The Children of Adam: Obama, Canada and Peace

It is in the field of nuclear disarmament that the Obama moment offers the greatest hope, says Doug Roche.

By Hon. Douglas Roche, O.C. | 2009-07-01 12:00:00

The arrival of President Barack Obama in the White House is a transformational moment in world history. It is of the same magnitude as the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, which brought a sudden end to the Cold War. It is not just that he is of African-American descent, though that itself breaks new political ground. It is rather what he stands for: moving the world from a culture of war to a culture of peace.

Already President Obama has taken several remarkable foreign policy steps. He announced the closure of the notorious Guantanamo prison and the end of any official sanction for torture. He is winding down the Iraq war and moving US troops out of the country. He has opened a dialogue with Syria and has started a more constructive relationship with Russia.

He has opened the door to US policy changes in global warming, alternate energy development, and respect for science that may enable his country to gather international cooperation to solve problems. The respect he showed the United Nations in appointing Susan Rice, an outstanding scholar, as Ambassador to the UN and a Cabinet member was the complete reverse of Bush's appointment of John Bolton, whose derision of all things UN crippled the organization.

Whereas Iran was denigrated by the Bush administration as part of the "Axis of Evil," Obama's overture to Iran is spectacular. On its New Year, the President urged Iran to discuss "in mutual respect" the gamut of issues that for three decades cast Iran and the United States on opposite sides of a gulf splitting the region. The disputes with Iran, centering on its refusal to halt uranium enrichment, cannot be resolved by threats. Obama recognized the deep culture of Iran: "Over many centuries your art, your music, literature and innovation have made the world a better and more beautiful place." The president pointed to a future with renewed exchanges among our people, and greater opportunities for partnership and commerce. "It's a future where the old divisions are overcome, where you and all your neighbors and the wider world can live in greater security and greater peace." In the words of the 13th century Persian poet Saadi, he added: "The children of Adam are limbs to each other, having been created of one essence..." The contrast of Obama's inclusive imagery with Bush's slogan, "If you're not with us, you're against us," is startling.

One does not have to agree with all of Obama's moves to recognize the transformational nature of his leadership. For example, some have questioned his increase of American troops in Afghanistan. But his new policy is meant to dismantle al-Qaeda and the Taliban and stabilize the region. He recognizes that military means alone will not bring security and is implementing a range of diplomatic and development efforts.

As CNN commentator Fareed Zakaria has noted, the far-right's charge that Obama's emerging foreign policy is "supine diplomacy" is "almost comical in its fury." Obama has shown the importance of respect when dealing with the Muslim world. Bush preferred to issue maximalist demands, which will not work in today's world.

Obama and a Culture of Peace

Obama's two books, Dreams From My Father and The Audacity of Hope, have convinced me that Obama has a profound understanding of the elements of a culture of peace. These elements are:

  • Respect for life and the dignity and human rights of individuals

  • Rejection of violence

  • Recognition of equal rights for men and women

  • Support for the principles of democracy, freedom, justice, solidarity, tolerance, the acceptance of differences

  • Communication and understanding between nations and countries and between ethnic, religious, cultural, and social groups.

    A culture of peace transforms the cultural tendencies toward war and violence into a culture of dialogue, respect, and fairness. I am not implying that President Obama is ready for canonization. I am saying that he has done a startling U-turn in the manner of dealing with other governments. Just showing attributes of a culture of peace gives hope that the modern world may turn away from the path of misery and annihilation to sustainable development for all.

    It is in the field of nuclear disarmament that the Obama moment offers the greatest hope. As a candidate for the presidency, Senator Obama said: "I will not authorize the development of new nuclear weapons. ... And I will make the goal of eliminating nuclear weapons worldwide a central element of US nuclear policy." Shortly after taking the oath of office, he turned that campaign promise into an official presidential commitment: The new administration "will stop the development of new nuclear weapons." The White House website immediately stated: "They [Obama and Vice-President Biden] will take several steps down the long road toward eliminating nuclear weapons." The White House confirmed that these steps will include: work with Russia to take US and Russian ballistic missiles off hair-trigger alert; seek dramatic reduction in US and Russian stockpiles of nuclear weapons and material; and set a goal to expand the US.-Russian ban on intermediate-range missiles so that the agreement is global.

    These policy statements are a breath of fresh air. President Obama is now aiming for a radical new treaty between Russia and the US to reduce the number of nuclear warheads to 1,000 each. At that level, the UK, France, and China are committed to enter into negotiations.

    Other leaders agree

    Three former American secretaries of state (Henry Kissinger, James Baker and George Shultz) and a former secretary of defence (William Perry) along with former Senator Sam Nunn recently met with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in an effort to jump-start US-Russian nuclear relations. These high-powered former leaders have all come out for concrete steps leading to a nuclear weapons-free world. So has British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Obama is putting a team in place to develop initiatives. His appointments, including US Representative Ellen Tauscher, a consistent advocate for nuclear disarmament, as Under-Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security show that he wants to move forward.

    Obama and Ban Ki-moon

    Obama's moves are in harmony with the views of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who recently issued a five-point plan for nuclear disarmament:

  • All states to negotiate an international Nuclear Weapons Convention for the elimination of nuclear weapons, backed by a strong system of verification.

  • The UN Security Council to discuss security assurances with non-nuclear states, and convene a world summit on nuclear disarmament.

  • The international community to pursue institutionalization of nuclear treaties, including the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the strengthening of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

  • Nuclear states to be more transparent about the sizes of their arsenals, stocks of fissile material, and specific disarmament achievements.

  • All states to pursue the elimination of other weapons of mass destruction, including new efforts against terrorist attacks, and new weapon bans, including missile and space weapons.

    The Obama and the Ban Ki-moon agendas are cut from the same cloth. They now need a galvanizing centre-piece: the US Senate to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in time to give a spurt to the 2010 Review Conference of the Non-Proliferation Treaty; and a world summit to start the processes leading to a Nuclear Weapons Convention.

    Though Obama and Ban Ki-moon are headed in the same direction, achieving their goals is still fraught with obstacles. World military spending stands at $1.3 trillion a year ($3.3 billion a day). The Obama defence budget for fiscal year 2010 will be $700 billion, more in real terms than at any time since World War II, and more than what the rest of the world combined spends on defence. The American taxpayers are spending $110 million a day on maintaining nuclear forces. At a time when the US economy desperately needs cash for transportation, health, education, it is scandalous that so much money continues to be wasted on weapons that even military experts concede can never, in rationality, be used.

    Though Obama is trying to "flatten out" future growth of the US defence budget, the US's continued military might, along with NATO's expansion in Eastern Europe, act as an incentive to Russia to keep its military expenditures high. The Russian military will be given $141.5 billion in the next couple of years just to purchase new weapons, while one-fifth of the country's tuberculosis hospitals function without running water and 70 percent of newborns suffer complications.

    Unfortunately, the poorest of the world suffer most from arms races, especially during the global financial crisis. That crisis could be alleviated by governmental decisions to rebuild economies with domestic production to meet civilian needs. Last November, at the insistence of Costa Rican President and Nobel Peace Laureate Oscar Arias, the UN Security Council held a day-long debate on Article 26 of the UN Charter: maintaining peace with the least diversion for armaments of the world's human and economic resources. Arias put the case squarely:

    "The Millennium Development Goals were brave words, but they will never be more than words if we do not regulate arms or devise incentives to reduce global military spending."

    Clearly, by dedicating even a portion of the $1.3 trillion spent on arms to programs promoting the social, economic and spiritual growth of people, we would also promote new respect for life and for one another.

    The United States cannot by itself bring peace to the world. Yet the actions of the US will act as a catalyst or impediment to that goal. Obama wants to be a catalyst. As he argued in his book, The Audacity of Hope,

    "We will have to align our policies to help reduce the spheres of insecurity, poverty, and violence around the world, and give more people a stake in the global order that has served us so well."

    There is a lot of heavy lifting to be done to move from a culture of war to a culture of peace. President Barack Obama cannot do this alone. No leader can implement bold steps without a base of strong support. The story is told of a group of activists who met with Franklin Roosevelt in the Oval Office to urge a set of policies. The president said he was convinced. "Now go out and put pressure on me." A president needs "pressure" to face down his opponents and do what he really wants to do anyway. Who will help Obama to face down his opponents and build conditions for peace?

    Obama and Canadian Values

    Naturally, Obama needs domestic support. But that will not be enough to enable him to fulfill his potential to lift up the whole world.

    Nuclear weapons and the other peace issues are not the purview of the US alone. The obtaining of peace -- or at least the resolution of conflicts without escalating violence -- is a universal responsibility.

    Canada ought to be in the forefront to align itself with Obama's desire to rid the world of nuclear weapons as a step to a firm peace. Obama's values are the values that Canada has traditionally supported in the United Nations.

    But, as former Prime Minister Joe Clark has eloquently argued, Canada's international performance and reputation have fallen during the past 15 years. The government's foreign policy, which centered on Canada's combat role in Afghanistan, have reduced our diplomatic effectiveness. About four-fifths of Canada's security spending goes to defence, with less than 20 percent going to development and the remaining five percent split among diplomacy, democracy, and disarmament. The Obama transformation moment is a new opportunity for Canada to revitalize its human security policies.

    Here are five steps Canada should take that would assist both President Obama and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon:

  • Become a strong advocate for a UN world summit on disarmament, non-proliferation, and terrorist use of weapons of mass destruction, as suggested by the Blix International Commission, and offer to hold a preparatory meeting of interested nations in Ottawa.

  • Argue forcefully for NATO to review its nuclear policy, stop considering nuclear weapons "essential," and remove all of NATO's tactical nuclear weapons from European soil.

  • Convene a meeting of key NATO middle-power states, (Norway, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, Turkey) and the seven members of the New Agenda Coalition (Brazil, Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa, Sweden) to work out a joint plan to negotiate for a Nuclear Weapons Convention.

  • Invite Sergio Duarte, High Representative for Disarmament Affairs at the UN, to Ottawa for discussions with the government and a public meeting to elaborate Ban Ki-moon's ideas for global negotiations to eliminate nuclear weapons.

  • Tap into the well-spring of ideas of civil society groups in Canada who can take an active role in nuclear disarmament, as was done to obtain the Anti-Personnel Landmines Treaty.

    All of these steps will show President Obama that a like-minded, important country is solidly behind him. More, these steps will re-activate Canada's involvement in the crucial issue of our time: moving away from the threat of nuclear Armageddon. Such new efforts to preserve "the children of Adam" in peace can raise up our civilization.

    Douglas Roche was formerly Canadian Ambassador for Disarmament, then a Canadian Senator. This was his address to the Pugwash Peace Exchange Dinner, Halifax, March 31, 2009.

  • Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2009

    Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2009, page 11. Some rights reserved.

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