Bruce Kent

Castles And Boarding-Houses

Just as I started to write this article the world got some very bad news. Senator Jesse Helms and his friends decided to put the boot into the Test Ban Treaty. The US Senate voted against ratifying this treaty on which so many hopes had been pinned. Too many hopes perhaps, because it was hardly a disarmament treaty. At the best it was a step in the right direction, of considerable significance.

What motivated Senator Helms and co. was quite clear. From their point of view the security of the United States depends on being more powerful militarily than anyone else and that, they think, means retaining a substantial, effective, nuclear arsenal. Past rhetoric about nuclear disarmament has been exposed as the rhetoric it always was. The obligations on the nuclear powers imposed by the Non-Proliferation Treaty are simply ignored.

Helms is not alone. In every nuclear-armed country there are many in positions of considerable influence who are happy to use disarmament language from time to time, and who sincerely want to see fewer nuclear weapons and no nuclear proliferation. But the elimination of their nuclear arsenals is not on their agenda unless it be in some distant and unrealisable future utopia.

Once more, it seems to me that arguments about test bans, effective inspection systems, no first-use, the control of fissile materials and the like, do not meet the main problem. That problem is that many who run the world have concepts of security which, if they were ever valid in the past, are entirely inappropriate now. It is the image that is wrong, and images are very powerful. When we in Britain were told in the 1980s that we were lucky to be sheltering under the American nuclear umbrella, we had to contend not with an argument, but with an image. When I used to suggest alternatively that we were actually positioned under the American lightening conductor I was looked at with stares of incomprehension. Images are not arguments but they are none the less effective.

That is why my title contrasts castles and boarding houses. The castle is the old model of security. Of course we like to live at peace with our neighbours, but just in case they turn nasty we all had our separate castles. We kept the chains of the draw-bridge well greased. The cannon-balls were stacked up neatly under the ramparts, the boiling oil was kept simmering on the fire. At any moment the trumpeter can sound the alarm and the castle will be ready to meet any outside threat. That castle image has lasted for a long time. In some heads it is still a positive fixation. But now there are new notions about security. They are not yet strong enough to change government policy in the most powerful states but they are influential nevertheless. For want of a better word I describe this new view of security in terms of the boarding-house image.

Far from living in our own separate castles we, the six billion inhabitants of this fragile planet, are actually living together in a rather run-down boarding house. Inside the boarding house there are different standard of comfort. We who happen to live in the west wing, enjoy all sorts of privileges from lighting and central heating, to regular meals and a resident doctor. For the most part conditions in the rest of the boarding house are deplorable. Nevertheless, all of us live under the same dilapidated roof, all rely on electrical wiring which is highly defective, all use sanitary systems which are cracked and leaking, and all of us know that the floorboards are riddled with dry rot. There are of course no fire escapes. Granted that image, the idea that residents of the west wing can improve their security by being prepared to attack other residents in their east wing rooms makes no sense at all.

Senator Helms' image problem is doing a great deal of damage to the survival prospects of the rest of us. He is still living in Tudor times and it is time he moved into the world of today's risks, today's weaponries, today's civil wars and today's systems of global governance. He might well start by reading the report of the first, 1978 UN Special Session on Disarmament. Enduring international peace and security cannot be built on the accumulation of weaponry by military alliances, nor be sustained by a precarious balance of deterrence, or doctrines of strategic superiority.

He could then move on to the Palme Report on Common Security of 1982. Countries must recognise that in the nuclear age nations cannot achieve security at each other's expense. Only through co-operative efforts and policies of interlocking national restraint will all the world's citizens be able to live without fear of war and devastation.

Today, if every it was, security is not primarily a military matter. Most people do not go through their lives wondering how to keep the barbarians out, but they do worry on a daily basis about their jobs, the safety of their partners and children, their pensions, mortgages and health care. Of course they take reasonable precautions to deter would-be burglars. Locks, alarms, outside lighting and neighbourhood watch, all make good sense. But security systems which are highly likely to blow up the house and its inhabitants as well as the burglar make little sense indeed.

I was brought up in the castle tradition. My childhood was one of World War One memories from my father; of total silence and the booming of the guns on November 11th, and of cigarette cards glorious with pictures of our wonderful regiments and magnificent battleships.

My own private army of lead soldiers was the best on the street. It even included a clockwork tank with rubber treads. At school solemn portraits of old boys who had become military heroes looked down on us in the dining room. The cadet corps was compulsory but it did not need to be. National Service was an honorable duty. Conscientious objection meant cowardice. For us the war ended too soon in 1945. Well-trained in Christian ethics as I was, there was never a suggestion that the bombs of 6 and 9 August 1945 were anything nut an entirely legitimate use of force against an entirely ruthless enemy.

I understand Senator Helms because I come out of the same stable. "Si vis pacem para bellum". It would be a long mental journey before I could agree wholeheartedly with Lord Louis Mountbatten who said in 1979 that this old Roman principle is today "absolute nuclear nonsense".

Today the Helms view of the world, though still damagingly powerful, is beginning to lose its grip. More and more people are beginning to realise that common security is the only genuine security. Ten thousand people from over 100 countries met in The Hague in May 1999 to discuss not just the elimination of not just this or that weapon system but, in Professor Joseph Rotblat's phrase "the de-legitimisation" of war itself.

That Hague meeting, entirely ignored by the British press, was an astonishing event. Unlike the first governmental Hague conference of 1899, called by Czar Nicholas II, this was primarily a non-government affair. It was opened by Archbishop Tutu, with other Nobel Peace Prizewinners, and closed by Kofi Annan, who, despite Kosovo pressures, found time to come. From the 1999 gathering came a wide range of suggestions for practical action under four headings:

  1. The creation of a culture of peace and nonviolence.
  2. Preventative conflict resolution initiatives.
  3. Developing international law and law-making institutions.
  4. Disarmament treaties and negotiations leading to them.

All 50 proposals have been published under the title of The Hague Agenda and are easily available. Taken together, they make the elimination of war seem so simple. The steps on that road are clearly laid out. Why then do we not make more progress?

Perhaps there are a number of reasons. In Britain all three major political parties have different varieties of the castle mentality and all accept nuclear weapons and their efficacy as an article of faith. In the public mind there are a number of assumptions which have yet to be effectively challenged. Most people still believe that, horrific though they were, the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the only way of ending the Second World War. Most people believe that it was military weakness that made Hitler's successes possible. Few know that the supply of military material to Nazi Germany from Britain continued until the July of 1939.

Yet no political speech on international problems is complete these days without generous use of the word interdependence. At least in theory we know that no country is an island. The image is indeed starting to shift as we look at other world problems. Militarism is however often left out of the equation when global problems are discussed. Nowhere was that more obvious than at the UN Rio conference of 1992. Everyone knew that the militarisation of our planet is a major factor leading to poverty and environmental damage. Nevertheless at the behest of some of the major military powers that critical factor of the problem was simple ignored.

However there are positive signs of progress. The World Court Advisory ruling of 1996 on the illegality of nuclear weapons and on the obligation to start negotiations aimed at their abolition, was a mini miracle. Moreover, international concern about the dangers and immorality of the global arms trade have become an issue which no government can now afford to ignore. It is also an encouragement that so many retired senior officers, the most significant of whom is General Lee Butler, have rejected nuclear weapons and nuclear deterrence. The landmines campaign has been highly effective in making people aware who the real victims of war are, even if the three most significant landmine producing countries have yet to ratify the convention which seeks to eliminate them.

In the British context it was a pleasure to read the words of Sir Michael Atiyah, President of the Royal Society, in his anniversary address of 1995: I believe history will show that the insistence on a UK nuclear capability was fundamentally misguided, a total waste of resources and a significant factor in our relative economic decline over the past 50 years. Just as encouraging is the possibility of the establishment of an effective criminal court. Hopefully our own government will find time at the earliest possible moment to ensure UK ratification. There are plenty of other indications from concern about GM food to issues related to economic injustice which show that especially in the non-governmental world ideas about global security are on the move. What an encouragement popular support for the Jubilee 2000 debt remission campaign is.

Why then does the shift from castle to boarding house take so long? Great vested commercial interests stand in the way. So do many whose lives, comfort, pensions and respectability have depended on the old order of things. Many in this country enjoy government patronage at a variety of levels from the House of Lords downwards. Such patronage does not encourage open independent thinking. Our mainstream media picks up by a kind of osmosis the Government view of any military crisis and feeds it faithfully to the multitude. Too late for action when the truth comes out afterwards. Our education system in terms of global citizenship is in a lamentable mess. Most school-leavers end up knowing more about the Highway Code than they do about the UN Charter. Our present Government has even completed the task of its predecessor by cutting to zero funding of the Council for Education in World Citizenship.

It is too easy to blame outside factors. A large part of the problem of slow progress lies in the NGO world itself. NGOs attract generous, committed people, who work for the betterment of the world frequently at personal cost. But NGOs also have problems of power and politics. They are frequently jealous of their own image and identity. Working together co-operatively with other NGOs can be too difficult, too threatening. I learned the lesson a long time ago when I was the administrator of a tiny "War on Want" field hospital north of Calcutta as the refugees flooded in from what was then East Pakistan. The UK NGO rivalry for media attention was ridiculous. When "War on Want" flew in a plane-load of vaccine one major established NGO refused to tell "War on Want" where to find cold storage facilities or where to buy the black plastic sheeting so badly needed to protect the refugees from the rain. The most extraordinary episode concerned a Danish charity. When their organisers were told by the Indian authorities that their badly-needed supplies were not required where they wanted to take them, but somewhere else instead, they argued and then finally flew out of the country taking their relief supplies with them.

These are horror stories but the underlying isolationist pressures are still there. For years the major development and anti-poverty agencies did not want to include world militarism on their agenda. It was too sensitive an issue. For years the major environmental agencies (Greenpeace an honorable exception) did not show an interest in the environmental damage done by world militarism. Happily in the last few years there are signs of change.

We all want to keep our donors happy and, for most of the major charities, that has meant keeping clear water between themselves and other organisations tackling more contentious issues. This is also a funding problem. There rarely seems to be a shortage of funds available from trusts and other similar donors for semi-academic NGOs from whom reports and assessments regularly come. But for the activist organisations in the front line or more appropriately at the coalface of political change, getting money from such sources has been a discouraging task.

Just as difficult has been the task of getting real support for organisations attempting to network between NGOs. The National Peace Council once more teeters on the edge of bankruptcy. The International Peace Bureau is frequently in the same predicament. But until a national crisis like the Kosovo bombing breaks out, few NGOs really want to dilute their energies by working in a co-operative way.

Perhaps it is time for another image. NGOs are not solo Hyde Park performers, each its own Pavarotti. On the contrary they are members of one orchestra. Only if with their different instruments they play to a common score will they actually make the music which everyone can enjoy.

The year 2000 offers us a new opportunity to make NGO co-operation effective. It has been named the Year of the Culture of Peace by the United Nations as a start to the new millennium. Positive opportunities abound. How about a combined effort to get a copy of the preamble to the United Nations Charter on to the notice-board of every school, college, church, town hall, trade union office and post office in the country?

If we are to move more rapidly to a boarding-house view of security, it is not just governments which are going to have to change. The conversion of Senator Helms would at least be a blessing and probably a miracle. But Senator Helms is not the only one who has to change if the shift from castle to boarding house is to proceed at a rather faster pace.