The Need for Peacemakers: Two Urgent Dangers That Require a Response
by John Whitehead
Peacemaking is urgently needed today. Peacemaking is needed in response to a variety of ongoing violent conflicts in the world. I will highlight just two conflicts that my own country, the United States, is currently involved in and that demand particular attention from peacemakers.
The first is the ongoing conflict with Russia over Ukraine. The United States has responded to Russia’s brutal aggression against Ukraine with various types of support for the Ukrainians in their struggle, including substantial military support. As a result, the United States is now engaged in a kind of indirect or proxy war with Russia.
The second conflict of note is the United States’ intensifying rivalry with China. This conflict is luckily not yet overtly violent but it clearly a major focus of US policymakers today. The Biden administration’s recently released National Security Strategy identifies China as the United States’ primary rival. Competition with China is given the highest priority, even higher than that given to the conflict with Russia. The National Security Strategy identifies China by name as “America’s most consequential geopolitical challenge” ( p. 11).
The conflicts between the United States and two powerful nations that also possess nuclear weapons pose very serious dangers to the lives and well-being of untold numbers of people. These conflicts are dangerous for an obvious reason and a less obvious but still important one.
The Danger of Hot War
The obvious reason is that the United States’ conflicts either with Russia or China could escalate into direct war between the United States and these countries. Open war with Russia or China could and probably would lead to the use of nuclear weapons, which would be a catastrophe for all humanity.
The danger of open war is more severe in the US-Russia conflict over Ukraine. In Ukraine, war is already being waged, with both the United States and Russia as participants. Because the war has gone badly for Russia and Vladimir Putin now faces the prospect of total defeat for his ambitions in Ukraine, Putin has resorted to at least the implicit threat of using nuclear weapons. He has implied he will use such weapons in response to “a threat to the territorial integrity of our country and to defend Russia and our people.”
Since Russia is now claiming parts of occupied eastern Ukraine as Russian territory, Putin’s promise implies that he will use nuclear weapons rather than accept defeat in Ukraine. (A more recent official statement by the Russian Foreign Ministry suggests the Russians might be slightly backing away from the threatened use of nuclear weapons, but the threat is still very much present.)
Statements made over here in the United States are not much more encouraging. Some notable current and former public officials have proposed open war with Russia as a real possibility. A sitting US senator and former presidential nominee, Mitt Romney (R-UT), suggested this spring that if Russia used a nuclear weapon in Ukraine, the United States and NATO should consider direct military intervention in Ukraine with the possible goal of “obliterating Russia’s struggling military.” This fall, the former director of the CIA, General David Petraeus, also suggested that NATO might get directly involved in the Ukraine war if Russia resorts to nuclear weapons.
Such comments are not official statements of US policy, but they give a sense of what is being contemplated within the larger policymaking community. My own prediction would be that if Russia used nuclear weapons in Ukraine, de-escalating the conflict after the nuclear threshold had been crossed would be extraordinarily difficult. The more probable outcome after a nuclear weapon is used would be further escalation of the violence. President Biden as much as acknowledged this fact publicly a few weeks ago when he said that it would be very difficult to “[use] a tactical nuclear weapon and not end up with Armageddon.”
The current situation with Russia is very dangerous. The US-China rivalry is not yet as dangerous, because it does not involve open violent conflict. If hostility between the United States and China continues to grow, however, a military confrontation comparable to the one we are currently seeing with Russia could flare up.
An American confrontation with China might flare up over competition for influence in the Pacific region or over territorial disputes between China and its neighbors in the East and South China Seas. Above all, military confrontation might flare up over the very contentious issue of Taiwan.
The Danger of Cold War
The risk of open war with Russia or China is the obvious danger we are facing today. The less obvious danger these conflicts pose to human life is still a dire one. Long-term conflicts between the United States and other great powers threaten to divert vast amounts of resources away from urgent human needs.
This danger of wasted resources is most apparent in the bipartisan policy of “modernizing” the United States nuclear arsenal: building a new generation of nuclear weapons and the infrastructure necessary to support them. The recent National Security Strategy affirms continued pursuit of this goal.
Nuclear modernization is not cheap, however. The Congressional Budget Office estimated last year that nuclear-related activities by the Defense and Energy Departments will cost the United States $634 billion over the coming decade. That’s $634 billion spent on new weapons of mass killing. Further, even this massive amount of planned nuclear spending is dwarfed by overall US military spending, which is currently projected to top roughly $800 billion for the coming fiscal year alone.
Spending these obscene amounts of money on preparations for war harms human beings even if, as we must all hope and pray is the case, actual war never occurs.
The need in our world today is very great. We need to address the urgent problems of poverty and of climate change, which can combine to harm vulnerable people. We see the lethal effects of poverty and extreme weather events unfolding today, for example, in the disastrous flooding in Pakistan this year. We see these lethal effects in the Horn of Africa, where a severe drought, along with other factors, currently threatens access to adequate food supplies for tens of millions of people in Somalia, Ethiopia, and Kenya.
Beyond poverty and climate change, the last few years have indelibly shown us the terrible consequences of global pandemics. Our experience of Covid-19 should impress upon us the necessity of investing in international public health and global cooperation to prevent and respond to future pandemics.
Meeting these urgent human needs is not served by wasting hundreds of billions of dollars on the military and investing political will in international rivalries with other nations. The world clearly cannot afford a global hot war. Beyond that, though, the world cannot afford a global Cold War, either. We need to find a way of working together, across national boundaries, to address our common problems.
This is why we need peace activists. We need people to advocate in the short-term for a cease-fire in Ukraine. A genuine, just resolution to the current conflict is probably too much to hope for at this stage, but we can at least seek to stop the immediate fighting and freeze the conflict so it does not escalate to the nuclear level.
We also need people to advocate in the long-term for a more conciliatory US policy toward China and Russia, one that emphasizes diplomacy, avoids direct confrontation, and manages potential points of conflict so they don’t spiral into more disastrous wars such as in Ukraine. We need people to advocate for radically reducing our grotesque military spending, above all our spending on nuclear weapons. We need people to advocate for international cooperation to address poverty, disease, and climate change in our world.
I urge people to get involved in peacemaking. Get involved in groups such as the Consistent Life Network, Pax Christi, and Rehumanize International, which are working to defend life from war, poverty, and other threats. Let’s contribute to making our world a more peaceful one.
For more of John’s posts on nuclear weapons, see:
A Hidden Cost of the Ukraine War: How Russia’s Invasion Encourages the Spread of Nuclear Weapons