Concerned that a needed international perspective is missing from the debate over US foreign policy, The Nation asked a number of distinguished foreign writers and thinkers to share their reflections. This is the third in that series.
The entire edition of The Nation of January 24, 1981, consisted of “A Letter to America” written by the historian and peace activist E.P. Thompson. “I first crossed the Atlantic from England when I was a child of 5, in 1929,” wrote Thompson. “What bothers me now, as a frequent visitor to the States, is that the Atlantic seems to be growing wider, even though it now takes only some six hours to cross…. There are times when Europe and America appear to have drifted beyond range of communication.”
Thompson thought this drift was immensely dangerous; he feared a nuclear war. He described the manichean worldview of the American establishment and drew a comparison with the Lord of the Rings, where “confused liberal hobbits” are rescued from evil by Gandalf-like figures such as Henry Kissinger or Zbigniew Brzezinski. He described the way three decades of deterrence, of mutual fear, mystery and state-endorsed stagnant hostility, have backed up into our culture and ideology, numbing language and values. He talked about the strength of military-industrial interests, the use of euphemisms to mask the reality of nuclear war and the way in which defense intellectuals purveyed crazy theories like “pre-emptive deterrence.”
In that “Letter to America,” Thompson was making the case for a new peace movement that would unite East and West. He was one of the few people at that time to foresee what might happen as a result of the pressures for democratization within Eastern Europe. He argued that the Soviet Union was a threat to its own people, not to the West, and that the system of deterrence helped to sustain and legitimize military-industrial rule in the East. He insisted that the campaign for nuclear disarmament was also a struggle for democracy.
In rereading that special issue of The Nation two decades later, the parallels between then and now are striking. Europe and America are drifting apart. The current conjuncture is extremely dangerous. We face the risks of escalating violence in the Middle East and in Central and South Asia; millions of people are likely to suffer even without the use of nuclear weapons, which is a real possibility. The Bush Administration tries to impose a good-versus-evil view of the world in which America is surrounded by enemies. The defense intellectuals develop theories about pre-emptive aggression and counterproliferation that justify the reliance on technology and military force. Even some of the people are the same–Richard Perle and Donald Rumsfeld, to name but two.
So it is a good moment to reflect on the movement (in which I was active) that was inspired by Thompson’s ideas as expressed in that “Letter to America.” What did we achieve on both sides of the Atlantic and where did we fail?
The biggest achievement of the 1980s peace movement was its contribution to the collapse of Communism. In the early 1980s the mass movement shook the status quo in Europe. In the late 1980s European peace activists were engaged in an intensive dialogue with the Eastern European opposition and were providing support in all kinds of ways to an emerging independent peace and democracy movement, which was to play a critical role in the revolutions of 1989. Moreover, the Gorbachev regime took on board the arguments of the peace movement about the irrationality of each side matching the other missile for missile or warhead for warhead, and this made possible a series of new arms-control measures and a new détente process that provided political space for the 1989 revolutionaries.
The debates and experiences of the 1980s also gave rise to new ideas that were to influence the international arena in the 1990s. The link that was made between peace and human rights contributed to the concept of human security–that it is the security of individuals that matters, not the security of states. Emphasis on the security of states had legitimized the principle of noninterference, which meant that it was considered wrong for states to come to the aid of foreign populations oppressed by their own government. The West’s cold warriors shed crocodile tears for the people of Eastern Europe in order to justify the acquisition of weapons, which in turn strengthened the oppressors in the Soviet Union. Far more was done to help the people of Eastern Europe through the Helsinki Agreement of 1975–in which Eastern European governments agreed to adhere on paper to basic principles of human rights for their citizens in exchange for territorial security–and through the East-West citizens’ dialogue than by any new round of the arms race. These ideas were to underpin the new emphasis on humanitarian and human rights law in the 1990s, the belief that sovereignty can be overridden by humanitarian norms, the emergence of global civil society and of new instruments like the International Criminal Court and the protectorates and international authorities in war-torn societies.
Where we failed spectacularly was in challenging the military-industrial complex in the West and in repairing the deformation of culture that Thompson described. By 1989 labor and social democratic parties in Europe had abandoned their antinuclear stance. Right-wing governments in the United States and Europe proclaimed the collapse of Communism as the victory of the West, and few demurred. Military spending fell, but not by much more than the normal fall that follows the military procurement cycle. In the United States, military research and development spending, where the seeds for future increases in the military budget are sown, fell by much less than overall military spending. Think tanks around Washington continued to churn out theories about new “shadowy” threats of “asymmetric warfare” from terrorists and Islamists that could replace the old Soviet threat. They argued that the new information technology would bring about a Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) that could defeat these new threats. In other words, the 1990s were a period of restructuring, not phasing out of, the Western military-industrial-intellectual edifice.
By the time of George W. Bush’s ascendancy, pressures were building for the acquisition of new systems. Instead of deterrence, we have pre-emptive strikes and counterproliferation. Instead of the nuclear cruise missiles we protested about in the 1980s, we have conventional cruise missiles for use against “rogue states” harboring terrorists. Instead of MIRVs or ICBMs, we have the new National Missile Defense, which will intercept outside attacks (in theory, of course) instead of deterring them. Like deterrence, the wars that are waged are for the most part imaginary from the point of view of Americans: There are few or no American casualties, and Americans do not even have to pay more taxes to finance them. But unlike deterrence, this new interventionism is very real from the point of view of the enemies–not so much because of what is euphemistically known as “collateral damage,” although this is not insignificant, but because of real asymmetric warfare waged against civilians. If deterrence helped to legitimize oppressive governments, then the threat or actuality of pre-emptive airstrikes helps to legitimize ethnic cleansing, genocide and other atrocities. This is what happened in Yugoslavia, even though in the end Kosovo was liberated. If a war begins against Iraq, then Saddam Hussein is likely to strike his enemies at home–Kurds, Shiites and others who dare to defy his regime. And he may or may not use weapons of mass destruction.
European governments have been more influenced by the ideas of the 1980s than by the US Administration. They strongly favor the International Criminal Court and other multilateral measures to strengthen international law. However, they are still caught in the subservience of the cold war era, particularly in Britain. The Germans have gone furthest in distancing themselves from the United States. But opposition to war in Iraq is not based on concern for the Iraqi people; rather, it has to do with continuing to uphold the principle of noninterference.
Is it too late to make up for the failures of the past and to build on our achievements? What European Nuclear Disarmament (Thompson’s bit of the peace movement) did was not just oppose nuclear weapons but promote democracy in Eastern Europe, making the link between deterrence and individual oppression. Today it is not enough to oppose the “war on terror”; we have to find effective ways, at the very least, to contain terror, to protect the victims of terror (both state terror and nonstate terror) in New York as well as Iraq, Israel as well as Palestine. Key to this is the consistent extension of humanitarian law and upholding of human rights norms. In certain cases we may need military means to enforce humanitarian law, but such military means would have to consist of ground troops to protect civilians and arrest war criminals, not high-technology raids from the air.
What happened on September 11 was genuine and paralyzing. Some of us hoped, for a brief period before the war in Afghanistan began, that because it was a genuine attack, the United States would not resort to the habits of the past and would recognize our mutual vulnerability. We hoped that the United States would espouse a multilateral effort to contain terrorism through the adoption of a cosmopolitan, humane approach that would offer an alternative to the extreme fundamentalists and chauvinists who are now so powerful, and that would promote international humanitarian law and the reform and strengthening of global institutions. In retrospect, it is not surprising that Bush adopted the rhetoric of RMA and the “war on terror”; after all, he is a product of that deformed culture and that imaginary ideology that we had hardly disturbed. Nor, perhaps, was it surprising that in the aftermath of that tragedy, it has been so difficult to mobilize meaningful opposition to Bush’s resumption of cold war methods and tactics.
Thompson ended his letter by talking about the way deterrence has struck into “immobility every normal political process of human negotiation or reconciliation. For decades the rival military blocs, like inadequate personalities, have postponed dealing with the problems of today, and, in the name of deterrence, have tied these problems to the backs of missiles and sent them on into the future.” This is what I fear today. The problems that give rise to terrorism and various forms of religious fundamentalism have been immobilized, even exacerbated, by the “war on terror.” Can we afford to send them to Iraq on the backs of missiles? Don’t we need a renewed transatlantic dialogue to repair culture and politics from the deformations of the cold war and the military-industrial-ideological edifice in the way that should have happened after 1989?