Tuesday, March 27, 2012

From Israel, a Declaration of Interdependence

The fond foolishness—or was it?—of the Israeli graphic designer’s recent Youtube video (http://vimeo.com/12588276) declaring his love for the Iranian people and his pledge not to bomb Iran brought back the almost forgotten Christmas moment in the trenches of World War I, when soldiers on both the French and German sides put down their weapons and sang “Silent Night” together. Peace threatened to break out all up and down the lines until those pitiless realists on both sides, the generals, forced their minions to restart the interminable slaughter.

The Israeli’s video also brought back the memory of a powerful event thousands of us attended in 1984. To celebrate the achievements of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, my organization, Beyond War, had set up a live televised satellite “spacebridge” between Moscow and San Francisco. Large audiences in both places listened to the pleas of the two leaders of the IPPNW, Leonid Brezhnev’s personal physician Evgeny Chazov and the distinguished Boston cardiologist Bernard Lown, for reconciliation between the Soviet and American nations. Chazov played a recording of a healthily pulsating heart to underscore the reality that human hearts beat identically everywhere. The Moscow Boy’s Choir and the San Francisco Boy’s Choir sang together.

But the most extraordinary moment stole upon us unscripted. It came at the very end of the ceremony when the production credits were already rolling on giant screens in the two venues. Tentatively at first, people in the audience in Moscow began waving to people in the audience in San Francisco. Soon all of us at both ends of the “spacebridge” were standing and enthusiastically waving to each other.

Many on both sides began to weep at that moment, as if an emotional dam had burst. Was this merely a delusion, a facile collectivist sentimentality? Not in the context of the 1980s, when, twenty years after the near-apocalypse of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the placement of short-range nuclear missiles in Europe and the U.S.S.R. had shortened to a few minutes the reaction-time military decision makers were permitted before they had to make a decision to retaliate.

The understanding that thousands of peace activists, diplomats and leaders of non-aligned nations had worked to seed into the global culture, that we will survive together or die together on this planet, had borne fruit in a moment of human contact that leapfrogged over the pessimistic realism of the foreign policy establishment. One of these pessimists wrote a scathing analysis of the spacebridge in the Wall Street Journal, asserting that Beyond War had been duped by the Soviet government in a propaganda coup. But it was only a few years later that the optimistic realism of the spacebridge prevailed, and the Berlin Wall came down.

International relations today continue to run along a narrow track of competitive gloom: the “realistic” assumption, since it cannot be known for certain, of the adversary’s malign motivation. A prominent University of Chicago intellectual, Professor John Mearsheimer, a believer in “offensive realism,” warns us that just as the U.S. enjoys hegemonic control of the Western Hemisphere, the Chinese surely wish to achieve a similar hegemony in their sphere, and will need to be checked by U.S. power.

Leaving aside our questionable right to limit in another hemisphere the degree of domination we reserve for our own, what the distinguished professor’s probing analysis leaves out makes his “realism” offensive in the other sense. If the great powers continue to compete on the basis of the unknowability of each other’s intentions, they will have completely ignored the largest, and perfectly knowable, threats to their mutual security: the possibility of sudden catastrophe by a nuclear war that no nation can possibly win, or gradual catastrophe by environmental degradation.

Neither of these challenges require more submarines and aircraft carriers checking power with power, but rather a spirit of cooperation based in common survival goals—the very spirit we saw when Soviets and Americans spontaneously waved to each other and wiped out the distance between them, the same spirit demonstrated by a lone Israeli citizen, now joined apparently by thousands of others, shouting “enough!” to the folly of mutual nuclear paranoia between Iran and Israel. Out of such apparently quixotic gestures may come a better world.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Living Beyond War

“The great work of our times is moving the human community from its present situation as a destructive presence on the planet to a benign or mutually enhancing presence. It’s that simple.”

—Thomas Berry

Our Moment in Time

Because of the global nature of the challenges facing the human species, this is an extraordinary time to be a citizen of the earth. Ancient religious traditions and modern science agree: we are one planet, one living system, and one human family. The perils of our situation are both forcing and inviting us to wake up to the practical implications of this deep truth of our oneness.

Everywhere in the diversity of world cultures, from our most intimately personal relationships outward to the local, the national and the global, we find self-assumed, yet obsolete, barriers of separation. Humans have been deeply conditioned to divide into competitive groups: Democrats and Republicans, rich and poor, young and old, Shia and Sunni, Arab and Jew, Muslim and Christian, Chinese and American, environmentalists and advocates of unrestricted economic growth. This tendency toward “tribalism” has functioned as a normative way to experience identity and belonging. Our industrial way of life has raised a further obsolete barrier of separation between us and the natural world that sustains us. We assumed that our world was an inexhaustible supply of inert “stuff” over which we had been given dominion. But one glance at the daily news confirms that these various illusions of separateness prevent us from achieving sustainability, social justice, and fulfillment.

War is the illusion of separation carried to its furthest extreme. In war we define ourselves more in terms of whom we are against than in terms of those with whom we have so much in common. We even deny aspects of ourselves that we find it hard to accept, and project those same denied attributes onto the “other,” the adversary. ”Their” nuclear weapons are evidence of malevolent intent, but our own are benign, purely for defense. In a world that desperately needs to redirect resources away from militarism and toward meeting environmental challenges, failure to understand projection and enemy-imaging will be fatal.

A contemporary example of enemy-imaging is the volatile relationship between the United States and Iran, which got off to a poor start in the 1950s when the CIA overthrew an elected leader in favor of the Shah. In 2012 the American government made plans to bomb Iran, a country of 80 million people. But back in 2009 American media carried admiring stories of the brave citizens of Iran as they protested a corrupt national election. The aspirations of the Iranian people neither to be bombed nor ruled unjustly did not change. The only change was the temporary realization on the part of U.S. citizens that the Iranian people were not enemies worthy of annihilation, but lovers of democracy like ourselves.

International relations are too often based in competition rather than cooperation. Americans preoccupy with how to compete with the growing economic might of China, forgetting that if China and America do not cooperate to find sustainable sources of energy and continue to rely on diminishing supplies of fossil fuels, the effects of climate instability may become irreversible. Preoccupied with “winning,” all parties are blindsided by the gradual melting of the polar ice caps or the massive buildup of ocean garbage. Because there are so many people on the planet and so much competition for short-term gain, there will be more conflict, and more difficult decisions to make together about how to foster the natural systems that sustain us.

Our children and grandchildren will not flourish if we empty our oceans of fish and coral reefs, exhaust the soil that nourishes plant life, lay waste the great forests that form the “lungs” of the planet, or infuse with toxic chemicals the very DNA that replicates the structures of life. Nor would there be a meaningful future should we unleash the destructive power of the weapons that humans have invented. Even a “regional” nuclear war would be a worldwide environmental catastrophe.

A New Resource

At the very moment when we need authoritative guidance to address what seems like an overwhelming set of crises, science has given us a new map of reality that provides an inexhaustible resource: the 14-billion-year unfolding story out of which we came. Matter emerged from apparent nothingness; life emerged from the apparent inertness of matter; human self-awareness, wonder, compassion, and capacity for choice emerged from apparently instinctual life.

Because everything that is or could possibly be originated from the universe, it is the ultimate source of the wisdom we require in order to go forward. Within its overarching story nest all the religious, cultural, racial, economic, and political stories by which diverse human “tribes” achieve solace and meaning. As we look back at the phases in the formation of stars, galaxies, our own sun, and the earth, the universe story confirms we are part of a process of evolutionary becoming through all time. It reminds us that even in our individual lives we are always evolving, from child to adult, from ignorance to knowledge, from isolation into community. Our collective political life continues to evolve beyond the absolute rule of kings and dictators toward participatory democracy. And we are evolving beyond ignoring the fragility of our life-support system and toward awareness of our interdependence with it.

Our “perfect storm” of challenges is, paradoxically, the outcome of a success story based upon a simple evolutionary principle that cannot be ignored if we wish to survive. Four billion years ago, somehow, life emerged. Literally the descendants of stardust, primitive life forms grew in complexity and diversity. As they spread over the seas, the land, and the air, one overriding principle remained silently at work:

The future belongs to species that adapt to a constantly changing ecological landscape, and that landscape dictates the nature of the change required. Species that can respond to changes in the environment survive. Those that cannot adapt do not survive. The dinosaur perfectly exemplifies this principle of survival. Dinosaurs ruled the earth for millions of years. But when the environment changed in some fundamental way, probably the result of the impact of a huge meteor in the Yucatan, most dinosaur species died out. This gave other creatures with the ability to adapt the opportunity to flourish, and we, the builders of malls and highways, are their descendents.

The universe story reminds us that we are only one of many life forms in a great community of beings that share the earth together, all dependent upon each other for the vibrancy of their collective existence. At the same time, by virtue of brain-power and sheer numbers, humans have become the dominant species on earth—and so we cannot avoid the awesome realization that human understanding, intention, and decision will determine the continued health of our planet.

The human family, seven billion and growing, can no longer afford war, either with each other or with the living system that sustains us. Moving beyond war has become a practical issue of survival, and no longer an idealistic dream. We already know a lot about how to build a world that is environmentally sustainable, spiritually fulfilling, and socially just. Now we must reach deep within ourselves for the courage and will to realize these goals.

The Great Work

International institutions with the authority to enforce the changes that we know we must impose upon ourselves are presently fragile and subject to the competitive interests of hundreds of separate nation-states. Therefore the greatest lever of positive change will be the realization, individual by individual, institution by institution, of the reality of interdependence. This change of paradigm will have to occur bottom up, by building agreements among large groups of ordinary citizens.

How can I, one person among seven billion, play a positive role? There is no way not to make a difference. I am here, like everyone else, using resources, experiencing concern and conflict, and longing for survival, fulfillment and meaning. What kind of difference do I want to make?

The most powerful way to make a difference is to acknowledge and practice the profound personal implications that follow from thinking of myself not as apart, but as interdependent with everyone and everything. These implications can be stated as core practices for building the skills that will help us toward meaningful survival:

•I resolve conflict. I do not use violence.

•I reach out to adversaries in a spirit of good will.

•I work together with others to build an environmentally sustainable, spiritually fulfilling, and socially just world—a world beyond war.

Resolution of conflict becomes easier if we train ourselves to acknowledge the “shadow” of our projections, and thus to perceive that all other humans are fundamentally like us. From the perspective of the earth seen from space and through eons of time, there are no “we” and “they.” All war is civil war. Blame and preoccupation with what seems to separate your interests from mine are obsolete. There is only “us,” facing our common sustainability challenges. The means we choose to meet these challenges will determine the ends.

Allowing these implications to work in our own lives, not in terms of instant perfection but as a process, requires both an immediate commitment and a lifetime journey. The power for positive change always has its source in individuals who are connected to universal principles and who work with others to build agreements that form the glue of a viable world culture.

How Change Happens

Social scientists have explored how new ideas, first seen as too radical for acceptance by large numbers of people, move gradually through society and finally become the norm. Whether we look back at the ending of slavery, the achievement of the vote for women, the acceptance of hybrid cars, or any other innovation, the process is consistent. At first only a few heroic visionaries see the value of the innovation. The power of the idea attracts a larger group sociologists call “opinion leaders,” people who are respected in a given community. Once opinion leaders take on the innovation, it has a greater chance of spreading further into the mainstream.

There are two enormously encouraging moments in this process. The first is when a mere 5% of a population has accepted an innovation. The idea begins to have staying power. It becomes a permanent part of the cultural conversation. The second moment is when the idea has gained acceptance with 20%, only one-fifth of the population. At that point the innovation becomes unstoppable and will inevitably gain mainstream acceptance. Only 20% of American colonists took on the risky task of birthing a new country autonomously beyond the reach of European institutions. But that one-fifth was enough. The numbers of people who began to demonstrate for change in the Middle East over the past few years was far less even than 5%, but they succeeded in changing expectations in that part of the world forever.

Understanding this push toward 5% and eventually 20% tells us not only that change is possible, but also where we can work for change most effectively. Looking around us, we can assess who in our natural affinity groups might be open for dialogue. Whether we are students, teachers, business people, clergy, or service workers, we operate within a circle of opportunity. We can then begin to reach out beyond those familiar boundaries, just as hundreds of thousands of groups concerned with intercultural reconciliation are doing, to build agreement about our fundamental interdependence.

The human capacity to self-destruct, either suddenly by nuclear war or more gradually by the degradation of living systems, constitutes a change in our situation that requires an evolutionary leap in the way we think. Never before have we been handed an ultimatum of this magnitude. On the positive side, never before have we been handed an opportunity of this magnitude. At almost the same time that scientists and engineers have given us nuclear weapons or energy systems that cause unacceptable increases in carbon dioxide, they also provided us with the means to eliminate hunger and overpopulation, or to derive clean energy from the wind and the sun. They gave us inexpensive mass communication like the Internet that can reach into every corner of the globe to share diverse insights into our common fate. They gave us satellites and seismic detectors that can verify compliance with test-ban treaties; they gave us insights into the mischievous workings of our own psyches; and they gave us the ability to travel around the world and meet with one another on a person-to-person basis.

What would an environmentally sustainable, spiritually fulfilling, and socially just world look like? A strengthened United Nations would rapidly deploy peacekeeping troops before a conflict turned violent. The grotesque amount of resources presently spent on weapons would be redirected to feed the hungry, overcome disease, and restore the ailing biosystems of the planet. The love and compassion that the major religions have urged upon us for thousands of years , distilled in the variations of the Golden Rule, would become prevailing values. Conflict resolution would be taught in schools as a matter of course. Our religious, educational, commercial, and political institutions would reflect our identification with the whole planet and all humanity rather than a limited identification with a national or religious or economic “us.” This would not mean that we would have to give up our existing religious or political or cultural convictions, only that we place them within the context of what is best for the global community.

The United States has a crucial role to play in this change of paradigm. Our identity and national purpose has emphasized military dominance. We have become enmeshed in wars of uncertain purpose that have not served our security interests well. Instead, we need to lead by example: becoming a society that is environmentally sustainable, spiritually fulfilling, and socially just. Such a society would not be a target for terrorism.

The hope lies with you and me—and the meaningful work we all must share. We will not all respond in the same way, but if each of us, consistent with our talents and our energy, does something, together we can build a sustainable, fulfilling, and just world—a world where all can live beyond war.

“We stand here confronted by insurmountable opportunities.”


Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Murder in Afghanistan

After an American sergeant marauded through an Afghan village methodically shooting unarmed men, women and children, Secretary of State Clinton argued that “this is not who we are.” The president chimed in that we care about Afghan children as much as our own.

While high officials cannot avoid mouthing such mealy Orwellian pieties, that doesn’t mean that we citizens have to sleepily accept their mendacity.

Beg pardon, Madame Secretary and Mr. President, this is who we are. If we really cared about Afghan children as much as our own, surely we would not have so quickly turned to war as our habitual first resort.

No doubt Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama dearly want to wind down our feckless venture there. But the main reason war in Afghanistan has not worked is because official policy so closely resembles, especially from the perspective of the Afghans, the cool murderousness of the deranged sergeant.

It doesn’t have to be this way. But for it to change, we must look much more closely at ourselves and our militarism. It is hard to look at ourselves. We prefer the pieties, the easy stereotypes of “us” as good guys and “them” as bad guys.

And so we lapse into the role of what one anthropologist has aptly called “technocratic colonialists.” Our first and most arrogant rationalization for invading Iraq or Afghanistan is that we know better. We know more about democracy. We know more about the judicious “investment” of military violence for a supposed long-term return in security. We know “our” oil somehow ended up under “their” sand and we have the right to control it.

But two things completely undercut and negate this “superior” knowledge. First, we remain abysmally ignorant about the culture, customs and languages of the countries we invade. The best and the brightest brought us Vietnam by way of the domino theory that communism would spread through the region if we did not draw the line. They seemed to have no idea that a thousand years of nationalistic fervor ensured that the North Vietnamese would no more tolerate the Chinese in their territory than they would the Americans. We conveniently overlooked the fact that Ho Chi Minh admired Thomas Jefferson.

Second, in order to rationalize the subjection of distant peoples no different from ourselves to our campaigns of shock and awe, we have to think of them as subhuman—less real than ourselves. Inevitably and tragically, this means not valuing their children as much as our own.

The worst technocratic symptom in our condescending attitude toward the Muslim masses of Afghanistan and Pakistan is the malevolent use of robotic aircraft flown by remote control from bases on the American prairie. Is the impersonality of these dealers of death so different from the dissociation of the rampaging sergeant? In both cases damage is called collateral when it is pivotal, because it only gives a further spin to the wheel of revenge. The technocratic efficiency of our drones is altogether undercut by the loss of good will toward us. Meanwhile, as we remain bogged down in Afghanistan, Al Quaeda is said to have seeped into sixty other countries. Do we plan to invade them all?

General Petraeus wisely required his officers to read Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea. Through building schools for girls in the outposts of the Afpak region, Mortenson provides an alternative model for turning adversaries of America into friends. But building schools and occupying a nation by force will never work in consort, however much our well-intentioned military leaders might wish. It is long past time to admit that war does not only drive isolated men insane, war itself is insane.

Monday, March 5, 2012

The Rhetoric of Threats is Obsolete

When President Obama spoke to the powerful AIPAC lobbying organization, he provided the required red meat—America’s support for Israel remains drum tight, and war on Iran to prevent their acquisition of nuclear weapons continues to be a viable option. Mr. Obama's pandering (mitigated, in fairness, by his continued commitment to diplomacy) ignored Israel’s own nuclear weapons, and its government’s obdurate support for the settlements that keep eroding Palestinian territory. No doubt it seemed inappropriate to examine the ongoing suffering of the Palestinians with that particular audience—or even the potential suffering of people in Iran and Israel should the dogs of war let loose. He chose instead to use “us against them” language to strengthen his chances for election. Incumbents and candidates must do this in our polarized culture. Not only Jewish-American and Israeli conservatives but also Romney and friends will hold Obama’s feet to the fire.

Political leaders, democratic or autocratic, find it nearly impossible not to fall into the simplistic rhetoric of threat. It’s as old as the nation-state. What’s new is the destructive power of the weapons with which governments can back up their bluster. It raises the stakes in the war of words. The vicious circle of threat rhetoric becomes self-sustaining, fueled by the magnitude of the weapons and the fears they engender. Leaders of smaller countries take note of what happened to Kaddafi when he voluntarily renounced his weapons program. Proliferation continues, leading only in one possible direction—over the waterfall. As Einstein asserted, we cannot solve a problem on the same level from which the problem arose. There is no fighting fire with fire. Militant rhetoric is an escalation toward confrontations that will always have something like the Cuban Missile Crisis as their archetype.

In this cycle of escalation we deny aspects of ourselves that we find it difficult to accept—greed, aggression, secret manipulation—and project those denied attributes onto “them,” the “other.” We assume that “our” nuclear weapons are purely defensive, a deterrence against malign intent. “Their” nuclear weapons (or possible nuclear weapons program in the case of Iran) are the very shape of evil.

Even domestically we define ourselves more in terms of whom we are against than what we have in common with those we think of as outside our circle of belonging. This process has hollowed out the vital center in our politics, which Senator Olympia Snowe has protested by forgoing re-election. It fuels as well the unwarranted influence of media buffoons like Rush Limbaugh, some of whose advertising underwriters have finally begun to leave him as they ought to have long ago.

Failure to understand projection and enemy-imaging internationally could be fatal. Of course we should continue to call Iran’s leaders on their anti-Semitism. It might also help to acknowledge our own role in creating the unconstructive dynamic between Iran and the U.S., going back to our covert 1953 interference in their elections. Our stereotype of Iran as part of the axis of evil imploded in 2009 with the images of brave Iranian citizens risking their lives to demonstrate for more self-determination. Surely the aspirations of the Iranian people, 80 million of them, neither to be bombed nor ruled unjustly have not changed. The only change was our temporary realization that they were not enemies worthy of annihilation, but lovers of democracy like ourselves. Now in 2012 they are becoming demons again. Can we not see the arbitrary quality of this dynamic?

We need to base our dialogue with adversaries on the choice between mutual suicide and mutual survival, encouraging our leaders to use language that transforms vicious circles of alienation and threat into virtuous circles of cooperation and prevention. Robert Frost once wrote: “Nature within her inmost self divides/To trouble men with having to take sides.” True as far as it goes—but now the fission-power of the stars, which our scientists unlocked in the New Mexican desert in 1945 and unleashed on Hiroshima, challenges our inmost selves to move beyond taking sides and end our dangerous rhetorical games of nuclear chicken.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Syria and the U.N.

Those who have systematically blocked structural reform at the United Nations indirectly have the blood of the Syrian opposition on their hands.

From its creation, the U.N. was set up to give power and special advantage to the victors of World War II, an event now almost seven decades behind us. Since then the growing family of nations has changed much in its geopolitical divisions, but infinitely more in the nature and number of its common security challenges. It is in the interest of the entire planet to prevent a descent into instability in the greater region of which Syria is a part. When China and Russia vetoed condemnation of the brutal Assad regime, they demonstrated the grotesque obsolescence of the way the U.N. is organized.

The politics of who gains from Assad’s momentary success (or from the collapse of his regime, which is inevitable in spite of the present agony) in exterminating brave Syrian dissidents are tribal, regional, and very complex, involving consequences for Alawites, Christians, Sunnis, Shia, Hezbollah, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, just to name a few.

Still, one can imagine a U.N. peacekeeping force that had real resources and real teeth, and the kind of backing that could allow a disinterested, independent U.N. commission to set it in rapid motion to prevent or mitigate conflicts like the horror unfolding in Syria.

It is also important to bear in mind that though the media is focusing on Syria at the moment, there are five shooting wars presently continuing in Africa, leaving aside the deeply questionable, hideously expensive and now inconclusive U.S. initiatives in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Given how much the U.S. has risked in such unilateral campaigns, why do we refuse to risk ceding just a little power to international institutions that could end up serving our security needs better than we ourselves could? They could do this by helping to stabilize chaotic regions without prejudicing masses of people in other parts of the world against the perceived ham-handedness of the U.S. military.

They could also do it by addressing directly the implicit motivation behind the Chinese and Russian veto: the sale of arms. The shadowy world of the international arms trade does not cause the violence of war, but surely it intensifies it by quantum leaps. Lo and behold, the top five countries profiting from the arms trade are—surprise!—the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council: the USA, UK, France, Russia, and China (the USA being number one by far). Conventional arms sales complement the much-discussed nuclear hypocrisy of the U.S. and Israel, who are hell-bent on denying to Iran the very weapons of mass destruction that they themselves are deeply reluctant to set aside for the common good.

Hard as it is to imagine it happening, one radical reform of the U.N. would be to give much more power and responsibility in the body to those countries that, by simple indices, are most free of totalitarianism, corruption, and trade in weapons. Were I in charge of the U.S., why would I be afraid of ceding some power to encourage international stability to the leaders of countries like Costa Rica, countries that are not in the crosshairs of terrorists, countries that would be motivated to act disinterestedly in the best interests of the entire family of nations large and small.

One reason the U.S. government may be so fearful of giving over to the U.N. any management of conflicts that bear on its professed interests is that these interests may ultimately be not the welfare of all but the economic interests of a few gigantic multi-national energy corporations and weapons manufacturers and their representatives in the American Congress. But the same goes, surely, for the other permanent members of the Security Council. This may constitute one of the biggest bottlenecks to obvious reforms that would increase everyone’s security on this small planet. It is a choice between citizens demanding common-sense changes that strengthen the U.N., reduce the arms trade, and give new impetus to disinterested peacebuilding and peacekeeping—or more helpless hand wringing and name calling over tragedies like Syria.