Peacekeeping as a conversion opportunity

By Anatol Rapoport and Leonard Johnson | 1993-09-01 12:00:00

The problems and consequences of converting a military-industrial establishment to new conditions became prominent when the cold war ended. No longer was it possible to justify almost a half-century of unprecedented peacetime military preparedness against reciprocal threats, the cost of which had reached $700 billion each year. This brought conversion to the fore, and with it concern about how to ameliorate the adverse political and economic consequences of sharply reduced military spending.

The armed forces and their industrial base together constitute an important and powerful sector of civil society, the fate of which cannot be left entirely to the mercy of the market forces. This is especially true at a time when the United Nations is assuming the role its creators intended, with new and expanding roles for peacekeeping forces. What should be the role of armed forces in a world in which major inter-state war has become unthinkable, but in which peace and security remain elusive? Creating and maintaining peace affords an opportunity to achieve an ancient dream with armed forces which have otherwise lost their purpose, and which will be eroded by attrition unless a new purpose is found.

The idea of conversion is at least twenty-eight centuries old. It was expressed by Isaiah in his famous prophecy, "And they shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Neither shall they learn war anymore."

Now the conversion of a war economy into a peace economy has become both imperative and possible. It has become imperative because the war economy is clearly recognized as both debilitating (through squandering both human and material resources) and dangerous (because it produces technologies which, if activated, can destroy civilization and possibly the human species). Conversion is now possible because the rationalizations of a war economy as "insurance" or as a "response to a challenge" have become untenable since the end of the Cold War.

Obstacles to the conversion of war economies to peace economies remain formidable, however, they can be subsumed under what could be called institutional inertia. Institutions come into being by serving certain functions, but this does not mean that they vanish as soon as they stop serving their original function or when the function no longer serves a useful purpose. Like living organisms, institutions seemingly have a will to survive. Institutional self-interest is a powerful force in human affairs.

Among these conspicuously visible and robust institutions is the global institution of war, which, despite its threat to humanity, is deeply entrenched in vital areas of social, economic, political and intellectual activity. Military spending offers something to every sector of society: to business, investment opportunities and profits; to labor, remunerative employment; to professionals, careers; to scientists and technicians, challenging problems and opportunities to exercise creative imagination; and to politicians, support in return for boosting economic activity in the regions they represent. Preparations for war distribute government largesse, addictive to those who come to depend on it.

Support for the institution of war, especially in technologically advanced militarized countries, rests on two conceptual pillars, namely, the notion that a war economy is a source of prosperity and the notion that military might is a foundation of security against predatory enemies. Neither conception is tenable. A booming war economy can only be a temporary "high," not unlike a fix produced by injecting an addictive drug. It impoverishes, since producing things and services which at best will never be used (and at worst will be) cannot possibly lead to economic well being. The Soviet Union has already been ruined by its war economy. How long will it take for the bubble to burst in other addicted states? Military spending has helped to create the fiscal and economic crises in developed and undeveloped countries alike.

As soon as the war establishment is seen as a global institution, the argument collapses that the output of the war economy contributes to security. Clearly the military potential of one state or bloc stimulates the military potential in others. In this way the national components of the global war machine are interconnected by a network of mutual instigation, reinforcement, and support. Once the global war machine is seen as of one piece, it becomes clear that the only thing it can defend against is itself, which reduces the defence argument to absurdity-and with it the conception of military might as a guarantor of security.

Absurd or not, the squandering of human and material resources continues, even though the hollowness of its rationalization has become apparent to the majority of the general public, at least in Canada. According to the 1991 Citizens' Inquiry into Peace & Security, most Canadians believe that their security depends on accessible employment, education, nutrition, and health services, and on a healthy environment. None of these security needs are served by the armed forces as their function is presently conceived. The spectre of an enemy attack or of serious encroachment on Canada's sovereignty is no longer credible. In contrast, detailed, realistic scenarios show that the resources absorbed by the war economy could be used to improve life. The statistics speak for themselves. For instance, the cost of a single EH-101 helicopter could nullify the need for food banks in the Toronto Metropolitan area for a year.

The resistance to conversion is rooted in fixations on short-term advantages to business firms, to individual careers, to short-run job opportunities, or to job security. Yet this resistance can be overcome if conversion can be carried out without major dislocation, and if the future of armed forces can be justified by new functions in the global situation now taking shape. To do so, the social function of armed forces must be redefined in the drastically changing global environment.

The Secretary-General of the United Nations proposed a comprehensive conversion proposal pursuant to the statement adopted by the summit meeting of the Security Council on 31 January, 1992. His report, titled An Agenda for Peace, names peacekeeping as the third of four functions on which international peace and security can be realistically expected to depend. These four corner stones are: (1) preventive diplomacy, (2) peacemaking, (3) peacekeeping, and (4) post-conflict peace building. Of these, peacemaking and peacekeeping entail a major role for military forces. In assuming this role, military forces become participants in the proposed conversion process, that is, allies rather than obstacles to efforts to establish a global, lasting, and just peace.

Borrowing some concepts from information-processing technology, we could say that conversion from a global war system to a global peace system involves both a "hardware" and a "software" component. Isaiah mentioned both. Beating swords into ploughshares was a "hardware" conversion; no longer learning war a "software" conversion to change the "programming" of political thinking.

In affirming the present sovereign state as the basic unit of the international community, the Secretary-General'sreport is limited to current possibilities. So how do we get from here to there-from a warfare system to a peace system? If action on a global scale is to be undertaken, it can only be organized and implemented by the existing states. In fact, getting states to act this way is a major global political problem. Nevertheless, the state is bound to remain, for a time, a fundamental entity and a principal actor in the international community.

On the other hand, the concept of sovereignty will surely be affected by the erosion of many functions traditionally served by national boundaries, as the planet shrinks and becomes a global village. Borders become porous; states lose autonomy and become dependent on regional and global community. Transnational corporations see the world as a single economic entity and electronically transfer billions of dollars every day.

Sovereignty is to a state what autonomy is to an individual. Absolute autonomy-license to try to realize any desire, any aspiration, or to feed any passion-is self-contradictory. Whenever one person exploits such freedom, others inevitably lose some freedom. Thus, limitation of some individual freedoms actually widens everyone's autonomy. The abolition of the right to blood vengeance, for example, actually enhances the autonomy of everyone. Similarly, the right (and often the duty) to make war is in some ways analogous to the right (and often the duty) to exact blood vengeance. The growing awareness of the obsolescence of war as a rational act of policy indicates a maturation in the international community.

We thus have, on the one hand, growing maturation and enlightenment at the highest levels of political thinking, as reflected in the Secretary-General's report. On the other hand, this trend is opposed by institutional inertia, obsolete habits of thought and action. The war system still exists, with its vast infrastructure-the military establishments, the armaments industries, the weapons research and development centres, the think tanks, above all the flourishing arms trade. Those who benefit from this infrastructure will resist all plans to eliminate it. There may be a way of overcoming their resistance, namely, by gradually but persistently changing the functions performed by the infrastructure.

Canada is in an especially favorable position to lead in this process because Canada is prominent among the socalled middle powers-states that have not acquired enough destructive potential to be major powers but which carry considerable economic weight. Such states do exert influence in world affairs. Canada, a prime example of a middle power, can provide leadership in setting a new global agenda. In fact, Canada already leads the world in the degree of its peacekeeping participation.

Canada can move the world toward "software" conversion by changing the principal functions of military force. Its influence depends on the record of its peacekeeping operations to date. While some aspects of this record are beyond Canada's control, it also depends, to some extent, on Canada's commitment and to its practice of drawing lessons from past successes and failures in developing further peacekeeping policies. If we pin our hopes on converting from a war system to a peace system, then we must make it work; we must expand this new and radically different military commitment and keep learning from experience.

The Secretary-General's report notes the current opportunity-which may be fleeting-to establish a stable global peace. With the end of the Cold War came the collapse of ideological barriers and a new chance to activate the U.N. as guardian of international peace and security.

The U.N.'s intended role could be established by supplementing peacekeeping with peacemaking, pre-conflict preventive diplomacy and post-conflict peacebuilding (wound healing). Authority for peace enforcement is already clearly bestowed on the United Nations in Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter.

Some, however, see dangers in any activity that can be interpreted as an escalation of violence, as can be the case with practically any use of military force. Indeed, many instances of military intervention, rationalized as actions in defence of peace and security, have amounted to just that. For this reason, the expansion of peacekeeping to peacemaking and peace-enforcing operations must be undertaken with the utmost caution. Military resources should not be spent on partisan or hopeless causes. The United Nations should keep the peace among states, not within them, and it should not attempt the impossible lest it fail and go the way of the League of Nations.

The appropriateness of military action as a contribution to peace and security should be judged in terms of its relation to conversion. Does the contemplated action contribute to redefining the role of the armed forces, that is, to the awareness of war as a moribund institution like chattel slavery, duelling, blood vengeance, or human sacrifice? Or does the contemplated action add to the prestige of the armed forces in their traditional role by adding "peace-making" to "war-making" or even by blurring the distinction between the two?

The military budget is an indicator of the answer. Expansion of peacekeeping and peacemaking operations entails costs. Are these costs met by increasing military expenditures or by curtailing obsolete weapons systems and associated industries? A piece of equipment is usually called "obsolete" if it no longer represents the state of the art, that is, if another piece of equipment can do the job more effectively. In this sense, a weapons system is obsolete if another system is more accurate and therefore more destructive. We, however, 'call a weapons system obsolete if the job it is supposed to do no longer makes sense.' The executioner's axe became technologically obsolete for its purpose when the guillotine was invented, for example, but the guillotine was in turn made functionally obsolete by the abolition of capital punishment. In this latter sense, most of the war-fighting weapons systems still on the drawing boards have become functionally obsolete.

Many weapons have been justified by attempts to surpass those of a designated enemy. Others are developed in anticipation of significant improvements by a designated enemy, i.e. in arms racing. Given the new roles of armed forces, such weapons should be curtailed or abolished. Military contributions by United Nations member states should be appropriate to the requirement and to the means available. According to the Secretary-General, the United Nations has not lacked manpower for peacekeeping, but logistics units have not been readily available. Here, the problem of conversion may be that of converting redundant specialties to those for which there is a need. Similar opportunities will arise in future over the provision of administrative personnel, political officers, human rights monitors, electoral officers, and so on in the post-conflict peacebuilding phase. Civil affairs, heretofore thought of only in the context of military corruption, as in Germany and Japan, may be a necessarily military role in the absence of civil government, at least until a civilian mandate takes effect. Conversion of armed forces from warfighting to peacemaking requires software conversion no less demanding or satisfying than mastery of newweaponry.

Finally, all peace operations must be under the auspices of the United Nations, and they should provide for the utmost safety of personnel involved. The job of peacekeepers and peacemakers should be to save lives, and they must feel that their lives are as precious as the lives they are saving.

The ultimate aim of human civilization should be the abolition of the institution of war. However, all institutions, including that of war, tenaciously defend their own existence. Outright abolition therefore falls outside the realm of practical politics. Some will say that any softening of the military ethos of self-sacrifice will have fatal, though unforeseeable, consequences to the state. Still, the future of soldiering can and should be bloodless and the role of the armed forces is to help to make it so.

Peacemaking, peace enforcement, and peacekeeping are channels of conversion for those who have chosen their careers in the sincere belief that the military profession is indispensable and honorable, but who have come to doubt the relevance of their vocation.

The Secretary-General's Agenda for Peace offers full scope for the military virtues of steadfastness, valor, loyalty, chivalry and selflessness and, above all, camaraderie and cooperation as a way of life. These qualities have become irrelevant in the obscenities of high-tech warfare, but they can be revived in the peacemaker-peacekeeper. Cutbacks and job losses, the bugaboo of "peace scares," can be minimized by gradual conversion as an approach toward abolition. In this way institutional inertia can be overcome that would prevent the abolition of war.

We support the expansion of peacekeeping activities to include preventive diplomacy, peacemaking and peacebuilding, provided they are incorporated into a long-term policy aimed at the ultimate abolition of war.

Anatol Rapoport is Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Toronto. Leonard V Johnson, a retired Major-General, is a member of Generals for Peace and Disarmament and is chair of both Canadian Pugwash Group and Project Ploughshares.

Peace Magazine Sep-Oct 1993

Peace Magazine Sep-Oct 1993, page 12. Some rights reserved.

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