What is important about the proposed Global Action to Prevent War is the attempt to bring together anti-war groups and disarmament groups and to build a global coalition of grass roots activists. The threefold commitment-to strengthening the rule of law, enhancing international institutions, and replacing national capabilities for unilateral military intervention with multilateral capabilities for peace enforcement-is also welcome. The program contains many valuable proposals: creating regional readiness brigades, the implementation of the 1998 Treaty to establish an International Criminal Court, and the idea of standing contingents of civilian police, among others.
But what I miss is politics. Why does this eminently rational program for the elimination of war seem, like so many disarmament and peace projects of the past, to be unrealistically utopian? Why, if indeed we face no “near-term risk of major war” is President Clinton asking for an additional $100 billion to augment his capacity for air strikes? If the world does possess, as the authors suggest, “new powerful tools to help prevent war,” why were they not used to prevent the wars in Bosnia, Somalia, Congo, to name just a few? Was it ignorance, was it the absence of a well-worked out program such as is proposed, or was it politics?
Perhaps the most telling passage is the author’s admission that their program “does not address the needs and conflicts that may motivate organized violence. It uses the resources of the international community to prevent the violent expression of conflict-which obstructs efforts to get at the roots of conflict.” In other words, there seems to be an underlying assumption that arms create violent conflict rather than the other way round, that through a series of technical solutions that aim to control military capabilities and to provide for the peaceful expression of conflicts, war can be prevented. This was the assumption behind many well meaning disarmament and arms-control proposals during the Cold War period. In the end, it was the collapse of communism, not arms control, that led to the end of the Cold War. Of course, the technical arms control proposals were useful when the Cold War was coming to an end but it was the changed political climate that was crucial.
Most contemporary wars are about identity politics-that is to say, the exclusive claim to power on the basis of identity, be it ethnic, religious, or linguistic. This type of conflict cannot be channeled into peaceful directions. The goals of the conflict are to “sow fear and hatred,” to eliminate physically opponents of a different identity. These goals can only be pursued through violence-genocide, ethnic cleansing, and so on. Moreover, since the parties to the conflict depend on outside support or on loot and pillage of civilians, there tend to be deeply entrenched political and economic interests in a continuation of violence. The most that can be achieved through negotiation is freezing of the conflict, and even that is possible only in certain circumstances-for example, military stalemate. It might also be possible to freeze conflicts through peace enforcement, especially if criminal behavior is outlawed internationally. It is because the parties to the conflict can only achieve their goals through violence that conflicts of this type-Cyprus, Palestine, Bosnia, Ireland-last for such a long time. Only political change, the abandonment of identity politics, the construction of a democratic and inclusive political constituency-a long slow process that has to be undertaken by civil society, interestingly not mentioned in the program-can actually prevent further outbreaks of violent conflict.
No doubt there are tools that fuel and exacerbate such conflicts-the electronic media, for example, which oddly are also not mentioned, or surplus arms left over from the Cold War. But attempts to control their supply do not prevent the conflict. The Hutu extremists used machetes to kill Tutsis. In other wars, all kinds of mechanisms exist-diaspora networks, the black market, surplus stockpiles-which are very difficult to control.
The program emphasizes the importance of freezing or reducing military budgets and armaments. Yet it is precisely those regions where the post Cold War cuts were greatest and where international institutions did, indeed, link loans to cuts in military budgets (as commended by the authors) that violence has been greatest-namely Africa and Eastern Europe. The effect of dramatic cuts in budgets, military production and arms trade was the privatization of military capabilities. Redundant soldiers found employment in newly created paramilitary groups. Surplus arms were sold on the black market. Unemployed defense workers or scientists turned to criminal activities to make a living. Governments hired private security companies like Executive Outcomes to maintain order. Of course, things would have been better if cuts in military budgets and arms trade had been accompanied by destruction of stockpiles, industrial conversion programs, and job creating schemes for demobilized soldiers, proposals that were totally at odds with the dominant neoliberal approaches imposed on these regions. But as long as the causes of violence were not addressed, those redundant military capabilities were bound to find their way into the hands of warring parties.
What is needed, above all, is a political project based on inclusion, democracy, and the international rule of law. Such a project can supplant the exclusivist political thinking that leads to war; it does not offer technical solutions but changes the way people perceive the world. This is just as important in the societies that are considered peaceful, such as the United States or Europe, as in the regions currently engulfed by war. As long as air strikes are popular and divert attention from domestic problems, as long as American lives are valued more highly than Iraqi or Sudanese lives, there can never be a serious program to prevent war. As long as people are prepared to die for an exclusive identity and not for humanity, wars will continue. This is not to say that proposals of the kind advanced by Forsberg, Dean, and Mendlovitz should not be put forward; on the contrary, taken individually, they can contribute to changing political approaches. But the task of grassroots activists is not to educate (or miseducate) the public about technical approaches; the task is to change global consciousness, to arrive at the point optimistically announced by Immanuel Kant two hundred years ago: when “a right violated in one part of the world is felt everywhere.”