The Creation of a Framework for a More Enduring World Peace


Richard Falk, 1985

Richard Falk is Professor of International Law and Practice at Princeton University. His many publications include Human Rights and State Sovereignty and The End of World Order. Today he shares some of his central views on the quest for peace.

Whiteley: Professor Falk, you’ve written that genuine hope in the nuclear age must begin with an understanding of the problems of an increasingly interdependent planet. Where would you have your fellow citizens begin?

Falk: Genuine hope can’t come merely from wishful thinking, and those that just see it possible to change the world by making it into what they would like it to be can’t really provide us with much help; and in fact, the past images of world government or world federalism have been premature in the sense that they haven’t attempted to build their images of a desirable world on a sense of how one changes from where we are to where we would like to be.

Whiteley: You’ve written that we need a better system of management. Where does that begin?

Falk: Well I think that begins with an understanding of the problems that we are faced with by the operations of what is sometimes called ‘the state system’ or ‘a world composed of sovereign states.’ And that means to begin with, I think, that you have to come to realize that the state has become enormously powerful in relation to civil society and to the people, and that it operates in many countries, including large countries, including democratic countries like our own, as a virtually autonomous, non-accountable, unresponsive political actor. So my own feeling about building a hope for the future is very closely connected with reforming, and really transforming, the character of the state and finally, the character of the state system in relation to the way in which states go about pursuing their interests in interaction with one another.

Whiteley: I’d like to present a series of problems that you’ve identified one at a time, and ask you to indicate how you see the state system working. First, the problems of population.

Falk: Well, I think the state system works in relation to population by more or less saying that’s a question that each society has to deal with on its own. And that emphasizes, I think, the sense to which we may all suffer from the consequences of an overpopulated world, but our political organization of the world is such that the most irresponsible parts of that world system have just as much power to determine the future as the more responsible parts. And that was fine so long as the world could accommodate all of this difference in approach to the relationship between population and resources, but now I think we’re pushing up against some limits that the planet has, and there are two forms of irresponsibility: one is, I think the lifestyle of the very rich that uses disproportionate resources, and the other is the mere multiplication of people beyond the capacity of a given territory or a given region to sustain the lives of those people.

Whiteley: Well, population is one problem, and using too many resources is another. A third you’ve identified is environmental decay.

Falk: Yes, well I think that these problems reinforce each other and we now live at a stage where the disposal of wastes and the general demand on the basic resource space of the planet, on water, on air - clean air, on soil. All of these fundamental relationships with nature are becoming problematic for different parts of the world. We see it very clearly in sub-Saharan Africa which is enduring a disaster that will go on for the decade and may imperil the lives of millions of people. But I think it’s a much more general problem for the whole planet that we have to have a way to reconcile the kind of technology we use with the sorts of capacities of nature to accommodate demands that are being placed upon it by the combination of population and lifestyle and ultra-hazardous activities.

Whiteley: A fourth problem is a misery associated with repression, with poverty.

Falk: Yes, and I think again that this spread of repressive government that we see throughout the world, and the reliance of military means to run societies, is a reflection of the difficulties that governments even that were committed to constitutional and democratic approaches, have encountered because of these fundamental imbalances between their resources and the needs of their peoples. And when you can’t satisfy the needs of your own population by peaceful means, then it’s necessary to govern by repressive means.

Whiteley: This moves to the fifth major management problem and that is war as a social institution.

Falk: And again, this flows directly, it seems to me, from all four of these other problems we’ve been discussing and reflects, on the one level the outcome of political frustration when there is no way to deal with the economic needs and aspirations by applying more ingenious methods to nature to extract more resources. Then there’s a great temptation to either blame others or to seek more of the resource space of the world for one’s self. So that war is partly a reflection of those that are in control of the resources of the world trying to maintain their dominance against challenges from below, and partly a reflection of those challenges from below, all of this complicated by some ideological differences that seem to say that history is working on the side of revolutionary process, or history is working on the side of the market forces in the world, and that seems to be necessary for leaders to justify recourse to war and enlisting the support of their respective populations and elites in those causes.

Whiteley: We live in a world where the very forces of religion, language, ideology, culture, nationalism mitigate against what you’re seeking. How would you have people begin to work toward the kind of solution you have in mind?

Falk: Well I think that these underlying forces like religion and culture and nationalism have several different potential ways of evolving. Religion and culture in particular have a universalizing dimension as well as a particularizing dimension. And I think we’ve thought in this period of living within states that the particularizing dimension was the exclusive and most important one. But if one can think back to the Middle Ages, before the modern state system even emerged, there was a concept that was very much associated with Christendom at the time that there was a kind of spiritual unity that brought all people together, and in the ancient Roman Empire where the development of modern law occurred, there was a very cosmopolitan view that the purpose of law was to create something that was then called ‘the rights of peoples,’ that there was some common values that shaped decent behavior toward everyone, wherever they were. And I think we have to in a sense recover some of that ancient wisdom and understanding of unity which we’ve lost in this development of these various particular forms of political and cultural and religious life. And yet we have to recover that unity without moving toward some kind of homogeneous unvaried kind of cooperation and collaboration, because I think one of the great joys and positive sides of the human experience is diversity and pluralism. So what we really want to do is to make the world safe for pluralism, as well as to make it safe for the kind of interdependencies that we’ve been talking about earlier.

Whiteley: Is a ‘world rule-of-law’ possible?

Falk: Well I think that law always expresses some more fundamental forces that are connected with values and power and political attitude. I don’t believe it’s possible given the current disposition of the major societies in the world. I think we have to work toward that set of conditions in the future that would make it possible. I don’t think that necessarily means that we imply by the rule-of-law some kind of world state that dominates the entire planet. I don’t believe that would be healthy because it would tend to stifle the pluralism and the diversity, and one would have to fear that that kind of concentration of power could produce a tyranny.

Therefore, I think what we really need is to develop the energies of civil society at a very local and community level, and at the same time to build the sort of functional and practical institutions and procedures on a global and regional level that can deal with these broad problems of population policy and environmental policy and resource policy, and that reflect the fundamental understanding that we are living here together on the planet. And we want our children’s’ children to inherit as good a life prospect as we have. Ideally we want them to inherit a better one because I think in a sense, what hope means, is that the next generation gets something even better than what we have.

Whiteley: One of the legacies of our generation to the next is the nuclear age and the invention of nuclear weapons. How do you begin thinking about this hope for a better world when the struggle for peace is with the stakes that currently exist?

Falk: Well I think that’s a tough question, but a very central one at this stage of our history because as long as the shadow of nuclear Armageddon is cast across our experience of life, hope is, in my view, virtually impossible. So that we have to struggle to control this nuclear menace. One can’t disinvent technology and one doesn’t live in a world that makes trust of other centers of power possible. So it’s a very difficult challenge. I believe we can begin to meet that challenge by at least renouncing the notion that nuclear weapons can be used as an active instrument for the pursuit of our interests. It should be - this weaponry should be regarded as something that is kept, if at all, just as a hedge against its use or threat to use it by others. I believe that in the selfish interest of all the nuclear powers, and I think the Soviet Union has already come to the position of declaring an unconditional renunciation of this weaponry as an act of instrument of foreign policy - not because it’s enlightened, but because it sees its position in the world as menaced by the threat of nuclear war, and it has experienced these enormous losses in the World Wars of this century. So I feel it’s very important that the United States, which is the only country ever to have employed atomic weapons in war, come to this understanding that we don’t need them and we shouldn’t desire to have the discretion to use them.

Whiteley: So one step for you to a safer world is to renounce what’s called the ‘First’ or ‘Early Use of Nuclear Weapons Doctrine.’

Falk: Yes, it would certainly be that, but it would have to also be coupled with an effort to create a somewhat more moderate international political environment. Because one of the ways nuclear weapons could easily be used is if a conventional war got started and one side was starting to lose that war, or felt it was much more easy to win it by introducing nuclear weapons - we have to guard against that possibility, so that in the process of eliminating the nuclear danger we must be careful not to reduce the threshold of war itself. So it calls upon tremendous sensitivity on the part of the major leaders of the world to try to maintain the threshold of war at a high level, while removing the threat and immediacy of the nuclear menace from our lives.

Whiteley: You’ve juxtaposed in your writings dual ways that our society has thought about this dilemma: One, that the way to preserve the peace is to prepare for war; the flip side of that that a way to have a war is to prepare for one. How do we maintain the peace in a nuclear age?

Falk: Well I think that we have gotten to the stage now where military power is very difficult to use even in a selfish way to achieve the goals that it has been used for in the past. We found at the lower end of the force spectrum that in Vietnam it was very difficult to prevail by reliance on military power. The Soviets are discovering the same thing in Afghanistan. We’ve found the identical lesson in a sense, with the nuclear weaponry which we haven’t dared to use since Nagasaki because we live in a situation which is a balance of terror, as it has been called. And so I think that the recognition that military power can’t play the role in upholding our interests, and certainly not in defining what security means, because each of these new weapon systems that we or the Soviets build makes us less secure, not more secure. And so there’s the irony of pouring these enormous amounts of valuable resources into the investment and construction of weaponry that produces a situation of greater insecurity as the arms race winds on and on toward some unknown future.

Whiteley: You’ve indicated that the monster of deterrence must be slain before the world is to be safer. What do you mean?

Falk: Well I really mean that somehow or other we have to understand that threatening annihilation implies self-annihilation. The nuclear winter findings I think help a bit to reinforce that understanding that really was there ever since both Superpowers possessed these weapons of mass destruction in large numbers. So that this idea of supposing that indefinite threats of mass annihilation will never be actualized, is to engage in a kind of Utopian basis for building the future, because we know from our history that every major civilization has made enormously irrational decisions and has done very self-destructive things. In the past these mistakes have been costly of course to particular parts of the world, to particular civilizations. Now they have a consequence that may mean the survival of large portions of the world, perhaps the species itself, and there just is no way to find real security in this very fallible error-prone kind of political structures that we now possess.

Whiteley: As part of focusing on the nuclear threat to humanity from an international perspective you’ve identified four concrete steps you urge your fellow citizens to take now. The first is to give up the nuclear option.

Falk: Yes, let me just say, John, that those four steps don’t require any change in the organization of the world. They’re things that could be done within the present state system and really are in the nature of fulfilling the security potential that I think an enlightened kind of self-interest and the pursuit of national interest would entail. Now as far as the nuclear option is concerned, which is the first step that I propose, it means being willing to give up on the use of nuclear weapons to gain any political or military advantage in the world. We would continue to possess these weapons as a hedge against their use or threatened use by others, but we would not use them in any aggressive or initiating role. And this comes very close, I think, to the moral teachings that are contained in the leading religious and cultural statements on the subject.

Whiteley: The second step was to legitimize the division of the world that was part of the Yalta agreements.

Falk: Yes, well I think that after World War II there was a sense that it was important to try to sustain the cooperation between the victorious powers against the Fascist governments into the post-war period. And part of that arrangement was to acknowledge that the Red armies that occupied Easter Europe could not be dislodged, and that it was not useful to try to challenge Soviet influence in Eastern Europe. That influence has been exerted in a very unpleasant way at times, and I think it hasn’t been entirely successful even from the Soviet point of view. But I think that we are not in a position to challenge their domination of Eastern Europe by military means, and in fact to the extent we do that I think we create a justification for their reliance on military means to defend their position. So really what I’m saying is that we’ve got to create a situation in which Europe can begin to get out from under the block system and work toward some kind of regional self-determination that might end with the mutual withdrawal of Soviet and U.S. forces from Eastern Europe and Western Europe. And I think that would actually be the best chance to promote political moderation in Eastern Europe at this stage.

Whiteley: You’ve also called for a reaffirmation of the Helsinki Accords.

Falk: Yes, well the Helsinki Accords went a long distance in the mid ‘70s toward saying to the Soviet Union we will validate your presence in Eastern Europe but you have to agree to allow us to comment on the way in which you’re projecting your power there, with respect to human rights and political democracy. And the Soviets were prepared to accept that kind of bargain and I think it would add something to the stability of Europe and the world. And one has to recognize that it’s not the final solution; that the peoples of that area will define in time their own destiny. But I think getting this military confrontation out from the center of their lives would be a help to them and to us.

Whiteley: A third positive step for you would be to recognize as legitimate revolutionary nationalism in the Third World.

Falk: Yes, I think that’s really important that we come to understand that we may not like some of these revolutionary movements that are going on in different parts of the Third World, but we can’t smash them with our military power. That just adds to the level of destruction in those countries, it creates divisions here at home, and it creates the false illusion that military power can control the march of history. We made the mistake in Vietnam of trying to restructure the political life, and in Iran, through military power; Israel made that mistake in the Middle East by restructuring Lebanon through its invasion in 1982. We seem to be making it in Central America again; the Soviets are making it in Afghanistan. In all these contexts the cardinal lesson seems to me to be that the force of late twentieth century nationalism is so volcanic in its character that it can’t be destroyed even by high technology warfare. And we live with volcanoes like Mount St. Helen’s; let’s learn to live with this kind of volcanic political eruptions.

Whiteley: A fourth point is to learn to challenge effectively the militarized state.

Falk: This may be the toughest of the four in some ways, because it means coming to an understanding that, as matters now stand, our main political parties and our representative institutions and procedures, even elections, are not giving the American people a genuine choice with respect to the kind of non-militarized security system that I’m ultimately advocating. And therefore, so long as the state remains as militarized as it is, it’s incapable of defining the national interest in a way that corresponds with the interests and the values of the people and the citizens.

Whiteley: Well you’ve defined this as a constitutional crisis; that the government that represents the state no longer represents the people. How will that chasm be bridged?

Falk: Well, I think it requires at the minimum either the formation of a new political party that challenges these assumptions that I had called the ‘Machiavellian world view’ in some of my writings, or sometimes called ‘the realist world view.’ But it’s really a military realist world view, or that one of the existing political parties is sufficiently restructured so that it is liberated or freed from the dominating assumptions of this militarized state.

Whiteley: You’ve quoted Eleanor Roosevelt as calling for mobilizing the moral sense of the people.

Falk: Yes, well I feel as she did very strongly that values are really the bearers’ of social change; and all through our history, most recently perhaps in the Civil Rights Movement, that those moral energies, when they have the chance to restructure what happens in political life, can accomplish wonders that mere analysis of the relation of political forces might not lead one to believe were possible. And I think we’re poised as a country, and really more widely in the world as a whole, on the edge of some very extraordinary transformations with regard to the view of what politics should be about and what the nature of security can mean for people and peoples in the world.

Whiteley: Professor Falk, thank you for sharing with us today your insights into the quest for peace in the nuclear age.