It is not likely that peace can be maintained in the longer term without sustainable development. Similarly, it is unlikely that sustainable development can take place in a climate dominated by war and the preparations for war.
In order to assess the prospects for both peace and sustainable development, we must take into account the broad global trends of our time: political, economic, military and cultural. I will attempt to provide some perspective on these trends.
In the aftermath of the Cold War, there was a breakdown of the post World War II bipolar balance of power. The United States emerged as the dominant global power, while the Russians have struggled to maintain their economy and their influence. Instead of extending a gracious hand of support to the Russians, as the United States did for Western Europe, including the vanquished nations, and Japan after WWII, the US has sought to extend its global reach and, in general, forced the Russians to accept compromising positions, such as the expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe.
At the same time, the United States has generally opposed the expansion of international law, including human rights law, and has withdrawn its support from many key treaty commitments, including the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the International Criminal Court, the Kyoto Accords on Climate Change, and the Protocol to verify the Biological Weapons Convention. Almost daily there are reports of new US assaults on international law.
As the United States has sought to extend its power unilaterally, it has undermined the international political process established after World War II that operates through the United Nations. The US has withheld economic support from the United Nations and only sought to use it when the US perceived that its own interests could be directly advanced, as in the cases of the Persian Gulf War and the more recent US-led war on terrorism.
In the past, new coalitions have formed to provide a check on one country asserting global dominance. It is perhaps too early to see clearly the shape of a new coalition that might arise in response to US dominance, but if history is a guide there will be one. Even without any major coalition of forces arising, however, the US will remain challenged by terrorists seeking to avenge themselves against the US for policies that have adversely affected their lives, cultures and countries.
The US has promoted the forces of globalization that have opened the doors for capital to move freely to countries where the costs of labor are cheapest and the environmental regulations are most lax. Despite claims by Western leaders that benefits would accrue to the neediest, this “globalization from above” has continued to shift economic benefit from the poor to the wealthy, and has not provided substantial increased benefit to the poor of the world. Nearly half the world’s population continues to live in conditions of poverty, characterized by inadequate food, water, shelter and health care. These conditions create a fertile breeding ground for terrorists committed to the destruction of US dominance and its imperial outreach.
Further, global military expenditures are approximately $800 billion per year. These funds are largely used to repress and control the poor, when in actuality, for a small fraction of these global expenditures, the conditions of poverty could be largely eliminated. Of the $800 billion spent worldwide on military forces, the US spends approximately one-half of the total. This trend has been on a steady rise since the Bush administration came into power.
The rich countries of the world have done little to alleviate the crushing burdens of poverty or to aid in redressing the indignities and inequities still existing after long periods of colonial rule. There is much cause for unease throughout the developing world, which is giving rise to continued low intensity warfare as exemplified by the Palestinian struggle against the Israelis and events such as the September 11th attacks against the United States.
In the post-Cold War period, the US has pulled far ahead of the other nations of the world in terms of military dominance. The US is able to control NATO policy and has used NATO as a vehicle for its pursuit of military domination. In addition to dramatically increasing its military budget in recent years, the US has announced plans for high-tech developments that include missile defense systems, more usable nuclear weapons and the weaponization of space.
Despite its push for global military dominance, however, the nature of today’s weapons limit the possibility of any country having unilateral dominance. Nuclear weapons, for example, are capable of destroying cities, and there is an increased likelihood in the aftermath of the Cold War that these weapons could fall into the hands of terrorists capable of attacking largely, if not completely, with impunity. Thus, the most powerful weapons that have been created have greater utility for the weak (if they can get their hands on them) than they do for the strong (who may be reluctant to exercise such power and also unable to if they cannot identify and locate the source of the attack).
The world is definitely experiencing a clash of cultures, but not along the fault lines of civilizations as Samuel Huntington has suggested. The opposing cultural trends that are most dominant are between those who define the world in terms of the value of massive accumulation and immediate use of resources (powerful individuals, corporations and the national governments that provide a haven for them) and those who define the world in terms of shared rights and responsibilities for life and future generations (most of the world’s people). The former values, reflected predominantly by the economic elites in the United States and many other countries and constantly on display through various forms of media, do not promote sustainable development, wreak havoc on the poor of the world and invite retaliation. The latter values are reflected in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the growing body of international human rights law that has developed since World War II.
The dominant world trends today are:
- Unilateralism by the United States and a downplaying of collective political responsibility;
- Growing and increasingly desperate economic disparity between the world’s rich and poor;
- A push for military dominance by the United States in particular and the Western states through NATO more generally, offset by the flexibility of terrorists who may obtain nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction; and
- The cultural dominance of greed and selfishness portrayed by global media on a broad screen for all, including the poor, to see from throughout the world.
These trends are destabilizing and unsustainable. They can change by democratic means from within democratic states or they can continue until the world is embroiled in conflagration. That is a choice that is available to us for a relatively short period of time as the trends are already quite advanced. The changes needed are:
- A shift to multilateralism, involving all states, through a reformed and strengthened United Nations;
- Implementation of a plan to alleviate poverty and economic injustice throughout the world;
- A shift from US and NATO military dominance to the implementation of the post World War II vision of collective security; and
- A shift toward implementation of international law in which all states and their leaders are held to high standards of protecting human rights and the dignity of the individual.
The United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development, set to take place in Johannesburg, South Africa in August 2002, will fail dramatically unless it takes into account these dominant trends and the need to shift them in more sustainable and peaceful directions.
*David Krieger is president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation and the Deputy Chair of the International Network of Engineers and Scientists for Global Responsibility.