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The President’s Corner: Science for Peace as a Foreign Language

by Metta Spencer

If you join a group such as Science for Peace, you have to learn its culture, which is mostly a matter of learning its language. For most of us, as when we acquired our first language, this learning is a simple, stress-free matter of absorbing the usage that we hear around us.

However, some people join who are already proficient in another alien tongue: “Military-speak.” They may undergo culture shock from the contradictions they have to resolve or choose between. Situations of mutual incomprehension arise that are either funny or a source of consternation. As a fluent speaker of Science for Peace, I’ll offer here a short course in our lingo for those who experience the latter more often than the former. This will be more than a glossary of terms, rather an immersion in what for some may be a foreign culture.

In principle, our organization has always been a pluralistic one that welcomes members who hold a diversity of perspectives. In reality, however, we are not more diverse than any other organization that has an identity and culture of its own that it wants to maintain. Hence, there has actually been a consensus about certain fundamental matters-at least until recently when I have sought to make our membership and our board of directors more inclusive. One value of this greater diversity is precisely that the expression of surprising ideas in our meetings requires us to notice and re-appraise our own assumptions, which had been unnecessary when we all took them for granted. Thus at a recent meeting, many of us were surprised by two or three members’ endorsement of NATO’s training exercises in Estonia and by one member’s angry reaction to the term “militarism” on the grounds that it is pejorative.

His objection highlights a latent culture clash that we need to address. I will begin by reaffirming Science for Peace’s commitment to the active promotion of peace. We endorse negotiation, diplomacy, support for institutions of governance, and (when stronger methods seem requited) reliance on waging conflict through such techniques as boycotts, trade sanctions, and other forms of nonviolent civil resistance. If we pay more attention to peacemaking, there will be less peacekeeping to do-and perhaps no occasion for military intervention.

Indeed, Science for Peace regards most military interventions as manifestations of a reviled disposition we call “militarism.” My computer dictionary defines militarism as “the belief or desire of a government or people that a country should maintain a strong military capability and be prepared to use it aggressively to defend or protect national interests.” As the dictionary acknowledges, the term is derogatory. Indeed, militarism is probably Science for Peace’s primary enemy, so it now becomes necessary to clarify our reasons for that opinion.

Military people prefer to use the term ‘security’ to describe their functions, though that begs the question. Does a strong military provide greater security to a population or does it invite warfare? Presumably the answer is mixed. Sometimes having a military force may keep us safer and sometimes not. What is at issue here is the ratio between the two effects, though nobody can give a precise answer. It has been answered with simplistic slogans since ancient times, when, for example, the Romans advised each other that ‘If you want peace, prepare for war’.

That slogan can be rejected with ease. Alan Newcombe, a Canadian peace researcher, once studied the outcome of situations where nations built up their military force. He found that they were far more likely to get into a war than in comparable situations where countries did not “prepare for war.” The correct answer is: If you want peace, prepare for peace. War preparations usually make you less secure, not more so.

Why should that be the case? Science for Peace members typically explain it in terms of the reciprocal perceptions of threat and reassurance. If our nation, viewing a potential adversary, feels insecure, we may build up our military as a purely defensive measure. We do not want to start a war but only to be able to win one, should it occur against our wishes. But our adversary feels increasingly insecure as he watches us prepare and responds in kind. Each side believes it is only preparing to defend itself, but it sees the other side as intending aggression. An arms race ensues that can be triggered by an unexpected event such as the assassination of a visiting archduke. And as soon as the first blood is shed, it is virtually impossible to stop the momentum of retaliatory violence.

If, as this suggests, preparation for warfare makes war more likely, what should a peace organization propose instead? Mikhail Gorbachev called it “common security.” This is the notion that we cannot augment our own security by making our neighbors or adversaries insecure. We have to reassure them of our benign intentions, even when we dislike them and mistrust their attitudes toward us. Build mutual trust and confidence, not mutual insecurity.

Does this always work? No. Genghis Khan slaughtered forty million people who bore him no ill will and you can think of other examples. On the other hand, no group managed to stop his hordes by military means either. (The Mongols did not conquer Europe but withdrew in a rush because of bad weather. Tree rings from that period show a series of rainy years, which reduced pastureland for their horses and decreased their mobility, hampering the military effectiveness of the Mongol cavalry.)

Although my Science for Peace friends generally believe that military preparedness makes us less secure, rather than more, that does not mean that many of us consider ourselves pacifists. I can adduce no numbers as proof, but I think a large majority of us do want our cities to have police forces and do favor the protection of vulnerable people elsewhere, even if this requires resort to some violence. How do we resolve the contradiction between this and the principle of common security? The answer lies in a principle that was promoted during the Cold War called ‘non-provocative defence’.

If you worry that someone is about to invade your home, you lock the doors. A door cannot be an aggressive weapon, so your invader has no reason to fear you if he backs off. Then, if he tries to climb in the window, you warn him that you have a weapon and will use it if he comes in. Such a threat may lead to your use of violence, but only for strictly defensive purposes, which is (in my opinion) justifiable and need not frighten an adversary if he stays away. That preserves common security.

Likewise, the police in your town are supposed to be not waging a war against criminals but rather trying to defend non-criminals. They may rarely have to shoot to stop someone in an act of violence, but they are not supposed to pursue anyone through the streets if they can use peaceable means. Nothing makes a community less secure than when people must fear their own police instead of being able to call on them for protection.

During the Cold War, some Pugwashites applied the same notion to inter-state conflicts. They advised hostile countries to refrain from purchasing any military equipment that could be used to “project power” far from home. Instead, they proposed the use of stationary or short-range weapons around their homelands, which would prove that each nation could not attack its adversary because it lacked any means to do so, whereas if the adversary were to attack, it could defend itself well. (Similarly, the Swiss had warned Hitler that if he sent troops into Switzerland they would blow up their own Alpine tunnels and make it impossible for his invasion to proceed.) But if you possess long-range bombers, ICBMs, submarines, aircraft carriers, and nuclear bombs, you look menacing to others, so don’t buy such things. Calm your adversary; don’t provoke him.

When Lester B. Pearson invented UN peacekeeping, it was a protective operation. The British, French, and Israelis had taken aggressive action against the Egyptians in Suez but had halted when other nations refused to support them. The two sides mistrusted each other, so the peacekeepers went in to protect each side against the other, not to help one side win a war. That became the model for most later peacekeeping operations in which the UN sent troops from various countries at the request of both sides in order to guarantee the ceasefire. Sometimes, unfortunately, the two sides would remain in a frozen conflict for decades (as in Cyprus), but at any rate they would not be fighting. If there is any benefit to a war at all, it is from bringing closure to a conflict. Sometimes one side wins while the other loses decisively and has to live with that reality. Frozen conflicts, on the other hand, may last indefinitely, and peacekeeping operations sometimes do freeze instead of end them.

There are other situations in which the UN’s use of violence is authorized to ‘enforce’ peace on a country that is otherwise noncompliant. The Korean War was the first such case, but lately there have been more. Indeed, over the past decade or so, most operations by the United Nations have been interventions in which the peacekeepers are, in effect, fighting a war on behalf of the side that is deemed the victim of aggression. And instead of wars between states, most wars now are intra-state conflicts between various ethnic populations who live side-by-side in the same area.

In these situations an onlooking peace worker begins to lose his bearings. It is not always certain who the ‘good guys’ are. We are asked to do more than protect; we are asked to help impose a just and democratic regime to alleviate the suffering of oppressed people. This is the situation in the wars that have followed the ‘Arab Spring’. The whole principle of defence or protection has been abandoned. Likewise, in Afghanistan Canada’s troops were sent on a war-fighting mission against the Taliban and whatever remained of Al Qaeda.

Lately in The Globe and Mail there have been articles warning Canadians not to celebrate the decision of the Trudeau government to find a new conflict where Canadian troops can offer their services as peacekeepers. There is no more real peacekeeping, journalist Steven Chase warns, but only war-fighting. He writes: “Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan says what Canada will ask its soldiers to do in Africa can no longer be called peacekeeping because the term doesn’t reflect modern demands of stabilizing a conflict zone — something experts say could run the gamut from training other countries’ troops to counterterrorism.”

In ‘classical peacekeeping operations’, two states had consented to stop fighting and merely needed aid in fulfilling that promise. If Canada enters one of the conflicts in Africa, we will engage in a bloody, morally questionable, and ultimately thankless operation.

Worse yet, when we send troops to Latvia as part of NATO, we will be welcomed by the Latvians but perceived by Russians as demonstrating our aggressive intent. We will no longer be guided by an aspiration for common (or mutual) security, and we will abandon the principle of non-provocative defence. We will be war-fighters-a role that militarists accept but Science for Peace members abhor.

But is it truly impossible to revive the original form of peacekeeping? I think not. Indeed, if we insisted on adhering strictly to protective operations instead of ever punishing the ‘bad guys’ in a war, we could send troops to do honorable peacekeeping service.

This notion has not been taken seriously lately, as it should be. In Libya, for example, when Gaddafi promised to go door-to-door in Benghazi, “killing the rebels like rats,” he meant it — and the international community had good reason to intervene and protect the rebels. We could have interposed peacekeepers, warned both sides to stop fighting each other, and enforced that ceasefire so that peace negotiations could begin. Instead, this notion was brushed off as impractical and Gadhafi’s troops were bombed. Instead of establishing a democratic state, we started a war that is continuing even now.

Syria is another case in point. After the first brief attempts were made at nonviolent civil resistance, military support came from every direction for the various belligerent groups. After that, no one was being protected or defended, but each side was being ‘fought for’. These fighters have created the 4.8 million Syrian refugees in neighboring countries, 6.6 million internally displaced, and more than 13.5 million people needing assistance inside Syria. Even while we were being asked to come and fight on behalf of one group or another, we could watch on the same TV newscasts Syrians fleeing and drowning in the Mediterranean.

If, on the other hand, the UN had set up safe zones inside Syria and had protected their perimeters with peacekeepers, most of these wretched civilians would at least be safe today. Everyone entering the protected zone would have to give up his weapon and count on the peacekeepers to protect them-but not to fight their enemies on their behalf. Such an approach would have required some strong negotiating in the United Nations, since it would violate the sovereignty of Syria; nothing in the Charter now authorizes such an action, so it needs to be changed.

In short, my impression is that Science for Peace members (and maybe even Canadians in general) encourage active peace promotion, nonviolent civil resistance, and even non-provocative defence-but not war-fighting operations. We also believe that most military expenditures should be diverted to paying for human development goals and the rapid changes necessary to prevent climate catastrophe.

Will such a policy eliminate all the violent situations in which military intervention is now invoked? No. Will it enable the right side to win in every struggle? Probably not. (Assad, for example, is a terrible ruler, but getting rid of him would probably result in even worse outcomes.)

Most Science for Peace members would probably support the creation of a rapid reaction peace force under the UN command, which could be sent to crisis zones within a matter of hours, — though before that is set up, we need to clarify the rules of engagement so as to mandate only protective actions, not war-fighting operations. At present, such a clarification seems unlikely.

This would also leave unresolved some hard questions about ‘peace enforcement’. For example, if, as we fervently hope, a binding treaty is adopted to outlaw all nuclear weapons, it will be necessary to create not only intrusive verification procedures but also reliable enforcement mechanisms. Such a change creates new risks and will surely be resisted, but it is one of the challenges we face in moving toward a world where conflicts are numerous but wars are absent.

There has always been some variability of opinion within Science for Peace about the issues I have discussed here, and this statement may evoke even more controversy. If I have misrepresented the views of our members, I apologize and will listen carefully to the feedback. However, the executive committee has discussed some of these issues and found ourselves united in opposition to militarism and in support of common security. That is the language of Science for Peace, and we, who speak it fluently, hope that it will become humankind’s native tongue.

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