Sunday, 1 December 2013

Talk for Rotary Convention

Green Lane, Auckland    Arthur Palmer  16 Nov. 2013        

Thank you for inviting me to talk about peace.

It is true that I do have a strong concern for peace.  But that is not so uncommon. Peace is a beautiful word.  It’s a concept that has a long history of songs, poems, hymns and lyrics in every language, with peace as the theme.  And yet we still live in a very violent world. Why is peace so elusive? Why was the 20th century so full of wars and violence? And now we are continuing in the same fashion, with peace as elusive as ever.  Do we have to get used to a succession of conflicts which peter out when we reach a stalemate? Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan.  There is so much to regret as we repeat those names and remember the losses. On both sides. It has been a very costly way of dealing with the political differences of opposing ideologies. Costly not only in lives, but in attitudes to life.

One of the problems is that we live on a small crowded planet with not unlimited resources.  We have to find a way of facilitating change in the direction of justice for all, and it is becoming increasingly obvious that the competing empires of the past are not a helpful model for the future. That way lies endless conflict and death.
The old pattern was for the strong nations to subdue, or at least control, weak and so-called ‘backward’ societies, and install an Empire loyalist, either indigenous or from home base, and give him the power to rule and keep order. We sometimes tried to convince the world that there were benefits for those whom we ruled, and when there was some idealistic vision present, some did manage to make gains.  I think we can say that NZ had a better transition than most. We were given something to build on when the Treaty of Waitangi was signed, and we are still working on it.  But that was not typical. More common was the corruption and cruelty that comes with absolute power.  My generation grew up with the conviction that the British Empire was better than the rest, and many men died to honour that belief. Not a few others, many of them dark-skinned, died because they challenged the regime that had kept them in servitude.

We are now part of a world vastly different from the one which we inherited. But the old model of Empire is still very much alive. Contending forces jockey for position, as in the past.  And New Zealand is a very small player in that environment.  Small does not mean insignificant.  When NZ rejected nuclear weapons as an acceptable basis for a peaceful future, the world took notice.  We were saying that threatening whole cities, or even nations, with instant nuclear death was not justifiable in any circumstances. NZ was seen by millions of people as offering a sign of hope. The shadow of a war of unimaginable horror was moved a little further away.

Right now we see another weapon that lays claim to being the answer to those who may harbour ideas of violently challenging the status quo. These weapons, unmanned aerial vehicles, UAVs in military jargon, commonly known as drones, can inflict death from thousands of miles away, with no cost to the Empire or its servants. That’s the claim. But actually the cost is huge.  Those killed may well include dangerous men with loyalties that we question. Also killed are many bystanders, including women and children, and not a few who were targeted because of mistaken identity, or for the money given for “information”. And for almost every one of these victims there exists a family network that grieves, and imagines who and what manner of human beings have sanctioned and carried out this cruel deed.

Sir Winston Churchill is lauded as a great wartime leader, and he certainly knew how to handle the English language in the service of his country’s war.  But long before those dark days, he made this perceptive comment. This quote is from one of his books, “My Early Life”.  It went like this: ”The Government that can win a war can seldom make a good peace; and the Government that could make a good peace would never have won the war.” 

That’s worth thinking about.  To fight a war effectively one has to demonise the enemy. This always happens in wartime, and becomes more intense the longer the conflict continues. So that by the time we write a peace treaty most of us are in no mood to be generous or forgiving. Too much bad stuff has happened.  Too many have been grievously hurt.  On both sides.  The qualities most needed for a lasting peace are generosity and recognition of our common humanity. But these qualities have spent the war years confined to our citizens and those of some, not all, of our allies. Necessarily confined, Churchill would say, because we could not afford to let them hamper military victory.

But when victory finally comes and peace is declared, then the problems arise.  And Churchill was proved right. The qualities which enabled a coalition of unlikely allies to defeat the powers of Germany, Italy and Japan were not helpful in planning a peaceful future.  Strong nationalist sentiment had fuelled the fighting forces of each nation. Now we needed to plan internationally and think globally.

 But old habits are hard to break. The victors are likely to write a treaty that disempowers those whom they have fought, and who may wish to challenge them in the future. And there we have the seeds of more conflict.  Our new peace is based to a large extent on negatives and conditions, rather than positives and racial harmony. How do we break out of this recurring dilemma? . Especially when there is a lot of distrust in the mix.  War breeds distrust. Old allies begin calling each other bad names. A poem in the New Statesman caught the tone of the times in 1948: Worth recalling.   Verse one…

1.  On V-Day just three years ago we cheered our brave allies
     Who helped to sweep the hated foe from earth and seas and skies. 
     We hung the banners out to greet our Gurkhas and our Sikhs, 
     Our Fighting French, our Czechs, our Poles, our Jugoslavs, our Greeks. 

2.  But Europe’s skies are overcast since that victorious day. 
     Our Gurkhas and our Greeks have passed from Britain’s sovereign sway. 
     And yet another menace in his conscript ranks enrols 
     His Czechs, his Greeks, his Jugoslavs, his Prussians and his Poles. 

It’s all getting a bit hazy now, sixty years later.  And so much has happened since.  But it is instructive to study that period of high hopes for many of the world’s people.  Hopes for peaceful development. Why has that been so patchy? And especially this: why are we now still fearful of what could happen if opposing forces unleashed the lethal weapons that are now held in so many unsteady hands?

There were two more verses to that poem, and they were looking ahead.

3.  Now democratic nations in another anxious pause 
     Are making preparations for another common cause.
     Though peace is highly spoken of, the post-war world divides, 
     And possible belligerents are busy changing sides. 

4.  So when our next V-Day is due, for those alive to see, 
     With fighting friends of WW2 opposed in WW3, 
     Though old allies have fallen out, new ranks will fill the gaps – 
     We’ll maybe cheer our Germans, our Italians and our Japs.

That was published on 8th May, 1948, as Britain was celebrating a third anniversary of victory in WW2. And it was prophetic.  Quite a lot of effort, and billions of dollars, went into arranging for something like that to happen in terms of military forces. The Cold War replaced the hot one. Communism was the new enemy.  Our leaders concentrated on a form of peace based on dominance and superior nuclear power.  And finally settled for a stalemate - Mutually Assured Destruction.    Yes, M A D spells MAD. There can be no winner in an exchange of nuclear missiles. 

We now have seven or eight nations with nuclear weapons, and more nations planning to join the club in which membership ensures that you will be listened to.  It’s a very unstable peace we have now.  The US empire is keen to enlarge its role as Supreme Controller, along with a group of compliant satellite nations. How much confidence can we have in that as a basis for peace, as we look at the history of past empires? In fact our world is already in crisis.  Those who are labelled “terrorists” multiply their numbers.  The new Empire with the most powerful army in the world pulls back and leaves a broken society in Vietnam, then in Iraq, and now in Afghanistan, with more conflict and suffering to come. 

So let’s try to be positive.  We are still needing an answer to the question: how can we build a peace that is creative, forward-looking and with promise of hopeful developments. We do have the tools. It has been estimated that in recent years roughly half of the world’s scientific expertise has been devoted to inventing new and more powerful weapons. Just think of the possibilities if that skill was harnessed for something else.  For example, discovering new sources of energy, countering climate change, educating and improving the lot of millions who live out a bare and uncertain existence. 

That poem was prophetic as regards another aspect of our life today.  How many would have dared to imagine in 1948 that Rotary International, a world-wide community organisation promoting social welfare across boundaries, would be led by a Japanese President, Mr Sakuji Tanaka, during the 2012-13 year.  And no doubt with the memory of those war years in his mind he has made PEACE a central focus for Rotary throughout the world. Symposiums in Berlin, Hiroshima and Pearl Harbour, (inspired choices, don’t you agree?) have wrestled with this question of how we can help to build a strong and peaceful interconnected world.

I repeat what I said before: NZ is a small player in all this. But we have the right, and, I dare to say, even the duty, to advocate, and practice, a better way of building a future. We need a creative future, an inclusive future. How do we go about building that? 

I think Bougainville offers some clues.  I recently listened to Major Josh Wineera, of the NZDF, talk about the Peace Process there eleven years ago. The mission that he headed, under the auspices of the UN, had the task of persuading former enemies, who had fought for a decade over the issue of the huge copper mine there, to reach an understanding that could bring a stable and peaceful society. How did they do it? Major Wineera explains:

First, the mission was impartial, neutral and respectful. It was their peace, not ours, and we were helping them to decide.
Second, they took time to visit a host of villages and communities to explain the peace process, and to listen to doubts and hurts. The mission came without weapons and the Bougainvillians agreed to hand in all their guns. They learnt to trust the mission.
Third, the mission members had a wide range of skills, including diplomats, police, and also members from Vanuatu, Fiji and later Australia.  And, most important, there was a gender mix on both sides. With patience a peaceful future opened up and grew. Peace continues after 10 years. And hopefully the trust is growing.

Can we learn from this story and apply these lessons to problems in a larger context? I think we can.
Let’s imagine for a moment.  What about the military bases which are now dotted all over the world. A century ago it was our own British Empire setting the pace. Now it’s the U.S, with 750 bases in 130 foreign countries, so we are told.  Those who work there are proud to be posted overseas, to safeguard and extend the power of the US empire, and all other concerns are very minor.  That makes them suspect to many small nations, especially those who have reason to feel exploited by external forces, such as powerful trans-national corporations linked to the US.  But what if those bases were staffed instead with experts on education and health, and competent exponents of relevant social skills, ready and equipped to be invited by people living in deprived communities. Almost certainly there would be more requests than could be met immediately, and the rule would be never to go anywhere uninvited. 

Yes, of course there will be stresses.  Almost all change offends some whose dominant or comfortable position is threatened.  And often there is widespread unemployment and little hope of improvement without help, which means we have a breeding-ground for corruption and crime.  But listening to those whom we are trying to help, and offering grounds for hope, that is the key to peaceful change.

I suggest that we are at a crucial point.  Our world is finding that more lethal weapons are not the way to peace.  In fact they are hindering, increasing our fears and creating new hatreds.  Can we now step up with a positive way forward that will move us towards building a stable peace?  Rotary has already shown, in a small way, what can be done, both locally and internationally.  But this is where Governments are needed, and billions of dollars as well as the thousands, to meet the huge need.

I believe we have been given the outlines of a vision that is greatly needed at this time.  That vision is too easily brushed aside by Governments, when it is articulated by individuals, or by peace groups and Churches.  But when it comes from business leaders with a social conscience and solid evidence, then it is much harder to label as idealistic and naive.  New Zealand, and Rotary, are names that are respected. When they engage in dialogue with powers in society, including the world of media and politics, they are listened to.   We have a duty not to be silent in the face of what ails our world.

And finally: what is the fuel that will empower us?  Not just cheap expediency.  There’s no power in that.  Not political or commercial advantage.  The changes that we are talking about here will only come, I believe, when we push for them because they are right, because they are just, and because they serve humanity.  Our world desperately needs this larger vision, inspired by compassion and empathy.  That’s the language we must learn.  Our children and our grandchildren depend on us to work hard to enable this to happen. . And Peace will slowly cease to be as elusive as it is at this moment.

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