Sunday, December 26, 2010

What is Enlightened Self-Interest?


What looks at first glance like a difficult time for peace activism may in fact be the dark before the dawn. Remarkable developments have occurred in the way social change happens, as we know from such phenomena as the powerful role of the Internet, not only in U.S. electoral politics but also in citizen communication within and between many nations.

Literally millions of non-governmental organizations are springing up around the planet that share values such as non-violence, economic justice, sustainability, human rights, and gender equality. Grassroots energy is there to be harnessed for the long-term project of helping people worldwide see that endless war is not in anyone’s best interest.

Terrorism looms large in the minds of many as a legitimate fear. But too much fear can paralyze. Fear initiates a cycle of blame and retaliation that will only stop when responsible people encourage alternatives that address root causes and foster reconciliation among adversaries.

The cold war demonstrated for all future time that no victory is possible in a nuclear exchange between nations. Today the educational need is not only to make the case for the futility of nuclear weapons, but also to make clear that the costs of war and preparation for war are infinitely greater than the costs of addressing the conditions that cause war.

The environmental movement shares so much in common with the movement to end war that they are becoming one. Issues such as global climate change cannot be adequately addressed without a new level of international collaboration and a commitment to redirect the planet’s limited resources away from military hardware and toward meeting dire human needs.

The military-industrial complex is a powerful and self-perpetuating entity. Terrorism is a convenient adversary for this entity precisely because it is so difficult either to locate a specific enemy or to define victory—war becomes justified everywhere and for all time. This situation is also convenient for extremists—they can point to a pervasive worldwide occupation by foreign forces, energizing their own self-perpetuation.

There is no way out of this cycle on the level of war itself. Those in a position to act must vigorously advocate for the shift from a vicious circle to a virtuous one. Anger directed at entrenched interests is obsolete and irrelevant, because it both wastes energy and perpetuates the illusory divisions between “us” and them.” We are all in this together, military and civilian, capitalist and socialist, mainstream politician and street protester. The task is to demonstrate new models and possibilities that are simply better at getting us where we want to go.

Fortunately such positive cycles are in everyone’s interest. If the United States decided to turn from building new weaponry to building windmills in our Midwest, our need for oil from the Middle East would lessen, our carbon footprint would be lightened, and the military industrialists would have the creative and profitable task of producing more efficient windmills—or solar panels, or hydrogen cars. Everyone wins.

Established counter-insurgency strategy calls for an 80-20 ratio of non-military to military initiative, where at present in Afghanistan, at least on the level of spending, the ratio is 94-6 military. Though U.S. forces are aware of how crucial it is to win hearts and minds, they cannot overcome the fundamental contradiction between winning peoples’ trust and bombing them. In failed states that harbor terrorist cells, it is infinitely more cost-effective to build hospitals and desalinization plants and schools, or initiate micro-lending for small businesses that give potential mercenaries useful work, or send engineers and teachers and agricultural experts, than it is to take on the impossible task of exterminating an elusive tactic and a mind-set.

Even the most difficult ongoing “us and them” crises, such as conflict between Israel and Palestine or civil war in the Congo, are subject to the same need for a paradigm shift. Organizations on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide, realizing that violence offers nothing but further violence, are already initiating virtuous circles of reconciliation. The resolution of these seemingly intractable conflicts will greatly lessen the incentives for terrorism.

The making of peace takes as much resourcefulness, courage, and creative energy as the making of war. It begins with a personal, individual decision based in a clear understanding of where this planet has been, is now, and might go. It begins with us, with me. Our minds, our fears, and our resources have been tied up in a cycle of violence and blame that will never end unless we ourselves decide to change. As we wake up from this trance of war, we can begin to see where our real self-interest lies—in ending starvation worldwide, providing sustainable supplies of food and water, adequate medical care, shelter, schools, and help with the establishment of stable political institutions. We need to provide this help especially to those who think we are their adversaries.

When a virtuous circle begins and accelerates around the planet, and more and more people have access to the very basics of life, higher aspirations emerge in cultural, aesthetic, communal, and spiritual forms—which as they are realized, enrich everyone's lives, including our own.

In some parts of the world, such good intentions may be rejected at first, even violently. But military initiatives are rejected and opposed even more violently, and simply delay the inevitable moment when all parties to conflict must sit down and talk through their differences. In the long run, sincere efforts to meet human needs will be appreciated, and terror will diminish.

Behind all complexities of contemporary international relations on this small planet, everything comes down to two possibilities: either we will continue trying to solve our conflicts with war, and sooner or later nuclear weapons will be once again used on people—or we will build a different world, a world beyond war. Isn’t it obvious where we will find our safety and security, our true self-interest?

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