In an age where cynicism is confused for wisdom, the world’s best chance for survival is bringing back the habit of talking about peace in the hope that it can become real.
The future looks bleak. Economic development and proclamations of sovereignty appear pointless under the cloud of climate change. What purpose is there to hold on to a piece of land if there’s no guarantee it will be suitable for human habitation?
And yet new weapons systems promise faster, more efficient forms of destruction at ever greater distances. US President Joe Biden assured the world that terrorism would find no safe haven in Afghanistan thanks to ‘’over-the-horizon’’ weapons, i.e. drones. Within weeks of that statement, the US military was apologising for obliterating 10 civilians, seven of them children, using that same ‘’over-the-horizon’’ technology.
What happened to the aspiration of world peace? This sounds like a stupid question, almost like asking what happened to the rotary telephone or the VHS tape. It’s hard to tell when that hope was born, but it’s safe to say it died on September 11, 2001.
‘’The towers are gone now, reduced to bloody rubble, along with all hopes for Peace in Our Time, in the United States or any other country. Make no mistake about it: We are At War now -- with somebody -- and we will stay At War with that mysterious Enemy for the rest of our lives,’’ American journalist Hunter S. Thompson wrote at the time, interrupting his regular sports column on the fledgling ESPN.com.
Thompson shot himself in the head four years later, citing the re-election of President George W. Bush as a reason in his suicide note.
Just four decades earlier, however, another American president, John F. Kennedy, had made a call for a world that did not need to live perpetually on the edge of thermonuclear destruction. It was on June 10, 1963, less than a year after the Cuban Missile Crisis, at American University in Washington DC. Praising the university, he said it was a fitting place to propose a vision that did not assume endless conflict was guaranteed.
‘’I have...chosen this time and this place to discuss a topic on which ignorance too often abounds and the truth is too rarely perceived--yet it is the most important topic on earth: world peace,’’ Kennedy said.
‘’What kind of peace do I mean? What kind of peace do we seek? Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war. Not the peace of the grave or the security of the slave. I am talking about genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living, the kind that enables men and nations to grow and to hope and to build a better life for their children--not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women--not merely peace in our time but peace for all time.’’
Six months after he spoke these words, Kennedy would be shot and killed by an assassin.
But it was not Kennedy the man who mattered as much as the moment in history, when nuclear peril seemed to be at its highest, and both Moscow and Washington edged away from a duel neither would win.
Can we survive the 21ist century?
It was also a moment when nonsense terms like ‘’over-the-horizon,’’ a piece of weapons-contractor marketing jargon, could not make their way into presidential speeches. After all, whatever is ‘’over-the-horizon’’ is still very much ‘’on-the-planet,’’ and thus incompatible with a peaceful world.
At this point, you may be asking ‘’Who cares what politicians say? They’re liars anyway.’’ And this scepticism is reasonable, surely. And the generation that survived World War II is nearly entirely dead anyway. Meme-lords doom scrolling through bloodthirsty and bellicose newsfeeds proclaiming the sub-humanity of someone or other seems destined to be the frothing footsoldiers of the future, and there’s nothing anyone or any algorithm can do about it.
But what if there was? Usually, we think of habits in terms of bad things, like lying or smoking or swearing. As the psychologist William James observed more than a century ago, there are also positive habits, like the honesty habit or the kindness habit or the courage habit. Is there any way to revive the peace habit?
‘’Rhetoric does matter. Hypocrisy is a tribute vice pays to virtue. Having American presidents talk about freedom, dignity, and all the rest means that they are, over time, more easily convinced to live up to those promises than if they spoke in the naked language of raison d'etat,’’ Paul Musgrave, a professor of history and international relations at the University of Massachusetts, told TRT World.
Take, for instance, former President Donald Trump’s insistence that the US invasion of Iraq was a failure because we ‘’should have taken the oil’’ as an example of that kind of shameless avarice, one that assumes the human-animal is only capable of beastly greed and the better angels of our nature are tales told by a sucker, signifying nothing.
If we are to survive the 21st century, as a species under pressure from scarcity and a mutated climate, we should strive to turn this grim assumption on its head. To put it another way, how do we make sure that a multipolar world does not mean a war of all against all, a forever war just with more flags?
Musgrave acknowledges how history can seem contradictory. How can a century that saw the birth of international law but also nuclear weapons offer any lessons to avoid the catastrophes of the future?
There were ‘’two parallel developments of the post-Second World War era: the development of a comprehensive international organization under the United Nations and the rift between the Soviet Union and the United States that caused the long, bloody Cold War in which tens of millions died and billions might have been killed by nuclear weapons,’’ Musgrave told TRT World.
‘’US rhetoric stressed freedom and democracy, even as the US government didn't always live up to, or actively subverted, those values. The same should be said, with some terms changed, for the USSR. This meant that the USA was simultaneously both the main progenitor of a system meant to prevent war and promote human flourishing and also in a position where its perceived national interests led it to oppose structures aimed at accomplishing that,’’ he added.
There are Americans born after September 11 who have become old enough to be parents themselves. Most of the 13 US troops killed in the Daesh-K attack at the Kabul airport last month were just babies that day. The children among the 200 Afghans killed in the suicide blast had not even been born. They grew up in a world where the concept of universal peace was not even on the menu of possible politics.
‘’References to a peaceful future have declined since 9/11. The reasons are probably many,’’ Cheryl Rofer, a political commentator and former chemist at Los Alamos National Laboratories, told TRT World. ‘’The reaction to 9/11 was that the US would hunt down and kill terrorists or bring them to justice. Not a good background for calling for peace.’’
Rofer noted that former President Barack Obama’s 2009 speech in Prague included references to nuclear disarmament and arms control. Indeed, it does spell out the grave risks of such weapons.
‘’When nations and peoples allow themselves to be defined by their differences, the gulf between them widens. When we fail to pursue peace, then it stays forever beyond our grasp. We know the path when we choose fear over hope. To denounce or shrug off a call for cooperation is an easy but also a cowardly thing to do. That's how wars begin. That's where human progress ends,’’ Obama said. ‘’I know that a call to arms can stir the souls of men and women more than a call to lay them down. But that is why the voices for peace and progress must be raised together.’’
However, littered throughout the speech were references to Al Qaeda’s alleged intent to build and detonate a nuclear weapon. Such a scenario is the kind of nightmare that nullifies the value of those ‘’voices for peace and progress.’’ In reality, the arc of history was busy bending itself towards a new arms race between the established nuclear powers, China, Russia and the US. Ascribing fantastical powers of destruction to terrorist groups, meanwhile, is as good as assenting to remaining in a state of permanent war to prevent them.
Fearing that Al Qaeda or any other group will ‘’get its hands on’’ a nuclear weapon has fallen out of fashion since 2009. It’s not something that the pro-war ‘’Blob’’ of national security experts seems much concerned about anymore, at least not in the opinion pages of important newspapers. But the scenario itself, legitimate or not, was a mind-numbingly terrifying one not long ago.
Just seven years after Obama’s speech, the threat from nuclear annihilation had changed drastically. Instead of some anonymous hideout in some rarely pronounced place, the threat of armageddon was coming from the American president’s Twitter feed, badgering North Korea’s nuclear-armed dictator with petty insults. Most people in 2009 barely knew what Twitter was, or were only vaguely aware that Donald Trump was on it. The national security establishment in the summer of 2017 was looking on in helpless horror as Trump, a former reality TV game show host, had suddenly been trusted by the American people with an unholy amount of power.
In other words, life comes at you fast.
Here in the year 2021, there is an opportunity for politicians in the US and around the world to reject the inevitability of endless war and, its corollary, never peace. There is not one single policy prescription to achieve this, but rather a reformation of overall attitude towards what we want the future to look like. Nuclear disarmament is one part of that, and an important part.
But the real challenge is resisting the urge to take pleasure in the suffering or failure of others, even people who wish us ill or those who don’t care if we live or die. That’s a challenge far greater than dismantling every nuclear weapon on Earth. Building an empire out of steel and blood is easy, building an empire out of empathy is far harder.
Political leaders must revive habits of speech and thought that take universal peace as a worthy goal. They should remember that they will take nothing of this world into the next, and their passports, of any nation, are destined only for dust.