“I’m so honored to be alive at such a miraculous time in history. I’m so moved by what’s going on in our world today.”
This was 2003. The words were those of Robert Muller — the other one, the one from Costa Rica, former assistant secretary general of the United Nations — who was speaking just after George W. Bush invaded Iraq, to the horror and outrage of most of Planet Earth. Millions of people took to the streets, in the U.S. and around the world, to protest the invasion. Muller called this movement “the other superpower.”
“Never before in the history of the world,” he went on, “has there been a global, visible, public, viable, open dialogue and conversation about the very legitimacy of war.”
Oh! Such ancient history, right? Yet in the wake of current events — in particular, the Trump administration’s release of the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review — I feel an urgent need to summon Muller’s words back to the present moment. Is this moment empty of all hope and sanity, occupied as it is by the forces of empire and a militarized presidential ego? Or was Muller right? Is there a global, evolutionary counterforce out there as well, equal to or greater than the corporate militarism that seems to have a stranglehold on the future?
To talk about outrage — over war, over poverty, over environmental devastation — is one thing. It’s reactive, emotion-driven and without either a long-term plan of action or a reliable flow of funding. To talk about “the other superpower” implies something far more coherent and focused — or at least, something with enough power to seriously challenge the aims of … for instance, the nuclear arms establishment, which begins with the unacknowledged certainty that war is inevitable and winning the next one is always the first order of business.
As the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation pointed out in a press release following last week’s release of the new Nuclear Posture Review, the document “represents a reckless realignment of an already dangerous U.S. nuclear policy.
“The review specifically calls for the development of new, low-yield nuclear weapons that have lower explosive force. Many experts warn that such smaller weapons would blur the distinction between nuclear and non-nuclear weapons, representing a significant and dangerous increase in the likelihood of their use… .
“The review seeks to deter nuclear war by making it easier to start nuclear war,” the press release noted.
“Last year, the price tag for a 30-year makeover of the U.S. nuclear arsenal was estimated at $1.2 trillion. Analysts say the expanded plan put forth in the Trump NPR review would push the cost vastly higher.”
The Nuclear Age Peace Foundation was one of numerous organizations to express shock and outrage about the document. And psychiatrists Bandy X. Lee and James R. Merikangas, in an op-ed in USA Today published shortly after the NPR’s release, pushed the concern about it beyond the political realm.
“Trump,” they write, “with the psychological vulnerabilities he displays, in an office that invests enormous power in one individual, may present a situation of unusual risk. Our military ensures that every officer handling nuclear weapons has the mental capacity to do so — but does not take the same precautions regarding the person who can command a strike… .
“There has already been a shift in international norms regarding nuclear weapons due to Trump. He has bragged about them, threatened to use them and expressed a desire to increase his stockpile in ways that suggest more psychological than policy-driven motives.”
Add to this the U.S. bombing going on throughout the Middle East and Trump’s recent orders to the Pentagon to organize a huge military parade in Washington, D.C., summoning, it seems, the glory of dictatorships past and present, and I found myself trying to reach for something beyond outrage. I started to feel a cold chill in my soul. What matters here is the emergence of a different sort of power that understands the reality of peace: It’s not something forced on the loser by the winner’s superior weaponry.
That’s the building block of nationalism. “What’s deeply engrained in our emotional makeup,” writes Barbara Ehrenreich in Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War, “is something that’s very positive — the capacity to band together to experience a kind of euphoria from collective defense against a common enemy… . Those are the emotions we bring to wars and (they) are very noble and generous and altruistic.”
The paradox of reaching beyond war, as I noted in the wake of the Iraq invasion, is that doing so disrupts “the mobilized public at its level of deepest bonding” and sows “doubt in the psychic well of patriotism.”
In a world organized as a conglomerate of nations, we bless our worse instincts — to strike out in weaponized fear, to kill en masse — with our best instincts: generosity, altruism, cooperation, sacrifice. Those who support the war of the moment do so from their largest, most selfless instincts, just as do those who oppose the war.
The “other superpower” Muller envisioned a decade and a half ago is still in the process of creating itself out of this paradox. Love thy enemy as thyself? Actually, the creation process has been going on for a few thousand years now.
Robert Koehler, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor.