War doesn't work well. Here's a strategy for peace.

click to enlarge War doesn't work well. Here's a strategy for peace.
Credit: Dimitar Kilkoff/Getty Images/TNS
A woman crosses a destroyed bridge in Bakhmut.

In the Ukraine city of Bakhmut, fighting between Russian and Ukrainian troops has been going on for six months now. The city had 100,000 residents before the war; now only 7,000 remain. Many neighborhoods have been reduced to rubble by Russian artillery. The city has little strategic value, but it carries symbolic value for both sides, according to the New York Times. Both sides have sustained heavy losses but the killing continues. "This is what madness looks like," said Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky about nearby Soledar, similarly devastated and covered with corpses.

The war is escalating, as Ukrainian soldiers head for Oklahoma to be trained on how to operate Poseidon missiles the U.S. has agreed to supply, and Germany is preparing to contribute modern tanks. Russia has plans for conscripting thousands of new troops for a spring offensive. At first the U.S was cautious about what weapons it would contribute, and Zelensky was cautious to preserve his scarce troops. Now caution is becoming a casualty of Russian aggression.

Is there a logical connection between killing and freedom? Does Russia see a connection between destroying power plants and its goal of annexing Ukraine? War doesn't work very well. It just makes both sides angry, drained of resources and filled with sorrow. There are better ways to resolve disputes.

"The utility of war has become extremely low for producing desirable political outcomes," writes Notre Dame political science professor emeritus Robert C. Johansen, at the beginning of his 2021 scholarly volume on peacemaking: Where the Evidence Leads – A Realistic Strategy for Peace and Human Security (353 pages, Oxford University Press, $34.95). Especially these days, military war doesn't work against non-state actors like Al-Qaeda and Boko Haram, or non-military threats like climate change and cyber attacks.

And war can lead to nuclear devastation. The world no longer seems to worry about nuclear war, like it did in 1961, when President Kennedy warned at the United Nations, "Every man, woman and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident or miscalculation or by madness." President Vladimir Putin and former President Donald Trump both have publicly toyed with the idea of using nuclear weapons in the Ukraine war.

Is war a choice? Isn't war the last resort, when all else has failed? There is often a choice, and there would be a more viable choice if the world would spend even a fraction of its resources on building the architecture of peacemaking as it spends on weapons for destruction.

Johansen outlines a new way of thinking in his suggestions for exchanging the terms national security for global security and foreign affairs for world affairs. Thinking beyond borders, and beyond narrow national interests, could slow the wasteful arms race, for which the U.S. plans to spend $1.2 trillion on nuclear weapons over the next 30 years. Nonviolent campaigns oust dictators around the world more often than military campaigns, and result in democracy more often. Instead of being the world's leading arms merchant, might the U.S. become the leading exporter of nonviolent resistance training? The rule of law, were it to be established worldwide, could allow individuals to challenge their own government's actions in court. Dictators and bad actors could be arrested and put on trial before the International Criminal Court.

This seems unrealistic until the difference between political realism and empirical realism is explained. Political realists think the current nation-states and their ideologies are here to stay, while empirical realists think the status quo was created by people and can be changed by people. Political realists think "great powers are like billiard balls that vary only in size," while empirical realists look within states to explore for opportunities for change – as with recent protests in Russia, China and Iran. Political realists expect the stronger military to win a war, while empirical realists pay attention to the power of ideas to overcome military weakness, as the U.S. learned in Vietnam.

There are reasons for hope. There are steps being taken now – like rejoining the Paris climate accord and revisiting the Iran nuclear deal – that enhance human security. Promoting global citizenship through education can revive interest in neglected or impoverished regions of the world. Concerned citizens standing up for human dignity can "connect people everywhere with others struggling anywhere to live their fear-ridden lives in ways not determined by fear alone."

This Strategy for Peace is current in its details and strategy, but in broad outline not so different from the vision of Adlai Stevenson, the former Illinois governor who was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in the Kennedy administration. On Nov. 15, 1961, Stevenson addressed a U.N. committee on "Working Toward a World Without War."

"We must abolish war to save our collective skins," he said. He acknowledged that it takes "a strenuous intellectual effort to imagine a world free from war." But he proceeded to envision "adequate machinery for keeping the peace," which included disarmament and a stronger United Nations. A world without war would not be a utopia, Stevenson said, but it would be "a world both safer and more exhilarating for us all to live in."

Fletcher Farrar is editor of Illinois Times.