On Saturday May 3rd, a conference took place at the Judson Memorial Church in New York on the centenary of World War I, titled Facing the Dangers of a 21st Century Great Power War. The all-day conference was well attended, with about 90 people present.
The conference brought together academics and activists to reexamine the history of the First World War and its aftermath, and to consider what we might learn that is useful in peace and disarmament work including similarities and differences between the forces that led to catastrophic great power war a century ago and those that threaten extinction today. The conference was sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee Peace and Economic Security Program, the International Peace Bureau, the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung New York Office, and the International Association of Lawyers Against Nuclear Arms and its U.S. affiliates, Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy and the Western States Legal Foundation.
The first two panels looked back at World War I and forward to the risks of great power war in the coming decades. One speaker noted that it was not a “world war,” but rather a war among European empires, with the fighting mainly in and around Europe, but which affected people’s lives and the structures of global society for generations. Panelists also identified multiple causes for World War I. These included massive arms buildups, misreading of each-other’s intentions by decision makers, and an increased propensity for risk-taking by ruling elites who saw their relative power in the international order threatened both from without by rising new powers and from within by unrest sparked by an economic system that disrupted traditional ways of life and drove an increasingly inequitable distribution of wealth and power.
A number of the speakers agreed that we are entering a period of heightened risk of war among nuclear-armed great powers. At the same time, no nuclear armed countries show any evident intent to make meaningful reductions in their nuclear arsenals in the foreseeable future. All of the states that have established nuclear arsenals are modernizing them to a greater or lesser degree, allowing them to keep their nuclear weapons deployed into the middle of the 21st century and perhaps beyond. Conventional arms racing is intensifying, with powerful, accurate, stealthy long-range strike systems facing sophisticated defensive systems, amidst electronic and now cyberwarfare, creating new dangers that military confrontations among nuclear-armed high tech militaries may escalate out of control.
Participants identified a number of forces likely to drive conflict in the coming years, including competition for diminishing resources such as oil and minerals, general social conflict due to lack or maldistribution of resources essential to human survival such as food and water, exacerbated by climate change and general ecological decline, an increasingly inequitable distribution of wealth. While a number of speakers mentioned the dangers that might arise from the U.S./NATO vs. Russian confrontation over Ukraine, it was recognized that major wars could be sparked in a number of ways, ranging from U.S.-China competition and confrontation to crises involving regional powers in East and South Asia or the Middle East.
Speakers on the panel on arms control and disarmament efforts before and between the world wars and other speakers throughout the day noted that legal efforts to control armaments and war before and after World War I had for the most part proved ineffective. Legal mechanisms for the resolution of international disputes failed to prevent World War I. Interwar negotiations to control the strategic arms of the day did not prevent rapid arms buildups and a second World War more expansive and destructive than the first. Despite signing the Kellogg Briand Pact, a “General Treaty for Renunciation of War as an Instrument of National Policy,” a few years later the world’s great powers were back at war with unprecedented intensity, culminating in the atomic bombing of cities.
There was general agreement that to accomplish goals as large as eliminating nuclear weapons or, more broadly, ending war, that legal mechanisms are not sufficient; there must also be significant supporting change in underlying social reality. There was no common approach to this, but there were some recurring themes. One is that both of these goals likely will require movements whose focus is not limited to peace and disarmament, and which make connections with people and organizations working for economic justice and an ecologically sustainable ways of life. Another is that we need to look at the structures of society and the forces driving conflict anew, in this particular moment, to understand how to go forward.
Report written by Andrew Lichterman, Western States Legal Foundation