Effective peace activism is urgently needed today. Tensions between the United States on the one hand and both Russia and China on the other are high and have the potential to escalate into war, leading to a nuclear catastrophe. US relations with Iran and North Korea also threaten larger violent conflicts. Meanwhile, the US military budget remains grotesquely large, being $778 billion in 2020—more than the military budgets of the next 10 highest-spending nations combined. In response to such a situation, peace advocates need to speak out on behalf of peaceful, non-military responses to conflict.
Further, I think that mobilizing the large numbers of people needed for effective peace activism requires a new type of peace organization. Existing peace organizations certainly do good work, and they deserve credit for this. Nevertheless, I think the peace movement needs an additional organization to fill a current vacuum.
One might get a sense of this vacuum by looking at the websites of some notable existing peace organizations. A quick glance at these sites reveals two crucial facts: most of these organizations tie opposition to war to other issues; and both these other issues and the organizations’ general philosophies tend to slant in a certain direction.
Fellowship for Reconciliation USA says, on their website, that they have worked on issues such as “climate crisis, environmental issues affecting public safety, ending torture in U.S. prisons, ceasing the widespread use of solitary confinement, and the mobilization for a nuclear-free, peaceful and sustainable world.” Their key priorities for advocacy include working against poverty and inequality and for indigenous rights and justice (ending nuclear weapons’ threat is not listed among the priorities).
The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom’s website comments on the need for “a different political economy with investment in environmental protection [and] social and economic rights” and elsewhere says “Neoliberalism has exacerbated inequality, exclusion, and environmental destruction.” In response, the League says, with “a particular focus on climate, the environment, and the extraterritorial obligations of multinational companies, we use feminist political economy analysis as a tool to better understand power inequalities and the causes of conflict.”
Code Pink’s website strikes a similar note, saying that “War, poverty, police brutality, ecological degradation, and nearly every other issue we face are connected by the same root cause.” The site elaborates that “We live in a war economy, otherwise known as imperialist white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy.” Changing this situation requires a cultural shift away from consumerism and other unhealthy values.
Win without War (WIN) provides its vision for what is significantly called a “Progressive Foreign Policy for the United States.” Saying that American “foreign policy is intimately interlinked with our domestic policy,” WIN calls for connecting peace activism with work against climate change as well as various efforts for economic and social justice. This foreign policy vision also contains the diagnosis “our endless wars and exploitative economic policies are often driven by corporations who benefit from the expansion of conflict around the world.” Meanwhile, Peace Action’s website mentions its efforts to “respond instantly in the media to right-wing misinformation.”
Some American peace organizations’ websites feature pages or resources dedicated to causes other than stopping the United States from waging war. For example, the War Resisters League and World Beyond War both have material on opposing militarization of domestic police forces.
My purpose in reviewing these peace organization statements is not to disparage the organizations or their beliefs. As I said, I think current peace organizations do good work, and I sympathize with their views on some of the other, non-peace issues covered by these websites. The peace movement definitely has room for groups that combine peace activism with environmentalism, social justice work, and similar causes.
However, I also recognize that this approach to peace activism does limit such activism’s appeal. It limits the appeal to people who are already quite politically left-wing and (what is no less important) who also believe that working for peace is closely connected with working for various left-wing causes. Not everyone who opposes US wars and desires peace fits this profile.
Some people may wish to prevent war while also having views on other political issues that are quite different from those expressed on peace organization websites. Other people, whatever their precise views on economic policy or other issues, might be skeptical about whether these issues are strongly linked to stopping war.
Speaking for myself, I am not a particular fan of capitalism, at least as practiced in the contemporary United States. Nevertheless, I question whether capitalism bears the responsibility for war that some activists assign to it. War predates capitalism by some millennia and 20th-century societies that have abolished capitalism have still waged war, which makes me skeptical of this explanation.
The limited appeal of many peace organizations is in many ways a mirror image of the limited appeal many pro-life organizations have. Pro-life organizations that link protection of unborn human life to particular religious beliefs or certain attitudes about sex and family life or conservative political views alienate a great many potential allies. Like the peace organizations I have mentioned, such pro-life organizations do good work and have a place within the larger movement. We should recognize the limitations of both types of organization, though.
For these reasons, I see the need for a new, different variety of peace organization. I will sketch what I think the essential characteristics of such an organization would be.
The new peace organization’s core principles would be simple. The organization would oppose
- the United States waging war;
- the use, by the US military or intelligence agencies, of violent methods such as assassination, torture, or indefinite detention;
- the enormous US military budget; and
- policies that make nuclear war more likely, such as keeping nuclear weapons ready for use at a moment’s notice or unchecked presidential authority to use nuclear weapons.
Therefore, the new peace organization would support
- investing in diplomacy and other nonviolent tools for resolving conflicts among nations;
- radically reducing the military budget; and
- countering the nuclear threat through radical reductions in nuclear weapons, no longer keeping such weapons ready for instant use, ending unchecked presidential authority, and other measures (the Back from the Brink campaign’s recommendations are a good guide here).
This organization would be non-partisan and non-sectarian, being open to people of many different political parties and people of many different faiths or none.
This organization would not take positions on domestic political issues nor would it take positions on foreign policy issues not directly related to war or other uses of violence. Members could have a variety of views on domestic policy as well as matters such as international trade or fiscal policy.
This organization would also be neutral on certain philosophical questions. Pacifists who believe war is always wrong in principle would be welcome, as well as those who believe war can sometimes be justified—the organization as such would never endorse or support a war, however. The organization would similarly allow a diversity of opinion on whether the ultimate goal should be abolishing nuclear weapons altogether or reducing them to a very low level. Activists who differ on such questions can still work together to achieve a far more peaceful world than we have today.
Such an organization could draw in people who want to work for peace or might be open to conversion to the peace cause but would not wish to join current peace organizations. And those who prefer current peace organizations’ approach can of course continue to participate in those organizations.
Preventing war, especially the nightmare of nuclear war, is work that urgently needs everyone’s participation. I think the peace movement could do a better job of reaching potential peace activists who are not being reached by existing organizations. Creating a new organization to reach those potential allies is a goal worth seriously pursuing.
 Diego Lopes da Silva, Nan Tian, and Alexandra Marksteiner, Trends in World Military Expenditure, 2020, SIPRI Fact Sheet, April 2021 (Solna, Sweden: Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, 2021), 2, available at https://bit.ly/3vsV4He.
 Fellowship for Reconciliation-USA, “Advocate,” accessed April 28, 2021, https://bit.ly/2QEfle2.
 Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, “Redefine Security,” accessed April 28, 2021, https://bit.ly/32WxQNd; Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, “Promoting Socio-Economic Justice,” accessed April 28, 2021, https://bit.ly/3e0aw7L.
 Code Pink, “A Local Peace Economy,” accessed April 28, 2021, https://bit.ly/2SbRqTH.
 Code Pink, “Start with Culture,” accessed April 28, 2021, https://bit.ly/3nvTnpv.
 Win Without War, “Principles of a Progressive Foreign Policy for the United States,” accessed April 28, 2021, https://bit.ly/3nuJNDm.
 Peace Action, “Join Us,” accessed April 28, 2021, https://bit.ly/3dYrdjJ.
 War Resisters League, “Police Militarism,” accessed April 28, 2021, https://bit.ly/3eDgH0H; World Beyond War, “Ban Militarized Policing in Your Locality,” accessed April 28, 2021, https://bit.ly/3eDaykZ.
 For the Back from the Brink campaign’s recommendations on ending the nuclear threat, see Back from the Brink, “Our Five Policy Solutions,” accessed April 28, 2021, https://bit.ly/2QInk9P.
© 2021 John Whitehead. All rights reserved.