‘foul winds of war’ can be tamed…”

Only an abolitionist agenda, he argued, could tame the Destroyer, “bridge the gap between those who insist on a gradual approach and those who talk only of the final and total achievement.” This ‘gap,’ in Noel-Baker’s words, is the “great chasm…between the armed world of today and the disarmed world which we must have on some near tomorrow.” “General and complete disarmament,” Kennedy concluded, must “no longer be a slogan, used to resist the first steps,” “no longer a goal without means of” achievement. It must be, and “is now,” he insisted, both “a realistic plan, and a test – a test of those only willing to talk and a test of those willing to act.”

The test, of course, was failed, to the extent that ‘general and complete disarmament’ is now barely even a slogan. In 2016, scholar and activist Matthew Bolton wrote that the “broad global acceptance of GCD as an achievable goal in 1961 was perhaps,” for the most grimly ironic of reasons, “its high watermark,” for just the following year the Cuban Missile Crisis “brought the superpowers to the brink of nuclear war,” making “progress on arms negotiations not only more urgent but more difficult. As a result,” Washington and Moscow “began negotiations on nuclear weapons but eventually abandoned pursuit of a more general and complete agreement”.

In fact, the field of nuclear arms control also narrowed, as reflected in the title of the Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT) of 1963, banning all “tests in the atmosphere, outer space and under water” but not underground, a metaphorical sweeping of the Cloud under the carpet. The PTBT did, however, reaffirm as its “principal aim the speediest possible achievement of an agreement on general and complete disarmament,” while seven years later the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) endorsed the goal of both a nuclear-weapon-free world and “a treaty on general and complete disarmament”. As an interim measure, the NPT accords the dubious status of ‘nuclear-weapon state’ to the Permanent-5  (P-5) members of the Security Council on condition they “pursue negotiations in good faith,” on the phased elimination of their arsenals. The NPT test, too, has been, with one major exception, failed. It became law on March 5, 1970 (48 years and 24 days, 17,556 days, ago): and the P-5 still haven’t held a day of talks – not even in bad faith! – on disarmament.

The exception brings us to 1985, in March of which Mikhail Gorbachev became leader of the Soviet Union. Unanimously ‘elected’ by the almost all-male Communist Party Central Committee (on the orders of the all-male, partly senile Politburo) Gorbachev soon began testing a startling new slogan: ‘We Can’t Go On Living Like This.’ From the outset, he meant it in a double sense: domestically, we can’t go on living in such economic, political, cultural and moral stagnation; internationally, we can’t go on living under the threat of nuclear annihilation, with war, that abomination rendered anachronistic by the Bomb, still plaguing world affairs. These two senses were, of course, linked: the Soviet economy, indeed society, was so stagnant principally because it was so militarized, couldn’t afford to go on living – and indeed, in Afghanistan at that time, killing and dying – like that. And it was a (technically) ‘domestic’ event  early in his leadership – April 26, 1986 – that galvanized his search for ‘general and complete’ solutions, home and abroad: the explosion of nuclear reactor number four at Chernobyl in Ukraine. A passage from William Taubman’s new biography of Gorbachev conveys the two ways Chernobyl shook, both scared and emboldened, him: the scale of the disaster, and the disastrous response –

The explosion and fire blasted radioactive fallout into the sky, many times more than was released by the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. The cloud spread over vast areas of the western USSR and eastern and northern Europe. More than 336,000 residents would eventually be evacuated… Many died from cancers they would not otherwise have developed. Yet the initial report Gorbachev received …concluded: ‘No special measures are needed.’

In Voices from Chernobyl, by the Belarusian author Svetlana Alexievich, a man remembers entering the surreal ‘Zone’ around the reactor as a young soldier: “The village street, the field, the highway – all of it without any people…as if a warring tribe had left…in a hurry and gone into hiding. We’d ask each other: is this what our life is like? It was like the first time we saw it from the outside. It made a real impression.” As it did on his leader: “Chernobyl,” Gorbachev said, “really opened my eyes. In a sense, my life can be divided into two parts: before Chernobyl and after it.” But when the accident-waiting-to-happen happened, he was already convinced the life of humanity had been split by the Bomb: that the ‘warring tribes’ from Before the Cloud had no place in the Afterworld they created.

In 1985, with over 60,000 nuclear weapons on Earth, the Cold War was on the brink of meltdown, with both NATO and the Warsaw Pact deploying medium-range missiles capable of destroying each other’s cities within minutes. ‘Special measures’ were clearly in order, and in that desperate Year Zero of Chernobyl Gorbachev unveiled a roadmap to nuclear abolition by the year 2000, a programme he nearly persuaded President Ronald Reagan to endorse that October at the Reykjavik Summit. By the end of 1987, the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty eliminated the entire class of those insanely destabilizing medium-range missiles. To go further, however, Gorbachev realized the USSR had to renounce its military buffer zone in Eastern Europe, considered essential since the loss of over 20 million of its citizens in World War II. In 1988, announcing the withdrawal of half a million Soviet troops, Gorbachev told a stunned General Assembly “it is evident that force or the threat of force neither can nor should be instruments of foreign policy”: “The very idea of the nature and criteria of progress is changing. To assume that the problems tormenting humankind can be solved by the means and methods that were used or that seemed to be suitable in the past is naïve.” “And now,” he concluded, “for the most important thing of all, without which no other issue of the forthcoming age can be solved, that is, disarmament,” the reversal of nothing less than what he called, I think perfectly, “the militarization of thought.”

A year earlier, in a scene now impossible to picture, Gorbachev addressed guests and staff at the US State Department in Washington. “Two world wars,” he said simply, but with rising emotion, “an exhausting cold war, plus ‘small’ wars – all destroying millions of lives. Is this not too high a price to pay for adventurism, arrogance, contempt for the interests and rights of others? Humanity has been forced to put up with this for too long! We can no longer allow it!” What he craved, instead, was a new way for the world to start living, starting with the ‘un-bloc-ing’ of Europe: the replacement of both NATO and the Warsaw Pact by the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (the CSCE, now the OSCE), established in 1975 to help thaw the Cold War but representing more fundamentally a potential pan-European, radically demilitarized, completely denuclearized system of mutual, human security. In the CSCE’s Charter of Paris for a New Europe (November 1990), leaders declared the Continent was “liberating itself from the legacy of the past”: a legacy dominated since at least the Concert of Europe at the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 by armed camps and a ‘balance’ of terror.

How progressively peaceful a place Europe might have become by, say, 2018, is now hard, and heartbreaking, to imagine. With the rapid collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, NATO faced a basic test: would it honour its pledge to Gorbachev to expand “not an inch eastward,” resist the temptation to behave like the domineering victors of a hot war? Pretty soon it was clear: the ‘foul winds’ would rise again; there would be no ‘peace dividend,’ no chance Washington would keep its word to, NATO its distance from, Moscow. There were debates: in June 1997, for example, President Bill Clinton received – and ignored – an Open Letter from over 40 luminaries of the bipartisan national security establishment, convinced “the current U.S.-led effort to expand NATO…is a policy error of historic proportions”. In Russia, they noted (which “does not now pose a threat”) NATO expansion is “opposed across the entire political spectrum” and will only “strengthen the non-democratic opposition” and “bring the Russians to question the entire post-Cold War settlement.”

Outside Europe, other tests were failed too. As the P-5 continued to make a mockery of the NPT, the ‘nuclear club’ grew by half, from 6 to 9. In the name of non-proliferation, nuclear superpower America invaded a country without weapons of mass destruction, Iraq. (NATO later bombed and destroyed a country that had renounced weapons of mass destruction, Libya.) The Iraq War – just part of the reactionary US reaction to 9/11 – triggered region-wide conflict, raging across borders themselves unstably ‘rooted’ in the imperial carve-ups of our old friend, World War One. And all along, a relentless ‘revolution in military affairs’ ushered in an age of increasingly ‘remote warfare,’ armed drones and soon, quite probably, the weaponization of genetics and nanotechnology and – I kid you not – massed ranks of ‘killer robots’.

Although ‘we’ have, alas, managed to get horribly lost again, the search for a way out has not stopped. Since 1991, a string of flawed, partially-implemented measures have been agreed, and made some difference: a Chemical Weapons Convention, the Ottawa Landmines Convention, a Cluster Munitions Convention, an Arms Trade Treaty. In the nuclear field, the remarkable ‘Humanitarian Initiative’ of recent years led (in the blink of a diplomatic eye) to the adoption of the Nuclear Weapons Prohibition Treaty by 122 states at the General Assembly last July. The Treaty establishes, in the words of Ray Acheson, the young Canadian woman prominent in the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), a “progressive, sound, legally-binding prohibition of these genocidal, suicidal weapons of mass destruction”. It also honours the broader anti-War heritage of “succeeding generations” of peace activists and progressive politicians, identifying itself as a contribution to “achieving effective progress towards general and complete disarmament”. By virtue of its very strength, the Treaty has been snubbed and scorned by the P-5, the Nuclear Nine, nuclear-armed NATO, and a handful of other wealthy, militarized states who believe their ‘national security’ depends upon and justifies the threatened annihilation of millions of ‘others’. Although the ‘Ban Treaty’ can’t in itself actually Ban the Bomb, it can, I believe will, establish a powerful, stigmatizing norm, a Great Refusal to accept the reign of terror the Bomb imposes on us all.

This was also the hope of the Nobel Peace committee, which last year awarded its Prize to ICAN, a coalition of nearly 500 peace groups in over 100 countries represented at the Award Ceremony on December 10 by its Executive Director, 35-year-old Beatrice Fihn from Sweden, and Setsuko Thurlow, an 85-year-old survivor of the Hiroshima attack and a Canadian citizen since the 1950s. From its humble beginnings, just 11 years ago, ICAN has been inspired and led by women – of every region, race and class, but with especial authority by female hibakusha (survivors of the Bombings) and indigenous women from areas ravaged by nuclear weapons testing and production.

So I want to leave the last word to Setsuko Thurlow: the last five minutes of her speech. Many members of the audience, you’ll note, are looking ashen, shaken: she’s just recounted her Hiroshima experience. Click on the image to be taken to the video.




Sean Howard is adjunct professor of political science at Cape Breton University and Campaign Coordinator for Peace Quest Cape Breton.

Sean also recently published a piece entitled “Trump’s Over-the-Top National Security Team” in the Cape Breton Spectator on April 4th.

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