Reviving the Peace Movement for the 21st Century: Responses to Daniel May

Reviving the Peace Movement for the 21st Century: Responses to Daniel May

Reviving the Peace Movement for the 21st Century: Responses to Daniel May

Peace advocates consider how the movement can be revitalized for the 21st century.


Daniel May’s essay in the most recent issue of The Nation, “How to Revive the Peace Movement in the Trump Era,” has stirred up a lot of conversation on the left. In the wake of Trump’s election, May argued, “we need a movement that can speak to the anger that so many Americans feel toward the corporate powers that dominate our politics. Such a movement would expose how militarism is not immune to that influence but is particularly beholden to it.” Here we publish responses to May’s argument from five peace advocates.

William Hartung

The Peace Movement and After

Daniel May’s analysis has done us all a tremendous service. May offers fresh ideas for individuals and organizations who have struggled to keep the peace and antiwar movements relevant in an increasingly challenging political environment. He also provides an essential perspective on how activists in Movement for Black Lives, as well as those for immigrant rights and against Islamophobia, view the issues of violence at home and abroad in the context of growing corporate power. And he raises perhaps the most important question of all: Is it possible to have both an empire and a functioning democracy?
As May suggests, the crux of the problem from an organizing perspective is that the new way of war—with its reliance on drone strikes, Special Forces, and a volunteer military that many Americans have no direct connection to—makes it difficult to generate a level of activism and engagement that is up to the task of opposing a massive military machine that has immense political power in Washington and beyond. I have referred to this new way of fighting, which accelerated during the Obama years, as “politically sustainable warfare.” Our challenge is to make it politically unsustainable. This will ultimately require a change in the culture, including a reconsideration of basic assumptions about the role of the US military, police, and surveillance state.

As awful as the Trump administration’s assault on the most vulnerable in our society has been—not to mention its attack on basic decency, truth, and the foundations of our democracy—it does offer new opportunities for organizing across sectors in ways that can help groups reach beyond the single-issue silos that too often wall them off into separate struggles.

Trump’s draconian budget proposals offer one such opportunity. His $54 billion increase in Pentagon spending would come at the expense of diplomacy, environmental protection, women’s health, the arts, health-care subsidies, legal services for the poor, and other essential programs. These ill-conceived and potentially devastating priorities offer the possibility of building a budget-priorities coalition of a size and breadth that we have not seen since the movement against the war in Vietnam.

We will no doubt take some body blows at the outset of this process, but eventually we can and must build a movement that can help redefine what kind of country America should be.

For the old-school peace movement (of which I am a card-carrying member), any hope for building bridges with the growing movements for equality and social justice should start with learning, listening to, and supporting them, not merely opportunistic efforts to add our issues to their already urgent concerns. This can and should lead us to find ways to reframe the peace issue so as to address corporate power and the threat that a policy of permanent global interventionism poses to democracy at home.

Above all else, the peace movement needs to work with other movements to help nurture a new generation of activists who will address these issues. Whether or not they consider themselves part of the peace movement per se is irrelevant.

Diana Ohlbaum

Tackling the Politics of Fear

Daniel May has written an insightful and compelling analysis of the need and rationale for a new peace movement. His cogent piece particularly shines in its depiction of the ways that militarism has been shielded from democratic accountability and treated in isolation from the larger economic forces that help sustain it.

May is less helpful, however, in identifying a path forward. He clearly recognizes the challenges that have thwarted previous efforts to expand the movement beyond opposition to a specific war or policy: the old, white, male leadership; the tension between inside-the-Beltway strategists and local community activists; the seeming remoteness of foreign-policy concerns from people’s everyday lives.

What is needed is not just a policy change but also a paradigm shift. Military expansionism is rooted in the “superpower mindset” that the United States has the right, the responsibility, and the power to shape the world to serve its perceived interests. Even many liberals agree with this proposition—only they prefer to see it carried out through less violent means.

May is correct in his argument that in order to mount a successful challenge to the forces of empire the contemporary peace movement will need to address the many ways in which highly concentrated power and wealth have corrupted American democracy and institutionalized inequality, with especially brutal consequences for black lives.

Making this connection is a necessary but not sufficient step, since crony capitalism is not the only culprit. The military-industrial complex has asserted its dominance by exploiting the politics of fear, first of communism and now of “radical Islamic terrorism.” To open the conversation, progressives must first explain how they will keep Americans safe without maintaining a global military presence and the constant threat or use of force. This is no easy task, since the antiwar movement has largely defined itself by what it is against rather than what it is for.

Progressives must also recognize that they can’t overcome fear with mere logic. Trying to convince Americans that the terrorist threat has been blown way out of proportion—in comparison to the likelihood of dying from gun violence or preventable illnesses and accidents—is a losing proposition. The appeal must be made at a visceral, intuitive level, and the only emotion that can prevail over fear is anger. But unleashing popular rage against a machine that serves the interests of the privileged few can be a risky business.

Ultimately, a successful campaign will need to transform notions of “us” and “them” in a way that unites people across racial and ethnic lines and transcends geographic and national boundaries. Globalization and technology will aid in this effort, but only if they are utilized to help Americans recognize their common humanity with the rest of the world.

Lawrence Wittner

Building A True Internationalism

Daniel May is correct when he maintains that the American peace movement is not powerful enough to pose a serious challenge to US militarism. Furthermore, the “anti-imperialist” program he suggests―highlighting the economic, social, and political costs to Americans of our vast military machine and of US imperialist behavior―may well enhance the movement’s political clout.

But is this program sufficient? After all, American peace organizations have been following it for decades. A staple of their argument has been that US militarism starves social spending at home. Accordingly, they have sought to rally Americans behind legislation to shift federal priorities from the military to education, health care, and other social programs. At times, this position, coupled with peace activists’ prominent participation in social-justice campaigns, has enabled them to forge mutually beneficial alliances with social-justice organizations. Peace organizations have also charged that “national security” obsessions and an “imperial presidency” have subverted American democracy.

Of course, there are additional ways to ratchet up pressure for peace in the United States. If the millions of Americans who favor a peaceful world would join a peace organization, support it financially, and participate in its activities, the US peace movement would become a far more potent political force. Less fragmentation of the movement among so many groups would surely help, as would more coordination among them and significant election support for peace-oriented candidates.

But a major limitation of a strategy focusing on mobilization of the US peace constituency is the implicit assumption that a peaceful world hinges mostly or entirely on blocking US militarism, specifically. Unfortunately, throughout human history, competing territories and, later, nations have waged wars and engaged in imperialist ventures. Why should we assume that, with the restraint or even disappearance of US military power, this pattern would change and that nations would abandon their fears of military attack, destroy their own stockpiles of deadly weapons, and end their conflicts? The underlying problem is not one nation’s imperialism but, rather, the proclivity of nations to handle their disputes through war.

A more comprehensive strategy for peace requires what Daniel May refers to, briefly, as “a true internationalism.” To build this internationalism, one based on respect for the common humanity of people in every nation, the US peace movement needs to join hands with the peace movements of other lands in forging a powerful worldwide movement. The problem of war, like the problem of climate change, is global, and ultimately only a worldwide movement can address it effectively. Moreover, the United Nations must be strengthened and its decisions recognized as international law. Established to “end the scourge of war,” this international organization, long snubbed by powerful countries, was founded as (and remains) the only legitimate guarantor of international security. Fortunately, we don’t have to reinvent it―only emphasize that empowering it is the alternative to reckless militarism.

In recent decades, the world peace movement and the United Nations have been working closely together. It’s this alliance that has the greatest potential for developing a peaceful world.

Meredith Horowski

The Investment Problem

In his analysis of the anemic peace movement, Daniel May calls for a new populist uprising against war and imperialism. But he argues that we won’t see such an uprising until that fight is connected to growing outrage against the corporate powers that promote militarism.

May is right about the vision, and he’s right about the strategy. But as of now there is no one ready to fuel its creation—or to support it once it has arrived.

This new peace movement—one powerful enough to stave off whatever violence the Trump administration has in store—will require risk-taking, emphasis on diversity, grassroots energy, and committed funder support. It will be intersectional, unapologetic, and led by the people most impacted by state-sponsored violence—people of color, women, refugees, veterans—all of whom are currently relegated to the sidelines.

But the tectonic shift necessary to activate this new movement will not be driven or sustained by the small community of think tanks, nonprofits, lobbyists, and funders that currently occupy the peace-and-security space. The community’s deliberations are dominated by risk-averse funding and stale policy initiatives, and the people doing the talking largely reflect the military and government institutions they seek to change: old, white, and male. The lack of diverse voices starves the field of creativity and innovation, while ensuring the solutions it develops will never meet the needs of vulnerable communities most impacted.

If we expect people to join our movements, we need to invest in grassroots strategies that can actually reach them. According to an analysis by the Peace and Security Funders group, foundations in this space make up less than one percent of total foundation giving. In 2013, that was just $283 million, far less than the roughly $2 billion provided that year for human-rights work. And just 2 percent of that sum (about $6 million) goes to “public education” globally. The CEO of Lockheed Martin pockets five times that amount every year.

This all but guarantees that a powerful new peace movement will have to come from outside the one that exists today. Eventually, it will leave the old-school network behind.

Peace-and-security funder priorities entrench a top-down, DC-based approach that prizes research and intellectual arguments over grassroots support and rewards incremental policy wins over long-term power-building. The results are neutered messages and narrowly focused campaigns that are utterly disconnected from the concerns of everyday people. And it leaves those groups working to organize locally and mobilize new generations of activists starved for resources.

As the Trump administration gears up for massive military spending—including a major expansion of our bloated nuclear arsenal—and lurches toward disaster with North Korea, we urgently need to challenge business as usual in the peace-and-security space. We need humility from its gatekeepers and courage from its funders. We need to trust and empower the people who are most affected by the horrors we’re working to prevent.

And we need those who refuse to change to let others lead the way.

Debbie Almontaser

Bring the Peace Dividend Home

To revive the peace movement, we need to start at home first. We need a peace movement to remedy the critical state our country is currently in. War and hate have never solved anything. Instead, they have consumed the lives and funds by the millions. While we are at war overseas, Americans are at war in their own communities, fighting poverty, homelessness, housing shortages, education and health care inequity, racial divides, police brutality, xenophobia, and climate injustice. Merely surviving in this country, for many, has been a constant emotional, mental, and physical battle.

Furthermore, crowded schools, unemployment, and increased college costs are some of the many challenges Americans face every year. Little is being done to create new jobs or fund schools and hospitals. The American government prefers to invest in military hardware and immigration enforcement. All the money invested in the military or in trying to keep people out of our country could be used instead to rebuild the United States. One can’t help but wonder how this great nation, with the best universities and medical facilities, ranks 17th out of 40 countries in K-12 educational performance, according to a report by the Economist Intelligence Unit.

The money being spent on immigration enforcement and the military could be used in many ways to benefit the American people. It can help with creating new jobs; according to the Center for American Progress, it’s equivalent to opening 184 new elementary schools or hiring 55,000 new school teachers. It could help with childcare costs for working-class families and provide nearly 337,000 Head Start slots for children. Environmentally, it could be spent protecting the environment and reducing global warming; or it could provide 2.1 million houses with solar-energy panels, or weatherize 460,000 US homes. And that’s not to mention the impact it could have on humanitarian aid, which can provide 10 million life-saving HIV/AIDS treatments.

In order to revive the peace movement, we must press government officials to use their efforts, expertise, and funds to rebuild the economic, environmental, and educational system. To make America great again, we must focus on the foundation that has built this country and made it what it is today: immigrants. It is important to uphold our American values that affirm immigrants as a part of the American fabric. We also need to focus on developing a globally competitive school system, creating affordable housing, healing the racial and religious divides in our communities, making health care affordable, and providing more jobs that will grow the economy for future generations to come.

* * *

Letter to the Editor

In his fine piece, Daniel May gave us the facts, costs, profits, and consequences of war. The antiwar movement calls for diplomacy, the president calls for wars he can win. To win a war we have to make war. We are in a state of permanent war. What would “win” mean?

May calls for building the peace movement.

There are more and more gatherings in living rooms, weekly rallies, petitions, phone calls to Congress, letters to the editors, social media discussions happening now than ever. They focus on non-violent resistance. “Resistance has gone mainstream and has spread to all sectors of society…it undermines policies and orders that are un-American,” says Patrick T. Hiller, Director of War Prevention Initiative, Jubitz Family Foundation.

During the civil rights movement and the Vietnam, war we had moral authorities. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rev. William Sloane Coffin spoke truth to power, provided protest leadership.

Moral authority today comes from the grassroots. There is a conscience in America.

On April 29, we will have an opportunity to grow the movements when, organizations, and individuals fearing the effects of global climate change gather in Washington. Climate change is apocalyptic, like nuclear war. One takes time, the other destroys immediately. The consequences of both are irreversible.

The president wants a nuclear force second to none. We already have that, with 7,000 of the world’s 15,000 nuclear weapons.

Loose talk today about limited nuclear war or small nuclear weapons is frighteningly irresponsible. Japan and South Korea joining the nuclear club would be illegal and extremely dangerous.

Meeting North Korea’s nuclear capacity with a preemptive nuclear strike is how Gandhi described an eye for an eye making the whole world blind.

North Korea has engaged in attention-getting, irresponsible nuclear buildup. Bombing abandons diplomacy, which succeeded with the Iran Deal, reopening relations with Cuba, and ending the war in Colombia. Talks without pre-conditions deserve a chance.

Let’s double the size of the march on April 29th by bringing together the peace and climate movements. We have much in common and much to gain, and even more to lose if we stay apart. The movements don’t have to merge. We can teach the Earth Charter in peace education, which already includes sustainable development. Climate folks can learn about environmental damage from radiation.

The Women’s March brought together different causes, strengthening all of our voices. We can do that again to save the planet from climate change and nuclear war.

UN Representative, International Peace Bureau
New York City

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