Bruce Kent, President of the International Peace Bureau (IPB) and former General Secretary of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in Britain, had this conversation with Rob Prince at the IPB Conference last fall in Toronto. The photo here is of Bruce with a dummy doll of Brian Mulroney.
Rob Prince: This peace conference comes at a rather unique time in history, after the suppression of the at-tempted coup in the Soviet Union. How do you see these changes in the Soviet Union and in Eastern Europe over these last few years as affecting the struggle for peace in the world?
Bruce Kent: One change is of course that nobody can now suggest that the Soviet Union is a monolithic power that can suddenly sweep westwards. People were fed that for years and that is now quite impossible.
I think what is also positive is the power of ordinary people to actually bring down governments. Nobody ever expected a rising in East Germany or for the Berlin Wall to come down. I won’t call it Gandhian nonviolence, but mass protest had a positive effect.
I think that clearly the social benefits of the right to speak freely, to publish, to travel as far as is possible, are all immensely advantageous. What I fear is that out of Eastern Europe may emerge a kind of nationalism which lacks a sense of global interdependence. The last thing I want is more sovereign nation-states on the old model—separate economies, separate army, that kind of thing.
Looking at Yugoslavia makes me fear that we’re just taking the lid off ancient animosities. I hope to God that isn’t happening.
Prince: How could the situation in Yugoslavia be resolved?
Kent: I wish I had a crystal ball. All I know is that we need a European process of peace-making which involves all the European states in the Helsinki process. There must be a compromise if human life is to go on, so let us find it through the Helsinki process.
Prince: Since the end of World War II, many people have been affected by “bloc thinking” supporting either the USA or the USSR. But now one of the blocks has collapsed and some people speak of a “new world order.” What are some of the challenges for the peace movement in this new period?
Kent: There are plenty. This old, one-sided controversy has not ended in a healthy way, but in a complete defeat for state communism. What it’s left in the ring is a very self-confident capitalism that imagines it has won.
I think capitalism is an entirely inadequate system which produces appalling results all around the world. You cannot make money the value of everything. The appalling economic situation around the world, the international arms trade, are all part of the capitalist system.
So unfortunately the end of the Cold War has meant another system
by no means a praiseworthy system-at the moment holds popular esteem. Now the problem of the peace movement, especially after the Gulf War, is first of all to reassert an interest in the United Nations and international structures. As a whole, the peace movement didn’t do that when I was secretary of the CND in the early 1980s. I was as guilty as anybody. We really weren’t interested in outside bodies.
The other thing is to interlock the new global concerns of environment and development and make it clear that we’re not going to progress on this unless we succeed in changing our priorities on militarism. The one trillion dollars a year we’re spending on war is itself a development disaster. We’ve got to change the thinking on disarmament in order to improve the other aspects of our human life together.
Prince: Can one speak of a position in the British peace movement toward the Soviet reform process right now? Is there a consensus?
Kent: The consensus is one of considerable pleasure. After all, Britain was the founding home of the European Nuclear Disarmament movement (END), which talked about the dissolution of the blocs, civic rights for everybody, an end to the divisions of Europe, and so forth. And that is what is happening.
Prince: It seems that half of the END agenda was realized. One of the blocs dissolved. What about the other one? What’s the European peace movement’s thinking about NATO’s continued existence?
Kent: It’s very disappointing. It’s hard to make it a focused campaign but we’re all totally opposed to the idea of NATO being a rapid deployment force to do whatever it likes anywhere around the world, which is what George Bush’s new world order amounts to.
We want NATO dissolved. It was founded for a particular purpose. The purpose is gone. So why the institution? We had in Europe through the Helsinki process the possibility of quite a different foundation-even through the Council of Europe we had a different East-West basis.
But NATO is a military force looking for a target. It doesn’t know what it is for. It’s a dangerous thing to have around. There are things that NATO is doing like trying to bring in new tactical air-to-surface missiles and all this nonsense. They’re supporting the old fashioned first use nuclear policies with new weapons. There’s a lot of opposition to that but we haven’t really got a tactic of how to dissolve NATO.
There’s a lot of institutional inertia: people earning extremely good salaries and great prestige who like that kind of life. What will they do if NATO disappears?
Prince: Much attention in the past few years has focused on developments in US-Soviet nuclear disarmament. But often the nuclear arsenals of France and Britain are overlooked. What are the possibilities for French and British nuclear disarmament?
Kent: France and Britain are just as nationalist as America. Many in Britain argue that we have nuclear weapons actually not because they defend us militarily against anything, but because we imagine that we’re a great power. The French have the same logic.
I see no reason in logic or morality why, if the Soviets and the Americans can’t keep nuclear weapons, then other countries can have them. It’s meaningless, but that is what we are trying to do because we’re not honoring the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
I would like to see Americans using their leverage to stop Britain from continuing with this business. The peacemaking Americans should found a lobby to prevent America from selling or leasing to us Trident missiles.
A lot of peacemaking people in foreign offices don’t want first use nuclear weapons, warfighting weapons, but in the back of their heads they believe that nuclear weapons actually keep a kind of stability and peace. And nobody’s really talking about the practical politics of a country getting rid of them. Until somebody starts talking about that, then I think we’re going to have proliferation on our hands, inevitably.
Prince: So even after five or six years of “new thinking,” the INF Treaty, important cuts in conventional arms in Europe, START, the basic principles of deterrence are still upheld in official British circles?
Kent: No doubt at all. Our own Labour Party has completely bowed down to a very right wing media which has convinced people that nuclear weapons amount to security for Britain. Our Labour Party, faced with the fact that 60% of the population think that, has changed its policy. The Labour Party is now in the peculiar position of saying that nuclear weapons have no military purpose but they’re “good for negotiating” so we’re going to keep them to negotiate with-which is a kind of “trying to square the circle” -it won’t work.
Prince: Britain’s economy is in a state of decline. Isn’t the country ripe for some kind of movement to cut military spending and to reorient the economy in a more socially viable direction?
Kent: Before the Gulf War there was mass feeling that it was time to beat swords into ploughshares. The Labour Party in ’89 received unanimously, almost, a vote in that direction. It looked very positive. but the leadership of the Labour Party-and I concentrate on that because it’s the only alternative we have-didn’t take to that very well. They put it on the back burner.
The real reason this goes on is that we have in Britain about a million people who owe their livelihoods directly and indirectly to military industry, to the ministry of defence-civil servants, research scientists. A million. It’s one of the biggest employee blocs in the whole country.
We’re not thinking about conversion. There is no national agency for redirecting the economy. When it gets down to saying, “we’re going to close this factory which makes these missiles” then of course that’s votes down the drain for the party that takes that on.
Prince: In the USA there was considerable support for the Gulf War, despite the efforts of the peace movement. What was the response of the British peace movement to the war? What’s the thinking in the country now that the war is over?
Kent: Let’s take it in reverse order.
Today many, many people who were for the war have serious second thoughts because they realize that it solved nothing. Saddam Hussein’s in power. There’s torture in Kuwait. The Kurds are in a terrible situation with the Turks and with the Iraqis. The Shi’ite minority has not been treated justly.
The Palestinian issue isn’t settled. We now know to some extent how many were killed and about the manipulation of the media during the war.
So a lot of people have changed their minds.
But once the war started, yes, 80% of the people in our country were for the war. The two main newspapers, the Sun and the Mirror told them to be: “support the war—support our boys.” And so thinking really stopped.
CND and other peace groups were in a difficult position because the major political parties—apart from the minority ones like the Greens or the Scottish Nationalist Party—the two major parties took the same line on the war. And so we were marginalized with a number of people who actually supported Saddam Hussein. They thought he was an arm against Imperialism and that sort of business.
We carried on bravely. We had a lot of rallies, we wrote letters, and I think we articulated a lot of decent peoples’ feelings-but we were marginalized.
Mrs. Thatcher saw George Bush in August. Apparently she said, “George, this is no time for wobbling.” And I think that she gave Bush the lessons of the Falklands War. A successful war is the best thing politically you can possibly have.
Bush’s line was that negotiations were nonsense. He was set on a war from the first week of October.
Rob Prince has worked for the World Peace Council in Helsinki and is presently a teacher in Colorado.