Disarming Conflict

DisarmingConflictBy Ernie Regehr. Zed Books, 2015. 228 pages. $19.95/paperback.

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One of the great mysteries of this world is why we humans waste incredible amounts of resources on the tools of war. What adds to the mystery, as Ernie Regehr lays out in Disarming Conflict, is that this endeavor is not only futile but—for the objective of achieving human security—actually counterproductive.

Regehr is a specialist in international conflict resolution and the cofounder of Project Plowshares, a leading Canadian peace and security NGO. He has participated in Track II negotiations—unofficial initiatives to resolve conflicts, parallel to official diplomacy.

In Disarming Conflict, he catalogues the wars of the last 25 years—a formidable and terrifying list. Regehr defines war as at least 1,000 dead, and 25 killed per year; he classifies them as interstate wars, intrastate wars, and—commonly—“international interventions in intrastate conflicts.” For intrastate (civil) wars, he breaks them down further into state control, state formation (e.g., division into parts), and failed state wars. He notes that all of the 29 current wars around the globe are variations on intrastate wars.

In case after case, Regehr points out that none of these wars has achieved any discernable objective for either side, but instead left the country more desperate than before the war began. Very little force is needed by a rebel group to render a country ungovernable. When the sides finally accept the futility of armed conflict and begin to negotiate, they have fewer resources for peacebuilding activities than they had to begin with.

Regehr does not favor renouncing the use of force entirely. Some acts are so evil that “well-trained international military and constabulary forces” must confront those whom he calls “spoilers.” But Regehr charges that the resources consumed by high levels of war spending jeopardize the layouts needed to maintain a stable society—to provide basic services, inclusive governance, and economic health. He urges a huge shift of resources from the former to the latter.

Regehr differentiates between “peace support operations” (limited multilateral incursions to strengthen internal conflict resolution mechanisms), and “war-making” (bypassing political processes in an attempt to force a victory of one side). He cites Iraq and Afghanistan—where “the focus shifted from supporting security and public safety to defeating the enemy”—as classic, dreadful examples of the latter, which only added to the morass in these two countries.

Regehr draws two important lessons: (1) Don’t spend your national resources on huge preparations for war, but direct them instead toward building up a healthy, resilient society; and (2) When a conflict descends into war, move as quickly as possible out of it and into negotiations. In the end, governments will eventually have to meet face to face with aggrieved minorities.

For vulnerable populations within states in such peril that intervention is necessary, the United Nations General Assembly, in 2005, established a procedure to authorize it under the rubric “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P for short). Regehr is pleased to note that R2P has received “an extraordinary level of global consensus”—an acceptance of international responsibility that defies the usual UN presumption that national sovereignty trumps intervention within states. But acting under R2P is fraught with difficulties, and doing it correctly is “one of the most profound moral and political dilemmas of our time.”

Regehr considers control of the arms trade to be urgent. He deems the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) of 2014 “less than perfect, but more than worthwhile,” in that it at least defines appropriate procedures. He commends the inclusion of controls on small arms like automatic rifles and rocket launchers, which “are still the key to gaining and occupying territory.” He sees the ATT as a hopeful sign of “a shifting global norm in favor of restraint.”

Nuclear weapons, despite some controls, remain ready for use at a moment’s notice. Regehr quotes former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans’s comment that human survival for so long without catastrophe has been “sheer dumb luck.” Regehr urges nuclear reduction and elimination as a high priority, and, because the possessors of these weapons cling to them as a “strategic trump,” this cannot be accomplished without a parallel reduction in conventional arms.

Ultimately, the goal should be “reshaping the security envelope.” This involves transforming the concept of security, often understood superficially in military terms rather than as the security of all people, into assurance, meaning that trust is present at all levels from the individual to the international. If other states or rebel groups feel intimidated, they will be tempted to pursue “asymmetrical” deterrent strategies—e.g., terrorism. Nations, like individuals, must accept that “their own security will be enhanced if their adversary feels more secure.”

This volume, full of details and careful statements and restatements, is not a quick read. But the subject is vital for human survival, and Regehr takes great pains to get it just right. I found toughing it through these pages well worth the effort.

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