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A week at the United States Institute of Peace: New perspectives and old dilemmas

Posted by Eline van Schaik on February 22, 2011

Thanks to the commitment of PSR’s Security Program to the professional development of its staff, I was able to attend a week-long course at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP). The institute offers a comprehensive course on 21st Century Issues in Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. In five days time, I went from being hesitant to feeling confident to speak and write about these issues, as I was presented with different opinions, a range of facts on related subjects and thought-provoking exercises and simulations.

For young and old people alike it is inspiring to be able to speak in a small group with great people like Steven Pifer of the Brookings Institution, U.S Ambassador to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Susan Burk, and PSR Board member Ed Ifft. Also, it is always good to hear from smart people that you don’t agree with. Hearing well-founded opinions that can’t be easily dismissed forces us to rethink our own stances on things and can help PSR and other advocacy groups in their outreach to constituencies with whom they might not usually be in a dialogue. The diverse group of students in my class made me realize this.

Dilemmas that occasionally cross the mind of a “newbie” in arms control were thoroughly addressed throughout the course. As I intern at PSR and think of ways to promote the idea of abolition, I sometimes find myself wondering if we can really put the genie back in the bottle after more than 50 years. But I do believe that a world with nuclear weapons is less safe than a world without them. I felt challenged on this point several times by both instructors and fellow students. Some were convinced that the current arsenals are vital to deterring other nations from developing a nuclear weapons capability or carrying out a nuclear test or, even worse, an attack. Others added that moving towards smaller arsenals will have a destabilizing effect on the global balance of power and will cause conflict. In my opinion, the other scenario, i.e. a nuclear accident or deliberate attack in the current “nuclear reality,” was not addressed enough. And as PSR’s Dr. Ira Helfand said recently in a speech at the University of Notre Dame: “We are all alive today because on a number of occasions we have been very lucky. A continued hope for good luck is not an adequate security policy for this country or any other country.”

So as we look to the future, I still believe that a world with nuclear weapons is less safe than a world without them and that the current nuclear policy of the United States is not adequately leading us towards a safer world. That doesn’t mean that world would be perfect. Verification problems and the potential risk of “cheaters” should never be dismissed as unimportant. With changes on the world stage happening virtually overnight, we might be looking at the whole different game of Risk over the years to come. But what seems to be something that will hardly change fast is that the biggest of the nuclear weapons states still dominate the global playing field by vast numbers when it comes to their conventional military capability, which seems to provide a credible deterrent to smaller entities that may threaten the use or development of a nuclear weapon. In the meantime, in order to move towards a different way of thinking about peace and security, we need to continue to reduce nuclear arsenals, but also move beyond traditional game theory and risk assessment and challenge ourselves and our international allies and friends, as well as our adversaries, to fundamentally change the games we play and make our world a safer place for ourselves and for future generations.

Call it naive, call it fuzzy. Iran might refuse an invitation to drink tea together and gab about their uranium centrifuges and world peace. But a world with the nuclear security risks we face today, fissile material at risk of falling into the hands of terrorists, and aging arsenals that are on high alert and can be misused to wipe out the world as we know it within minutes is simply unacceptable.

It is up to organizations working for a more peaceful and secure world (whether they advocate for abolition or not) to work on making our world safer together. Differences of opinion shouldn’t be keeping us from collaborating, as an honest recognition of our differences should determine on which fronts we do agree and can work as a coalition.

As a non-partisan institute, the United States Institute of Peace is very important in this respect.

They state that they are a ”think-and do-tank that works to put words into action; teach and train others to manage violent conflicts; and to promote sustainable peace worldwide.” On the last day of my course at the USIP, the House of Representatives voted to cut USIP’s funding by $42 million, eliminating one of the few programs in the budget that is dedicated to peace-building. A very disturbing and sad development, and one more in a line of events that should push us to work harder for a more peaceful world regardless of our political and ideological identity. As Congressman Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) put it: “This is a wake up call for all Americans who believe in the cause of peace. We must not permit the forces of war to annihilate any hope for peace in our society. This is a time when all Americans who work for peace to come together, to stand as one, to finally unify our efforts and to demand that our government stand for peace.” Added Kucinich, “The USIP funding must be restored.”


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