Issue No. 13, February - March 1997
The Abolition of War:
The Politics of Realistic Utopianism
by Bruce Kent
Dreaming dreams and sharing visions is an important part of
social progress. If the mountain top is not occasionally visible,
the uphill slog gets rather discouraging.
From time to time people distinguished in the field of arms
control and disarmament remind us that the ultimate objective of
all such work ought to be the abolition of war. President
Eisenhower in 1956 looked forward to the day when antagonists would
realise that, because of the unwinnable nature of modern war, the
only place to settle disputes would be at the conference table.
After his 1996 Nobel award, Professor Joseph Rotblat once more
pointed to abolition as the ultimate goal. Because of the available
means of mass destruction we have the choice once put in the
Russell-Einstein manifesto: survival or extinction. Positively, it
said: "To abolish war we need to create a new mind-set. We have to
convey to the peoples of the world the message that the
safeguarding of our common property - humankind - calls for
developing in each of us a new loyalty, a loyalty to mankind." This
is today realistic utopianism.
That there has been progress in the development of a sense of
global citizenship is clear. Organisationally it is expressed by
movements like Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and the World
Development Movement. People are concerned about rainforests far
away, about the possible extinction of whole species of creation,
and about the economic exploitation of the underdeveloped world.
Nuclear tests in the Pacific aroused enormous indignation amongst
people thousands of miles away.
Negatively we also move towards becoming an economic global
village in which international corporations and unknown financiers
make more significant decisions than do most national governments.
Unhappily the ironing out of human variety goes on constantly.
International television is the great leveller of culture - and
most of the levelling is in a downwards direction.
Ideas about security are also becoming more global. Sir Michael
Quinlan and other proponents of peace through nuclear deterrence
are now clearly on the international defensive. The Vatican, for
instance, has at last declared that "nuclear deterrence prevents
genuine nuclear disarmament...it is a fundamental obstacle to
achieving a new age of global security." The sacred cow of British
politics, the "independent" British deterrent, is starting to look
both expensive and useless, though no mainstream politician yet
dares to say so. Changed thinking is clearly on the way when a
scientist of the stature of Sir Michael Atiyah, President of the
Royal Society, can say:
"I believe history will show that the insistence on a UK nuclear
capability was fundamentally misguided, a total waste of resources
and a significant factor in our relative economic decline over the
past fifty years."
However, it is a long leap from the challenge to a particular
weapons system to the dream that one day we might abolish war. Or
Realising the dream: intellectual and campaigning
One of the pleasures of reading the late Barbara Ward, economist
and peacemaker, is that her utopianism always had very
down-to-earth roots. She frequently drew a comparison between
national and global security:
"All the procedures proposed for disarmament, the elimination of
private control over arms, the subsidisation of police forces,
courts of law, mediation, arbitration, and all other methods of
settling disputes peacefully are in fact practised every day within
It is of course easier to understand and accept what she means
from the perspective of peaceful Sussex rather than from of
civil-war-torn El Salvador. Despite her optimism, most of the wars
of today are within rather than between different societies. Her
message is nevertheless a strong one. War will not be abolished by
dreaming about its abolition, but by looking at its causes and
building counter-forces and effective institutions.
In this task onion-peeling begins. Where to start? It is easy
enough to point to the arms trade and to congratulate ourselves
that some start has been made with a UN Register. But behind the
arms trade lies the pressure of an economic system of profit and
jobs. And behind that system there is a philosophy which seems to
make no one responsible for anything. The Scott Report,
investigating the sale of British arms to Iraq, is full of examples
of people who accept no personal responsibility for their actions.
As Sir Richard Ellis, one-time head of the Defence Sales
Organisation, once said:
"The Government decides the markets: I help to supply them. I
lose no sleep whatever on the moral issue: the morality lies with
There are many such difficult pieces, both large and small,
which make up the jig-saw of war. They range from distorted
religion and extreme nationalism through to economic injustice and
scientific amorality. They include the cult of military glory and
the urge to conform to the respectable normality of the day.
In domestic society in some parts of the world, including our
own, we have indeed built up the institutions of order ranging from
police forces to courts of law. In Britain, at least, the ownership
of guns for personal self-defence is highly unusual. At world level
there are many gaps. We do not yet have a permanent criminal court
and, despite the clear intention of the UN Charter, security is
still seen to be a matter for individual States rather than for the
collective community. The centrepiece of international thinking
remains the sovereign State rather than the global citizen. In
financial terms we spend at least one hundred times more on war and
its supporting institutions than we do on all the global agencies
and structures of the United Nations.
So is the abolition of war then an impossible ideal, granted the
obstacles in the way? Perhaps we should confine ourselves to trying
to limit war's occurrence and ameliorate its effects. I hope not.
Every step in the direction of social progress in Britain, from the
abolition of the slave trade to the provision of universal old age
pensions, has been looked on in the past by the sensible people of
the day as being quite unrealistic. Remedial work is entirely
desirable. If Lady Diana, the international landmines campaign, and
the Canadian Government can achieve a total ban, so much the
better. But we do not have to stop there.
In the November 1996 issue of Disarmament Diplomacy, Ian
Black of The Guardian urged the need for public debate on
nuclear weapon issues: "It is time to move discussion out of the
think-tanks and into the streets..." Some of us have been trying to
do just that for decades. We have faced hostile political opinion,
press indifference and misrepresentation, and public paranoia.
There were even times when we felt that we were facing official
Minds boggled when the Foreign Office told us that accidental
nuclear war was "not a possibility." They boggled again when Colin
Grey, of the US National Security Council, explained that "the
United States must possess the ability to wage nuclear war
rationally." There was little capability of any further boggling
when a distinguished Field-Marshal, explaining the complexities of
Flexible Response, mentioned that the process might indeed involve
blowing up the world, but "in a graduated, controlled way."
Getting ideas out "into the streets" can be a hazardous
operation. It would be foolish not to recognise how powerful are
the established forces which control public opinion. These will
only be overcome if a strong partnership is forged between the
academic world and those whose role it is to popularise information
and to mobilise public opinion. Until public opinion is mobilised,
arcane discussions about what does or does not go at international
meetings in Geneva or New York will have little bearing on the
direction of affairs. When opinion is powerful, as it was for
instance in Britain over the poll-tax, political results can follow
At the moment there is a gulf between current public opinion and
new ideas about security. It suits those in power to keep it so.
The "strong defence" card has always been the trump in any
politician's hand. It is in their interests to keep nineteenth
century notions about security alive and well.
New ideas about security are nevertheless growing. Palme and his
report on Common Security may not be known by name, but there is an
awareness on the part of many that the planet faces multiple
threats: social, economic and environmental. Such awareness was not
present, for instance, in 1939 or 1914. The Deputy-Director of the
French Institute of International Affairs even claimed recently
that "unemployment is the biggest security problem facing the world
Nevertheless, for most people security is still seen in terms of
military power. The nuclear bomb is still thought to enhance the
security of its owner, which makes it quite illogical to deny it to
non-owners. There is a massive public ignorance about the aims and
workings of international institutions.
After visiting several hundred UK secondary schools over past
years, I have to say that in very few of them has the United
Nations Charter even be seen, let alone studied. The Universal
Declaration of Human Rights, despite the General Assembly call for
it to be distributed in schools, is largely an unknown document.
The history of NATO and the Warsaw Pact, let alone the
opportunities presented by the OSCE, remain unknown. It is assumed
as a dogma that the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were
the only way to end the Second World War. UNESCO evidence to the
contrary, the belief that we humans are doomed to war and violence
is widespread. Though there is new environmental and development
concern, the obvious links with global demilitarisation are usually
In short our shelves groan with learned disarmament and arms
control reports. But they do not reach "the street" in a popular,
understandable and motivating form. At the Rio Earth Summit in
1992, world militarism was kept off the agenda despite the appeals
of the Director of UNEP. In Britain, the "Agenda 21" process, which
has taken hold in many local authority areas, repeats the omission.
Organisations with legal charitable status, as the history of the
Real World coalition has shown, avoid the issue of militarism since
they judge it to be too political. Since the days of the Good
Samaritan it has been much easier to raise money for the treatment
of symptoms than it has been for the removal of causes.
It is perhaps an indication of the official tendency to want to
avoid raising contentious issues that the core budget of the
British Council for Education in World Citizenship is now being cut
to zero. Government funding once amounted to £110,000. This
year it has gone down to £55,000; and in two years, if
present plans proceed, the CEWC will get no public core funding at
all. Contrast this with the millions spent on public education
about the dangers of AIDS and of alcoholism.
And as far as the debate about militarism in my country goes,
the party political world does not offer much hope of change.
Fractious squabbles break out over the £60 million cost of a
new Royal Yacht, yet £15 billion for a new European fighter
aircraft designed for Cold War purposes goes through on the
There have been plenty of calls for public education on peace
and disarmament issues. Paragraphs 100-108 of the Final Report of
the 1978 UN Special Session on Disarmament was meant to commit
governments to just such educational programmes. These proposals
have had little effect. The World Disarmament Campaign of the
United Nations, which for a short time produced excellent popular
material, died through lack of funding.
Conclusion: an appeal to academics and activists
The need for a range of non-governmental organisations with
political clout has been frequently recognised. No one ever spoke
more passionately about the role which they could play in the UN
system than the late Erskine Childers who died so tragically last
summer. In his Agenda for Peace, Dr. Boutros Boutros-Ghali
concludes with the claim that if peace is to become a reality
"non-governmental organisations...and the public at large must all
be involved." The public at large cannot be involved unless they
know what is going on.
My modest proposal is that both academics and activists should
now concentrate on raising their sights. What is needed is a
Copernican revolution in popular thinking about war. The abolition
of war itself must now be put firmly on the world's agenda, utopian
though such an idea may now appear to many. All campaigns, debates
and discussions on specific issues or specific weapon systems
should have that perspective in mind. It is not, after all, a new
idea. The preamble to the United Nations Charter claims that the
first priority of the organisation is "to save succeeding
generations from the scourge of war..."
In Britain, most ideas put forward for celebrating the
millennium seem to involve a mixture of bread and circuses. The
abolition of war sounds rather more impressive as an aim than most
so far suggested. If the world's people do not always agree with
each other, and it is unlikely that they ever will, it is not
inconceivable that they could find solutions to conflict that do
not involve mutual slaughter.
Bruce Kent is a former Chair of the British Campaign for
Nuclear Disarmament (CND).
© 1998 The Acronym Institute.
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