Demanding a Peace Agenda

By Lawrence Wittner

The looming advent of the right-wing Trump administration in Washington threatens to worsen an already deeply troubling international situation. Bitter wars are raging, tens of millions of refugees have taken flight, relations among the great powers are deteriorating, and a new nuclear arms race is underway. Resources that could be used to fight poverty, racism, sexism, unemployment, and climate change are being lavished on the military might of nations around the world—$1.7 trillion in 2015 alone. 

The United States accounts for 36% of that global total. Military spending represents 54% of the federal government’s discretionary budget, and the military’s share will surely rise as the U.S. government implements its plan for spending $1 trillion over the next 30 years on “modernization” of the entire U.S. nuclear weapons complex. 

Given this grim reality, it’s time for those who would build a better world to demand an alternative agenda from the new administration in Washington—an agenda for peace.

One key ingredient is improving U.S. relations with Russia and China. This is not an easy task, for these countries are governed by brutal regimes that seem to believe (much like many politicians in the United States) that a display of military force remains a useful way to deal with other nations. Furthermore, Russia’s recent sharp hostility toward the United States and the demonization of Vladimir Putin during the presidential campaign make the restoration of Russian-American détente particularly difficult. 

Even so, the U.S. government has worked out live-and-let-live relationships with the predecessors of the current Russian and Chinese regimes—some of which were considerably more bellicose—and should be able to do so again. After all, the three countries have much to gain by improving their relations. This includes not only avoiding a catastrophic nuclear war but also reducing their spending on useless, vastly expensive weapons systems and cooperating on issues in which they have a common interest, such as countering terrorism, halting the international drug trade, and battling climate change. 

It is not hard to imagine compromise settlements of their recent conflicts. Behind the hard line Russia has taken in Ukraine, including the annexation of Crimea and military meddling in what’s left of that country, lies the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s expansion eastward to Russia’s borders. Why not show a willingness to halt that expansion in exchange for an agreement to respect the sovereignty of Ukraine and other nations in Russia’s vicinity? 

Resolving the U.S.-Russian conflict in Syria appears more problematic, given Russia’s military intervention to prop up the Assad government and U.S. talk of a “no-fly zone,” a measure that seems likely to increase the risk of war with Russia. Even so, why not abandon the U.S. government’s demand for the ouster of Assad, scrap plans for provocative U.S. military action, and demand support for a UN-negotiated peace deal for Syria? The U.S. government’s growing dispute with China over the future of uninhabited islands in the South China Sea also seems soluble, perhaps within a regional security framework.

The three nations could avoid a very dangerous arms race and, at the same time, cut their military costs substantially by agreeing to reduce their military expenditures by a fixed percentage (for example, 10%) per year for a fixed period, such as three years. This “peace race” would allow them to retain their current military balance and devote the savings to more useful items in their budgets. Even better, they could give the savings to a UN agency funding measures against climate change in impoverished nations.

A second key ingredient in a peace agenda is moving forward on nuclear arms control and disarmament. With more than 15,000 nuclear weapons in the arsenals of nine nations, including 7,300 held by Russia and 7,100 by the United States, the world is living on the edge of nuclear annihilation. Although the Kremlin shows no interest at this time in signing further nuclear disarmament agreements with Washington, progress could be made on other fronts.

One step toward nuclear sanity is to push the U.S. Senate to ratify the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Even if GOP senators block CTBT ratification, as seems likely, the new administration could take executive action to promote nuclear arms control and disarmament. For example, it could halt the $1 trillion nuclear “modernization” program, take U.S. nuclear weapons off alert, declare a “no first use” policy for U.S. nuclear weapons, and make significant reductions in the U.S. nuclear arsenal. An estimated 2,000 U.S. nuclear warheads are currently deployed and ready for action around the world, but the Joint Chiefs of Staff have concluded that only a thousand are necessary. Thus, even without negotiating a treaty, the administration could simply cut its deployed nuclear forces in half without any loss in much-vaunted “deterrence” capability.

The new administration could even engage in international negotiations for a treaty to ban nuclear weapons. Peace and disarmament groups have pushed for the opening of such treaty negotiations for years, and, on October 27, 2016, the UN General Assembly rewarded their efforts by passing a resolution to begin negotiations in 2017. Why not participate in them?

A third key ingredient in a peace agenda is drawing upon the United Nations to handle international conflicts. The United Nations was founded in 1945 in the hope of ending the practice of powerful countries using their military might to bludgeon other countries into accepting what the powerful regarded as their national interests. National security was to be replaced by international security, thereby reducing aggression and military intervention by individual nations. Critics of the United Nations have argued that it is weak and ineffectual along these lines and, therefore, should be abandoned—except, perhaps, for its humanitarian programs. But, instead of abandoning the United Nations, how about strengthening it?

There are many ways to increase the effectiveness of the United Nations. These include eliminating the veto in the Security Council, establishing a weighted voting system in the General Assembly, giving General Assembly decisions the force of international law, and creating an independent funding mechanism (such as an international financial transactions tax) for UN operations. Another idea, proposed in 1948 by the first UN secretary-general, Trygve Lie, is to establish a permanent, all-volunteer UN rapid deployment force under UN jurisdiction that could act to prevent crimes against humanity. It would provide an improvement over the relatively ineffectual “blue helmets” who are usually dispatched by national governments in the aftermath of a disastrous conflict and, ultimately, are controlled by these governments. Action by this “UN Legion” would be authorized by the world community and, therefore, would presumably have a sounder basis and occur less frequently than military intervention by individual nations.

Of course, very few, if any, of these suggested actions are likely to materialize during a Trump presidency without massive public pressure for them. Also, unfortunately, the American left seems divided over the appropriate role for the U.S. government in Syria and over the potential of the United Nations in establishing international security. A peaceful world—like the Bernie Sanders campaign—will require very significant popular mobilization in which peace and social justice activists play an important part.


Lawrence Wittner is Professor of History Emeritus at SUNY/Albany, as well as the author of Confronting the Bomb (Stanford University Press) and co-chair of the national board of Peace Action.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2016 issue of the Democratic Left magazine.

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