It seems each day provides us a fresh reason for pessimism. A new demonstration of the fraying social contract, especially at the international level. The pillars upon which the international order was built seem to be rapidly deteriorating—from territorial integrity to the laws of war to the breaking of promises—and we find ourselves asking: what is to be done? There is no need to provide a comprehensive summary here of the risks we face; compelling diagnoses exist of what ails the world and there is no shortage of sensible prescriptions. The UN Secretary General’s Our Common Agenda is a good recent example as are many other reports and analyses with a narrower focus, touching upon issues of climate and the environment, security, poverty and inequality, financial sector vulnerabilities, and other such risk factors.
There is also growing acceptance of the view that these problems are generally global in nature; they are transnational. Solutions to them can best be framed in a context of much stronger international cooperation. It is for this reason that the debate about actions to confront them often ends up with a focus on the system of multilateral institutions that emerged out of the ashes of World War II.
UN Reform a nonstarter?
One aspect of this debate is whether, against the current geopolitical background, it would even be prudent to talk about reforms to our global governance architecture. With the “abysmal political climate for international cooperation, with deep rifts and mistrust” some argue that “reform is a nonstarter,” that it is Alice in Wonderland to “discuss reforming the UN while ignoring the brutal contemporary political realities.”
Implicit in this position is the notion that time is on our side, that we can afford to wait for the ‘right’ geopolitical moment. And, until the stars align again, our task lies in making minor adjustments. Secretary-General Kofi Annan told the General Assembly in 2003 “we have reached a fork in the road.” This thought has been repeated countless times by other Secretaries-General, by well-meaning heads of state and, it is assumed, will continue to be repeated through 2045, the 100th anniversary of the adoption of the UN Charter.
But insights coming from systems science about the breaching of planetary boundaries—to take just one example—demonstrate that time is not on our side, that we have a rapidly narrowing window of opportunity to address and hopefully mitigate the worst effects of the coming environmental calamities. Or, likewise, to reduce the likelihood of the use of nuclear weapons in one of the many unresolved conflicts bubbling around the world. What, then, is to be done?
Three viable paths
There seem to be three viable paths, which can be pursued concurrently. The first path is to recommit ourselves to the system we have. There are tremendous benefits to this—most notably that it would be a return to consensus. At this moment of great crisis, there is a legitimate case to be made that the safest route is the surest route—at least in the short term. However, that is also a limiting prospect and runs the risk of determining that the best we can do is to continue doing what we have already done. Perhaps more importantly, if we are conscious that the system as it stands is increasingly insufficient, by choosing only this path we are in a way admitting defeat at the outset.
The second course of action is to take the model we have and innovate. This is the course of action offered through the upcoming Summit of the Future and its attendant proposals including a New
Agenda for Peace, proposals for financial architecture reform, and even Article 109. There is significant merit in this course of action, as well: it offers an opportunity for questioning the structures we have without undoing the progress they have made. In other words, it allows for organic growth. Yet, there are risks here, too—in that we could end up investing significant time and energy to perpetuate a system ill-suited to our interconnected reality; or that we achieve only marginal progress, or, worse still, the process results in greater political fragmentation and mistrust.
The third course of action is a deeper exploration into the persistent challenges underlying our current systems and a search for new solutions. Essentially, questioning underlying assumptions and finding new answers. This course of action excites us most—in large part because we do not believe that the current frameworks are sufficient for the world of today, let alone tomorrow. In other words, when we imagine a century ahead, we just can’t picture a global governance system where Member States are expected, even required, to prioritize their domestic concerns when discussing international matters. We can’t imagine that a successful governance system would continue to prioritize a profit motive, a power motive, over the wellbeing of citizens and nature. Yet the system we have (even if modified as in option two) does just this. We will also be the first to admit that this may not be the most politically realistic course for today, but it will one day be the path we must choose. Why not begin it now given its far-reaching implications?
We do not need to choose merely one of these three options. We are at a moment where many opportunities open before us. The international order is struggling under the weight of the crises we face—both new and old. Let us use this consensus as a starting point to commit to what we have, to see what meaningful change can come from the processes in progress, and to rethink the current order from our starting assumptions. In essence, a little bit of each viable path is the ultimate expression of the precautionary principle for global governance.
One problem with concluding that the current political impasses make UN reform a nonstarter is that it leads to paralysis. It results in proposals that are the intellectual equivalent of rearranging the deckchairs as the ship is sinking. We are not suggesting ignoring the political realities of this moment but trying to see what the future holds. One day, we will need to move beyond traditional paradigms, beyond “reinforcing the crumbling foundations” of the current system. Humanity will need to articulate a new architecture, better suited to the needs of a rapidly changing humanity.
Importantly, it is not only governments who can advance this conversation—in fact this might be a key to overcoming some of the seemingly intractable obstacles to reform. As was noted in A Second Charter: Imagining a Renewed United Nations, numerous global governance innovations over the past quarter century were not initiated by governments. They started with civil society organizations: the Land Mines Treaty, the creation of the International Criminal Court, and the adoption of the Treaty on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons, to cite some recent examples. At a later stage, many governments adopted them. This is the “new diplomacy” in action.
At the end of World War II, and because of the destruction created by that conflagration, humanity had an opportunity to imagine something better suited to the needs of, in particular, the European continent. If in 1945 one had ventured to suggest that within a generation Europe would be advancing a project of economic and political integration, that by the late 1970s there would be direct elections for members of an increasingly influential European Parliament, and that by end of the century the broad parameters of monetary policy would be set by a European Central Bank based in Germany managing a single currency, one might have been accused of “Wonderland thinking”. And yet, it was the very political turmoil of that moment which allowed for this evolution to take place.
Today, we cannot afford to wait for what is called a “San Francisco” moment. Recall how that gathering came only after a global catastrophe prompted humanity to dare to think differently and engage in a reform process. Yet, today’s generation is carrying the legacy of the imperfections bequeathed to it. Let us not wait for another catastrophe before we engage in meaningful reform processes. In addition to recommitting to promises made, in addition to technical modifications, let us take that leap of imagination necessary to prevent future global catastrophes. Who knows, perhaps in a few decades, like the European case, future generations will be amazed at what we were able to achieve.
This article was originally published in Global Governance Forum’s blog.
Image Source: Palácio do Planalto from Brasilia, Brasil, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Pope Francis released this apostolic exhortation “to all people of good will on the climate crisis” on October 4, the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi. Its Latin title refers to the message of St. Francis to “praise God for all of God’s creatures.” (#1) This letter to the world is an addendum to his 2015 encyclical “Laudato Si” (“Praise Be,” the beginning words of a canticle by St. Francis). That encyclical is known as “On Care for Our Common Home.”
Pope Francis decided to write Laudate Deum because “climate change is one of the principal challenges facing society and the global community” (#3) but he is gravely disappointed that “our responses have not been adequate.” (#2) The acceleration of global warming is evident now. “Despite all attempts to deny, conceal, gloss over or relativize the issue, the signs of climate change are here and increasingly evident.” (#5)
According to Pope Francis, “it is no longer possible to doubt the human–‘anthropic’–origin of climate change.” (#11) He says that it is a fact that the average global temperature has risen dramatically with the increase use of fossil fuels. The consequence is the melting of glaciers and the polar regions, the acidification of the oceans, and the rising of sea level. He concludes that “the change in average surface temperatures cannot be explained except as the result of the increase of greenhouse gases.” (#14) He believes that some effects of the climate crisis are already irreversible.
What has gotten us to this point? Pope Francis argues that a growing technocratic paradigm that exploits nature because of unbridled power and economic ambition is the underlying issue. Humans have forgotten that we are part of nature and that how we interact with the rest of nature affects our future. Therefore, “we need to rethink among other things the question of human power, its meaning and its limits.” (#28) We need to reassess an economic mentality about maximum gain at minimal cost because such an attitude has serious consequences about care of our common home and care for the poor and needy.
The 2015 Paris Agreement has ambitious goals that are not currently being met. Pope Francis hopes that the next climate conference in Dubai in 2028 will lead to the “necessary transition towards clean energy sources such as wind and solar energy, and the abandonment of fossil fuels.” (#55)
Pope Francis also addresses the weakness of international politics. Individual nations acting alone cannot solve the climate crisis or any of our other global problems. He says that we need multilateral agreements based on the principle of subsidiarity. Solving global problems requires “establishing global and effective rules” (#42) and “increased ‘democratization’ in the global context.” (#43)
The reason why humanity has been unable to solve major global problems is because of our current international system of sovereign nation-states. International law is a system of non-binding treaties. No nation is required to become a party to any international treaty. National governments that enter into treaties can withdraw from them or ignore them based on their perceived national interest.
In Laudato Si, Pope Francis agreed with several previous popes that “there is urgent need of a true world political authority.” (#175) Many Catholic leaders have been arguing that outlawing war and genocide as well as solving global problems such as climate change will require a truly effective democratic world public authority that can create and enforce world laws and prosecute individuals who violate them. Until such a system is created, Pope Francis says that it is imperative that national governments become parties to effective environmental treaties and that they keep their treaty obligations.
With this letter to the global community, Pope Francis continues his warning about the existential crisis caused by climate change. He emphasizes the physical and spiritual dimensions of this crisis. This letter needs to be studied by members of the world community because it concerns the future of our common home.
Image credit: Dcpeopleandeventsof2017, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
In December 1934, Arthur Henderson, a leader of the British Labour Party, declared in his speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize that the immense human suffering caused by World War I “led to the very clear realization that international anarchy must be abandoned if civilization was to survive.”
Unfortunately, that realization did not go very far or very deep. Although, since that time, international law has been refined, nations remain far from adhering to its provisions or accepting its enforcement by the United Nations.
The Arab-Israeli Conflict
The lengthy, bloody conflict between the Israelis and their Arab neighbors provides a dramatic illustration of this point.
On November 29, 1947, the UN General Assembly adopted a plan to replace the British Mandate in Palestine with a partition of that land between a Jewish state and a Palestinian state. The UN decision was fiercely resented by the surrounding Arab nations, which launched a war against the new Jewish state, Israel—a war from which Israel emerged victorious in 1948.
This victory did not end the violence, however, or the violations of international law. Having fled abroad from the fighting in 1948, over 700,000 Palestinians, in contravention of international law, were denied the right to return to their homes in Israel. Egypt, which, in 1956, had agreed under UN pressure to the demilitarization of the Sinai Peninsula, expelled UN observers in 1967, massed its troops on Israel’s border, and together with Jordan, readied itself to invade Israel. In turn, Israel launched devastating attacks on Egyptian, Jordanian, Syrian, and Iraqi military forces. Victorious in this Six-Day War, Israel gained control of the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights.
Over the ensuing decades, numerous violent clashes followed, with Israel, now the dominant military power in the region, defeating Arab and Palestinian resistance. Meanwhile, Israel defied international law by continuing to occupy the territory conquered in 1967, colonizing it with Jewish settlements, and violating the human rights of its Palestinian residents. For their part, Hamas terrorists, dedicated to unremitting war against Israel, committed horrendous war crimes against noncombatants in clear violation of the 1949 Geneva Conventions. When the Israeli government deprived Gaza’s civilian population of food, water, and other essentials of survival, it, too, defied international law.
The Russia-Ukraine War
The Russian invasion of Ukraine provides another clear example of flouting international law. Article 2, Section 4 of the UN Charter prohibits the “use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.” Ukraine had been an independent, sovereign nation since 1991, when the Soviet Union authorized a referendum on whether it wanted to become part of the new Russian Federation or to become independent. In the balloting, 90 percent voted for independence, which was formally accepted. Three years later, in the Budapest Memorandum, the Russian government pledged to “respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine” and to “refrain from the threat or use of force” against that nation.
Nevertheless, in 2014 the Putin regime drew upon Russian military power to seize and annex Crimea in southern Ukraine and to arm pro-Russian separatists and unleash its own thinly-disguised military forces in eastern Ukraine. In February 2022, the Russian government, determined to seize full control of Ukraine, launched a massive military invasion. Although fierce resistance by the Ukrainians prevented a complete Russian takeover, that September Putin announced the annexation of four additional regions of Ukraine, declaring that Russia would never surrender them.
Most of the world’s nations assailed this behavior as a flagrant violation of international law. In March 2014, after a Russian veto blocked a UN Security Council rebuke, the UN General Assembly voted by an overwhelming margin to condemn the Russian action that year. In March 2022, amid a new Russian veto of UN Security Council action, the UN General Assembly roundly condemned the full-scale Russian invasion by a vote of 141 to 5 (with 35 abstentions), while the International Court of Justice, the world’s highest judicial authority, voted by 13 to 2 (with Russia’s judge casting one of the negative votes) that Russia should “immediately suspend” its invasion. That October, the UN General Assembly, by a vote of 143 nations to 5 (with 35 abstentions), called on all nations to refuse recognition of Russia’s “attempted illegal annexation” of Ukrainian territory.
The Renewed Nuclear Arms Race
Perhaps the most chilling manifestation of international anarchy is the renewed nuclear arms race. Recognizing the potential for worldwide destruction in a nuclear war and pressed for action by an uneasy public, the nations of the world did, eventually, sign nuclear arms control treaties. Among these agreements was the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty of 1968, in which non-nuclear nations pledged to forgo building nuclear weapons, while the nuclear nations agreed to divest themselves of their nuclear arsenals. Nevertheless, in recent decades, additional nations have become nuclear powers, while existing nuclear powers have scrapped previous nuclear disarmament agreements. Symptomatically, the nuclear powers oppose the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which became international law in 2021.
Indeed, all the nuclear nations are currently engaged in nuclear weapons buildups―planning and developing new, more efficient weapons of mass destruction. Some government officials, among them Vladimir Putin, publicly threaten to launch nuclear war against nations opposing their international policies.
The planet faces a perilous future, indeed, particularly when one considers that, as of early 2023, it was undergoing the largest number of violent conflicts since World War II.
Against this backdrop, it’s tempting to conclude that, thanks to the apparently ungovernable nature of the world, the annihilation of civilization is inevitable. But is the world ungovernable―or merely lacking an effective government?
Given the fact that the United Nations was created to guarantee international security, a logical solution to the problem of effective governance is to strengthen the ability of the world organization to enforce international law. By curbing international anarchy, this action would prevent marauding nations and armed bands alike from indulging their worst impulses. It would also significantly enhance the prospects for peace, justice, and human survival.
Håkan Dahlström from Malmö, Sweden, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Addressing the UN Security Council on September 20, 2023, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky delivered a heartfelt plea “to update the existing security architecture in the world, in particular, to restore the real power of the UN Charter.”
This call for strengthening international security under the aegis of the United Nations makes sense not only for Ukraine―a country suffering from brutal military invasion, occupation, and annexation by its much larger, more powerful neighbor, the Russian Federation―but for the nations of the world.
The Rise of the United Nations
For thousands of years, competing territories, nations, and empires have spilled rivers of blood and laid waste to much of the world through wars and plunder. Hundreds of millions of people have died, while many more have been horribly injured or forced to flee their shattered homelands in a desperate search for safety. World Wars I and II, capped off by the use of nuclear weapons to annihilate the populations of entire cities, brought massive suffering to people around the globe.
In 1945, this mad slaughter and devastation convinced far-sighted thinkers, as well as many government leaders, that human survival was dependent upon developing a framework for international security: the United Nations. The UN Charter, adopted in a conference in the spring of that year in San Francisco by 50 Allied nations, declared that a key purpose of the new organization was “to maintain international peace and security.”
The UN Charter, which constitutes international law, included provisions detailing how nations were to treat one another in the battered world emerging from the Second World War. Among its major provisions was Article 2, Section 4, which declared that “all members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.” Furthermore, Article 51 declared that “nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense if an armed attack occurs against a member of the United Nations.”
The Role of the Security Council
Although the UN Charter provided for a General Assembly in which all member nations were represented, action to maintain international peace and security was delegated primarily to a UN Security Council with fifteen members, five of whom (the United States, the Soviet Union, China, Britain, and France) were to be permanent members with the right to veto Security Council resolutions or action.
Not surprisingly, the right of any of these five nations to block Security Council peace efforts, a right they had insisted upon as the price of their participation in the United Nations, hamstrung the world organization from enforcing peace and international security on numerous occasions. The most recent instance has occurred in the case of the Ukraine War, a conflict in which, as Zelensky lamented, “all [Security Council] efforts are vetoed by the aggressor.” As a result, the United Nations has all too often lacked the power to enforce the principles of international law confirmed by its members and enshrined in its Charter.
Some people are perfectly content with the weakness of the United Nations. Fierce nationalists, including some Right-Wing actors, are contemptuous of this or any international security organization, and many would prefer its abolition. Others have little use for the United Nations but, instead, place their hopes for the maintenance of international peace and stability upon public and governmental acceptance of great power spheres of influence. Meanwhile, a segment of the international Left ignores the United Nations and insists that world peace will only be secured by smashing “U.S. imperialism.”
Sadly, those forces opposing international organization and action fail to recognize that their proposals represent not only a return to thousands of years of international strife and mass slaughter among nations, but, in today’s world, an open door to a nuclear holocaust that will end virtually all life on earth.
Proposals to Strengthen the United Nations
Compared to this descent into international chaos and destruction, proposals to strengthen the United Nations are remarkably practical and potentially effective. Zelensky has suggested empowering the UN General Assembly to overcome a Security Council veto by a vote of two-thirds or more of the Assembly’s nations. In addition, he has proposed expanding the representation of nations in the Security Council, temporarily suspending membership of a Security Council member when it “resorts to aggression against another nation in violation of the UN Charter,” and creating a deterrent to international aggression by agreeing on the response to it before it occurs.
Of course, there are numerous other ways to strengthen the United Nations as a force for peace and to help ensure that it works as an effective international agency for battling the onrushing climate catastrophe, combating disease pandemics, and cracking down on the exploitative practices of multinational corporations. Its member nations could also rally behind the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (still unsigned by the nuclear powers), agree on a UN program to handle the burgeoning international refugee crisis, and provide the world organization with substantially greater financial resources to reduce global poverty and mass misery than it currently receives.
Indeed, the horrific Ukraine War is but the latest canary in the coal mine―the danger signal that people of all nations should recognize as indicating the necessity for moving beyond national isolation and beginning a new era of global responsibility, cooperation, and unity.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons
This September is the sixtieth anniversary of U.S. and Soviet ratification of the world’s first significant nuclear arms control agreement, the Partial Test Ban Treaty. Thus, it’s an appropriate time to examine that treaty, as well as to consider what might be done to end the danger of nuclear annihilation.
The Rise of Public Pressure
Although the use, in 1945, of atomic bombs to destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki unleashed a wave of public concern about human survival in the nuclear age, it declined with the emergence of the Cold War. But another, even larger wave developed during the 1950s and early 1960s as the nuclear arms race surged forward. At the time, the governments of the United States, the Soviet Union, and Britain engaged in testing a new nuclear device, the H-bomb, with a thousand times the power of the atomic bomb.
Many people found this situation alarming. Not only did the advent of H-bombs point toward universal doom in a future war, but the testing of the weapons sent vast clouds of radioactive “fallout” into the atmosphere, where it drifted around the planet until it descended upon the populace below. In 1957, Professor Linus Pauling, a Nobel Prize winner in chemistry, predicted that, thanks to the nuclear tests already conducted, a million people would die early, and 200,000 children would be born with serious mental deficiency or physical defects.
In reaction to this growing menace, millions of people around the world began to resist nuclear weapons. They formed new, activist organizations, including the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (better known as SANE) and Women Strike for Peace (in the United States), the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (in Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand), the Japan Council Against A & H Bombs and the Japan Congress Against A & H Bombs (in Japan), and the Struggle Against Atomic Death (in West Germany). Even in the Soviet bloc, concerned scientists pressed for an end to the nuclear arms race.
Governments Reluctantly Begin to Alter Public Policy
Government officials in nuclear-armed nations, troubled by the rising agitation, as well as by opinion polls showing widespread popular distaste for nuclear testing, nuclear weapons, and nuclear war, gradually began to adapt their policies to the demands of the public. Meeting with top scientists in the U.S. nuclear weapons program, U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower told them that the U.S. government was “up against an extremely difficult world opinion situation” and that the country “could not permit itself to be ‘crucified on a cross of atoms.’” If U.S. nuclear testing continued, U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles warned the president, “the slight military gains” would be “outweighed by the political losses.”
Accordingly, in 1958, the Soviet, American, and British governments halted nuclear testing while beginning negotiations for a test ban treaty. Failing to secure an agreement, they resumed nuclear tests in 1961, which led to nuclear testing remaining a very hot political issue for people and governments alike.
Into this controversy stepped Norman Cousins, the editor of a widely-read public affairs magazine, the Saturday Review and, also, ardent world federalist and founder and co-chair of SANE. During a lengthy meeting at the White House with President John F. Kennedy in November 1962, Cousins inquired if the president would like him to meet with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to try to smooth the diplomatic path toward a nuclear test ban treaty. Kennedy responded affirmatively and, in the following months, Cousins shuttled back and forth between the two world leaders. Ultimately, Cousins overcame Khrushchev’s suspicions of Kennedy and, then, convinced Kennedy to deliver a major speech with “a breathtaking new approach” to Soviet-American relations.
This American University address, partially written by Cousins, proved an immediate success with Khrushchev. Test ban negotiations commenced in Moscow during July 1963, resulting in the Partial Test Ban Treaty―banning nuclear testing in the atmosphere, in outer space, and under water.
The Significance of the Treaty and Its Successors
From the standpoint of ending the nuclear arms race, the treaty had its limitations. Because the treaty left unaddressed the issue of nuclear testing underground, the nuclear powers and aspiring nuclear powers simply shifted nuclear tests to this new locale. Furthermore, with nuclear fallout no longer a major public concern, popular pressure to halt nuclear testing―and, thereby, choke off the arms race―declined.
Nevertheless, the Partial Test Ban Treaty proved a turning point in world history. Together with the nuclear disarmament campaign that produced the treaty, it reduced Cold War hostility and ushered in a period of détente between the U.S. and Soviet governments. Furthermore, widespread nuclear proliferation, which seemed imminent at the time, failed to materialize. Even today, sixty years later, there are only nine nuclear powers.
Most important, the treaty demonstrated that nuclear arms control and disarmament were feasible. And so a host of treaties followed that substantially reduced nuclear dangers. These included the Nonproliferation Treaty, Strategic Arms Limitation Treaties, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties, and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Through these treaties, as well as through unilateral action―both spurred on by popular pressure―the number of nuclear weapons in the world dropped sharply, from 70,000 to roughly 12,500. Meanwhile, nuclear war became increasingly unthinkable.
Nuclear Revival and Resistance
Of course, in recent years, with the decline of popular pressure against nuclear weapons, the prospect of nuclear annihilation has revived. Disarmament treaties have been scrapped, a new nuclear arms race has begun, and reckless leaders of nuclear nations have publicly threatened nuclear war. Although a UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons entered into force in 2021, the nine nuclear powers have resisted signing it.
Even so, it remains possible to get nations back on track toward international security. Citizens for Global Solutions has signed on to a joint statement for the forthcoming Nonproliferation Treaty conference that calls for a Common Security framework approach as an alternative to nuclear deterrence. The statement was presented at the recent NPT preparatory conference by the chair of the World Federalist Movement and has been endorsed by 170 organizations. In a few weeks, CGS will also co-host a parliamentary delegation from Japan and the Republic of Korea that will be welcomed by U.S. Senator Ed Markey (D-MA), one of the staunchest congressional advocates of nuclear disarmament.
Furthermore, the treaty process provides a useful route toward a nuclear-free world. As the Partial Test Ban Treaty and its successors show us, arms control and disarmament treaties have helped to curb the nuclear arms race and prevent nuclear war. The revived march toward nuclear catastrophe can be halted and reversed by a treaty finally banning nuclear weapons―if people will demand it.
One of the most wonderful qualities about Daniel Ellsberg, (1931-2023), is that unlike too many of us he got better and better as he grew older. Maybe we all hope we will — even if we fail to fully meet that goal — but he is a genuine hero in American history who truly got wiser and wiser throughout his long life.
For many years during my working life in Washington, D.C. when I was running an idea salon and representing philanthropist Stewart Mott in a historic building just behind the Capitol between the Supreme Court and the Senate Office buildings, Dan Ellsberg was a frequent visitor to 122 Maryland Avenue. During the 1970’s and ’80’s I would encounter him walking the halls on the first, second and third floors, meeting with Morton Halperin, Admirals Gene laRocque and Gene Carroll and others who were running Fund for Peace Projects which were our tenants in this four-story 1820 building. He was intense, focused and friendly. Everybody around here was engaged in peace efforts, military reform, national security and foreign policy rethinking. It was a veritable hotbed of good ideas for policies to make our country more open, honest, accountable as well as instrumental in getting us to a better world. The US Pentagon’s first famous cost overruns whistleblower, A. Ernest Fitzgerald, another frequent visitor liked to joke that this was the House of Un-American Activities — but it was in fact exactly the opposite.
Dan Ellsberg had not always been an anti-nuclear analyst and advocate. After Harvard (summa cum laude in economics), a stint at Cambridge University in England and a PhD from Harvard, he worked for the US State Department as a nuclear war planner, and went to South Vietnam and then to the RAND Corporation, contributing to a 47-volume study of classified documents on the conduct of the Vietnam War that was completed in 1968.
I was privileged to know two of his associates who influenced his later life. Anthony (Tony) Russo who was also employed by RAND when he worked with Ellsberg to make multiple copies of the Pentagon Papers as that huge 1968 study had come to be known. Randy Kehler, also a member of Citizens for Global Solutions National Advisory Council (CGS NAC), first influenced Ellsberg at a conference in 1969 when he said he was going to prison for draft resistance against the Vietnam War. He said it was the right thing to do. And Ellsberg wrote later that ‘if I hadn’t met Randy Kehler it wouldn’t have occurred to me to copy (the Pentagon Papers).’ Later that year the deed was done. But it was made public by The New York Times in 1971.
Among his several books, his most recent, The Doomsday Machine was first published in 2017. Dan Ellsberg asked me to read it and see what I thought in 2019. A wonderful read! We had a number of deep conversations and that was when I thought he would be a great member of the CGS NAC. He readily agreed. In this last book he discusses the intolerable dangers to the survival of a civilization that nuclear weapons pose if used. In all the years since the end of the Cold War, Ellsberg points out that we still have these Doomsday systems in place. He quotes Martin Luther King observing that ‘There is no such a thing as being too late.’ He also offers a lead quotation from Albert Einstein in 1946 (another former NAC member), ‘The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and thus we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.’
Ellsberg was awarded the Ron Ridenhour Inaugural Courage Prize in 2004, among numerous other honors. We were fortunate to have him with us on our CGS National Advisory Council in his last years as he symbolizes a big, influential thinker for our time and our future.
Photo credit: Edward Kimmel from Takoma Park, creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons