America’s Motto Can’t Be “America First.” It Must Be “People First.”

Protest sign: "Put People First"

By Robert Anschuetz, February 26, 2018

As I watched President Trump’s first State of the Union address at the end of January, I found myself strangely depressed by what I perceived to be the darkness of its tone and point of view. That impression, which I later learned was shared by many, gave rise in my own case to an insight into the President’s mindset that I’ve since come to regard as a reliable warrant for radical political change. I recognized that the President’s views—made extreme by an overlay of repressive nativism and nationalism—are deeply rooted in the loveless duality of “us against them.” They reflect the historically-based American traits of individualism, egoism, shunning of community, distrust of others, and a penchant to punish those who are different. Those traits may once have been useful in building the American nation. Today, however, they stand directly opposite to the humane qualities of empathy, compassion and community needed to create a better world.

I saw another manifestation of the “Trumpean” mindset a little more than a week later in Vice-President Pence’s appearance at the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Pyongyang. While most of the world reveled in the possibility signaled there of a peaceful resolution of tensions between the two Koreas, Pence and his wife, in an epiphantic scene, sat steadfast in sullen silence as others rose to cheer North and South Korean athletes who paraded by in joyful unity.

Just a few days earlier, Pence had announced in lugubrious tones that the U.S. would “soon unveil the toughest and most aggressive round of economic sanctions on North Korea ever. And we will continue to isolate North Korea until it abandons its nuclear and ballistic missile program once and for all.” As announced, this action seems intended to complete the strangling of the North Korean economy, perhaps at the cost of civilian hunger and death. It leaves no hint of any willingness, or even statesmanlike capacity, to understand the North Korean missile program from the adversary’s point of view and, on that basis, to negotiate a settlement of the attendant issues that meets both sides’ vital interests. The American position is elegantly simple: we’re stronger than you are, so we can dictate terms and you have to accept them.  

I hope to build a case in this paper for the notion that America can in fact pursue a foreign policy that is based on something better than military might and domination. The argument will be based on the following two broad assumptions:

  • The U.S. should begin to shift its foreign policy away from waging war or providing military aid to benefit the regional ambitions of countries whose principal virtue is that they serve America’s geopolitical interests. Instead, its foreign policy should be aimed primarily at helping all undeveloped countries gain access to life essentials such as clean water, food, health care, and education. Such a shift would draw goodwill from nations around the world, and also free billions of dollars from the U.S. defense budget. Those monies could in turn be used to give all Americans access to the education, health care, infrastructure, and job opportunities they need to enjoy a standard of living that reflects the world’s most productive economy.
  • In view of the misery war continues to inflict upon millions of innocent people, and the growing danger that a continued spread of nuclear weapons can lead to the extinction of life on earth, starts should be made as soon as possible by all major nations toward nuclear disarmament, conventional arms reduction, and, in the case of the U.S., gradual closure of military bases around the world. These efforts would constitute steps toward the ultimate goal of a legally binding and enforceable international agreement to permanently end all war.

Such an historic undertaking would also be broadly transformational. In terms of international relations, it could drive, and make irreversible, a transition in the behavior of the world’s most powerful nations from the narrow pursuit of economic expansion and global security, to more systematic efforts to help meet the basic needs of all of the world’s people. A similar transition to concern for the Other could be expected in interactions between civic institutions—particularly police departments– and the communities they serve; in corporate involvement with the environment and surrounding community; and in people-to-people relations. The latter would be marked by a shift from the transactional attitude so prevalent in today’s American society to a primary regard for the other person’s well-being.

Our Vision Must Not Be Limited by the “System” of Which We’re a Part

As shown by the President’s election, many Americans undoubtedly still exhibit–even if unconsciously–traits like Individualism and Distrust of the Other, with which I’ve associated both the President and Vice-President. Reflecting their individualism, Americans who have achieved unusual wealth often suggest that their country is “great” for the freedom it has afforded them to gain their success not through the favoritism of people in high places, but from objective judgments of the free market that reflect the value of their own study, skills, hard work, entrepreneurship, talents, or investment. Many other Americans amply display Distrust of the Other in their penchant for suspicion—even demonization–of foreign nations and leaders, and uncritical support for everything American.  

As individuals, many of the upper class of bankers, corporate managers, military planners, members of Congress, technical experts, and others who give direction to the nation-state also exhibit the traits I’ve associated with President Trump. In their function as leaders, however, they are relentlessly pressured by the interlocked corporate/financial/military//technology/ government system in which they operate to oversee its expansion around the world. In that capacity, these captains of the American Ship of State often leave losers in their wake, since the system that drives them is essentially on auto-pilot and heedless of its impact. The pursuit of profitable new markets overseas can, for example, result both in the export of good American jobs and the exploitation of low-wage workers abroad. Even greater problems can ensue from a perceived need to militarily secure the new markets. That enterprise not only risks conflict with regional competitors or insurgent groups in small countries, but also co-opts government discretionary funds that could otherwise be used for programs designed to help meet the real needs of people.

On its face, it would seem that only leaders blinded by the personal power derived from such a system could fail to challenge its potential for harm and the risk of blow-back that could possibly lead to a nuclear exchange. Instead, they remain part of a ruling establishment that preaches commitment to a new world order, while, for example, the people of Yemen wonder how such a vision can possibly be squared with American arms sales to Saudi Arabia that have brought them nothing but carnage and widespread famine. For their part, Palestinians must wonder how America’s one-sided partnership with Israel exhibits any sense of fairness or justice toward their own struggle for an independent state on land to which they surely have equal claim. And, Iranians must wonder what they have done to deserve the calumny America regularly visits upon them for actions in the Middle East that, at worst, only replicate at a regional level the influence the U.S. seeks throughout the world.

Today, the most dangerous and foolish consequence of America’s foreign policy is its conflict with North Korea. Any fair-minded American, even one with fulsome devotion to the flag, must consider our president both unseemly and irrational for risking nuclear war with that country by hurling school-yard insults at its leader, gratuitously disparaging the nation he leads, threatening to totally destroy his homeland, and balking at any initiatives that might offer a basis for resolving the conflict peacefully. As has been widely reported, one such initiative already rejected by the U.S. is in fact endorsed by Kim Jong-un and appears to show great promise. It is the joint Chinese/Russian proposal that, in exchange for a cut-back of U.S./South Korea military exercises, North Korea would halt further testing in its nuclear missile program.

It seems to me that, to anyone capable of insight and a smidgeon of empathy, it must be obvious that Kim Jong-un is no more likely to start a war with South Korea, or launch a first-strike nuclear-tipped missile at Japan, Guam, Hawaii or even the American mainland, than he is to flee his own country and sink the Kim dynasty of which he is heir. He obviously fears a U.S. attack to “decapitate” his regime, and, with nuclear arms now at his disposal, has boasted of his willingness to use them against the United States. In making that boast, Kim is no doubt motivated in part by a delusory new sense of empowerment. But, given the history of U.S. actions against his country and many others, it is likely that his missiles and threats to use them are intended primarily as a deterrent to possible U.S. aggression. In that case, there seems a real chance that Kim would respond constructively to a U.S. diplomatic proposal which guarantees by enforceable provisions that America will never initiate war against his country. In exchange, he might well agree to both a halt in North Korea’s testing of nuclear weapons and, over an extended period, a complete liquidation of its nuclear arsenal.    

A Decline in War Spending Is a First Step Toward Peace and the End of War

A major potential benefit of a peace-based rather than war-based foreign policy is suggested by the results of a global survey conducted by WIN/Gallup International and released in 2014. In a poll of residents in 68 countries, 24 percent of them ranked the U.S. as the greatest threat to world peace. The U.S. ranking was followed by Pakistan at 8 percent, China at 6 percent, and four countries (Afghanistan, Iran, Israel, and North Korea) at 5 percent. 

Given this broadly-based fear of U.S. aggression, it seems a promising possibility that a demonstrated U.S. commitment to gradual demilitarization could trigger a reverse arms race by nations throughout the world. This is all the more likely, because no other countries (and that includes Russia and China!) are aggressively seeking to maintain a global empire, and therefore probably maintain a military establishment for reasons of defense, regional influence, and/or national pride. In the absence of an American threat, such nations might happily divert a significant portion of the funds they now spend on military preparedness to investments for economic growth and to meet other needs of their population. At the same time, they could also seek to negotiate legally-binding bilateral or multilateral agreements for gradual disarmament.

If such a course were pursued, it is highly probable that, among the world’s nuclear states, including the U.S., nuclear weapons–the most dangerous, costly, and least likely to be used of all weapons—would be the first to go. That result would not only finally put an end to a now seven-decades-old nuclear nightmare, but encourage consideration of further benefits that can be obtained by the elimination of all weapons of war.

In ranking the U.S. as by far the greatest danger to world peace, the global community seems to be making it plain that it wants nothing to do with America’s current role as the world’s policeman. What people around the world want is undoubtedly what most Americans want: to live in peace, to have opportunities to develop and apply their creative talents, and to enjoy a decent standard of living for themselves and their family. In light of the world’s history and an American cultural ethos that encourages aggressiveness and winning, it is perhaps a meaningful paradox that our nation can best ensure its own security by diverting its defense dollars from policing the world to helping our fellow humans live a better life. With Donald Trump as President, that principle is now clearer and of greater importance than ever. Though no-one in the mainstream press has said so, or perhaps even noticed, America’s best bet for the future is to turn its present course around by 180 degrees. It needs to reverse its policies on international relations, immigration, and all domestic matters to put the needs of people first. Its driving motto cannot be “America First.” It must be “People First.”

We Can Gain More Strength through Peace Than Peace through Strength

According to a reliable online information source, the U.S. accounted for 37 percent, or about $592 billion, of the more than $1.6 trillion in world military spending in 2015. That outlay amounts to roughly the size of the next seven largest military budgets combined. (On September 11, 2017, a new defense spending authorization bill introduced in the U.S. Senate called for a budget of $692 billion in fiscal year 2018. And in February 2018, Congress passed a two-year $4.4 trillion budget deal that boosts spending for both military and domestic programs by an additional $300 billion.) Moreover, it has been estimated that the $592 billion appropriated for defense spending in 2015 actually amounted to about $1 trillion, when it included funding not only for the Pentagon but for Homeland Security and other related government departments and agencies. In addition, the U.S. has spent approximately $2 trillion in direct costs for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. That figure too, however, is grossly misleading. It rises to an estimated $6 trillion when indirect expenditures are added–such as the future care of veterans and lost domestic investment opportunities.

If even a small portion of those dollars was made available instead to fund projects that help meet the basic needs of people in undeveloped countries—such as food, clean water, medicine, agriculture, sustainable energy, and education—it would also serve the interests of America in two important ways. It would enhance the American image, both in the countries helped and around the world. And, by providing young males a basis of hope for the future, it would reduce the allure of political extremism and help ease the threats to our own country posed by international terrorism.

Considering the potential benefits of such outreach, I found it disappointing, though not surprising, that, following the President’s State of the Union address, not a single mainstream TV commentator pointed out at least one of the several elephants that accompanied him on the rostrum as he spoke. On foreign policy, for instance, the President seemed to overlook his own country’s history when he impugned and proposed shunning a country that in some way didn’t show America “respect”–apparently for our greatness as King of the Jungle. Perhaps the dissonance of that point of view was not even noticed by the pundits hanging on every word. What is certain, however, is that none of them was sufficiently aroused by it to comment on its obvious disconnect from America’s own proud sense of independence, rooted in its historical break from autocratic British rule.

In general, I’m continually struck by how inured both the American media, and Americans overall, seem to be to the crassness and reliance on brute force that characterize America’s conduct of foreign policy. Rarely, if ever, is even a shred of compassion or empathy displayed toward putative adversaries, all of whom share with us a common humanity. As a strong dissenter from that mindset, it seems obvious to me that the U.S. should follow a different course. I accept as a given that, in an era when warfare is largely tied to terrorist groups and failed or failing states, America can best strengthen its physical security not by war, but by winning friends throughout the world. If that is in fact the case, shouldn’t we seek those friends by contributing to the well-being of struggling nations, rather than by supporting and arming those whose only virtue is a self-interested compliance with America’s expansionist ambitions?

One thing is certain. A policy of humane outreach could gain America invaluable goodwill at far less cost than would a continuation of current policies. Today, the U.S. spends just $23 billion a year on non-war-related foreign aid. It would cost just $7 billion more–about $30 billion a year–to end starvation and hunger around the world, and $11 billion a year to provide clean water to all populations in the world that don’t now have it. By raising this spending to $100 billion, we could save many lives, greatly reduce suffering, and make ourselves the most beloved nation on earth–perhaps even removing ourselves thereby as a target of terrorist attacks. A significant portion of this more substantial investment aimed primarily at global rescue and well-being could also be used to help meet basic needs of the struggling millions in our own country.

Even greater results could of course be achieved by disarming totally and diverting to peaceful purposes the roughly $1 trillion we now spend annually on preparing for war. It is estimated, for example, that with just half the money now allocated to defense spending–$500 billion–we could provide the world with food and water, green energy, infrastructure, topsoil preservation, environmental protection, schools, medicine, cultural exchange programs, and the study of peace and non-violent conflict resolution. With the other $500 billion, we could meet the real needs of our own people by ending college debt, providing housing for everyone, rebuilding the economy’s physical infrastructure, and funding sustainable green energy and agricultural practices.

“People First” Is a Choice We Have To Make

From its origins more than 300,000 years ago, the human race has faced a myriad of dangers—ranging from predatory animals, hostile environments, and aggressive neighboring tribes to, in modern times, unlimited war, economic calamities, disease, random crime, cultural shifts, nuclear annihilation, terrorism, and environmental calamity. Because human beings are mortal and have limited powers of understanding, endurance, and will, most can never be entirely free of a sense of insecurity. That condition causes them to fear, rather than to greet with confidence, or even creative excitement, new circumstances or influences that may budge them from an accustomed comfort zone.

Today, however, in a broadly connected world where the mores, needs, views, and aspirations of virtually every human society, community, tribe, or faction are increasingly knowable both to the world’s decision-makers and ordinary people, the sense of boundless human diversity is itself giving way to an awareness of the common humanity that underlies it. Given that awareness, leaders of the world’s major nations—influenced in democratic societies by the will of the people they govern—must now make a momentous choice between two radical alternatives. The first is to create a new world characterized by universal wellbeing and peaceful, friendly relations between nations. The second is to continue the historical strategy of independent striving for dominance and security that has so far inflicted devastating warfare, millions of deaths, and a shameful waste of blood and treasure on many nations. The same striving has also left in its wake the special blights of hunger, poverty, despair, and terrorism on small and undeveloped countries, and brought to the entire globe the threats of nuclear and environmental annihilation.  

If the choice between collaboration for the common good, and aggression that disregards the pain of others, were based entirely on reason, we would quickly assess as either demented or wicked the choice of the latter, which also risks nuclear or environmental annihilation. Yet, that is precisely the choice being made today by our country’s leaders, backed, at least implicitly, by the silence of its ordinary citizens. Our leaders make that choice–still today, in our widely interconnected world–because fear or distrust of the Other remains too strong to allow the overturning of an existing system that itself provides two important, though morally flawed, benefits. Under it, the country’s leaders gain prominence and power; and its citizens can stay cozy, for better or worse, within their accustomed emotional and cultural comfort zones.

Given the overarching inclusiveness of the power structure on which American life is based, war seems a predictable product. For convenience, I’ll label that structure the “System.” It consists fundamentally of interlinked centers of corporate, financial, social, cultural, media, Congressional, technological, educational, and military power that operate as one to keep the American nation, and ultimately the world, within the orbit of its own ideological, economic, and security interests. To that end, the power centers are characterized by a prevailing group-think that is reinforced by competitive careerism. Because persons employed by the various centers have to go along both to get along and get ahead, each center remains faithful to the System and leaves its functionaries little capacity to empathize with those outside it or to walk a mile in their moccasins. Each power center within the System may deal with a different aspect of a particular national interest, but the same muzzled mindset is transferred from one to another. In terms of America’s international relations, the predilection of every power center concerned with any aspect of them—including the mass media, which should constitute America’s conscience!–is to demonize adversaries, stand averse to reconciliation with them, and wage war against them to protect American interests.

Despite the monolithic power of the System, however, many Americans who remain outside of it are undoubtedly guided by their own reason to a different point of view from the one the System advances. To them, it must be apparent that, in an era characterized by the challenges of climate change, terrorism, and the spread of nuclear weapons, as well as by the promise of worldwide interconnectedness, universal access to information and knowledge, and increasingly rapid technological advances, America’s security can neither be ensured by, nor justifiably based on, the brandishing of military power and the pursuit of economic dominance and impregnable national security. Our mission now must be to embrace the diverse nations of the world in a global community of spirit by working with other affluent nations to meet the real needs of our own citizens and of all of the world’s people. To embark on that mission, however, we need to first answer the question: How do we best make the shift from the System-based mindset “America First” to the reason-based mindset “People First”?

Ending War Is the First Step Toward a Policy of “People First”

Based on my own long-standing belief that war and the threat of war always result in more bad than good, I participated in a spring, 2017 online study course conducted by the global anti-war activist organization World Beyond War (WBW). In the words of WBW’s director, the anti-war activist, journalist, radio host, and prolific author David Swanson, the organization’s mission is something entirely new: “not a movement to oppose particular wars or new offensive weapons, but a movement to eliminate war in its entirety.” That goal will of course also require a process for verified elimination of all weapons of war, undoubtedly beginning with nuclear weapons, which are the most dangerous. The ultimate objective, however, is a legally binding international agreement that will stipulate means for enforcing a universal and permanent abolition of all war. If that condition could be established as a new cultural norm, it would help ensure both the survival of the planet and the natural right of all of its human inhabitants to pursue their own happiness.  

Swanson makes clear in his 2013 book War No More: the Case for Abolition that achieving the goal of abolition will entail a long and difficult process of “education, organization, and activism, as well as structural changes.” To help activist organizers plan effective actions in these areas, WBW offers an annually updated publication entitled A Global Security System: an Alternative to War, which serves as a blueprint for action relevant to current conditions. 

As Swanson argues in his book, building a worldwide movement to abolish war is made especially challenging by that fact that in America, the nation most critical to that cause, the military-industrial complex helps keep the public in thrall to “a permanent state of war in search of enemies.” It does so through “the skills of propagandists, the corruption of our politics, and the perversion and impoverishment of our education, entertainment and civic-engagement systems.” The same institutional complex, he says, also weakens the resilience of our culture by “making us less safe, draining our economy, stripping away our rights, degrading our environment, distributing our income ever upward, debasing our morality, and bestowing on the wealthiest nation on earth miserably low rankings in life-expectancy, liberty, and the ability to pursue happiness.”

In the context of those hindrances, it would seem that the only realistic hope for an ultimate end to war rests on a radical change in the hearts and minds of a critical mass of Americans. To that end, effective educational outreach by activist groups is essential. Large numbers of ordinary citizens, though long subjected to contrary propaganda, must come to accept as convincing, and then join in disseminating, fact-based arguments that show war to be both a physical and moral atrocity that can and must be ended. If that happens, the politicians empowered to authorize war, but who in most cases make re-election their highest priority, would be forced to take heed and begin to think twice before sending more of the nation’s youth to possible death or degradation.

The WBW campaign to end war will undoubtedly be marked by ups and downs that demand an all-in commitment from its organizers. Its ultimate success, however, would richly reward their perseverance by making life better for most people on the planet. Not only would the abolition of war save the entire human species from continued episodes of mass killing, environmental destruction, widespread suffering, and possible annihilation. For the first time in modern history, it would also open the door to a revolutionary change in international relations, especially with respect to relations between militarily strong countries and weaker nations that have contrasting social systems and cultural values.

As the U.S. government has amply demonstrated in its attitudes and policies toward North Korea and Iran, such nations and its leaders can be easily demonized and then misrepresented as implacable aggressors that must be controlled by crippling economic sanctions and military threats. A similar perspective characterizes American policy for combating international terrorism. Although terrorism continues to spread across the world, and our attacks on it have so far served only to increase its hostility and numerical strength, our strategy for combating it remains the highly ineffectual and unsubtle one of never-ending war. Common sense suggests that a more humane course, based on seeing the world from the other side’s perspective as well as our own, might be a great deal more successful. Reason suggests that ideologically-based terrorism can only be effectively countered by investments in global economic development that make opportunities for self-development and constructive employment more appealing to young men seeking a place in society than fantasies about martyrdom and death.

An enforceable universal agreement to resolve international conflicts peacefully could also give rise to new moral principles governing relations with the Other in every aspect of American society. Such values as respect, empathy, compromise, and support could constitute a “new normal” in our behavior toward others that could help free the country from the moral degradation to which the current course of dominance through force is already leading us. In our national politics, for instance, Congress might begin to rebuff rapacious lobbyists from the fossil-fuel industry who still suppress serious efforts to counter the hazards of global warming and mass shootings. At the social level, we could see a willingness by the One Percent to pay higher taxes needed to fund federal support programs that can help ensure a decent quality of life for everyone in the Ninety-Nine Percent–the ordinary folks who in fact create and maintain the necessary foundations of the One Percent’s wealth. At local levels, we could expect more constructive relations between police and community, and corporations and the environment. And at the personal level, we could hope to see men adopt more caring attitudes toward women.

A more compassionate mindset deriving from the abolition of war could also help make over  our mass consumer culture, which is now the unmistakable reflection of fantasy-based celebrity worship. At present, our culture is steeped in egoism and estrangement from others, psychological insecurity, group conformity, a “winning is everything” attitude, a diminished interest in self-development, and increasingly facile resorts to violence. All of these ills could be assuaged by a new morality that encourages us to understand and respect the needs of other people, to fairly reconcile their needs with our own, and, when necessary, to help support them materially.

If we can succeed in abolishing war, we will demonstrate in the most convincing way possible that human beings can in fact freely choose to be motivated by the Better Angels that–along with the regressive shadows–inform their nature.

War Is Neither Instinctual Nor Inevitable  

Two arguments to justify the waging of war have long been accepted. The first is that human beings are driven by biological instinct to make war. Whether the war-making is aggressive or defensive, it will be resorted to unquestioningly whenever the recognized leaders initiating it believe it to be either advantageous or necessary to the welfare of the community. The second argument is that, whether the decision to wage war is based on human instinct or not, the globally accepted tradition of national sovereignty sets a very low bar for the right of nations to wage war whenever they declare it to be in their vital national interest.

In his book War No More, the Case for Abolition (2013), David Swanson offers two reasons why he believes these arguments are wrong and the resort to war can in fact never be justified. He contends, first, that war-making is not a human instinct, but an idea that gains acceptance in a society when it is backed by recognized leaders as a means to resolve sectarian or international conflicts in particular circumstances within a given cultural context. The corollary to this is that, in other circumstances within the same cultural context, the idea to go to war may well be rejected. Like any other idea, Swanson says, the idea of waging war spreads culturally through every aspect of a nation’s society. But, because making war is an idea, it will last only as long as the people allow it to last.

The second reason Swanson gives for rejecting war is that international disputes can be resolved in various ways without it. In an earlier book, War Is a Lie (2010), he had written: “Any nation that chooses to fight a war wanted to fight a war, and was itself [therefore] impossible for the other nation to talk to…. Examine any war you like, and it turns out that if the aggressors had wanted to state their desires openly, they could have entered into negotiations rather than into battle. Instead, they wanted war—war for its own sake, or war for completely indefensible reasons that no other nation would willingly agree to.” I’ve by now assimilated these points in words of my own that serve as a conceptual frame for my own opposition to war. The words are these: No country has the right to initiate war for any reason, even for putative ‘preventive’ purposes. It can never claim that it had no other choice, since it can always choose not to do so, seeking instead to negotiate the most acceptable terms possible to prevent impending, or possible future, aggression. No matter how great the compromise required, such restraint will always be less bad, when weighed against the killing, suffering, social chaos, and moral degradation resulting from war, than any conceivable benefits to be gained by winning the war.

I would, however, add a qualification to this position that Swanson does not: Until war as an institution is legally outlawed, and all nuclear and conventional weapons of war are eliminated, it is understood that sovereign nations reserve the right to use sufficient, but measured, military means to defend their own country and (in some cases) territories from impending, or active, armed attack that is militarily unprovoked. There are of course also treaty obligations that would, in the lead-up to war abolition, require the U.S. and other nations to similarly defend their allies.

Having determined my own stand on how the use of armed force is to be viewed before abolition, I was nevertheless nettled by another question: What would make any government—especially the government of Superpower America—willing to agree to the outlawing of its heretofore sovereign right to make war? To do so, it would not only have to break its longstanding habit of resorting to war at will, but risk some part of future global strategic gains by settling any attendant conflicts through negotiated compromise rather than military intimidation. Then I remembered a point made by Civil Rights advocates in the 1960s that I had taken to heart. The Civil Rights movement, the advocates had said, may not transform hearts and minds, but it will produce laws demanding just behavior toward people different from you that you will be bound to obey under pain of punishment.

Laws count, I reflected. They have ended slavery, child labor, female disenfranchisement, prohibition of gay marriage, banning of gays from the military, union busting, and many other barriers to personal or collective freedom and justice. Surely, a law outlawing the atrocity of war would also be respected. I recognized that leaders of nations subscribing to an international agreement to end war could not be expected to shift their priorities overnight from the pursuit of their own country’s interests to a concern for the well-being of their neighbors. But they would be under force of law to stop killing people who stood in their way. Because of the importance of that legal—and not simply ethical–restraint, I concluded, we have to work toward the abolition of war as an independent matter. Other issues of gravity—global warming in particular—must also be pushed. But we can’t wait to achieve a moral revolution in all aspects of mankind’s relations with fellow humans and nature before we strive to end war—the most deadly and obvious manifestation of man’s social pathology.  

Non-Violent Civil Resistance as a Tactic to Restrain Militarism and Deter War  

For those Americans who support the yet distant goal of a legally binding abolition of all war, an immediate concern is how in the meantime to best deter their government’s ingrained militarism, saber-rattling, and ready resort to war. The tactic of armed insurgency is of course out of the question, both because violence is the very behavior the anti-war movement hopes to eradicate, and because the overwhelming superiority of the nation-state’s institutionalized military and police power renders it futile. What may be effective, however, as it was in expediting an end to the Vietnam war, is non-violent civil resistance.

We now know from history that, at least in the case of small countries ruled by weak, corrupt, dysfunctional, or authoritarian regimes, non-violent civil resistance has proved an effective tool in achieving lasting political and social change. The following points help explain why. They are selectively excerpted from a TED TALKS presentation by Erica Chenoweth, Ph.D., Professor and Associate Dean for Research at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver.

  • “Non-violent civil resistance” is accurately defined as the participation by unarmed civilians in active forms of conflict—protest, boycotts, demonstrations, and other forms of mass non-cooperation—aimed at effecting constructive change in the leadership, behavior or policies of a lawless or repressive governing authority. The strategy has already proved effective in bringing down tyrants such as Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines in 1986, and Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia in Oct., 2000.
  • It is widely believed that violence in the face of oppression happens automatically, because practically everyone assumes violence is the only way to eliminate oppression. But that belief is false. In colonial America, there was a full decade of civil disobedience before the start of the Revolutionary War. Those teaching history at school should include examples of the efficacy of non-violent civil resistance, rather than limiting their presentation to a focus on changes brought about by war..

Non-violent resistance can play a critical role in successful activist campaigns for nuclear disarmament, conventional arms reduction, and the closure of military bases around the world—all of which actions would in turn provide a firm foundation on which to base an ultimate campaign for war abolition. The following two points explain why activist tactics based on non-violent civil resistance can be especially effective in forcing change in government policy:

  • The bigger a non-violent resistance movement becomes, the faster it will continue to grow. In time, it will even begin to attract political, social, and religious leaders, who recognize they are a part of, and have to live with, all the people in their community–including dissidents in their own families. As the resistance movement continues to grow, these leaders will begin to shift their allegiance from the existing power structure to the community as a whole, including the institutions—schools, churches, organizations, etc.–to which its members belong.
  • Recent statistics show that no government or government policy can survive if just 3.5% of the people over which it has jurisdiction demonstrate or take non-violent disruptive action against it.

Based on evidence offered in the TED TALK, and on information gathered at the World Beyond War online classroom to which I’ve referred, I can offer here a very sketchy scenario that illustrates how a campaign of non-violent civil resistance might be effectively organized to deter a hypothetical impending pre-emptive attack by the U.S. on North Korea or Iran:

To get things going, a broad coalition of anti-war, peace, environmental, and related activist groups would first need to organize collaborative demonstrations and rallies throughout the country. They could then launch a major campaign by phone, email, and social media to recruit additional supporters. Among them, informed speakers would be made available for rallies, town-hall meetings, and accessible media to explain why the impending war must be avoided and to advocate instead for peaceful reconciliation. All other supporters would be urged to promote the No-War message by means of a steady flow of phone calls and emails to the White House and Congress, postings on social media, and letters to newspaper and magazine publishers. That activity would in turn be supported by sit-ins and other forms of non-violent disruption in order to make clear the seriousness of the movement’s demands.

As we’ve seen from points made in the TED TALK, effective mobilization of a non-violent civil-resistance movement can dramatically shift the power structure in a society from a vehicle for aggrandizing the elite to one that implements the will of the people. That fact suggests in turn that, even in a nation as large as the United States, a small percentage of Americans (though, of course, upwards of ten-million in number), engaged persistently over a period of weeks or months in active but peaceful forms of conflict, can in fact persuade the most powerful government on earth to forgo plans to launch an unjust war in favor of pursuing with its adversary a negotiated resolution of differences.   

War Can Never Bring Peace, but Perhaps Human Kindness Can  

Given the characteristics of our modern technological age, war is unlikely to be entered into by any major power for the reason that must be publicly proclaimed: that it is necessary as a last resort to defend the country’s vital interests. For the U.S., especially, war is instead the end point of a system of interlinked power centers whose aim is to maintain and expand the country’s economic pre-eminence and physical security throughout the world.

To carry out that purpose, America annually spends more on the military than do the next eight nations combined. It also maintains military bases in 175 countries; stages provocative displays of armed might close to rival nations; constantly demonizes unfriendly or desperate national leaders; maintains a relentless stockpiling of weapons, including new nuclear weapons; keeps an army of war planners constantly seeking new applications for those weapons; and makes billons and billions of dollars as by far the world’s leading arms merchant. The U.S. is now also undertaking at immense expense a modernization of its nuclear arsenal. This is in spite of the fact that the project will encourage additional nations to develop their own nuclear weapons but have no deterrent effect on non-state terrorist groups that represent the only realistic military threat to America.  

Doing all these things to prepare for war is undoubtedly effective in cowing such major state competitors, or adversaries, as China or Russia–though, as David Swanson has pointed out, war between rich nations, given the weapons available to them, is virtually inconceivable today. War is now primarily waged by rich nations—primarily the U.S.—against poor nations in the Middle East and North Africa, even though it does little to help combat the terrorism that, in many cases, provides a pretext for such wars.

In the arena in which the U.S. military now fights, a good offense doesn’t necessarily translate to a good defense. Instead, it generates resentment, blowback, and hatred, which have served as recruitment tools for expanding and augmenting the terrorist threat against America and its allies throughout the world. Interestingly, the U.S. use of drones is the greatest provocation to hatred. This display of America’s superior technology, which allows its operators to kill by stealth with no danger to themselves, strips the war-making of any hint of heroic battle. Moreover, the raining of death on rank-and-file terrorist fighters, along with their leaders, and the inevitable collateral killing of innocent civilians, must seem to survivors of the assaults extreme acts of disrespect for their neighbors’ and their own human dignity.

David Swanson has suggested a more effective way to combat terrorism. He urges creation of a new U.S. “Marshall Plan” for the entire Middle East that will serve as restitution for the damage done to that region in U.S. wars. Under the plan, the U.S. would deliver real aid (i.e. not “military aid,” but actual aid: food, medicine, and the like) to Iraq, Syria, and neighboring nations. Swanson believes that such humane support could lead segments of the population that currently support terrorists to reassess the kind of future they want for themselves and their children, and that it could be implemented on a massive scale at far less cost than continuing to shoot $2-million missiles at the problem. Swanson further recommends that the U.S. announce its intention to invest heavily in solar, wind, and other green energy, and to provide those resources to democratic governments in the region. He also suggests that the U.S. should end economic sanctions on Iran and provide that country free wind and solar technologies.

Some Concluding Thoughts

To my own mind, war is immoral at its roots, because it violates the very principle of what it means to be a human being. Though the outcomes of war may have a transitory effect on human history, war itself is in fact not a progressive, but a reactionary, force, serving mainly to reinforce a human mindset that famed psychologist Abraham Maslow called “the psychopathology of the average.” A principal manifestation of that pathology is the absence of empathy—an inability to see the world from the other guy’s point of view or to walk a mile in his moccasins.

This defect is a concern of every major belief system on earth–and often, too, of secular individuals seized by spiritual insight. Yet, the absence of empathy is essential to war. It enables its political and military organizers to pursue greater personal and national power, while paying no heed either to the cause that drives their adversary, or to the death, misery and degradation they will inflict on fellow humans. At the same time, a drumbeat of supportive propaganda inherent in the culture of aggressor nations gives sanction to this betrayal of humanity and reason, further normalizing the psychopathology it represents.

If mankind is to achieve a positive outcome of its evolutionary development—which is now mainly cultural, not biological–it will have to arrest and reverse this pathology. The immediate reason to do so is of course self-preservation. Unless we learn to convert conflicts with adversaries into negotiated settlements that respect both sides’ needs, it seems likely that at some point one antagonist or another will resort to nuclear or other mass violence that risks annihilation of the race.

Yet, eliminating the scourge of war can serve an even more significant end. For self-aware human beings, a life without war that remains beset by the psychopathologies of egoism, constant antagonisms, and a lack of meaning and purpose is in my view little better than no life at all. Seen from that perspective, a legally-binding universal agreement to abolish war would function most importantly as the sign of a moral turning point in human history. It would signal to all of humanity that respect and empathy for others, and a willingness to reconcile their needs with one’s own, constitute the soundest basis in any situation for resolving differences and achieving constructive collaboration. If an approach to other people based on that mindset were in fact widely adopted, it would herald a new normal in human behavior that could enrich the human experience we have accepted as normal with yet undreamed-of levels of creativity, meaning, and joy.

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