The established paradigm of nation-states formulating their policies on the basis of a limited vision of self-interest is dissolving on every level. Games of chicken test the limits of deterrence, any breakdown of which could be fatal in the nuclear age. Many of our challenges, the climate emergency first among equals, are no longer solvable by individual nations, no matter how powerful.
This radical interdependency points to the need for international laws which, even as they seem to challenge the sovereignty of all countries, will also strengthen the common good. Today nations go to war because we feel the menace of aggression along borders, pressure into spheres of influence, or threats against resource interests—leaving aside the many civil conflicts within nations. Tomorrow a more authentic cause for war might become a given nation failing to maintain ecological resources, like the rain forests which are the lungs of the planet, because that would become a security issue for all—though one might likely assume that a nation or nations inclined to so powerfully punish agents of climate chaos would also realize that war worsens our climate emergency and that might restrain the warmaker.
Indeed, war with such a radically different motivation could, like our ongoing wars today, end up costing more than any expected positive result. If all-out nuclear war is clearly obsolete, so is conventional war, not only because it is a step toward escalation into nuclear war, but also because the disintegration of war (viz. Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen) compounds social and ecological chaos, setting up the context for further war.
Are there other models for strengthening security? One is the Marshall Plan. The United States had the hindsight to realize that a second world war had emerged out of our harsh treatment of Germany at the end of World War I and the foresight to obviate that with a generous peace toward Germany. Might it be in the self-interest of nations not only to talk to adversaries, but to jiu-jitsu all parties out of the paradigm of threat and counter-threat by offering Marshall Plan equivalents as a substitute for war rather than something to follow a chimerical “victory”?
Vast regions of Iran suffered major flooding back in April. How might it have changed the present dynamic of high tension if the U.S. had made aggressive offers to help rescue and feed the desperate across rural Iran? Our military represents an enormous logistical potentiality. My friend Adam Cote, a candidate for governor of Maine, managed to be a platoon leader while spearheading the “Adopt an Iraqi Village” program to distribute school supplies, kitchen and household items, toys, clothes and blankets to destitute Iraqis. Generating goodwill rather than fear changes responses, plans, and attitudes.
Another alternative is citizen initiatives. The vast majority of Iranians like and admire America, even as we continue to squeeze them mercilessly on the basis of the U.S. having bailed from a treaty the conditions of which Iran was by all accounts meeting. Iran writ large is not the Revolutionary Guard, just as the United States writ large is not the fever dreams of John Bolton. We desperately need to build relationships on the basis of common interests. It can be done. In the frigid depths of the Cold War, a small group of private citizens, working with the full knowledge of the State Department, successfully arranged a conference of leading Soviet and American scientific experts on accidental nuclear war. Much unforeseen good came out of this exercise, and it played a significant role in easing dangerous tensions.
With the failure of our gigantic military forces to achieve the vaunted “full-spectrum dominance,” there is an urgent need to make much greater use of non-military structures to meet on-the-ground challenges like literacy, clean water, and peaceful understanding between tribal and religious adversaries. One obvious model is Rotary International.
With 30,000 clubs distributed across 190 countries, Rotary is a planet-wide network of people who are building priceless relationships of friendship and mutual understanding on the basis of six crucial areas of focus: promoting peace, fighting disease, providing clean water, sanitation and hygiene, saving mothers and children, supporting education, and growing local economies.
It has for all practical purposes achieved its current goal number one, pursued doggedly for 20 years in cooperation with the Gates Foundation and others, of eliminating polio from the entire planet. Polio is now down to a few cases in rural Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria. Through models like Rotary a world beyond war is assuming shape, step by slow step.
The superpowers, blessed with apparently unlimited resources to spend on ships and submarines and missiles and bases around the world, irrelevantly jostle for dominance as the planet continues to wither ecologically. Surely a question worth asking is why the United States will not take on the Rotary model as primary, allowing military force to take its place as truly a last resort. Please don’t argue that we can’t afford it. We have explored the moons of Jupiter and the deepest depths of the Pacific, but the Pentagon budget remains a black hole that sucks into itself the very light that accountants try to shine upon it. If we could rewind the tape and could choose between giving the U.S. government the $5 trillion we have spent in Iraq and Afghanistan or giving it to Rotary, I would bet the latter could have provided massively more in real security.
For thousands of years war has been rationalized as unavoidable, worth the risk, a necessary fallback if we don’t get our way or if attacked. War has been used to exploit, to dominate, to exterminate, to acquire, to defend, to expand, to impose, to preserve, to preempt, even as sages keep advocating for the realism and practicality of the golden rule. The United States is strong enough to lead the way into a new paradigm of self-interest, where dominance is replaced by a global network attuned directly to meeting human and ecosystem needs. Anything less threatens everyone’s survival. If we can offer help to our adversaries because we see it as self-interest, a different world is possible.