I’m currently studying the advocacy agenda of Canadian disarmament NGO Project Ploughshares in the 1990s. This post comprises some musings on the nature of disarmament and human security in our world.
The thing I love about Project Ploughshares is its relentless and audacious romanticism.
The leaders of the Project, of course, would disagree with being labelled “romantics” and I don’t blame them. After all, we are a society of romantics run by technocrats, and we all inherently understand that romanticism is a beautiful dream that is constantly being punctured by the necessities of reality. Yet, Project Ploughshares’ goal of disarmament, which would require the nations of the world to put aside their immediate domestic goals in favour of distant, complicated, and multilateral goals, is a deeply romantic proposition.
Human beings do not disarm easily, it is not in our natures. We are chained to the inherent instability of the security dilemma, which posits that each step that one takes to increase one’s own security does so at the expense of one’s neighbours’ security. When the first caveman fashioned a club to wield in anger, it forced his fellows to either accept his primacy or get clubs themselves. When the ancient Hebrews multiplied proliferously in Egypt, the Egyptians pre-emptively enslaved them rather than live with the risk of their potential hostility. When Germany began building dreadnaughts in the early 20th century, it irreversibly destabilized the balance of power among European states and contributed to the beginning of the Great War.
The security dilemma is a fundamental political truth, whether at the individual, communal, or national level. Neighbours, not matter how friendly in the moment, are always potential competition, and each attempt to increase their own security constitutes a threat to us and ours. If we don’t we meet that threat, we become increasingly vulnerable, yet if we do, then our neighbours’ attempts to increase their security is negated by ours. This is how arms races begin, how the fundaments of conflict are built, and why disarmament measures are so rarely successful. Who should be the first to disarm? How can we be sure that our neighbours have disarmed to the same level as we have? Which weapons and technologies should be part of the disarmament program?
Project Ploughshares argues that the toxic militarism produced by the security dilemma has had terrible economic, political, social, and environmental impacts upon our planet. Our basic reliance upon weapons as insurers of security had brought us nightmarishly close to initiating global destruction, and the production and purchase of such weapons have burned through natural and financial resources at appalling rates. What would the nations of the world do with the $1.7 trillion a year they spend on defence, if national militaries were no longer seen as the basic solutions to the security dilemma? What kind of accomplishments could we produce if war was no longer a feasible political means?
The romantics at Ploughshares have long argued that security is not really achieved at the barrel of a gun, and perhaps it never was. The influx of weapons into an area destabilizes the region, irritates and scares the neighbours, and encourages the recipient nation to use said weapons to solve problems both foreign and domestic. The saying goes that if you only have a hammer, everything looks like a nail; if you have spent your resources buying weapons rather than building institutions, then your foreign policy is necessarily premised on your military power.
Alternately, the romantics at Ploughshares have pointed that true security, human security, is the basic guarantee of freedom from fear and freedom from want. In the post-Cold War era, most conflicts in the world are within states as opposed to between states, and they have proven remarkably resilient to pure military intervention. Why couldn’t the U.S, with its overwhelming military superiority, eradicate Al Qaeda? Because the Americans were essentially unable to provide security and economic opportunity in Afghanistan. There are all sorts of reasons for this, but one of the biggest is that the Middle East as a region has been a major importer of arms for decades. In a militarized region awash in weapons, providing freedom from fear (and consequently, freedom from want) is almost impossible.
The romantics at Ploughshares argue that, in a globalized world armed with horrendously powerful weapons, we can no longer conceptualize security as simply a matter of protecting our individual nations. The consequences of conventional warfare in places like Syria and Sudan have had significant impacts upon the global economy and geopolitics, and a nuclear conflict (such as a limited nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan) could plunge the entire world into a nuclear winter. The more interconnected and technologically sophisticated we become, the higher the global consequences of conflict. A vision of security that transcends national boundaries and communal division is imperative to surviving in such a world, and should consider sources of conflict such as environmental degradation and economic disparity with the same seriousness as military threats.
It is a romantic agenda, and one that has generated all sorts of chatter at the over-burdened and under-resourced United Nations. Yet I wonder how long we can afford to resist it before some Machiavellian practitioner of realpolitik brings us once again to the edge of extinction over an issue of “national security.” It is romantic to think that we could consider our fellow humans around the world to be equally deserving of security and opportunity. It is romantic to hope that the global North might stop exploiting the global South through a cycle of militarization perpetuated through endless arms transfers. It is romantic to assume that we could one day solve our problems through international bodies rather than by the threat of (or actual resort to) violence.
It is a romantic notion, but as the romantics at Ploughshares point out, it may be the only way we survive.