And He shall judge among many people, and rebuke strong nations afar off; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up a sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more."
Micah: 4: 1-3
"We have a secret weapon ... we will deprive America of The Enemy. And how [then will] you justify ... the military expenditures that bleed America white?"
Georgi Arbatov, Director
Soviet Institute of the US and Canada
Letter to the New York Times, 1987
Is this any way for a civilized nation to behave? Are there not better ways to invest national wealth? Are there not more appropriate adversaries that might promote international cooperation in the face of common peril? Must these adversaries be national entities or international criminal conspiracies? Must they even be personal "evil doers?"
I posed these questions in November, 1989, at a Moscow conference on "The Ethics of Non-Violence," sponsored by the Soviet Academy of Sciences. What follows is a revised, updated and extended reworking of the ideas presented to that forum. (The original essay can be found here).
On numerous occasions near the end of his Presidency, Ronald Reagan remarked that if the Earth were faced with a common threat of invasion from outer space, the United States and the Soviet Union would immediately set their differences aside and would form an alliance. This idea was by no means original with Reagan. In his Nobel Prize Acceptance speech in 1950, Bertrand Russell said:
If you are English and someone says to you: "The French are your brothers," your first instinctive feeling will be: "Nonsense, they shrug their shoulders and talk French. And I am even told that they eat frogs." If he explains to you that we may have to fight the Russians, that, if so, it will be desirable to defend the line of the Rhine, and that, if the line of the Rhine is to be defended, the help of the French is essential, you will begin to see what he means when he says that the French are your brothers. But if some fellow-traveler were to go on to say that the Russians also are your brothers, he would be unable to persuade you, unless he could show that we are in danger from the Martians.
In fact, the idea that alliances are usually formed against a common threat is prominent in the thought of political philosophers such as Hobbes and Machiavelli, and on back to the ancient Greeks where, as Herodotus reports, the rival city-states, Athens and Sparta, united to defeat the invading Persian army.
Common to all these observations is the assumption that the "common threat" is the armed force of an aggressor and that the alliances disintegrate upon the defeat of the aggressor.
Space probes have now assured us that there will never be a Martian invasion (though a possible "invasion" by a comet or asteroid should concern us). How then might nations cooperate absent a common military threat? Must we look for new "enemies," or will common moral purpose and common human interest suffice to ensure global cooperation and peace?
In the same Nobel Prize speech quoted above, Bertrand Russell offered an answer which is instructive, both in its truth and in its error:
We love those who hate our enemies, and if we had no enemies there would be very few people whom we should love.
All this, however, is only true so long as we are concerned solely with attitudes towards other human beings. . . . You might regard Mother Nature in general as your enemy, and envisage human life as a struggle to get the better of Mother Nature.
Given the alarming news that is coming in from the environmental and atmospheric sciences, we would be well advised to regard Nature as a common threat. However, we would also be morally misguided to "regard Mother Nature in general as [our] enemy." Nature is not malicious or blameworthy. And yet, while nature is not a moral agent, it is, in an important yet figurative sense, launching a dreadful retaliation against us. For those scientists tell us that the same physical, chemical and biological processes which nurtured and sustained us as a species, have been so damaged and distorted by our thoughtless interventions upon the environment that we are about to face consequences that we can barely foresee or scarcely imagine.
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