Forging a Peaceful New Century

Tasneem Jamal

Michael Renner

The Ploughshares Monitor September 1999 Volume 20 Issue 3

At the threshold of the twenty-first century, the international community faces a fundamental challenge: either build the foundations for a lasting peace or be overwhelmed by an endless string of internal wars capable of devastating entire countries, even of re-igniting big-power confrontations. As events in the Balkans have demonstrated, current peace and security policies are woefully inadequate.

Peace and security policy in the twenty-first century will have to deal both with the lingering legacies of the twentieth century—unquestioning acceptance of huge accumulated arsenals and of the use of force as an arbiter of human conflict—and with new challenges as well, such as internal conflicts arising from social, economic, demographic, and environmental pressures. These problems are intertwined. While the particular causes of our century’s wars and arms races may quickly become history, the leftover military equipment now makes for such ready availability of arms of all calibers, particularly small arms, that recourse to violent measures in future disputes is far too easy. To forestall the likelihood of endless skirmishes and wars in the coming century, governments, intergovernmental institutions, and civil society groups will need to find renewed vigor to pursue demilitarization, conflict prevention, more inspired global institution building, and greater grassroots engagement.

During the Cold War years, the recognition grew that traditional security policies—building national or allied military muscle—often yielded insecurity. A series of independent international commissions headed by world leaders such as Willy Brandt of Germany, Olof Palme of Sweden, Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, Gro Harlem Brundtland of Norway, and Ingvar Carlsson of Sweden prompted a fundamental rethinking of security. Out of these efforts evolved two closely linked concepts: common security—the view that in order for one state to be secure, its opponents must also feel secure; and comprehensive security—the notion that non military factors such as social inequity, poverty, environ mental degradation, and migratory pressures are at least as important as military ones in determining the potential for conflict. Questions have been raised as to whether many sources of conflict today are at all amenable to military solutions, a perspective currently being discussed under the heading human security.1

The years since the end of the Cold War have seen a reduction in military spending; in production, trade, and deployment of arms; and in the size of armed forces. Yet progress has been highly uneven across the world, substantial arsenals remain in place, there is no letup in the drive toward more sophisticated weaponry, and business in transferring both new and “surplus” weapons from one country to another is still brisk.

Fundamentally, little has changed as far as reliance on armed forces is concerned. The utility of military power has hardly been foresworn by the world’s governments. The Clinton Administration asserts that today’s instabilities must be combatted by military means. Its recent request for an additional $112-billion for the Pentagon during the next six years (2000–2005) reverses the trend of recent years and is sure to influence decision-making in other capitals around the world, steering us in the wrong direction (Klare 1999; Center for Defense Information 1999).

A key task in the twenty-first century will be to establish effective restraints based on three principles. These principles contrast sharply with the approaches underlying past and present policies: disarmament (as opposed to arms control); universal constraints on arms (as opposed to non-proliferation); and war prevention (as opposed to regulating warfare).


Although the world has pulled back from the nuclear brink, disarmament is needed as never before. There are still few internationally accepted norms to curb the production, possession, or trade of arms. Several decades of arms control efforts have yielded mostly weak numerical limits on the numbers of certain weapons that states may deploy, and no limits at all on many other kinds of arms. The list of weapons that have actually been outlawed since 1899, when the Hague International Peace Conference decided to ban expanding, or so called dum dum, bullets, is extremely short compared to the list of unregulated weapons. Although the use of chemical weapons was banned in 1925 (a norm violated several times), nearly another 70 years passed before the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention outlawed their production and possession. In 1995 the sale and use of so called blinding-laser weapons was banned, and a treaty prohibiting anti-personnel landmines, signed in 1997, came into force in 1999 (Brigham Young University; ICRC; IDDS 1997).

Now that there are no big-power confrontations and few armed conflicts between states, an unparalleled opportunity beckons for far-reaching disarmament in both the nuclear and the conventional realms. Denuclearization— the establishment of a timetable to phase out and eventually eliminate all nuclear arms—is one of the pressing tasks in coming years. The nuclear “haves” not only insist that they will retain their arsenals indefinitely, they continue to pursue modernization programs, and their existing arsenals remain on hairtrigger alert. But the stakes are rising: India and Pakistan have joined the “nuclear club,” and it is overly optimistic to assume that others will not eventually be tempted to re-evaluate their policies and to acquire nuclear weapons as well. Even if no government is contemplating starting a nuclear war intentionally, other dangers lurk, among them accidental launchings of missiles and theft of nuclear weapons or related materials and technology by terrorists or non-nuclear states (Hall 1998; Schell 1998; Makhijani 1998; Singh 1998).

In light of today’s dominant types of conflicts, an equally urgent task is to adopt restraints on the conventional arms trade. Huge amounts of weapons of all calibers have been dispersed all over the planet. Among the most worrisome aspects of this buildup is the widespread proliferation of small arms—the weapon of choice in today’s internal fighting.

One measure long demanded by human rights organizations and other groups is a binding code of conduct to ensure that, at the very least, weapons are not exported to governments that fail to hold free elections, that trample human rights or engage in armed aggression. A voluntary code of conduct was adopted by the European Union in June 1998, but it remains to be seen whether the region’s governments will live by it or ignore it when the code proves inconvenient. Establishing effective, binding codes in Europe and elsewhere remains a crucial step toward peace. However, in the next century, we will need to aim for an even more ambitious goal: establishing a normative presumption against trading arms altogether, so that such transfers are no longer seen as routine commercial transactions but rather as highly unusual events.2

It is also time to rethink the utility of large standing military forces and to advance the norm that possession of an offensively armed military is unacceptable. Countries that face no obvious external adversaries may want to cut their militaries radically and to refocus remaining forces on purely defensive tasks; indeed, some may want to reconsider whether they need an army at all, joining the twentieth-century pioneers Costa Rica, Haiti, and Panama in abolishing their standing armed forces. Unilateral measures by individual countries could create some badly needed momentum, but far reaching progress would likely depend on a more systematic, multilateral approach. An NGO initiative, “Global Action to Prevent War,” is proposing a four-phase process over 20–40 years to achieve major reductions in armies and their armaments. Following extensive consultations among non-governmental experts, it will be formally launched at the Hague Appeal for Peace conference in May 1999 (Tacsan 1996; Dean, Forsberg & Mendlovitz 1998).

Universal constraints

The second general principle concerns universality of norms. In order to be just and effective, constraints on armaments need to apply to all states equally. This contrasts with the non-proliferation policies that are currently in vogue in Western nations—the idea of allowing a select (and self-appointed) group of countries to hold on to certain kinds of weapons denied to all other states. Nuclear arsenals are the most prominent example. The Non-Proliferation Treaty prohibits the acquisition of nuclear arms by nations that do not now possess them—the vast majority of the world’s countries. Yet the nuclear weapons states have shown little inclination to fulfill their part of the bargain and begin serious negotiations for nuclear abolition. The advanced nations are also working hard to establish a monopoly on sophisticated arms technologies (although this goal is often contradicted by their active non-nuclear export salesmanship). The upshot is a kind of global security apartheid system.3

This kind of lopsided approach to security is not only unacceptable from the perspective of universality, it is also unworkable in the long run. As long as one country or group of countries has access to a weapon, others will be tempted to acquire it as well. No matter what the true utility of the weapon in question may be, the very fact that one government prizes its possession signals to others that it must have direct military value, heighten a country’s influence, or pro vide some other, less tangible, advantage. This may be a fool’s game, but it is one that states have played for centuries. At best, pursuing such policies into the future is an enormous waste of resources; at worst, it could spawn new arms races and trigger regional or global instabilities.

War prevention

The third principle, preventing war, also requires dramatic change. At the 1899 Hague conference, governments expressed their “desire to diminish the evils of war so far as military necessities permit,” a desire that remained unfulfilled. Although war laws could be made more stringent, the past 100 years have demonstrated that there is an inherent limit to how effective they can be. Rather than trying in vain to make war a “chivalrous” affair, it is far more fruitful to focus on pre venting violent conflict. Yet while government leaders give occasional lip service to conflict prevention, far too little is being done to make it happen. For instance, in 1997 the newly established UN Trust Fund for Preventive Action Against Conflicts received soaring rhetoric but scant funds.4

Much could be accomplished by building an early conflict warning network, establishing permanent dispute arbitration centres in every region of the world, giving more backing to preventive diplomacy, and establishing a corps of skilled and experienced individuals to serve as roving mediators on behalf of the international community. Conflict prevention is not an exact science, to be sure; instead, it resembles a trial-and-error process. On the one hand, there will be cases when early warning of impending violent conflict turns out to be a false alarm. On the other hand, though, the international community would do well to have some redundancy built into the conflict prevention apparatus, so that a variety of efforts aimed at warding off mass violence can be launched. Preventing the eruption of disputes into full scale hostilities is by no means an easy task, but its difficulties pale beside those of ending fighting once extensive bloodshed has occurred.

Of course, conflict prevention through mediation will not always work, so additional tools are needed. In particular, peacekeeping missions will need to be refashioned so that they can embody the true meaning of the word peace-keeping, instead of serving as last-minute fire brigades. In the course of the last few years, we have come to associate peacekeeping with hapless efforts—too few people equipped too poorly and dispatched too late, unable to keep a peace that scarcely exists on the ground. What is needed is the creation of a well trained, permanent force under UN auspices for preventive deployments. It would be dispatched in response to clear signs of imminent violent dispute, either along national borders or even within countries. Such an intervention should not be seen as an end in itself, but rather be designed to provide space for mediation efforts.5

In a fast-paced world that prefers lightning-quick action with decisive outcomes, there is aversion to the typically open-ended commitments that prevention and mediation require and the compromises and nuances without which conflict resolution is unlikely to succeed. Political leaders are tempted to assume that military strikes—such as those against Serbia intended to change its policy on Kosovo— offer a quick, clear cut alternative. But this is a questionable proposition. Even where this policy has been executed in the most straightforward manner—trying to force Iraq’s Saddam Hussein to come clean on his weapons of mass destruction programs, for instance—the result is ambiguous at best. Bombing raids now preclude international monitoring of Iraqi sites suspected of harboring prohibited weapons pro grams. In Kosovo as well, bombing may punish Slobodan Milosevic (or, more likely, Serbia’s civilian population), but it is unlikely to succeed in halting Serb “ethnic cleansing,” let alone bring about an arrangement that will allow Serbs and Kosovars to live together peacefully. Without patient and early commitment, conflicts cannot be resolved.6

Promoting human security

Far-reaching disarmament, universally applied constraints on armaments, and vigorous conflict prevention efforts will go a long way toward addressing the more traditional aspects of a peace policy. But to be successful, these steps will need to be linked with a broader human security agenda. Conflict prevention is not only about positioning peacekeepers between would-be attackers and their intended victims (though a few successful operations of that kind could have a salutary effect), but more fundamentally about recognizing and ameliorating the underlying pressures that lead to violent disputes in the first place.

At the core, the shift toward prevention calls for policies that are geared to strengthening the fabric of society and improving its governance. Central to such a policy are goals like fair distribution of wealth and balancing of the interests of different population groups, adequate job creation, poverty eradication, and the preservation or restoration of ecosystems. These are urgent requirements in a world in which the simultaneous presence of tremendous economic growth and widespread inequity is driving environmental destruction, breeding explosive social conditions, and fueling ethnic antagonisms.7

Governments will need to adopt policies better able to stem the degradation of watersheds and arable lands, to conserve and protect critical natural systems, and to pursue climate stabilization policies. Key to success also are measures to boost the efficiency with which energy, materials, and water are used. In developing countries where a large share of the population depends directly on the integrity and stability of ecosystems, the benefits would not only be environmental, but would also carry over into the social and political realms by helping to avoid the dislocations and distributive conflicts that now go hand in hand with wholesale environmental destruction. But industrial countries’ policies are critical as well, since they consume the bulk of the world’s resources and are thus, directly or indirectly, responsible for the preponderance of unsustainable mining, logging, metal smelting, fishing, and fossil fuel burning.8

It is equally important that governments become more serious about fulfilling pledges to eradicate poverty, promote full employment, and reduce massive social inequality. At the World Social Summit in Copenhagen in 1995, it was widely recognized that social conditions are closely linked to issues of peace. But the summit’s rhetoric has so far proved stronger than actual policy commitments. Only with strong NGO involvement will it be possible to translate rhetorical pledges into reality (UN 1995; Social Watch 1996; Social Watch).

In an age in which capital-intensive technology and planetary-wide economies of scale combine to limit the potential for job creation even as the ranks of job-seekers keep swelling, a fundamental re-assessment of employment policies is overdue. This concerns questions such as the choice of appropriate technology, the need to tax energy and resource consumption rather than labour, and the design of fiscal and subsidy policies. Budgetary priorities need re-examining as well; as long as massive resources continue to be invested in the military, for example, social needs will always be given short shrift.9

Globalization with a human face

National governments, though often embattled, can do much on their own to promote human security and reduce the potential for conflict. However, because human existence is increasingly shaped by both globalizing and localizing trends, there is both a need to promote greater international cooperation and to give civil society a far greater role in setting the agenda.

As the repercussions of world market integration from Indonesia to Russia to Brazil have become unmistakable, it is clear that the orthodox free market approach that emphasizes the supremacy of freedom of trade and capital movements over all other goals ill serves the need for social, economic, and ultimately political stability. A key task now is to minimize the disruptive features of global economic integration and, where necessary, to adopt some deliberate limits to it. This does not mean moving from one extreme— a virtually unconditional embrace of global market forces— to another—protectionism—but rather underscores the need for a more selective approach, recognizing that market demands sometimes clash with the imperatives of sound social policy.

In the orthodox view, the current litmus test of governmental policy is how swiftly it proceeds with deregulation and privatization and how much it facilitates trade and capital flows. The result may well be a boosted gross national product. But these goals have been pushed far too single- mindedly. From a human security perspective, what counts is whether the general well being of the population is served without over-exploiting nature, leaving certain communities behind, or undermining local culture, customs, and norms. Global economic integration does not always lead to adverse outcomes, but it is time to require something that might be described as social and environmental impact statements of globalization. Global economic integration will not turn into a race to the bottom if strong environmental and social standards can be developed; establishing high common denominator norms on the global level will be one of the major challenges in coming years.10

Seen basically as protections against state oppression, human rights need to be understood also as tools to protect the economically and socially weak from the depredations of the strong. Human rights, broadly understood, are of growing importance in a globalizing world, as decision-making processes affect larger and larger numbers of individuals and communities in more and more profound ways. The world’s political and corporate elites have been far more interested, and effective, in creating a global market structure than they have been in establishing three essential conditions that are critical to preventing globalization from becoming a continuous source of contention: first, making the most powerful market players more accountable; second, preparing the ground on which a global human community, not just a global market place, can flourish; and third, setting up sufficiently strong international institutions that can help advance global norms and safeguard the interests of the global human community.

The international institutions vested with the greatest degree of authority and power—the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization among them—not only lack transparency and accountability in their decision-making, but sometimes devote themselves to the pursuit of economic growth even at the direct expense of social, environmental, and human rights considerations. Grassroots activists have been working hard to change the way these institutions operate, but more reform is still necessary.

Revitalizing the United Nations

Considerable expectations for achieving and safeguarding the global community are being pinned on the United Nations, whose various departments and agencies are involved in many activities crucial to improving the welfare of people. Yet, the UN receives scant resources and commands little political power. Half a century after its founding, the organization that was set up to prevent recurring war is increasingly in danger of being emasculated, particularly by US reluctance to pay its dues to the organization. Because the entire UN system—headquarters, specialized agencies, and peacekeeping operations—is owed about $3.6-billion in outstanding dues from member states, it has languished in financial crisis for several years now. In the new century, governments will need to provide full and generous funding to the UN if they want it to be a more effective voice for peace than it has been to date (Renner 1999).

To that end, reform is as essential as new money. The Security Council, for instance, is increasingly anachronistic in its composition and central workings—particularly the veto power retained by the five permanent members. But although discussions have been held for years and there is no shortage of good reform proposals, there is no consensus on the specifics. The permanent members are highly reluctant to relinquish or water down any of their privileges, especially their veto power. If they succeed in blocking timely change, they will further increase worldwide resentment of outdated privileges. Since the Council relies on the willing cooperation of the world’s nations, a rejection of reform may over time compromise its authority and effectiveness.11

Because security policy will increasingly need to move beyond military issues in the next century and concern itself with the social, economic, demographic, and environmental pressures that are at the root of most conflicts, the United Nations system as a whole will be critical to success. But like the Security Council, it needs reforming. And as is the case with Council reform, no consensus has emerged from amongst an endless number of reform proposals—some intended to strengthen the UN, others to limit its role.12

One of the most important challenges is to make the UN less an organization of government representatives and more one of the “peoples of the United Nations,” as the UN Charter puts it. As mentioned earlier, NGOs are already playing a growing role at many international venues and conferences. But their rising influence will need to find clearer institutional expression at the United Nations itself, perhaps by moving toward a multi-chamber system and adding to the General Assembly one or more assemblies that are more broadly representative of each society. This could entail a parliamentary chamber (with representatives elected directly in each nation, as the members of the European Parliament are), and a forum of civil society that includes representatives of labour, environmental groups, and others. Such a change would not be an entirely revolutionary concept: the ILO has long had a tripartite structure, bringing together representatives of government, business, and labour.13

NGO role

Impatient with the failure of governments to promote conflict prevention and peace building, NGOs—or civil society organizations as they are increasingly called—are playing a more and more assertive role on the local, national, and international levels. And in an age in which peace and security concerns are focused more on internal than on interstate matters, it is only sensible that civil society should be an active participant.

Recent years have seen the emergence of working coalitions that, on an issue by issue basis, bring together NGOs with like-minded governments. The anti-personnel land mines campaign is the outstanding example of this phenomenon. With the support of countries like Canada, South Africa, Belgium, and Norway, the campaign succeeded in putting landmines on the global agenda, hammering out an international treaty banning these devices, and bringing it into force at a speed far faster than any other arms treaty in history.

Although the landmines campaign was in many ways unique, its stunning success naturally prompted hopes that it could be replicated in other areas. Similar themes reverberate in the efforts to establish an International Criminal Court, the gathering campaign to counter small arms proliferation, and the “Middle Powers Initiative” (an endeavour to encourage nuclear weapons states to commit to practical steps toward the elimination of their atomic arsenals). Whatever their eventual outcome, these efforts are helping to revolutionize the process of international policymaking by infusing it with human rights, humanitarian, and human development concerns to a far greater extent than has been the case to date (Green 1998).

Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy has been a particularly vocal proponent of this new “pulpit diplomacy,” which regards NGO activists as a vanguard of change; opens traditionally quiet (and often secretive and slow-moving) diplomacy to far greater scrutiny and mobilizes public opinion; and frequently takes the initiative from the big powers, putting them into the unaccustomed position of having to play catch-up. Soft power, as it is also called, is based on the notion that human security, not state security, should be the organizing principle of peace policy; it regards military force as having declining utility; and it emphasizes the power of ideas and the promulgation of new norms over the power of weapons (Hampson & Oliver 1998; Pearlstein 1999).

NGO input may well be crucial to establishing human security. A century ago, states were in their prime. But already, citizen activists like Bertha von Suttner were beginning to stir and “intrude” into what was then considered the preserve of statecraft. Although pacifists succeeded in convincing governments to convene the 1899 Hague conference, despite intense petitioning efforts, as outsiders they had little influence over its outcome. Since then, the situation has changed dramatically. Today, NGO representatives are frequent participants at intergovernmental gatherings. The 1999 Hague Appeal for Peace conference goes even farther: it is an attempt to set the agenda for twenty-first century peacemaking at which government and UN representatives are welcome guests, but not the initiators.

Notwithstanding valiant efforts to the contrary, the twentieth century was the century of warfare. The twenty-first will need to be the century of demilitarization and conflict prevention. As South African Archbishop and Nobel Prize recipient Desmond Tutu has pointed out, slavery once seemed like an immutable reality and yet it was abolished. “Why not war? Indeed, we have no choice.”14

Michael Renner is a Senior Researcher on the staff of the Worldwatch Institute (1776 Massachusetts Ave., NW, Washington, DC 20036-1904, This article was excerpted from “Ending Violent Conflict,” Worldwatch Paper 146, April 1999.



1 For a concise discussion of the commissions’ work, see Johansen 1998. The term “human security” has been popularized in particular by the Human Development Report, published annually by the UNDP.

2 The European Union (EU) code is reprinted in Di Chiaro III 1998. For a critical analysis, see Saferworld.

3 On the principle of universality, see Johansen 1998.

4 Hague conference quoted in Blix 1998. In 1997, the UN Trust Fund received just $4.5-million, from the Netherlands and Norway; (Findlay 1998).

5 For a detailed discussion of conflict prevention needs and opportunities, see Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict 1997. For a more detailed discussion of peacekeeping reform, see Renner 1993.

6 On Iraq, see Landay 1998. On Kosovo, see Øberg1999.

7 These policy requirements are discussed at greater length in Renner 1996.

8 Disproportionate Western resource consumption from Sachs 1996.

9 On tax and subsidy issues, see Roodman 1998.

10 For example, Töpfer (1999), Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme, announced in early 1999 that “UNEP will make a priority in the coming years to collect empirical data as to the environment consequences of international economic policies.”

11 Bennis 1996. For documents and further discussion of reform efforts, see the Global Policy Forum web site.

12 For a large number of UN reform related documents, see Global Policy Forum. Also see the UN’s own web site.

13 NGO consultative status discussions are covered by Global Policy Forum; for forward looking proposals, see Johansen 1998; Commission on Global Governance 1995.

14 Tutu quoted in United Nations Foundation 1999.


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