Responding to Mary Midgley’s recent article in the RSA Journal, Diana Francis FRSA asks whether the Society can contribute to the debate about demilitarisation as part of the shared mission of 21st century enlightenment.
Mary Midgley’s article in the December RSA Journal, refuting the notion of the supremacy of selfishness in human life, was eloquent and heartening. It chimed with my own thinking and writing over recent years.
Together with Mark Stevenson’s ‘Reasons to be Cheerful’ it encouraged me to think that, as a new Fellow, I might be able to join with others in the RSA to explore and advance the goal of global demilitarisation and the cultural rejection of war as uncivilised, unnecessary and utterly alien to the spirit and values of 21st century enlightenment.
Matthew Taylor, in his stirring paper asserts that the ideal of the good life ‘can be derived from an account of the kind of society in which we want to live and the kind of people we are and have the capacity to be’. In other words, our capacity for goodness makes the good society possible. As Mary Midgley argues, we are not doomed by our destructive, egotistical nature, destined always to operate on the eat-or-be-eaten principle. We are supremely well equipped for cooperation and kindness.
I have spent the last twenty years working – as skill-sharer, accompanier and mediator-facilitator – with people around the world who are seeking to overcome violent oppression and conflict, using their nonviolent power to engage in constructive, cooperative processes to build just peace and inclusive democracy. Their commitment, courage and local successes have been inspiring.
Yet the hoped for impact on large scale-conflict has often proved elusive. Whether in Kosovo or Georgia, Israel, Palestine or Afghanistan, global powers have pursued their own interests and fed tyranny and violence, undermining genuine efforts to achieve peace by peaceful means. Global power play by big military nations are governed not by the values of inclusiveness, respect and nonviolence – the foundations of positive peace – but by the principle of domination, enforced by violence: the absolute contradiction of democracy and all the norms of civil society.
If we are to have greater impact in preventing and ending the misery of violent conflicts and address the real needs of people around our planet, we must begin to tackle world power dynamics and the global culture and institutions of war. This will, by definition, require a big new step in civilisation. We must demilitarise minds and societies, production systems and economies, and dismantle the system that is draining resources, poisoning politics, destroying our environment and turning conflict from a familiar and manageable aspect of human existence into a monster that maims and kills on a grand scale.
Expertise has already been developed, through practice in a wide range of countries and regions, in the difficult processes of DDR: disarmament, demobilisation and the reintegration of military personnel into a society and its economy. Such demilitarisation needs to be applied in every country and region, including our own, and to become a global process: one in which arms (from nuclear weapons to handguns) are gradually taken out of circulation and destroyed, our economies and employment are devoted to the production of goods and services that contribute to wellbeing and the idea of mass violence is seen as an affront to humanity.
All this is possible, given the will. It is the idea of war’s necessity (if not glory) that stands in our way. It is so entrenched that it is taken for granted and not held up to fundamental, rigorous scrutiny. We know that the ‘causes’ of wars are universally claimed by all their protagonists to be just. In reality, more often than not, they are fought for reasons of self-interest and hegemony and even where action is genuinely needed, alternatives are never exhausted and often scarcely tried. The outcomes of war always include catastrophic destruction of lives and infrastructure, human misery and displacement, environmental destruction and impoverishment, all on an unimaginable scale. Whatever our enlightenment projects, war is their enemy.
We need a radically new kind of international relations, modelled on the best norms of civil life and based on the concept of interdependence. The field of conflict transformation has amassed powerfully relevant knowledge on how to establish mutually beneficial relationships. Equally importantly, recent decades have seen remarkable developments in the exercise of unarmed people power: in the Philippines and Bangladesh, then across the former Soviet empire, later in Serbia and now in countries around the Middle East. Even in China and Burma, where it seemed to be crushed, we see a resurgence of political courage and defiance and a small but significant loosening of control.
The recent popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt have had an astonishing effect, showing the huge potential of this kind of power and generating hope and courage across the region. But the responses have included repressive violence and in all cases the future remains uncertain. There is much to learn about how to maximise both the efficacy and the nonviolence of popular action, and to ensure that the mobilisation that takes place has constructive goals beyond the removal of tyrants and strategies for transition. But for building sustainable peace, based on democracy, justice and human rights, the nonviolent solidarity and will of local people must surely be better than invasion by foreign powers, which as we have seen in recent years brings little beyond new violence and hatred. That is why the responses of Western leaders to events in Egypt have evoked some cynicism: their own track record has been lamentable in terms of international democracy and they have long supported repressive regimes in the Middle East, preferring stability and the facilitation of their own agendas to economic justice, human rights and democracy.
I am interested to explore whether there are Fellows – perhaps those involved in the Our Society network – and others from whatever relevant field or motivation, who would consider pooling their expertise and efforts, becoming catalysts for an ongoing policy drive for enlightened international relations and global demilitarisation? To respond, please leave a comment or email Diana Francis directly.
Diana Francis is a freelance consultant in the field of conflict transformation and a lifelong peace campaigner. Her most recent book From Pacification to Peacebuilding: A Call to Global Transformation is published by Pluto Books.