Common Security Talk
Joseph Gerson
NATO Counter-Summit Conference, Washington, DC – April 2, 2019

This is not going to be a traditional peace movement talk. I want to begin by naming a contradiction that I have long lived with. I am a pacifist and anti-imperialist. I also think that we must walk and chew gum at the same time: pressing broad and urgent demands like ending the Yemen War, preventing war with Iran and Venezuela, and demanding nuclear weapons abolition and ending the racist assaults on people of color.

Given that we are not going to overturn the dynamics of realpolitik any time soon, the tasks before also require bending these unjust forces away from war, injustice and environmental devastation.

There are many ways that international relations are and can be conducted – including today’s conference. What passes for relations between the great and lesser powers is also reflected what one of my professors said years ago: The study of international relations is analogous to studying the rules of the game among Mafia families.

There is also the truth that when elephants fight, ants are trampled. Like ants, we are not defenseless, but need to strategize and collaborate to channel the movements of those elephants. We have a long and often successful history of forcing the mobster elephants to do our bidding: defeating Jim Crow, cutting the funding that forced an end to the Vietnam War, forcing Reagan and Bush I to negotiate with Gorbachev, and ending what was popular support for the wars in Afghanistan and across the Middle East.

Which brings me to the subject of my talk: the importance of developing a vision and advocacy for common security diplomacy that can see us through this increasingly dangerous and uncertain interregnum of the yet to be named post-post-Cold War era.

None of us has a precise description of what a new Common Security order would entail. We do know that even before serious and patient diplomacy can begin, we have to forge the political will to pursue détente, no domination. And we need to find the openings that make the weaving of webs of dialog and relationships possible. As Miles Horton might have said, we have to “make our road by walking.” So, I look forward to your comments following my talk.

Let me provide a quick overview on the urgency of our international crises.

The Post-Cold War era is now past. The interregnum between the dying order and the new one struggling to be born is a time of uncertainty and increased existential dangers – including nuclear war. While we face renewed U.S./NATO-Russian military tensions and confrontations, we need to avoid the old Cold War paradigm. Michel Klare has written that we are already at war with China, and in any event what we face is more complicated than the bi-polar confrontations of the Cold War. Some, I think rightly, compare this moment to the period before World War I, when new economic and military powers were rising to challenge old ones. Another similarity to forces contributing to the 20th century’s two disastrous world wars is the proliferation of authoritarian nationalisms in a time of economic inequality and crisis, and their use by powerful factions to acquire state power. As in the early 20th century, the great powers and others are engaged in arms races with new technologies. There are territorial disputes, continuing resource competition, complex alliances, economic integration and competition, and wild card actors.

Even before the collapse of the INF Treaty, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists reset the hands of their Doomsday Clock to two minutes to midnight, the closest it has been to apocalypse. They warned that the great powers had increased their reliance on nuclear weapons, that they and the other nuclear powers were investing staggering sums to “modernize” their nuclear arsenals and delivery systems, and that arms control negotiations had been completely abandoned, a situation made more dangerous by the renewed Cold War rhetoric that is poisoning the international environment. This, of course, has been compounded by the lack of coherent US foreign and military policies.

Our wild card actor, Trump the tyrant, boasts that “we have more money than anybody else by far” and called for a new arms race. He encouraged Japan and South Korea to become nuclear armed states, violated U.S. regulations to expedite the export of nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia, brought the U.S. and North Korea to the brink of war, and warned that “Europe is a big place. I’m not going to take cards off the table. We have nuclear capability.”

If that’s not bad enough, President Putin has responded that he is ready for a new Cuban Missile crisis. And from the Baltic and Black Seas to the South China and West Philippine Seas, provocative U.S., NATO, Russian and Chinese military deployments and exercises have increased the likelihood of miscalculations, incidents and actions that could spur escalation to great power war.

So, what then is Common Security?

In 1981, at the height of the Cold War, Swedish Prime Minister Olaf Palme convened the Independent Commission on Disarmament and Security, bringing together heads of state, foreign ministers and political leaders from Europe, the Soviet Union, North America, Japan and the Global South to explore how to reverse the spiraling arms race that threatened human survival.

The commission concluded that “it is important to replace the doctrine of mutual deterrence,” and that the two great powers “must achieve security not against the adversary but together with him. International security” it warned “must rest on a commitment to joint survival rather than on a threat of mutual destruction.” Common Security was the paradigm they created, rooted in the truism neither individuals or nations can only be secure unless other people and nations simultaneously enjoy security. As a Middle Powers Initiative briefing paper later put it, “a state’s security…can depend crucially upon the security of an adversary… Rules and security arrangements are to be equitable, inclusive, and mutually beneficial.”

Georgi Arbatov then a member of the Soviet Union’s Communist Party’s Central Committee was transformed by discussions in the Palme Commission and greatly influenced what became Gorbachev’s disarmament commitments. He wrote that “Most significant…. was the idea of “common security,’ the essence of which was that we cannot guarantee our own security and the expense of someone else’s, but only on the basis of mutual interests.”

The Commission recognized that when insecure nations – including the great powers – develop and deploy new weapons and military doctrines to counter perceived threats, their action is seen as an escalating threat. That leads the newly threatened nation to respond in kind, resulting in a spiraling arms race and to increased dangers of deadly miscalculations. That’s where we’re living today.

The Palme commission, spurred and reinforced by massive social movements and protests of the early 1980s, concluded that the imperatives of reducing military tensions and reversing the spiraling arms race could be achieved through the pursuit of Common Security diplomacy. They identified six principles which contributed to the negotiation of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, functionally ending the Cold War, as well as to the early U.S.-Russian-European collaborations that marked the first years of the post-Cold War era:

  • All nations have a legitimate right to security
  • Military force is not a legitimate instrument for resolving disputes between nations
  • Restraint is necessary in expressions of national policy
  • Security cannot be attained through military superiority
  • Reductions and qualitative limitations of armaments are necessary for common security
  • “Linkages” between arms negotiations and political events should be avoided.
  • These principles would contribute to security today. Without going into detail, the Palme Commission also addressed the need for Common Security development approaches to North-South relations and within nation states.

    What then might common security diplomacy look like today?

    As George Kennan predicted, and as even former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns and others in the U.S. elite warned, the violation of the Bush/Baker – Gorbachev agreement allowing German reunification on the condition that NATO not move an inch closer to Moscow has been a disaster. As Putin put it, the spring that is pushed too tight snaps back. This, and Russia’s history of suffering devastating invasions from the West, help to explain Russia’s military and nuclear modernizations, its intervention in Ukraine, its support for right-wing governments in Europe, and its interventions in the 2016 U.S. election.

    Common Security in relation to Russia, means abandoning the dream of NATO expansion to Georgia and Ukraine, the vision of a Fort Trump in Poland, and the increasing militarization of the Nordic nations. It means coming to terms with the reality of greater Chinese economic, cultural and political influence across Eurasia, and conceding the shelf life of U.S.dominance over Europe in order to have a western toehold on the geopolitically strategic Eurasian heartland has expired.

    There are alternatives to NATO, about which our movements need to learn more: The Helsinki process, and the Organization for Security and cooperation in Europe, which also made enormous contributions to the end of the Cold War, and whose foundations can be built on today. in time, we can replace NATO and the confrontation with Russia with the “Common European Home” envisioned by Gorbachev, the Paris Charter and maybe Putin in the first years of his rule. As the Old Testament proverb has it, “A people without vision will perish.”

    This path includes the imperative of renewed disarmament diplomacy: nuclear, conventional and high tech. Among the components that are urgently needed are:

  • Restoration of the INF Treaty combined with efforts to bring China and other nuclear powers into the Treaty.
  • Halting deployment of all new nuclear weapons and their delivery systems
  • Eliminating launch on warning systems and first strike nuclear doctrines
  • Credible steps toward fulfilling the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty’s obligation for good faith negotiations for the complete elimination of nuclear arsenals
  • Reaffirmation and updating the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty
  • Multi-lateral negotiations to reduce the risks of attacks on computer technologies and networks, especially those of nuclear-armed states.
  • Cancellation of Trump’s commitment to creating a Space Force and negotiating an international for a more comprehensive Outer Space Treaty.
  • There is also the matter of Ukraine. Despite its complicated history, culture, and politics, the path to more peaceful borderland nation, even to reconciliation doesn’t require rocket science. The roadmap includes:

  • Halting all foreign arms sales and deliveries to the warring parties
  • Fully implementing the Minsk II agreement
  • Improved trade relations for Ukraine with both Russia and the European Union
  • Envisioning creation of U.S.-Chinese common security relations is more difficult. I won’t rehearse the history of U.S. Asia-Pacific hegemony, which began in the 1850s. Simply to say that with China’s rise and its military modernizations, it has become the United States’ primary peer competitor. We face the classic Thucydides Trap of potentially disastrous tensions between rising and declining powers.

    Beyond China’s economic dynamism, are powerful historical, cultural and pollical dynamics. With 5,000 years of recorded history and with its cultural development and self-image as the world’s most advanced and powerful nation for most of that time, China’s will to overcome the century and a half of demeaning and deadly humiliations by the West and Japan is central to that nation’s political culture. Its leaders also see its major geostrategic threat as coming from its maritime lines of trade and communication: the Western Pacific, and the South China Sea and Indian Ocean which serve as its trade and energy lifelines.

    China is described as a revisionist power, challenging the U.S. imposed liberal international economic order. Why shouldn’t it? The rules were made to benefit Western elites, not the China people. Thus we have the AIIB competing with the IMF and the World Bank. Like the U.S., China built its economy in part through high tariff walls, and it mimicked western Europe by advancing its industries with industrial espionage, economic exploitation and unjust foreign and military policies.

    Whether or not we fully embrace the Thucydides trap paradigm, we face deeply rooted and multi-faceted U.S.-Chinese tensions that engage the world’s nations from South Korea to the British Isles. U.S. encirclement of China is being challenged by China’s militarized claims to the South China Sea and its “string of pearls” across the Indian Ocean. And the U.S.-Chinese neo-colonial competition for influence and resources in Africa is a defining characteristic of the 21st century.

    Addressing the potentially catastrophic tensions between Manifest Destiny and the China Dream is thus at least as important as confronting those between Washington and Moscow. Here, unfortunately, the foundations and tradition of peaceful competition facilitated by diplomacy are lacking.

    A decade ago, I asked one of Japan’s most respected scholars how war between the U.S. and China could be avoided. His answer was on the mark: “Build the web of relations that make war unthinkable.” This, I think, is the most important and challenging common security task before us.

    Some of this web is already in place, rooted in the two powers’ economic interdependence and the number of U.S. and Chinese scholars, students and business people who interact on a daily basis. There is the history of the semi-annual U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogs that, if revitalized, could serve as an alternative to Trump’s Trade War and the zero-sum U.S. and Chinese military confrontations. Addressing the continuing nuclear tensions on the Korean Peninsula and calls for the creation of a Northeast Asian Nuclear Weapons Free Zone can also provide the occasion for U.S.-Chinese diplomatic cooperation, and thus trust building.

    So too can be demands from our peace movement and potential tactical allies from Colin Powell’s former Chief of Staff Lawrence Wilkerson to the CATO Institute to close and withdraw the hundreds of U.S. military bases and installations that encircle China, to reduce military spending and fund essential economic and social uplift in our increasing unequal and suffering nation can help pave the way to building common security relations with China.

    There is also the matter of human rights. Our movements need to be challenging the gross human rights violations on both sides of the Pacific. The immigrant concentration camps, the continuing separation of immigrant families, and the record number of imprisoned people in the U.S. are reminiscent of European fascism, which we thought had been overcome. And the mass incarceration of Uighurs, and the assaults on freedom of thought and speech in China are similarly unacceptable. Yet, as with the era of 1980s and 90s détente and Obama’s diplomacy with Iran, our first imperative has to be avoiding a catastrophic potentially nuclear war.

    As we turn to your questions and suggestions, let me say a few words about process. With partners in Europe, Russia and soon across the Asia Pacific, over the next few years a number of us are in the process developing international common security statements and networks to advocate for them. We recognize that this can only be a part of our work as we press to prevent NATO and other wars, press for nuclear disarmament, and work in every way we can to oppose the nationalist right-wing authoritarianism which is ruining people’s lives and driving the international race to the bottom. As I said as I began, we need to walk and chew gum at the same time, by also filling the vacuum that our governments have created, and by developing a 21st century vision and reality of common security.