The United States is currently carrying on what is referred to as a war against terror that is being waged in Afghanistan and Iraq and that threatens to spread throughout the region. There are many armed conflicts being waged all over the planet in the beginnings of the twenty-first century. Many of these are civil wars like the ongoing conflicts in Columbia and the Sudan. Others represent territorial conflicts like the battle between Pakistan and India over Kashmir and the long standing conflict between the Palestinians of Arab descent and the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. There is obviously a strong religious component to these conflicts as well. Other conflicts fueled by powerful religious and ethnic differences are exemplified by Lebanon’s civil war in the 1970s due in large part to the enmity between Muslims and Christians. Of course, the horrific and tragic genocide that took place in Rwanda can not be overlooked. This is by no means an exhaustive list of the various trouble spots that exist in the precarious world of humans. Overshadowing all of these calamitous events is an inexorable deterioration of the global environment.
On examining the ferocity of warfare, it is not difficult to come to the conclusion that the human species has failed to learn very much over its protracted history. The history of Europe from the Ancient Roman and Greek civilizations to the present, as an example, is replete with the carnage that is the inevitable outcome of innumerable wars. These conflicts helped shape not only the geopolitical contours of modern day Europe, but also nurtured a sense of cultural superiority that propelled forward the colonial ambitions that so impacted the rest of the world. Many of the contemporary areas of instability and unrest are a direct consequence of the policies and actions of the colonial powers of the past.
Within the individual human psyche, there exists a constant tension between the force and power of the emotions driven by the passions embodied in territory, tribe and nation, and that of reason. The more reactive emotions stem, in large part, from the evolution of the species in an environment that was essentially hostile and in which the forces of nature that impacted human experience were not understood and the causes of calamity were attributed to the gods, malevolent spirits or a particular enemy.
In the beginning of the human kind, ignorance was prevalent and fear and suspicion dominated and shaped human behavior. Although the advancement of science and technology has shed light upon many aspects of the human experience that were once shrouded in mystery, the inherent tendency to strike out violently against that which is feared and poorly understood remains to haunt human societies. What is particularly unique about humanity in the twenty-first century is the inescapable reality that the application of overwhelming force against a perceived enemy is no longer a viable solution especially considering the destructiveness of modern technological weaponry.
Over the thousands of years of human civilization, great empires have risen and eventually fallen. The cycle of empire building and dissolution has generally followed the same inexorable path. The beginning stage is represented by the rise of a local community of common origin followed by a gradual accretion of power, usually by force. Success at this initial stage leads to an ascendancy through the use of superior military strength that overshadows all adversaries and leads to the conquest of local adversaries. As power becomes increasingly concentrated into an overweening empire, there is a tendency to expand and overextend the sphere of power and domination. This ultimately leads to an exhaustion of resources both material and human. Finally, the empire contracts and ultimately dissolves. The entire process might take place over a thousand years as exemplified by the Roman Empire or hundreds of years as demonstrated by the now defunct British Empire.
In all of human history, these cycles of expansion and contraction were tolerable given the low density of human populations on the planet and the relatively benign effects of the primitive weaponry on the global environment. This model of collective human behavior where economic, political and social differences and rivalries are settled through violent means is no longer tenable in the modern era.
The essentially tribal nature of human interactions has evolved over the history of human civilization into competing national sovereignties. The idea that each nation state is a power unto itself is no longer compatible with the rapidly evolving global character of human endeavor. There is currently too much at stake in maintaining the status quo, especially in regards to the survival of the species. The development of technological weaponry, especially nuclear and chemical weapons, has created a situation in which warfare necessarily leads to horrific consequences. Examples of the disastrous effects of protracted conflict can be seen both locally for the populations involved and globally due to the environmental impact as witnessed in the nuclear attacks against the civilian populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the use of anti-personnel cluster bombs in Cambodia, the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam, the deployment of land mines in Afghanistan and the use of Depleted Uranium (DU) hardened ordnance in Iraq.
The daunting issues that face humanity are no longer local but rather global in nature. The remarkable savagery of the First and Second World Wars of the Twentieth Century awakened the idea of a world organization as a forum for international communication so as to foster dialog between nations and forestall the possibility of future wars of such magnitude. The first experiment in a world organization as a vehicle for adjudicating international disputes was the League of Nations that was created at the aftermath of World War I. This international body met with limited success and was eventually disbanded. This experiment in world governance was followed by the creation of the United Nations at the end of World War II. The United Nations is still extant but remains hostage to the dominance of the special interests of the powerful industrial nations that constitute the Security Council.
The will to empire is still very much with us. Apparently, no significant lessons have been learned from the horrid and often repeated mistakes of the past. The absolute necessity for true international cooperation as a means to effectively circumvent a catastrophic future that now seems so inevitable is still not recognized. Many nations remain fixated on the ferocious competition for dominance and supremacy at the expense of those sovereignties that are weaker and more fragile. A poignant present-day example of this is the Chinese annexation of Tibet, a process that is currently going on. This competition has usually been over the natural and human resources required to fuel and sustain national economies. The needs for additional natural resources such as land for expansion of national populations or energy and mineral resources have often been the focus of international aggression. As needed resources such as oil or water become scarce, the competition will, by necessity, grow more fierce and explosive.
This particular mindset has become problematic; the species is in desperate need of a completely new paradigm. The model must be based, by necessity, on a spirit of cooperation and giving. The chasm that currently exists between the so-called “haves” and “have-nots” both within and between sovereign states is helping to sustain the extreme level of violence that continues to plague humanity. Fundamental issues of social and economic justice need to be uppermost on the agenda. Such a focus would require a serious implementation of the role of social responsibility and conscience in the behavior of individuals and governments. The idea of belonging wholly to one nation must be superseded by the idea of being a member of the world community. This, of course, represents a huge leap in understanding, tolerance and compassion; it requires an obligation to act in the best interests of all humanity. At the core of this change in worldview is the incorporation of non-violent behavior in inter-personal relationships.
The first images of the planet taken from space clearly demonstrated, for all human beings that the earth is our only home. This conception has, in my judgment, become such an integral part of human consciousness that the current and obvious threat posed by global warming may offer some impetus for change. The time may be right to open more effective channels of communication between nations with the focus of developing sustainable economies that would help insure a livable planet for future generations of not only the human species but all the magnificent creatures that constitute the living world. Simply moving through life with self-interest as the guiding principle is not enough to forestall a major calamity that only concerted human action can avert.
In my judgment, the human species is facing an impending crisis that may ultimately challenge its ability to survive on this fragile planet. The forward momentum of what is referred to as “human progress” has led human societies to a rapidly changing world where there are cavernous divisions in religious and political beliefs and a grievous imbalance in the distribution of wealth. These differences are intertwined with each other and provide the impetus for unrest and violent behavior. For the first time in human history the convergence of these forces on a world with limited resources and an ever-expanding human population has created a situation in which the future of the species is no longer assured. The question remains as to whether we are collectively smart enough to overcome these difficulties and work together globally in ways that can divert a catastrophic future.
Unfortunately, violence continues to be the essential driving force for resolving serious disputes between nations and peoples. The contemporary rise of what is referred to as terrorism (although the use of this term conveniently bypasses the terror tactics so often employed by nation-states) is indicative of aggressive behavior that knows no clear territorial boundaries. This does not have to be case. There are many alternative ways to address controversial issues without necessarily employing violent methods. Why is it that raw aggression is so often the method of choice in resolving economic, political and social disputes?
The leaders of nations often use their positions of power to exploit the fears and emotions of their fellow countrymen to fulfill hidden agendas, often economic in nature, that serve the powerful. It is the young, uneducated and threatened members of the population who are most susceptible to the propaganda that is used to amplify the fears and uncertainties that are such an integral part of the human experience. From a chauvinistic viewpoint, the adversary is pictured as evil and somehow inimical to civilization. The enemy, so described, is often seen as less than human and, therefore, worthy of extinction. Those who are lured into doing the fighting are subsequently told that they must abandon the normal societal prohibitions that the rest of the society is taught to live by.
In war, civilized behavior is abandoned as young men (and women) are placed in situations where their main function is to kill and avoid being killed by the adversary that they face. For individual soldiers, survival becomes the impetus for their actions. Their behavior is rationalized by the idea that they are fighting for a higher purpose. Without, this set of beliefs, wars would not be possible.
The burden of war and the carnage and devastation that it brings is no longer tenable in the modern world. Technological weaponry has grown too deadly and sophisticated and the global environment, which is already in serious jeopardy, needs humanity’s undivided attention. There is, after all, one common thread that binds us: we are members of the same species depending on our planetary environment to sustain us.
It is imperative that national leaders embrace this reality and work towards finding common ground, especially with those who are perceived as dangerous adversaries. We face a global crisis that requires global solutions. The grinding hunger, poverty, ignorance and despair that haunts the lives of billions of human beings must be addressed, along with finding ways to avoid the serious impact that unabated global warming will bring to ourselves and most importantly, future generations. There are, of course, many barriers to such a degree of international cooperation, but in reality there is no viable alternative. The world, with all its wonders, is for us to preserve or destroy.
These thoughts do not, by any means, represent new concepts or ideas. Quite to the contrary, throughout human history there have been voices putting forth the idea of peace and suggesting methodologies to achieve this elusive goal.