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Making War Obsolete: An Interview with John Reuwer of World Beyond War

by Christy Yao

It is hard to remember a time the United States has not been at war. War is a large part of our history classes, our national holidays, and our identity. War is seen as a “necessary evil,” something that one should take pride in, but not wish for. It doesn’t have to be this way, however.

War has become so commonplace in part because of treaties and other pieces of legislation that make violence easier to achieve. One such treaty is that establishing the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO, is a political and military alliance between the United States and other countries, mostly in Europe. It is based on the North Atlantic Treaty, which was signed on April 4, 1949. Anti-war advocates strongly object to Article 5 of this treaty, which states that an attack on one NATO member is an attack on all NATO members. Lord Ismay, NATO’s first general secretary, said the alliance’s mission was “to keep the Russians out, Americans in, and Germans down.” Every member state has to agree on the new members. Other countries can join as “global partners.”

Crisis management, including military intervention, is one of NATO’s main purposes. NATO has been deploying troops to Afghanistan since the time following 9/11. It has participated in sending a training mission to Iraq, providing assistance to counter-piracy operations, and enforcing a no-fly zone over Libya. NATO has a defense spending target for member nations of two percent of their GDP. Only five nations, including the United States, are currently complying.

A total of 90 percent of the world’s defense spending comes from NATO countries. NATO has brought other countries up to the “highest” standards of military technology, procedures, and terminology, with the “highest” usually meaning the standards set by the United States. New countries are even forced to purchase US equipment

One of the biggest concerns peace advocates have with NATO is the place of nuclear weapons in the treaty as a “deterrent.” NATO has a policy of “nuclear sharing,” which means member states who do not have nuclear weapons can be part of planning and using nuclear weapons. Countries that do not possess nuclear weapons may possess nuclear materials or store nuclear weapons for other countries who own them1

Many anti-war organizations have stated that NATO leaders should be charged with war crimes. NATO has been criticized as being neo-colonial and contributing to a new kind of Cold War and arms race. NATO has participated in wars, bombings, and drone operations against Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya. NATO has been used as an excuse to enhance US-led forces, accelerate military action, ignore international law, and increase military spending.

Rehumanize International collaborated with World Beyond War to protest NATO and met with peace activist John Reuwer. Reuwer was kind enough to provide an interview to give an introduction to World Beyond War, his work, and their plan for world peace.

Life Matters Journal: What is World Beyond War’s Mission? What gap does it fill that other organizations don’t?

John Reuwer: WBW is a global nonviolent movement to end war and establish a just and sustainable peace. It works by formulating the ideas and stimulating the activism necessary to eliminate war as an instrument of politics for dealing with conflict within and between nations. It is the only organization we know of whose sole mission is to work for the abolition of all war (not just wars we don't like) through practical alternatives.

LMJ: What drew you to work with World Beyond War?

JR: As a high school student during the Vietnam War, I remember being relieved that my lottery number was high enough not to be drafted, because I probably would have gone to war, something I viscerally did not want, but was raised to do in obedience to Church and State authorities. My conversion to peace began in college when I learned about the problem of world hunger and worked for a number of years for Bread for the World. There I discovered that there was more than enough food for everyone, but resources were being diverted from feeding people to preparing for and fighting [in wars].

As I started my medical residency, Ronald Reagan came into office with plans to win a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. My scientific curiosity led me to study the physical and biological effects of nuclear explosions, [and I found what I learned] so awful that I joined Physicians for Social Responsibility in its effort to educate politicians and the public about the dangers. Most people who took time to listen to us agreed with our conclusion that these weapons should never be used. I learned the value of activism when our efforts helped put a million [protestors] in the streets of New York in 1982, and changed Reagan's mind to the point that he became supportive of nuclear disarmament, leading to the dismantling of tens of thousands of nuclear warheads.

As satisfying as that was, I soon noticed that conventional warfare was becoming ever more deadly with many kinds of weapons of mass destruction, and the ongoing deaths of countless people, now mostly civilians. Even when weapons theoretically serve as a deterrent to war, they steal resources needed to help people live healthy lives. So I began to look for ways to address violent conflict with something other than more violence, leading me to the field of active nonviolence as an alternative way of exerting power for good. I studied, taught, and practiced this with groups like Christian Peacemaker Teams in conflict zones even as I carried on my medical career. Four years ago, when WBW was founded, I found a very bright group of people who had the big picture of what it would take, in practical terms, to replace all war with alternatives more consistent with my spiritual and moral values. I was hooked on their approach.

LMJ: Tell us about your work in South Sudan.

JR: For four months this past winter and spring, I served in South Sudan as an International Protection Officer with the Nonviolent Peaceforce, which is a global organization that addresses violent conflict with nonviolent strategies. They call it Unarmed Civilian Protection (UCP), with the mission of protecting civilians in areas of violent conflict by building peace side by side with local communities, while developing local capacity for nonviolent strategies such as building trusting relationships, situational awareness and monitoring, early warning systems, training in nonviolent action, and proactive engagement of parties in the conflict.

In South Sudan, the latest peace agreement is holding better than predicted, so I did not experience open shooting. On the other hand I met people traumatized by witnessing more war than peace for over sixty years. As one might expect in a place of nearly endless war, it is one of the poorest countries in the world, with almost no public infrastructure or services, minimal manufacturing capacity, and limits even on its grazing and subsistence farming. Yet I met many young and old people, reminding me of the indomitable human spirit, who rise up against all odds and declare their dignity. I have never met so many people so hungry for peace. Our teams, consisting of nationals and internationals, were almost universally welcomed with open arms and gratitude for the message of hope we brought—that even the least of us matters, and has a voice. The idea of nonviolence immediately took root because, unlike in the US, [these people’s] bitter experience of prolonged war freed them from the belief that violence is what makes them safe. They worked hard to form community protection teams and unarmed community policing groups. They know those things are only a beginning, and are anxious to learn more about how to influence those who start the wars. In addition to supporting an expansion of the Nonviolent Peaceforce in the country, I want to work with the leaders I met to start an African chapter of World Beyond War.

LMJ: Are you a total pacifist, or do you believe there are just wars, or situations that call for violence?

JR: I am not a principled pacifist. If I could do more good than harm by using violence to solve a problem, I might be willing to do that. But after decades of thinking about countless situations where that choice would need to be made, it is very hard for me to imagine the circumstances where a nonviolent approach would not be as likely to succeed as a violent approach. In an unexpected encounter with imminent physical harm from another person, I think most of us will react as we are trained. If I practice with and carry a gun, I will likely try to use it; maybe it will help and maybe it will make things worse. If I practice connecting with people out of touch with their humanity enough to want to hurt me, maybe it will help and maybe it won't. In any case, protecting myself or a loved one from one or several attackers has almost nothing to do with the dispassionate decision to pay, equip, and train large numbers of young people to participate in the mass slaughter of thousands or millions of human beings. World Beyond War is concerned with the latter.

LMJ: When and how do you think world peace could be achieved?

JR: If by world peace you mean no more physical violence between humans, that could take a long time because of our intrinsic "fight or flight" biological programming designed to respond to the inevitable threats and accumulated traumas of life. We'd have to do a lot of research to learn how to deal with that more effectively than we do now. If you mean the end of premeditated mass slaughter of humans and widespread destruction by professional and less professional warriors in the service of political and business interests, I think it could be achieved in any given year because it is a simple decision whether to continue paying for, preparing, and training for that, or do something more life-affirming with our time and resources.

I like WBWs approach on how we do that (this is just a snippet of our Global Security document):

A) Demilitarize security - Realize that human security depends more on recognizing our interdependence and looking out for one another than on how much we can threaten each other. The first step is to disarm all offensive weapons and adopt a truly defensive military posture. There are countless alternatives to military intervention if we devoted the money and genius to them that we devote to war. We cannot find the alternatives easily when so much of our brilliance is spent on preparing to harm one another. Idealistic young people looking for ways to make a difference should have paid options to fight fires and floods, control epidemics, and assist victims of earthquakes and other natural disasters. If they want to address human threats, then let's beef up the diplomatic corps, the Peace Corps, and create a national peaceforce for the riskier missions.

B) Create a culture of peace, which includes researching and teaching universal peace literacy, the power of nonviolence, human rights, and promoting these things in the fields of education, business, journalism, and diplomacy.

C) Managing conflict without violence, which has to begin in elementary school, but extended to international relations. The [United Nations], which was founded to prevent war, could obviously be much improved, or perhaps we need another system of global governance. Well-governed nations ensure domestic peace by having laws that people recognize as fair. International laws need to be developed along similar lines, with mostly nonviolent enforcement. Human security needs to be proactive, and not wait for the next dictator or empire to torture people or start a war. International courts can be strengthened, and current treaties limiting chemical, biological, cluster bombs, and land mines can be expanded and become models for more universal disarmament, monitoring of dangerous behavior, and international cooperation in the service of human rights.

Over time, these things could realize enough human creativity and goodness to make war obsolete.