Building a global peace movement

How can we build a strong and effective global peace movement?’ Cynthia Cockburn, Howard Clark and Dave Webb reply to Diana Francis

Diana Francis
24 August 2010

Can a global ‘movement of movements’ begin to counter the ‘eat or be eaten’ syndrome? How can we build a strong and effective global peace movement? Scilla Elworthy, writing of the need for a global peace strategy, called for a new Versailles Treaty for peace: an idea which, by linking to momentous past events, has the power to capture the imaginations of a very wide range of people. 

Inspired by Scilla’s idea, I contacted three peace activists, and asked them to 'think aloud' about this question. Cynthia Cockburn in a recent article argued that it was essential for the anti-militarist movement to embrace the centrality of gender. Howard Clark has argued that conscientious objection plays a vital role in resisting the mindset that sees violence as normal. Dave Webb has argued that a major shift away from military technology is key to building a low carbon, peaceful society.

In response to my question, ‘How can we build a strong and effective global peace movement?’ Cynthia reflects on the difficulty of defining movements, their illusive and multiple forms. Howard outlines a range of challenges or ‘necessities’ and the possible ways in which they can be addressed. Dave focuses on one particular challenge and takes it as an opportunity.

Cynthia Cockburn: Diana, you asked me what could strengthen the global peace movement. I wrote in a recent openDemocracy piece that the message I am receiving from hundreds of feminist peace activist is: ‘Gender relations as we live them predispose our societies to endless belligerence. To transform the way we construct our masculinities and femininities – that would be a very useful step on the path to peace!’ So I won’t say that again, but will instead address your question in the very broad meaning I think you intend for it.

What could strengthen the global peace movement? It seems like one of those questions you have to question, to deconstruct, before you can even address it. Sometimes I don’t even know what to call the movement I’m in. My movement – what is it? Sometimes I see it as the antiwar movement, sometimes as the antimilitarist movement, sometimes as the peace movement. Do all these add up to a single movement?
I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s unrealistic to suppose that even in one city, such as London, or one country, such as the UK, let alone the world as a whole, there exists a peace movement, however broadly defined. There’s certainly a movement against, say, the war in Afghanistan. There’s a movement against NATO. There’s a movement for peace with justice in Palestine.  And one against nuclear weapons. But can you add them together and call them a singular movement? I think probably not.
I wonder sometimes whether it may be better to imagine a movement not as a wave, on the move, but rather as something that swells and shrinks, simmers and pulsates, like a very large amoeba, or a colony of micro-organisms.  What lights up and changes and stirs in them (and falls at times to quietude and stillness) is a population of minds, with ideas, intentions, excitements and drives.
So what would strengthen a social movement, conceived of this way? I think maybe we would have to look to things that go on inside the organism, internal connections, and things that go on outside, external connections.
Internal ones? An antiwar /antimilitarist / peace movement would be the stronger if those who form its many parts - those blaming capitalism for wars, those looking for spiritual tranquillity or God’s guidance to turn people from violence, those looking for a new law to regulate the availability of guns, those seeking to form masculinities in a less belligerent mould - were now and then, for a short while, to find a transitory but clear focus for shared action, and agree a comfortable methodology - non-violent direct action? a  demonstration? a vigil? a training workshop?-  to enable a surge of intention, communication and action.
And externally? Maybe we should see the movement as empowered through a similar series of instances, transitory but productive, when many people for a moment identify a common focus and methodology. This time the links might be between those of us who see ourselves as peace activists in a peace movement and those who see themselves as belonging to movements with other names and aims: movements for sustainable ways of living; to end global poverty and exploitation; for justice, inclusion and human rights; for less oppressive gender relations.  

Some, maybe many, of us see ourselves as being in all those movements. One person, joining the dots, jumping the barriers, making a difference: it could be she is a movement in herself!

DF: Cynthia’s thoughts go to the very heart of the matter and describe the fragility and strength of common action in a way that is both poignant and inspiring. I agree with her that movements are hard to define. It is true that any movement or indeed any entity is internally complex, containing other entities and tendencies within itself. I love Cynthia’s description of movements as simmering and pulsating organisms or micro-organisms. Yet I want to hang onto the idea of some sort of sustained energy and direction.

Practically speaking I think we arrive at the same place, seeing the power of movements as generated in ‘a series of instances, transitory but productive, when many people for a moment identify a common focus and methodology’; in comings together and connections within and between movements, including those that may have different names. And I absolutely agree with her about the pivotal importance of transforming the ways we construct masculinity and femininity.


Howard Clark : There are two steps in my thinking.  The first is what is necessary, where I see four main challenges.  The second is connecting this with practical campaigning, the possible.  I think the answers there vary according to our situations, motivations, but basically the second step requires finding smaller focuses where our limited powers can make more of a difference.

Thought 1

The necessary: Addressing the fact that the world's biggest day of demonstrations did not succeed in averting the attack on Iraq.  Our numbers were massive. We were also right. Almost every day we hear new evidence confirming our opinions. So a major challenge is to find means to reduce the power of the liars and to empower the millions who marched for truth. Since the end of the Cold War, political analysts have
spoken of a ‘unipolar world’. What role can be played by people's movements for justice and peace in building some counter-power?

The possible: Not just challenging governmental decision-making but also
looking at the role of particular corporations; finding certain nonviolent struggles to support where populations are resisting threats to their livelihood.

Thought 2

The necessary: Countering "counter-terrorism" – not least the use of torture – which is generating cycles of violence and hatred that get ever deeper and bloodier, from Guantanamo to Gaza and in every country with Muslim migrants.  Counter-terrorism is not just what is propagated by the USA and its habitual allies, but also in India -what Arundhati Roy calls ‘the world's favourite democracy’; Colombia, where the government brands all those who refuse weapons of any kind - whether those of the guerrilla, the paramilitary or the state as terrorist: Spain, where Basque advocates of nonviolent action were sentenced, but later acquitted, on charges of promoting civil disobedience on the instructions of ETA; Britain and the USA, where nonviolent peace activists have been prosecuted under counter-terrorist legislation.

The possible: To challenge migration and policing policies, and find means of practical support for displaced people and refugees who want to build a peaceful future. To support those looking for alternatives to violence where people have turned to violence. Conciliation Resources has recently protested at a recent US Supreme Court ruling and UK government policy which threaten its work in discussing demilitarisation with armed non-state groups.

Thought 3

The necessary: Countering the institutionalisation of military
intervention – not least through the expanded reach and role of NATO – which began with what many considered the just intervention in Kosovo.  That has been used as a trojan horse, for interventions like the ones in Iraq and Afghanistan and for promoting the doctrine of responsibility to protect (R2P). R2P justifies military intervention while paying lip-service to this earlier ‘conflict prevention measure’ and completely fails to consider what was really needed to prevent war in Kosovo: namely, firm non-military action against the abuse of Kosovo Albanians that was led by Milosevic throughout the 1990s.

The possible: NATO has been a "given" of Western politics for 60 years,
now so more than ever.  Simply questioning it, and the perpetual
commitment to military preparations and expenditure it involves, and the
permanent alliances that define "security needs" – that’s something we can do.

Thought 4 

The necessary:  Promoting a global agenda for peace, which requires promoting a different vision – connecting our goals according to a redefinition of security. Perhaps I was in the minority, but personally I was motivated to be active in the nuclear disarmament movement of the 1980s not so much by fear of nuclear annihilation as by the vision expressed by EP Thompson and others, of people being loyal to common values across boundaries.

The possible: Transnational movements – above all, feminist and ecology movements – are leading the way in suggesting different loyalties, and new definitions of security. To return to the initial question – these connections mark the beginning of the counter-power needed in the struggle for peace. 

DF: Howard’s piece is cogent in its analysis. I find myself somewhat daunted by the size and range of the necessary and the multiple demanding pieces of what could be done. But as Howard says, what is possible for us will vary according to our situations and motivations.  I remember a Uruguayan friend of long ago, who described the global movements for peace and justice around the world as ‘a ‘coat of many colours’, made up of countless different efforts, each contributing to the creation of one seamless garment.

Of Howard’s four ideas, the third and fourth resonate most strongly with me: deconstructing the given-ness of military intervention, creating a new sense of the meaning of security and promoting a different vision based on common values. (Questioning NATO’s existence seems an excellent way of challenging militarism.) And I share Howard’s view that the growing transnational feminist and ecology movements bring into being radically new understandings of relationships and power that are essential to the struggle for peace. 


Dave Webb: Creating a coherent and effective peace movement is a tough -perhaps impossible- task, but here is one thought that has been developing over the last few months.

Nuclear weapons seem an obvious focus for the peace movement – how can the murder, or threatened murder, of millions of innocent citizens be at all justified under any circumstances? Most people, and the leaders of
governments around the world, including those of the nuclear weapons
states, say that they want to see a world without nuclear weapons. So
why doesn't it happen? Nobody seems to trust anyone enough to get started. Perhaps what is needed is a courageous and ground-moving first step by someone.

Peace activists I meet at international conferences see the UK as the most likely nuclear state to make a major first step towards nuclear disarmament. It is not under threat from any national government and it has a small nuclear armoury compared with those of other nuclear states. The Trident submarine nuclear weapons system, is not in fact an ‘independent nuclear deterrent’, being technically dependent on the USA. It is difficult to see why the UK should retain, still less renew it. The proposed replacement system would come at a cost of over £76 billion, at a time when the financial situation here is dire: government cuts across the board – health, education, social welfare, pensions, all under attack. It would make so much sense to scrap the UK’s nuclear arsenal, and we may not get a better time to do it than now.

It would require a huge effort but sustained national and international pressure, from all directions, with support from a wide range of social movements, might just tip the balance. Creating a tipping point in the UK would be a fantastic example to the world and might well generate the anti-nuclear chain reaction that we really need, not only reducing the status that comes from nuclear weapons possession but creating the recognition that it is something to be ashamed – not proud – of.

DF: Dave’s idea both asks and offers a lot. It seems do-able for the reasons he gives: the lack irrelevance of nuclear weapons to Britain’s security, the current economic situation and pressure on the defence budget. Scrapping Britain's nuclear weapons would also have the backing of the majority of the British public, especially among 18 – 24 year olds, which bodes well for the building of a campaign.  And this is a prime example of the potential for localised action to have a global impact. It offers what seems to be a timely focus for pooled resources and collective action, in this case of grasping the opportunity that financial circumstances present and using it not only to press home a particular agenda but to highlight the moral choices that must be made and the values that inform them.

The common threads running through all three responses are the importance of practical focus and of connecting or pooling our efforts with others. To the thinking of these three colleagues I would add that in order to maximise our power we need not only strategy but sensitive antennae that enable us to detect moments of opportunity and the potential for synergy. Second, that we need the imagination to respond creatively. Third, that we need to build bridges to reach and bring in people who are at present beyond our peace movement circle. Scilla’s proposal has the potential to create those bridges and to draw support from influential circles within the existing establishment. That thought may be anathema to some in the peace movement and perhaps the biggest challenge will be to win support in the peace movement itself. This is an opportunity for us to create some new energy at the interface between mainstream society and those who want to change it. I hope we will take it.



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