How to Abolish War

By Renner, Michael | The Humanist, July 1999 | Go to article overview

How to Abolish War


Renner, Michael, The Humanist


But other contemporaries grew apprehensive as the military expenditures of the six leading European powers tripled and the size of their armies doubled between 1880 and 1914. Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel, inventor of dynamite, was deeply pessimistic, but he nevertheless banked on an idea that foreshadowed the nuclear deterrence school of thought: that the destructive power of new armaments was so immense as to render future warfare unthinkable.

Nobel was a close friend of Bertha von Suttner, a leading pacifist of the time who encouraged him to devote his wealth to the cause of peace and who became a Nobel Peace Prize recipient in 1905. Von Suttner argued passionately for the establishment of an organization like the United Nations, for the creation of what we now call peacekeeping forces, and for a "European Confederation of States." She marshaled a mixture of realism--the ability to comprehend the consequences of the trends of her time--and vision--the ability to see clearly what must be done--that embodied hope for a better future.

Von Suttner and other pacifists persuaded Czar Nicholas II of Russia, who was worried about the "crushing burden" of the "armed peace of our days," to convene the First Hague International Peace Conference in the Netherlands in 1899. This event brought together government representatives from twenty-six nations--a large proportion of the sovereign states that existed then. It was the first conference ever called to seek ways to reduce the likelihood of war rather than to distribute its spoils.

But although the 1899 conference and a follow-up gathering in 1907 succeeded in codifying some rules for conducting war, they failed to make significant headway toward preventing conflict. An arbitration court was set up, but its use remained entirely voluntary. A Russian proposal for a five-year moratorium on arms purchases was rejected, and an opportunity to ban aerial warfare was missed. (At that time, aerial warfare consisted of the discharge of projectiles and explosives from balloons; warplanes made their debut later during the Italian-Turkish war of 1911.)

The steady buildup of arms in Europe intensified after the end of the nineteenth century. But even when fighting broke out in August 1914, virtually everyone assumed that this war would be short, just as the Franco-Prussian War nearly half a century earlier had been. Still hopeful, they believed that the soldiers would be home by Christmas. Few imagined that they were on the verge of the most devastating war in history--or that it would be followed by an even larger global conflict less than three decades later.

Today, the knowledge of utter devastation wreaked by two lengthy world wars and the threat of total annihilation in a nuclear holocaust have shattered many illusions about the "glory" of war that were strongly held a century ago. The promise of a more peaceful future is once again clouded by uncertainties ahead, just as it was at the time of the Hague Peace Conference. Will the new century be as violent as the old, the most destructive age ever? Or will humanity finally summon the ability to tame the beast of war?

Having witnessed the astronomical scale of human conflict, we find ourselves facing a most unusual situation: the absence of any big-power confrontation. The leading nations of Europe, where so many wars of the past originated, today enjoy cordial relations. The world as a whole is moving rapidly toward ever-increasing economic integration, giving rise to the hope--much like that of a century ago--that economic interest will trump belligerence. And we have made halting progress toward laws governing war (the so-called humanitarian laws), arms control, peacekeeping, and institutions to help govern international relations.

Yet dangers lurk today as yesterday. The Gulf War of 1991 was an early reminder that the end of the Cold War did not signal permanent peace.

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