Imagining a Different Type of Peace Organization
by John Whitehead
Effective peace activism is urgently needed in the United States today. (Peace activism is also needed elsewhere in the world, but since I’m an American citizen, I will focus here on the United States.) Tensions between the United States on the one hand and nations such as Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran on the other are high and have the potential to escalate into war. The US military budget remains grotesquely large, being $877 billion in 2022—more than the military budgets of the next 10 highest-spending nations combined. Given this situation, peace advocates need to speak out on behalf of peaceful, non-military responses to conflict.
I think that mobilizing the large numbers of people needed for effective peace activism requires a new type of peace organization. Existing peace organizations certainly do good work, and they deserve credit for this. Nevertheless, I think the peace movement needs an additional organization to fill a current vacuum.
Combining Peace with Other Issues
A problem with many current peace organizations is that they combine their advocacy against war with advocacy on other issues, a combination that can severely limit the organizations’ appeal.
For Consistent Life Ethic activists, the most disturbing combination of issues is when peace organizations enthusiastically advocate for some other type of violence. Over the years, I have been dismayed to hear one peace organization declare that “abortion is healthcare” and support public funding for abortion-related activities. I have been similarly dismayed to hear, at an otherwise excellent peace-related event, a speaker endorse physician-assisted suicide. I have also encountered, at first- and second-hand, peace organizations that will not work with pro-life groups. All these patterns make participation in certain existing peace organizations very difficult.
Beyond outright support for violence, the combination of peace advocacy with other issues can present a subtler type of difficulty. Even when the other issues championed by peace organizations don’t involve violence, they do introduce a definite slant to the organizations’ work.
A quick glance at the websites of some notable existing peace organizations gives a sense of the direction their concerns:
Fellowship of Reconciliation USA says that, along with the cause of nuclear abolition, they have worked on issues such as “labor rights, environmental degradation, mass incarceration, extending the voting franchise to all, ending the death penalty, combatting religious hatred, [and] gun violence.”
Code Pink’s website strikes a similar note, saying that “War, poverty, police brutality, ecological degradation, and nearly every other issue we face are connected by the same root cause.” The site elaborates that “We live in a war economy, an extractive, destructive, oppressive economy . . . Our U.S./Western culture tells us that the natural world is to be pillaged and controlled by humans for our consumerist lifestyles.” Changing this situation requires a cultural shift away from consumerism and other unhealthy values.
Win without War (WIN) provides its vision for what is significantly called a “Progressive Foreign Policy for the United States.” Saying that American “foreign policy is intimately interlinked with our domestic policy,” WIN calls for connecting peace activism with work against climate change as well as various efforts for economic and social justice. This foreign policy vision also contains the diagnosis “our endless wars and exploitative economic policies are often driven by corporations who benefit from the expansion of conflict around the world.”
My purpose in reviewing these peace organization statements is not to disparage the organizations or their beliefs. As I said, I think existing peace organizations do good work, and I sympathize with their views on some of the other issues not directly related to war covered by these websites. The peace movement definitely has room for groups that combine peace activism with environmentalism, social justice work, and similar causes. Nor, for that matter, am I disparaging the notion of connecting issues or pursuing activism on multiple issues at the same time: such a notion is central to the Consistent Life Ethic.
However, I would also argue that these organizations’ approach to peace activism is just one possible way to pursue peace activism, a way that won’t appeal to everyone. It limits the appeal to people who are already quite politically left-wing and (what is no less important) who also believe that working for peace is closely connected with working for these causes typically identified with the left. Not everyone who opposes US wars and desires peace fits this profile.
Some people may wish to prevent war while also having political views that are quite different from those expressed on these peace organizations’ websites. Other people, whatever their precise views on economic policy or other issues, might be skeptical about whether such matters are strongly connected to stopping war.
Speaking for myself, I am certainly not a fan of capitalism, at least as practiced in the contemporary United States. Nevertheless, I question whether our current economic system bears the responsibility for war that some activists assign to it. War predates capitalism, modern corporations, and indeed Western culture by quite a few centuries, if not millennia. Meanwhile, some 20th-century societies abolished capitalism yet still waged war, pursuing interventionist or imperialistic foreign policies and committing atrocities. Abolishing capitalism might not be the solution to ending war some hope it will be.
The limited appeal of many peace organizations is in many ways a mirror image of the limited appeal many pro-life organizations have. Pro-life organizations that link protection of unborn human life to particular religious beliefs or certain attitudes about sex and family life or conservative political views alienate a great many potential allies. Like the peace organizations I have mentioned, such pro-life organizations do good work and have a place within the larger movement. We should recognize the limitations of both types of organization, though.
Some people wish to pursue peace without necessarily connecting it to other issues or to the specific philosophies that tend to predominate in existing peace organizations. For these people, I see the need for a new, different variety of peace organization. I will sketch what I think the essential characteristics of such an organization would be.
The new peace organization’s core principles would be simple. The organization would oppose
- the United States waging war;
- the use, by the US military or intelligence agencies, of violent methods such as assassination, torture, or indefinite detention;
- the enormous US military budget; and
- policies that make nuclear war more likely, such as keeping nuclear weapons ready for use at a moment’s notice or unchecked presidential authority to use nuclear weapons.
In contrast, the new peace organization would support
- investing in diplomacy and other nonviolent tools for resolving conflicts among nations;
- radically reducing the military budget; and
- countering the nuclear threat through radical reductions in nuclear weapons, no longer keeping such weapons ready for instant use, ending unchecked presidential authority, and other measures (the Back from the Brink campaign’s recommendations are a good guide here).
As I said above, I am focusing on the United States because that is my country. Peace activists in other countries might consider forming similarly focused organizations adapted to their own circumstances.
This organization would be non-partisan and non-sectarian, being open to people of many different political parties and people of many different faiths or none.
This organization would not take positions on domestic political issues nor would it take positions on foreign policy issues not directly related to war or other uses of violence. In particular, the organization would not take a stance on abortion, assisted suicide, the death penalty, or other life issues outside the realm of foreign policy. Members could have a variety of views on domestic policy as well as international matters such as trade or fiscal policy. Activists who differ on such questions can still work together to achieve a far more peaceful world than we have today.
Such an organization could draw in people who want to work for peace or might be open to conversion to the peace cause but would not wish to join current peace organizations. Meanwhile, those who prefer current peace organizations’ approach can of course continue to participate in those organizations. And those who wish to pursue peace activism along with other life issues can participate in organizations such as the Consistent Life Network!
Preventing war, especially the nightmare of nuclear war, is work that urgently needs everyone’s participation. I think the peace movement could do a better job of reaching potential peace activists who are not being reached by existing organizations. Creating a new organization to reach those potential allies is a goal worth seriously pursuing.
For more of John Whitehead’s posts on strategy, see: