Rapporteur: Metta Spencer
This is the key plank in the whole platform. It is also the hardest. We may not succeed with this one, friends, but if we do, the other 24 planks will come more easily, for militarism is the linchpin of the system —the problem that holds the five other threats in place. War and weapons not only kill people directly, but by exacerbating global warming, famine, pandemics, radiation exposure, and (probably next) cyberattacks.
War is hard to eliminate, though — not because anyone actually likes it but because people don’t know how to do without it. A few wars are fought over trivial matters, but most of them occur because a conflict is immensely important and neither side can think of other ways to settle it. So, we must propose some other ways to handle conflicts.
But first let’s consider the meaning of this plank. Notice that it calls upon “states” to reduce their militaries – but what about non-state militaries? ISIS, Al Qaeda, Al Shabab, the Taliban, Boko Haram, ETA and FARC, for examples, are not owned by states, and elsewhere there are still a few warlords and oligarchs with their own armies.
And United Nations Peacekeepers are also military. To get rid of war and weapons, we must probably eliminate (or anyway vastly reduce) all kinds of militaries except peacekeepers, who are supposed to be like a global constabulary. We will need more, not fewer, peacekeepers, as substitutes for the armed forces of national governments and rebels.
The value of an organization depends on its mission, so the question is whether military units are mandated to defend and protect people or to attack and destroy them. Nowadays, most armed forces are for war-fighting, but every city has a police force to protect its citizens. Our ancestor, the caveguy, stood guard at the cave entrance with a spear, lest a saber-tooth tiger arrive unexpectedly. That was for security. But even then, caveguy perhaps also belonged to a warrior gang that raided other settlements for booty. That was not for security. Lives were short in those days, partly because the police force and peacekeepers hadn’t been invented yet to protect citizens.
Basic civility requires us to honor “those brave men and women who risk their lives to defend our country,” though in fact many wars are not defensive in nature. And logically, for every military action that is truly defensive, there must be at least one — the opponent’s — that is offensive. Too often, it is impossible to know which side deserves the glory and which side the shame. Triumphant warriors can now all claim to be heroes, for if ever there was a clear distinction between protective military actions and aggressive attacks, that clarity has long been blurred.
This indistinctness has arisen from the increasing acceptability of two principles. The first is preventive war—military action against an adversary while he is presumably preparing to attack. If self-defence is justifiable, then it is not irrational to consider a pre-emptive strike moral too. But we know where that idea leads.
The second principle is deterrence — the credible threat to massively retaliate if one’s adversary acts offensively. Mutual threats to shoot back are not as aggressive as actually shooting, but instead of increasing security on either side, they perpetuate situations of extraordinary mutual insecurity where defence and aggression blur together.
That is the condition of modern society; we all live under the sword of Damocles. About 14,000 nuclear weapons still exist on our planet(1), nearly 3,000 of which must be launched within three to six minutes after the alarm announces that an adversary’s missiles are on the way. And false alarms are common.
We should all be terrified, but we’re not. Of those 14,000, just one single bomb—a ‘Satan 2” from Russia — could obliterate the whole of Texas or France. It is supposedly equipped with stealth technology to dodge enemy radar systems. And America’s new submarine-based Trident nuclear missiles are now powerful enough to tempt an enemy strategist to launch pre-emptive strikes.(2) Should a fraction of those 14,000 bombs be exploded, civilization would end, and possibly even exterminate all of humankind. The DNA of our species would certainly be impaired, leaving future generations less able to cope. It’s uncertain which catastrophe to expect first — nuclear war or the climate crisis — but some people will deny until the end that either one is a risk.
Bizarrely, our rulers keep assuring us that these bombs are for our own “security.” And in a sense, they are right. Nine countries are armed with nuclear weapons, all aimed at each other, so naturally each one is afraid to disarm until the others do too. This could take a while! And it has — 75 years. But false alarms keep going off, and suicide bombers keep proving their resolve. You cannot deter a suicide bomber; what retaliation would you threaten him with? And now it may be possible for a hacker to launch the nuclear missiles of another country.(3)
After seventy-five years, the terror has worn off. Mutual deterrence seems normal now, but the experts say we’ve just had fantastic luck.(4) Two countries own 93 percent of those 14,000 bombs. Seven countries own the rest. But our plank demands that all states reduce their militaries, and this of course mostly means conventional armed forces, not nuclear.
This will be hard but not impossible. Already sixteen countries lack any conventional military forces. They are Andorra, Costa Rica, Dominica, Grenada, Kiribati, Liechtenstein, Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru, Palau, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, Vatican City. A little arithmetic suggests that the remaining 181 sovereign countries have armed forces that can be reduced.
But by how much? The “How to Save the World in a Hurry” forum, which adopted the Platform for Survival, refrained from proposing any specific number, though the original motion had suggested an eighty percent reduction. Presumably, since states would no longer “plan wars for national security,” each one should retain a military sufficient only for civilian services. For example, some military units carry out search-and-rescue missions at sea, operate icebreakers in the Arctic, or help with disaster relief in case of earthquakes or epidemics. All other functions can be transferred to a new global institution, which Plank 4 calls the “United Nations Emergency Peace Service” (UNEPS).
Because conventional armed forces inevitably consume so many of the world’s resources, just cutting them back will automatically improve the environment and human health, as well as saving stupendous sums of money, which can be allocated instead to the Sustainable Development Goals or preserving biodiversity, limiting climate change, or improving life in some other way.
The size of these stupendous sums can be guesstimated with a few back-of-the-envelope comparisons. In 2018, the world’s military expenditures amounted to $1822 billion (that’s $1.8 trillion!).(5) If that sum were reduced by 80 percent, the human population would be healthier, happier, and $1457 billion richer every year. What could we do with all that money? Well, in 2016 it cost only $50 billion to run the entire United Nations.(6) Of that amount, $6.7 billion was budgeted for peacekeeping operations.(7) If the UN adds a new UNEPS to prevent armed conflicts around the world, peacekeeping may cost three or four times that much, so let’s be extravagant and estimate $30 billion. That leaves us with a surplus of around $1.4 trillion — approximately the amount the UN says it would cost per year to end poverty on earth.(8)
Or maybe we’d rather spend our savings instead on limiting global warming by stabilizing greenhouse gas emissions. The price will depend on how quickly we act, and we’re getting a late start, so according the International Energy Agency, it will cost a total of $44 trillion by 2050. Ouch. That’s more than our savings from reducing the military by 80 percent. But on the other hand, there will be huge savings from reducing the consumption of fossil fuel. In fact, the overall cost of switching over will yield a slight net savings, so we can still spend our $1.4 trillion military savings on something else—have our cake and eat it too.(9)
But of course, every realistic person knows that this is not going to happen. Any proposal to reduce national armed forces sharply would probably be defeated in every sovereign state today. It is proving to be hard just to abolish nuclear weapons, which obviously are no source of security to anyone. It will be even harder to persuade the public to limit their nation’s conventional armed forces, which they consider truly essential for security. It’s commonly believed that every country needs an army, and every family needs a gun, to stay safe.
Statistically, it is clear that access to guns generally reduces security instead of increasing it, both for families and for the world. But before the age of nuclear threats and globalization, weapons certainly did seem essential for security, for their main use is in defending a specific physical space — a home or a homeland. And by “homeland,” we mean a nation or state — a single territory controlled by a single government. “National security” once meant the defence of a nation’s territory, which is where its citizens lived and kept all their assets. In their whole lives, some people traveled less than a hundred miles from home. When interests were so territorially defined, a strong army was still plausibly an asset for protecting national security.
That is no longer the situation. We are all stakeholders, but now our interests are located all over the world, beyond the influence of our military or even our nation’s consulates and embassies.
Globalization has wrecked the Westphalian system for organizing the world. Not only do our friendships extend worldwide, but our physical security and health are determined by foreigners—the emitters of greenhouse gases; the destroyers of rainforests; the airplane passengers carrying new viruses; the politicians imposing tariffs on a product we had planned to export to their country; the bankers in nations where our swindled tax money is laundered; the tossers of plastic into the ocean because poor countries have no waste management systems. Our country’s military cannot protect us from such risks. Armies and sovereign states can control territory, but not even Donald Trump can reverse this new situation.
With our material interests extending beyond our borders, so should our political influence, though at present few global institutions provide much democratic accountability. This must change before any state can be expected to reduce its military forces and spend the savings on fixing the real sources of insecurity.
It is only slowly becoming apparent to the public that fewer major wars are occurring today, and that today’s real wars are quite different from the ones we used to prepare for. None of the new wars in the post-Cold War era are (thank heavens) nuclear or even geostrategic struggles for an ideology.(10) Technologically, the sophistication of “new war” weaponry ranges from the machete in Rwanda or the plastic jug of fertilizer for roadside bombing in Afghanistan to the CIA’s Predator drone-launched missiles in Pakistan. The great powers may be involved, but the main fighters often are not soldiers but illiterate local criminals.
Mary Kaldor has described this trend away from what she calls “old wars,” which are:
“wars between states where the warring parties are armies, the goals are geopolitical, the main method is the military capture of territory through battle, and the wars are financed through increased taxation and the mobilization of a centralized self-sufficient war economy.
“By contrast, in ‘new wars’ the warring parties are networks of state and non-state actors organized in loose horizontal coalitions rather than hierarchical military organizations. These can include regular armies and police or parts of the state security services, party militias, warlords, bandits, mercenaries, private security companies, insurgents, self-defence groups and so on. The political goals are largely about identity politics – that is to say, the claim to access to power and to the state apparatus on the basis of a label, be it ethnic, tribal or religious (Serb versus Croat, Sunni versus Shi’ia, Hutu versus Tutsi) as opposed to geopolitical (control of the seas or access to oil) or ideological (to promote socialism or democracy).
“In ‘new wars’ battles are rare, and most violence is directed against civilians. This can be deliberate, as in wars of ethnic cleansing (Bosnia and Kosovo, Nagorno-Karabakh and Baghdad) or in genocides (Rwanda and Darfur), or because it is impossible to distinguish combatants from non-combatants (as in counter-insurgency wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Chechnya and Kashmir).
“For this reason, the techniques of ‘new wars’ directly violate international humanitarian and human rights law. And finally, in ‘new wars’ taxation falls, and the wars have to be financed by a variety of methods that are dependent on violence. These include looting and pillaging, kidnapping and hostage-taking, skewing the terms of trade through checkpoints, the ‘taxation’ of humanitarian aid, outside support from the diaspora, smuggling of valuable commodities such as oil and diamonds, and other transnational criminal activities. Whereas ‘old wars’ were state-building, increasing the revenue base and the power of the state, ‘new wars’ are ‘state-unbuilding’. They establish a ‘new war’ economy that is exactly the opposite of the ‘old war’ economy – one that is globalized, decentralized, criminalized and in which employment is very low.”(11)
New wars tend to be long wars that are hard to end. Think of Iraq, of Afghanistan, and now of Syria. No decisive military battle ends the conflict; if foreign troops come to help, they may remain stuck there for decades. Once more, this illustrates the limits of military power as a source of national security. Wars don’t work very well anymore.
To fulfill Plank 3 by “not planning wars for national security,” we must stop planning “old wars” and look for ways of preventing, not only nuclear wars but also “new wars.”
Kaldor suggests that the new wars be addressed in a different way from conventional old wars. There will more often be a need for peacekeeping, but it involves the enforcement of human rights more than either war-fighting or traditional peacekeeping. It involves the protection of civilians and a strong commitment to implementing international law. It may involve not only soldiers but a combination of military, police, and civilians.(12) Some kind of protective units will still be needed for security, though national military units can be reduced substantially, or in some cases even entirely replaced with constabularies.
In short, to address new wars, we need to adopt an approach that Plank 25 calls “Sustainable Common Security.” That will require the creation of a new institution, which we are calling the “United Nations Emergency Peace Service.” (See Plank 24.) But such a change will meet extreme resistance that can be overcome only by introducing other major structural changes simultaneously or beforehand. For good reason, the U.N. is not now considered a reliable source of security. That is why many small, weak nations join military alliances, hoping that the combination of forces with other states can suffice to deter aggression from their enemies.
If the UNEPS is to be trusted more than, say, joining NATO or SEATO, it must be under the command of an organization that truly implements international laws impartially. It can only be authorized by the U.N. Security Council, which today is far from impartial. Much more needs to be done to enhance the credibility of the U.N. The Permanent Five’s veto power undermines the world’s confidence in the whole institution. The Security Council needs to be made more accountable to the whole of humankind, as also does the entire U.N. — probably by adding a parliamentary assembly directly elected by the citizens of all member states. Such changes can be attained only if the public demands it, reversing the current worldwide drift toward authoritarianism and nationalism.
Finally, it is important to recognize that this plank — indeed, the whole Platform for Survival — represents one perspective that has its own limitations. This is the perspective of liberal democracy: the assumption that the best way of protecting human security is to improve our political, economic, and legal institutions. But this essay should end by acknowledging that even excellent human institutions can go wrong, and often with tragic results. Democratic elections, for example, sometimes bring to power politicians who make terrible decisions that harm people and require change. Nothing in these planks offers remedy for such situations.
But when human beings need to protect themselves from their own governments, they often invent ways of defending their rights. The Platform for Survival should explicitly recognize the importance of such campaigns of civil resistance. Social change is inexorable, and founding governments never seem never to anticipate the need for their own overthrow.
Historically, nonviolent struggle has been the main (and always is the best) alternative to war. Fortunately, as Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan have shown, campaigns of nonviolent resistance have been more than twice as effective as their violent counterparts in achieving their stated goals. Moreover, civil resistance ushers in more durable and internally peaceful democracies, which are less likely to regress into civil war.(13) Thus, our Platform for Survival should be understood to include one extra, invisible plank: an endorsement of nonviolent opposition for those times in the future when the other planks turn out to require change.
Footnotes for this article can be seen at the Footnotes 1 page on this website (link will open in a new page).