Sustainability, Peace, and Security

By David V. J. Bell | 2002-01-01 12:00:00

What can be done to achieve the conditions of a peaceful world, one in which terrorism no longer exists? Or is this a pipe dream? It's at this point that the perspectives of peace research and sustainability begin to converge. The leader of the New Democratic Party, Alexa McDonough, urged Canada to press for a multilateral response under the auspices of the United Nations, and she encouraged a search for peaceful solutions to the crisis. Others cautioned against pledging sup-port for the "war against terrorism" until it becomes clearer what this entails. Some took an even bolder position, opposing the war. This underscores the striking contrast in the public debate about the war in Canada as compared with the United States. Only a single vote was cast in Congress against giving President Bush full Congressional approval for prosecuting this War on Terrorism in any way he chooses. The lone dissenter, Barbara Lee (a Democrat from California) spoke eloquently of the need to "pause for a minute and think through the implications of our actions so that this does not spiral out of control." Then, quoting a clergy person who spoke at the US memorial service, she said, "As we act, let us not become the evil that we deplore." Canadians were less unanimous than Americans. The public discourse in Canada seems to feature a much greater interest in understanding the roots of terrorism, and more effort to grasp the motivation of its perpetrators.


Apparently Europeans too are interested in "the Why question." They want to understand the motivation of the terrorists, who were apparently well educated young men. They lived, not in caves in the hills of Afghanistan, but in prosperous communities in the United States. What were they trying to achieve by their actions? British author Patrick Seale identified three possible motives: (a) to inflict pain, suffering and damage on the U.S. people and economy; (b) to begin to create a "balance of terror"; (c) to bring about change in U.S. foreign policies, especially with regard to the Middle East.

Europeans worry that Americans may not see, through their own rage and anger, the underlying political significance of the terrorist acts. These were horrible, cruel, dastardly acts - no question. But the tendency to "frame" this as a struggle between good and evil, and the concomitant black-white insistence that "Either you're for us or you're with the terrorists," is not necessarily an appropriate level of political analysis. President Bush invoked the "Wanted: Dead or Alive" poster in a speech about bin Laden. He insisted that the terrorists acted out of hatred for American freedom and democratic institutions. This I find utterly unconvincing.

More significantly, this framing of the issue obscures several levels of meaning under these actions. Linguistics scholar George Lakoff points out that "there are (at least) three kinds of causes of radical Islamic terrorism: a) World-view: the Religious Rationale; b) Social and Political Conditions: Cultures of Despair; c)Means: The Conditions."

World-views are not changed at the end of a gun. A successful campaign aimed at destroying the means by which terrorists have acted will do nothing to affect the world-view that underlies the hatred they feel for the United States. Nor will it address the social and political conditions.

Some Europeans and Canadians are also concerned about U.S. unilateralism. The Bush administration has not shown much interest in broader global issues. It has gone against almost every other country in the world in withdrawing support for the Kyoto Accord. Though the United States is clearly trying to build a strong international coalition to fight terrorism, so far it is insisting that the coalition follow terms set down by the United States instead of working toward a truly multilateral response under the auspices of the United Nations.

Given that the best defence against terrorism may not be hardware and troops but software and intelligence, greater coordination of intelligence between Canada and the United States will be seen as a high priority.

European countries, like Canada, are presumably bound by the invocation of Article 5 of the NATO treaty which declares an attack on one member country as an attack on them all. Technically, all NATO countries are therefore "at war" against this anonymous enemy.

But this is not like other wars. On the scale of war-like phenomena, "America's New War" may lie somewhere between the "war on drugs" and the Cold War. Like the Cold War, it is likely to be protracted. Like the war on drugs, it may be fought in many locations around the world, including of course in the United States itself.


The concept of sustainability emerged onto the world's stage following the report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, also called the Brundtland Commission, after its chair, Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland. Charged to find a new formula for economic development that would not cause irreparable damage to the natural environment, the Brundtland Commission settled on the

"Bomb them with butter, rice, clothing, medicine, and information"

concept of sustainable development, which they defined as "development that meets the needs of the present generation without precluding the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." Sustainable development is about the legacy we are leaving for future generations. The Commission's Report, Our Common Future, makes no reference to terrorism - the focus is on the dangers of nuclear war. When the Earth Summit was held in Rio in 1992 to translate the work of the Brundtland Commission into Agenda 21 and other UN documents, the topic of peace and security was omitted because it was considered too difficult to tackle. But the implications of social instability for peace and security are well drawn out by others who have worked on sustainability, including the World Resources Institute (WRI). In a series of future scenarios, WRI outlines three possible future worlds: a) Market World, b) Fortress World, and c) Transformed World.

Market World reflects a vision of the future that is widely held today. It assumes that free markets, private enterprise, and global market integration are the best way to increase prosperity and improve human welfare. Economic reform, privatization, and deregulation are, in this view, the key to the future.

Fortress World, on the other hand, focuses on the potential of unattended social and environmental problems and the growing gap between rich and poor to diminish social progress and doom hundreds of millions of people in a world divided against itself."

Transformed World is an optimistic vision of the future, one in which social, political, and economic reforms create a better life, not just a wealthier one. It assumes that human ingenuity and compassion can extend opportunity to all of humanity. And it points to tentative changes, already underway, that may presage such a transformation. To reach a transformed world, we have to address the despair. Missiles and bombs will not do unless of course we "bomb them with butter."

Kent Madin, who operates trips to Mongolia and other far-flung places, pointed out that a military response ultimately will be counter-productive. He suggested that we "instead bomb Afghanistan with butter, with rice, bread, clothing, and medicine." It might get the populace thinking about alternative political goals. He suggested that we also "bomb them with information" -video players and cassettes of world leaders, particularly Islamic leaders, condemning terrorism. Carpet the country with magazines and newspapers showing the horror of terrorism committed by their recent "guest," bin Laden.

We must sow the seed of a new foreign policy. Make the war against terrorism include a war against global poverty and suffering. Make it a war against ignorance and automatic militarism, against the culture of violence.

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2002

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2002, page 6. Some rights reserved.

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