Academic journal article Journal of Buddhist Ethics

The Role of Deterrence in Buddhist Peace-Building

Academic journal article Journal of Buddhist Ethics

The Role of Deterrence in Buddhist Peace-Building

Article excerpt

I want to consider a strategy for peace that is not commonly associated with Buddhism, namely military deterrence. So far as I am aware, this topic has received little attention from students of Buddhism and peace. My argument in this article will be that deterrence is not ruled out by Buddhism's pacifist teachings, and appears to be accepted even in early Buddhism as a morally acceptable strategy for the avoidance of conflict. My claim essentially comes down to this: Buddhism does not teach that the threat of the use of force for defensive purposes by state authorities is in conflict with the Dharma. Note that I am speaking here of the threat of the use of force rather than the actual use of force. I am not concerned to defend the actual use of military force at this time; although I believe a case can be made for this, it would require a longer discussion and is not my aim in this article.

Of course, there are many schools of Buddhism and many strands of Buddhist teachings. Discordant voices speak to us from diverse sources like the Pali canon, historical chronicles like the Mahavamsa, Mahayana sutras and numerous commentaries. Deciding which is the authentic voice of Buddhism is problematic. Using Mahayana sources such as the Upayakausalyasutra, the Satyakaparivarta, the Suvarnaprabhasa Sutra and the Mahaparinirvana Sutra--to name but a few--it is relatively easy to show that not only deterrence but the outright use of violent force is sanctioned by influential Buddhist scriptures. Here, however, I will restrict myself to the evidence of the Pali canon, which is generally regarded as representing a consistently pacifist body of literature. As Peter Harvey puts it, "Within the Theravada, no canonical text can be found justifying violence" (255). Accordingly, the Pali Canon will present the strongest test of my thesis that a policy of military deterrence is not in conflict with the teachings of early Buddhism. I

I define deterrence as a military strategy used by state authorities with the aim of dissuading an adversary from undertaking hostile action. The reference to military strategy and state authorities is to distinguish deterrence by lawful authorities acting for the common good from the actions of groups who act outside the law and against the public interest, such as terrorists and criminal gangs. Deterrence will normally be for defensive purposes as a means of keeping the peace, and this is primarily the context I have in mind here (call this "defensive deterrence"); but it could also form part of a more aggressive policy, for example when used by an invading power to ensure compliance and deter retaliation (call this "offensive deterrence"). In all cases, successful deterrence convinces its target not to engage in hostile action by raising the stakes to the point where the price of aggressive action becomes too high. Deterrence is thus an attempt to achieve an objective without the use of force, and additionally can provide an opportunity for negotiation and reconciliation.

In some respects deterrence is the mirror image of what Gene Sharp has termed "nonviolent coercion." Sharp is described by Sallie King as "arguably the foremost theoretician of nonviolent power in the world today" and "an established friend of both the Burmese and Tibetan Engaged Buddhists" (105). Nonviolent coercion is the third of four scenarios Sharp sketches by which political change can occur through non-violent means. It differs from deterrence in that nonviolent coercion is typically used against the state in campaigns of civil disobedience. To this extent it is arguably more aggressive in that it involves intentionally crippling the state by cutting off resources it needs to function. Deterrence, by contrast, normally aims at the preservation of the status quo and need not involve an intention to cause damage or harm. If this analysis is correct it follows that a strategy of defensive deterrence is, in principle at least, in keeping with the values of Engaged Buddhism. …

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