If the brutal and tragic agony of Syria today has one small glimmer of hope, it is that the great powers are completely stymied, blocked, paralyzed in their ability to resolve anything by military action. Were this 1914 and had we possessed nuclear weapons, the Syrian situation might have led to a war that ended the world.
But now we can see the old realpolitik tactics, supplying arms to the son-of-a-bitch that we thought of as at least our son-of-a-bitch, which never really worked anyway, completely revealed in all their emptiness. So why is this a silver lining? Let us not oversell. The complete inability of tribes and religious rivals to resolve their conflicts in Syria hardly bodes a future without war. History has not ended. Potentially there are terrible conflicts ahead, especially over scarce resources like water and arable land.
But there is a possibility that the great powers, first of all the United States, can begin to play a different, more constructive role, a role of war prevention. To do that, we must begin from where we are, where we are as a planet, and reconceive our national interest. Along with everyone else's, it is utterly connected to and dependent upon such non-military realities as that fish stocks in the ocean are close to exhaustion, or that the carbon dioxide in the global atmosphere has now surpassed 400 parts per million, or that global population is expected to continue to rise to between 11 and 17 billion people before it levels off. These are not problems with military solutions.
In this context, the cost of the American-led wars of the past ten years, based in a gross overreaction to terrorism combined with the misconception that terrorism could be eliminated solely by military means, has been a colossal lost opportunity for the U.S. Instead we could have invested much more in making the challenging transition beyond fossil fuels, or strengthening the food infrastructure worldwide—and we still could do that. Imagine having taken the cost of the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and spending it instead simply giving outright decentralized solar and wind energy, medical help, and education to people in the developing world. It is at least an even bet that this would have been a more robust preventative of terrorism.
Looming behind our thinking about conventional military force is the issue of nuclear war. Here again the amount of money spent for zero increase in real security is appalling, and the emptiness in the rhetoric of national leaders thunderously hollow. With the advent of the computer modeling of nuclear winter back in the 1980s—that only a small percentage of nuclear weapons detonated could cause worldwide climate change, massively shutting down agricultural systems—the whole theory of nuclear deterrence collapsed into dust. A remaining issue is the possibility of a terrorist entity acquiring a nuclear weapon. The only solution to both issues is to budget not for building or renewing weapons, but to forge treaties to reciprocally bring down the numbers of weapons possessed by the nuclear powers—and to secure existing nuclear materials. This includes pushing for the entire Middle East region as a nuclear-free zone. The alternative is mass extinction, which will include the United States.
The recent disciplining of a group of U.S. military personnel in charge of nuclear ICBMs who had become unacceptably careless with the strict protocols around these weapons underscores the reality that the danger lies as much in the weapons themselves in combination with human frailty as it does with who possesses them. The U.S. and Israel threaten Iran if it crosses a red line, but our double standard, along with the universal bad combination of fallible people and a world-destructive energy, is there for all to see. It is a kind of miracle that disaster has not happened—so far.
On the nuclear level, the obsolescence of war has long been crystal-clear, though world leaders continue to pretend otherwise. The situation in Syria provides an instructive example of that same obsolescence on the conventional level. It allows any policy-maker who possesses some genuine compassion for the children there, for everyone there, to say: we cannot help by selling arms to any one party, because we don’t know in whose hands they will end up. We cannot help by invading. All war is civil war. All war is obsolete for meeting our real challenges as a human family. Therefore the first step, the best step, even if it is only a humble beginning, is to ponder: what else could we do that might be creative and helpful?