The dangers of war – and nuclear war
“If you look at war from the beginning, military resistance seems plausible and a possible solution. If you look at it from the end, the `military solution´ is a disaster.”
The above is a quote by someone from the Balkans, who would have lived through the wars there, at a recent Church and Peace https://www.church-and-peace.org/ conference which took place in Croatia. Most wars begin with optimism about the result – on all sides – and a belief in the cause, usually in the European and some other contexts blessed by the churches. But hope turns to fear, dread, regret, mourning and a thousand other negative feelings – but once warfare begins it is difficult to end as chauvinism and stubbornness kick in. We face Macbeth’s dilemma, in Shakespeare’s words ““I am in blood / Stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more, / Returning were as tedious as go o’er”. And there is the feeling that some benefit from the war must be shown for ‘the blood of the martyrs’, those who have died for ‘our’ cause.
It is totally understandable why Ukraine decided to resist the Russian invasion with military means. In Mohandas Gandhi’s hierarchy of responses to injustice, inaction comes bottom, violent reaction next, and nonviolent resistance is preferred. But how may will be killed, in Ukraine and Russia, at the end of the war? How many will have had their lives ruined or disrupted? How long will it take to rebuild anything like normality?
And what dangers have we yet to pass through? We have previously spoken about the dangers of even mentioning the threat to use nuclear weapons, as Vladimir Putin and other senior Russian figures have done. We also have stated that it is simply holding nuclear weapons that is the danger and the UK, for example, has no ‘no first use’ doctrine – in other words they would use them if they felt it necessary. The problem with a war like the war on Ukraine by Russia is that we do not know what escalation might happen, and how it might happen, and it remains a very real danger. If Russia used a tactical nuclear weapon then NATO would respond strongly and militarily and we could be on the road to a European, and possibly wider, armageddon. There is a strange sense of deja vu to be contemplating the horrors of nuclear war once again – for those old enough to remember the 1950s, 1960s, or 1980s.
Carl von Clausewitz may have said that war is the continuation of politics by other means but while it may be an attempt to do so the result is very different. Politics as such does not necessitate the filling of body bags. Politics does not destroy whole cities and displace whole populations. Politics does not precipitate the hate and venom that war does. Politics, we should hope, creates few orphans and widows. Of course some politicians may see war as a continuation of politics – and Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was a political misjudgement of mammoth proportions, and an attempt to get by force what he had been unable to get through diplomatic and political pressure, insofar as he tried those.
But Putin was not the only one to miscalculate. NATO’s promise to Russia on the fall of communism in eastern Europe not to expand eastward was broken again and again. The failure to have Ukraine state categorically it would not join NATO was another crass mistake, as well as the failure to implement the Minsk agreements which would have given relative autonomy to eastern provinces of Ukraine; even if Russia was not keeping to its side of the bargain, the move to implement its obligations by Ukraine would have pulled the rug under further moves by Russia.. Len Munnik’s cartoon on the transfer of ‘foremost enemy status’ from the USSR to Islamist militant militant fundamentalists after the end of the Cold War was very perceptive (see NATO entry at https://innatenonviolence.org/wp/posters/ ) – but the problem is now that ‘foremost enemy status’ has switched back to Russia, and the west has had a large role in turning an erstwhile friend into a deadly enemy.
The risks of war, and managing a proxy war like that in Ukraine (NATO supplying Ukraine with war equipment but not itself fighting) include not only the destruction of the people and territory involved but also a significant risk of escalation. We have referred to nuclear risks above. The world is actually lucky not to have had nuclear exchanges (see e.g. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/oct/27/cuban-missile-crisis-60-years-on-new-papers-reveal-how-close-the-world-came-to-nuclear-disaster ) and it has been a very close run thing at times, not to mention the many accidents which could have been catastrophic. These dangers continue in a very real way. Nuclear power is another, although somewhat related. Matter but we see its danger in the war situation in Ukraine as well.
The only way to eliminate the threat of nuclear war and nuclear blackmail, by all sides, is to work for universal nuclear disarmament. Some will say that goal is utopian. We would say that goal is realistic in that this is the only way to eliminate the ever real danger of nuclear war – and we may not always be as lucky to avoid that eventuality as we were in 1962 with the Cuban missile crisis between the USA and USSR. Of course nuclear disarmament is only likely to come about through wider international rapprochement and the creation of human and ecological security way beyond what exists today. But the alternative to moving forward on disarmament is to move backwards to greater human insecurity and misery – and the denial of wellbeing to billions because obscene amounts of money is spend on weapons and the military. There is a long road to travel.
Choices for, and about, unionists in Northern Ireland
It is understandable that unionists and loyalists in Northern Ireland feel cheated or even threatened by the Northern Ireland Protocol between the UK and the EU. Whether it affects their standing in relation to the Good Friday Agreement is a moot question but it has changed part of the economic relationship between the North and Britain, whatever about the constitutional position – though in relation to that, Northern Ireland still ‘feels’ and functions as part of the UK even if culturally distinct from Britain.
If unionists were sold out in any way then they were sold out by their own government and there is no one else they should blame apart from their own role in the debacle. It was an English nationalist move both for Brexit and especially a ‘hard’ Brexit which created the issue of an EU single market boundary. A hard Brexit was a move which had staunch DUP support and led directly to the NI Protocol.
Any system of government in Northern Ireland has to have broad support across both major political entities, unionist and nationalist, ‘cross-community’ (there are issues in relation to a vote for a united Ireland and constitutional change in this context which we have explored and will explore again). At the moment ‘the system’ clearly does not have such cross-community support. We doubt whether the DUP boycott of Stormont is justified given the severe issues which face the North, as well as the fact that the NI Protocol is a UK-EU issue; although boycotting is a classic nonviolent tactic it is not always for positive reasons or results. The whole matter is also caught up with internal unionist brinkmanship and showing that ‘we are stronger on the Union than you’ within the unionist community which is an unfortunate game of ‘chicken’ (and more like a game of ‘Dodo’).
Realities have changed in Northern Ireland but other realities remain the same. A new election would be pointless, the two largest parties might gain a seat here or there but the result would be the same stalemate. What are needed are substantive talks which involve all sides in the North. Yes, the issue may be a UK-EU one but where there is a will there is a way, and there is no reason why parallel, simultaneous talks cannot take place which provides input from, and feedback to, the Northern parties while the EU and UK do some final bargaining. This would be the most democratic option with the inclusion in some form of all sides in the North.
There are various parts to the current reality. One is that Stormont is only a part-time partial success; whether you judge this to be a ‘total failure’ is an open question, but even when functioning it has not dealt successfully with many issues of which education is a glaring example. It could have better decision making mechanisms which encourage compromise and at least partial consensus. But some republicans and nationalists are very unwise to recently talk about ‘joint authority’ (between Britain and Ireland, Republic of) as an alternative ‘backstop’ to the Stormont assembly, either as a threat or possible reality – apart from any issues of practicality it is not in accord with the Good Friday Agreement and such talk gets loyalist paramilitaries preparing to go on the warpath – not that they should exist or be in position for any warpath.
But the more major, societal change which has a major bearing is the demographic one that unionist parties are no longer in a majority, but then neither are nationalists. The DUP is reputed to have spent less than half an hour deciding to back Brexit, showing a very considerable lack of strategic thinking. Unionists need to think strategically about what will ensure, for their constitutional preference, the continuation of the ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’.
So what is the best way for unionists to ensure the continuation of the ‘UK’? Clearly it is by making it as attractive a place to live for people – especially nationalists, ‘others’, and not-naturally-unionists’. How? By making Northern Ireland an economic success, which it clearly is not at the moment – and by making people feel ‘at home’.
And how can the North be made an economically successful ‘homely’ place? For one, providing political stability, making the system (whatever it is) work, and building on the privileged access which the NI Protocol gives to exporters to the EU (including continuing to grow sales to the Republic). Certainly there are issues and problems with the NI Protocol in the EU having been overly strict but then the UK has been overly lax in meeting its obligations. The EU is well disposed towards Northern Ireland so a bit of effort by the British government, plus compromise and creativity, on both sides, should get a win-win-win result (for the EU, UK and NI itself), and this ongoing sore settled.
As to making people feel ‘at home’ in the current constitutional situation, unionists need to think ‘what do other people want’ – and if possible give it to them. A specific Northern Ireland human rights act (as promised as long ago as the Good Friday Agreement) – certainly. Support for the Irish language act – yes. Creativity and generosity of spirit would go a long way. And perhaps some awareness might be warranted that nationalists in the North do not have the constitutional arrangements that they desire – and this might temper unionist anger at perceived changes under the NI Protocol. Both sides need to think what it is like to walk in the other side’s shoes; it is actually to their advantage to do so..
Please note that we are not saying ‘we support a united kingdom’, what we are saying is we support the coming together of the people of the North, whatever the constitutional situation. And unionists have usually been their worst enemies when it comes to strategic thinking. That may have worked relatively well for them when unionism was in a clear numerical majority but not any more – and even less so in future. If they choose ideological purity over practical progress then everyone will certainly lose – including themselves. But for anything to work there needs to to a stable and relatively strong unionist voice (not necessarily from one party)..
There are many myths about ‘the Protestant work ethic’ (and that is certainly not a runner in the Ireland of today and it never was an unvarnished fact) but there was a reason many Quaker businesses thrived in Britain and Ireland in the past. Apart from any hard work and creativity on the part of the proprietors, they were known to be trustworthy and reliable, and they treated their workers well by the standards of the time. Unionists could do worse than learn from this by thinking of everyone and not just themselves. Compromise can seem a dirty word to some but it can also be the means to achieve a lasting result which is found acceptable to all.
But current unionist concerns need addressed and a way found to do so. Thinking of others includes thinking of unionist concerns by nationalists and the British and Irish governments.