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Friday, March 25, 2011

Why We Need A Department Of Peace

The first clue, lesson number one from human history on the subject of nonviolence, is that there is no word for it...while every major language has a word for violence, there is no word to express the idea of nonviolence except that it is not the other idea, it is not violence.

 - Mark Kurlansky, Nonviolence - The History of a Dangerous Idea

I went just a teesy weensy bit overboard the other day and jumped down my friend odum's throat for his intro to a post on "just war."  But I apologized for my original harangue, and the discussion was extensive and in the end I think fruitful.

What set me off was an implication of passivity in those of us who work for and through nonviolence.  That we reject military action in a mechanical, knee jerk fashion, then move on while exploring no alternative solutions to crisis.  Mostly I got pissed by his use of the word 'pacifist', which I hate with the heat of ten gajillion quasars, and it was downhill from there.

Now I'm not picking on odum again here, just providing some backstory to my latest blogifesto on nonviolence.  I think there is truly a misconception about most people whom you'd call "pacifists", in part perhaps because of the label itself (and others like "passive resistance" which Gandhi coined and later rejected), so I'd like to expand on some things I'd brought up in that thread.

Nonviolence is not simply the lack of violence, but really the refusal to use one tool in favor of another as part of conflict resolution.  As Gene Sharp, who catalogued 198 methods of nonviolent action, observes:

Nonviolent action is a technique by which people who reject passivity and submission, and who see struggle as essential, can wage their conflict without violence. Nonviolent action is not an attempt to avoid or ignore conflict. It is one response to the problem of how to act effectively in politics, especially how to wield powers effectively.

The key takeaway is that nonviolence is a weapon used from a position of strength, as opposed to weakness, and requires aggressive action, as opposed to passive inaction.  It has been successfully deployed tactically and strategically myriad times, and with each new victory and defeat we learn how to use it more effectively.

Since this approach is not simply avoiding armed conflict, yet still seeks positive outcomes, it is not a one-size-fits-all philosophy and rather recognizes the complexity and uniqueness of each situation.  No tool necessarily works in all environments.  For example, economic sanctions have forced the issue in South Africa and even Libya, could probably have similar impact in Israel, were disastrous in Iraq and have been largely ineffectual in Burma. So there is no deterministic formula in searching for alternatives to warfare and thus we really need serious R&D in this arena--lots of experimentation has already been done over the last century for us to build upon.

It's a field ripe for study.  How can nations defend themselves from invasion nonviolently?  How can nonviolence be brought to bear against terrorism?  Etc.

This is part of the great value I see in Dennis Kucinich's proposal to establish a Cabinet-level Department of Peace.  To some folks--including a friend of mine who ran for US Senate--that might seem redundant.  Afterall, don't we already have a State Department that's supposed to do that?

Not really.  Diplomacy isn't the be all of nonviolence.  In fact, we often use it in the lead up to war not as a way to avoid violent conflict, but as we saw in building a coalition to bomb Libya, as a way to foster it.  Even when not getting allies in line for war, State is sorta the good cop to Defense' bad cop--hey, negotiate with me because otherwise that crazy General Mayhem is gonna fuck. your. shit. UP!

The problem is we don't do peace very well.  We do absence of war.  A Peace Department would at least work to alter our default posture and:

  • Proactively develop policies, strategies and recommendations for expanding our capacity for nonviolent conflict resolution and for addressing the root causes to violence, both internationally and domestically
  • Promote, fund and expand programs proven effective at reducing and preventing violence
  • Strategically coordinate existing efforts within the federal government relating to conflict resolution
  • Through the Secretary of Peace, provide a voice at the cabinet-level for nonviolent approaches to both domestic and international crises and conflicts
  • Support our military with new peacebuilding capabilities desperately needed in the war on terror

  • Establish a U.S. Peace Academy, on par with the U.S. military service academies, to train military and civilian peacekeepers, and ensure the development and application of expert nonviolent resources in conflict resolution

Give the DoP a budget worth, say...112 Tomahawk missiles and I'd submit that's a great start.  Or 1 month of the war in Afghanistan.  Or maybe 1/100th of the DoD budget.  Whatever, we can quibble over the exact dollars later.

In any discussion of nonviolence certain questions almost always arise.  There's my old favorite, "would you kill somebody if they invaded your home and skullfucked your family?"  And then, "how could nonviolence work against Hitler?"

I generally observe there were many, many examples of heroic, tactical examples of nonviolent resistance against the Nazi regime.  But since it's all speculative history as a thought experiment, I note that while people did nonviolently fight back in 1943, it's more instructive to consider how people could have done so in 1933 or even 1923.

While nonviolent movements have earned success in a matter of days or weeks, as we saw in the Philippines 25 years ago, as well as in Tunisia and Egypt this year, to be most effective we have to take the long view, both as people-powered movements and state actors.  So in the case of Germany, if we better understand the dynamics of crisis and violence, perhaps the victorious Allies would not have imposed such a punitive "peace" on Germany--maybe even anticipate the Marshall Plan a few decades earlier.  Or in response to the Ruhrkampf, France could have accepted a more progressive version of the Dawes Plan.  Then we don't have things spiral out of control to the point that appeasement substitutes for genuine peace in 1938, paving the path for all out war.

Apply the long view to the Middle East and we can see similar historical inflection points.  Don't have the CIA sponsor a coup in 1953 Iran.  Don't support the Shah.  Don't get blowback in the form of Islamic revolution (which, BTW, was an example of civil resistance).  Don't arm Saddam during the Iran-Iraq War.  Don't launch a 20 year war against Iraq.

We can also flip this around from a series of Don'ts to more positive Dos.  Take Kosovo and Serbia.

Madeleine Albright famously called us "the indisipensable nation."  Not in the context of peace, but of diplomacy backed by immense military power that we must be willing to use.  She also complained to Colin Powell, "What's the point of having this superb military you're always talking about if we can't use it?"

So her hammer found a nail in the Kosovo War in 1998-99.  Would that the United States had proven itself indispensible years earlier when the Kosovo Albanians were using nonviolent methods to secure their autonomy.  Would that we had a SecState who complained to SecPeace Kucinich, "What's the point of having these superb Soldiers of Peace you're always talking about if we can't use them?"

Instead we only view ourselves indispensable putting out horrific fires instead of working to prevent them in the first place.  Fire departments remind people to change batteries in smoke detectors, teach children how to behave in a house fire and other things to mitigate the need for fire trucks to roll.  We need to take a similar approach to the world's conflagrations.

Again, history is what it is, so I don't know exactly how we might have helped Kosovo without letting the situation devolve into Serbian aggression and NATO military action.  I will also note history shows us that in the end NATO's bombs didn't get rid of Milosevic, who instigated things, but the Serbian people's nonviolence did, which this year inspired Tunisian and Egyptian revolutionaries.

Perhaps we can also learn from Otpor and the many other people who have fought for peace, freedom and justice with a powerful weapon.  Reorganizing our society around nonviolent principles can start simply by shifting personal attitudes from "that shit'll never work" to "let's think about how it can."  Then maybe we'll invent a word that uniquely means nonviolence, and the opposite of that concept will struggle to find definition in our language...


PS--A corollary from Yemen:

Across town, an even larger number converged on a square chanting slogans calling for his ouster and waving red cards emblazoned with the word "leave" despite fears of more violence a week after government security forces shot dead more than 40 demonstrators in Sanaa.

The bloodshed last Friday prompted a wave of defections by military commanders, ruling party members and others, swelling the ranks of the opposition and leaving the president isolated.

When NV is met with violence, it increases the chances that the people being asked to carry out repression will defect to the opposition.  If the resisters turn to violence in response--which is part of the goal of the attacks in the first place--then the regime's actions are more easily justified and the apparatus loses fewer components.

March 25, 2011 in Pax Americana | Permalink


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There is no such word as 'ahimsa'? Good to know.

This word is insufficient for me, however, because it is unattainable. Therefore I practice apakarshahimsa.

Posted by: mahakal | Mar 26, 2011 2:26:26 PM

Actually, 'ahimsa' suffers the same defect as 'nonviolence': it is the opposite of 'himsa', or 'harm.'

And Gandhi recognized its limits:

Ahimsa is a comprehensive principle. We are helpless mortals caught in the conflagration of himsa. The saying that life lives on life has a deep meaning in it. Man cannot for a moment live without consciously or unconsciously committing outward himsa. The very fact of his living-eating, drinking and moving about­necessarily involves some himsa, destruction of life, be it ever so minute. A votary of ahimsa therefore remains true to his faith if the spring of all his actions is compassion, if he shuns to the best of his ability the destruction of the tiniest creature, tries to save it, and thus incessantly strives to be free from the deadly coil of himsa. He will be constantly growing in self-restraint and compassion, but he can never become entirely free from outward himsa.

Posted by: NTodd | Mar 26, 2011 2:45:14 PM

Precisely what Gandhi said is why I decline the unattainable ideal for something more practical. Harm reduction.

Posted by: mahakal | Mar 28, 2011 12:49:28 PM

It's good to have goals.

Posted by: NTodd | Mar 28, 2011 1:09:05 PM

Yes. Apakarshahimsa is a goal. It is precisely what Gandhi was saying, without the word.

Posted by: mahakal | Mar 29, 2011 6:15:17 PM

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