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Last month I was invited by the Indian Permanent Mission to the United Nations to give a presentation on the international Day of Nonviolence, which was also the 150th anniversary of Gandhi’s birth. Below is the full text of my remarks, which were delivered at United Nations headquarters in New York.

In the remarks, I identified three aspects of Gandhian thought and action that are directly relevant to the challenge of protecting the environment and preventing climate disruption. At the end of my presentation, I added a brief comment on the situation in Kashmir, which seemed necessary to include in an event organized by the Indian government.

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“Gandhi’s message is highly relevant to today’s global climate crisis. I emphasize here three of his most important themes: simplicity, equity and nonviolence.

Simplicity

Gandhi became the “greatest person in the world” (as many called him) not through power and wealth but through selflessness and humble service to others.

He didn’t have anything. All of his possessions at the end of his life fit into a small box.

He lived simply and rejected materialism. He moved from a large home to live communally in an ashram. He shed his three-piece suit to became a man in loincloth, wearing a simple dhoti and shawl of homespun, even in cold and rainy London.

In 1931, while participating in the round table negotiations with the British government, Gandhi and other Indian delegates were invited to tea with the king. When Gandhi arrived at Buckingham Palace in his usual sparse attire, ‘half-naked’ Churchill once derisively commented, a reporter asked if he was underdressed for the occasion. Gandhi replied, “Don’t worry. His majesty has on enough for both of us.”

In his emphasis on simplicity and non-possession, Gandhi was revealing a profound truth about the roots of our current crisis, and he was pointing toward the pathway to a more sustainable future.

In his early book, Hind Swaraj, he described the quest for material goods and the endless multiplication of wants as “satanic.” If India were to follow the industrialism and economic imperialism of the West, he later warned, it would “strip the world bare like locusts.”

Gandhi’s critique of excessive materialism calls into question today our constant striving and demand for more goods. Are we consuming too much? Have our wants out-stripped our needs?

His critique also calls into question our model of economics. Our modern economic system is predicated upon endless growth, but there are unavoidable limits to the earth’s biological carrying capacity. We cannot keep dumping ever greater amounts of waste products into the atmosphere and the oceans.

The current global effort to stem carbon emissions focuses on the supply side. Produce more efficiently with less energy. Use renewal materials and resources. All good, but it is insufficient. We must also look at the demand side and explore ways to produce less, to consume less.

The global supply chains of today stretch from the high consuming West, to the high producing East, especially India and China. While emission levels have moderated slightly in the West, they are rising in the East, to satisfy the excess wants and manufacture the superfluous goods demanded in the West.

Curbing our demand for products does not mean that we abandon the struggle against poverty. On the contrary, we must continue and accelerate the work of fulfilling the Sustainable Development Goals, as was discussed recently at the UN. But surely we can find a way to continue lifting people out of poverty without further ruining the environment or undermining the life support systems that are necessary to sustain human dignity into the future.

In calling for fewer wants and less consumption, I am not saying we should go about in loincloth or live in an ashram. But we can and must commit ourselves to living more simply and modestly.

Those of us who have achieved middle class status must demand less for ourselves and share more with others, especially the disinherited.

Equity

Gandhi devoted himself to serving the poor. In his famous Talisman, he said we should ask ourselves how our actions will affect the poorest and the weakest. We should act in ways that will help to liberate the hungry and lift up the least of these.

We know that the harmful effects of pollution and climate chaos fall disproportionately upon the poor and powerless. The rich and mighty can move to higher ground or cooler climes, but the impoverished do not have that option.

We should heed the wisdom of Pope Francis on this issue. The Holy Father links the marginalization of the poor to the exploitation of the environment. In his historic encyclical Laudato Si, he calls us to be in solidarity with the miserando, the lowly who are “mired in desperate and degrading poverty, with no way out, while others … [are] vainly showing off their supposed superiority and leaving behind so much waste that, if it were the case everywhere, would destroy the planet.”

Gandhi would agree with that. He thought of excess consumption as thievery. If we take more than is necessary for own needs, he believed, we take it from others. All people must have an equal opportunity, Gandhi said. This does not mean that everyone literally has the same amount, rather that everybody has enough for his or her needs.

Nonviolence

Gandhi’s most important contribution to the world, I believe, is his philosophy and method of nonviolence. He demonstrated the power of disciplined peaceful disobedience, how mass noncooperation with injustice can change the course of history.

His philosophy of nonviolence is based on the principle of ahimsa, non-harm, the refusal to hurt another person, and also the responsibility to stand up for those who are harmed or threatened by others. He said that love and nonviolence are the pathway to spiritual fulfillment and divine truth, and he showed that they can also be means of overcoming oppression and injustice.

We reject violence because it is based on domination and coercion. Peace on the other hand is rooted in cooperation and freedom. Peace and nonviolence are indivisible. Life is sacred, and all living beings are interrelated. We are inescapably bound together in a web of mutuality through the interdependence of all living beings and the natural world.

As we strive to live peacefully with our fellow human beings, we must also be at peace with the earth. With all of our energy and strength, we must take up the responsibility to protect and preserve this precious, vulnerable envelope of air, water and soil that sustains all life and that is increasingly in peril due to our own actions.

Kashmir

As we reflect today upon Gandhi’s teachings on nonviolence, we would be remiss, I believe, if we did not mention the current situation in Kashmir.

Gandhi played a role in Kashmir in 1947, traveling to Srinagar to meet with Maharaja Hari Singh. When discontent and violence ensued after Kashmir acceded to India, Gandhi said, “If anyone can save Kashmir, it is only the Muslims, the Kashmiri Pandits, the Rajputs and the Sikhs who can do so.”

Today there is renewed discontent, and a risk of violence, but this must be avoided, as Gandhi would insist. The only path to a just settlement in Kashmir is through nonviolent democratic means.

Long live the spirit and message of Mahatma Gandhi!”

References
Pope Francis, Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home, Encyclical Letter (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division, 2015), 62-63, ¶91.
Quoted in Ramachandra Guha, Gandhi: The Years That Changed the World, 1914-1948 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2018), 823.

I recently had the chance to see the wonderful new British-American film, Official Secrets, starring Keira Knightly as British whistleblower, Katharine Gun. It’s a compelling tale of Gun’s courageous attempt to prevent the Iraq War by releasing a secret document revealing US efforts to manipulate UN Security Council member states into authorizing the use of force.

I won’t spoil the film by discussing the dramatic twist in the British government’s attempt to bring legal charges against Gun, but it is worth noting that the film brilliantly exposes the illegality of the Iraq War. Under international law, the use of force is only permissible under two conditions: when authorized by the UN Security Council, or if necessary, for self-defense. In this instance, neither condition applied. Security Council member states refused to support the US-UK resolution authorizing the use of force, despite American attempts to pressure them. The self-defense argument might have been legitimate if Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, as Bush, Cheney and Blair claimed, but of course no such weapons were found. Extensive scouring of the country by invasion forces and special investigative teams turned up nothing.

Gun was motivated to release the documents and risk prosecution because she wanted to save lives and prevent an unnecessary war. She was unsuccessful, as were tens of millions of us around the world who tried to prevent the invasion in 2002 and 2003. The Bush-Cheney-Blair cabal pressed ahead with the predetermined war regardless of the facts or the likely disastrous consequences.

The film reminds us of the staggering human cost of the war: hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed and the deaths of more than 4600 US and British troops. As I read those numbers it was hard to hold back tears, or to control my rage at such colossal criminality.

Leaving the theater, I reflected on the current impeachment investigation against Trump and realized that what Bush and Cheney did in Iraq was far worse than what Trump has done. Hopefully Trump will be held accountable, thanks in part to whistleblowers in the US government today. But what about Bush, Cheney and others who lied blatantly to start an illegal war that killed so many and has had so many violent and disruptive consequences for Iraq and the region?

The British government conducted an Iraq inquiry and in 2016 issued the Chilcot Report, which The Guardian called a “crushing verdict” against Blair for launching an unnecessary war without legal justification on the basis of flimsy intelligence.

No such accounting has taken place in the United States. The Senate issued two committee reports on intelligence failures, in 2005 and 2008, but these did not address the Bush administration’s intentional and systematic deceptions in leading the country to war. The Senate reports did not examine the deeper and more important issue of the illegality of the war.

I’m not holding my breath that there will be a truth commission on US government crimes in Iraq, certainly not in the Trumpian age of assault against facts and evidence. But hopefully in the future there will be more revealing films like Official Secrets, and if necessary more principled whistleblowers like Katharine Gun who come forward sooner and in greater numbers to prevent illegal and unnecessary wars.

No Way to Treat an Ally

In the long string of recent White House foreign policy disasters, the betrayal of Kurdish allies in northern Syria is especially appalling and dishonorable. The Kurdish proxy forces that helped to decimate ISIS are being thrown under the bus, under the tank in this case.

It is gut wrenching for Americans to see our troops ordered to head for the exits as the Turkish army attacks our most loyal partners. Trump justified Turkey’s actions against the Kurdish-controlled region in the odious language of ethnic cleansing: “They had to have it cleaned out.”

Rather than ameliorating the damage, the agreement negotiated by Vice President Pence with Turkish President Erdogan further seals the sellout of Kurdish allies. A Turkish Foreign Ministry official stated, “We got everything we wanted.”

The consequences of these actions for the region and the world could be dire. There is a danger that ISIS could rise again amidst the chaos resulting from the Turkish invasion. Russia stands ever more triumphant, with Putin taking advantage of Trump’s folly to solidify Moscow’s role as a major force in the region. Russian officials are smiling at the gifts being showered upon them by American incompetence.

The Kurdish forces we once supported now have no choice but to align themselves with Assad, solidifying the Syrian government’s cruel and brutal victory against an ill-fated rebellion. American prestige and credibility, never great to begin with, have collapsed in the region and are falling to new lows globally, as alliance relationships in many places suffer.

This is not to suggest that continued or greater American military intervention in Syria and the Middle East would solve the problem. U.S. military involvement in Syria was never a good idea. The small U.S. contingent deployed there was not capable of influencing the war’s outcome or countering the clout of Russia, Turkey and Iran.

What to do now? The U.S. should work with European allies and the United Nations to seek a diplomatic settlement that tries to bring the Syrian war to an end, while working with states to forge a broader strategy for stabilizing Syria and the region.

Attention is needed to re-invigorate the campaign against ISIS and violent extremism. Not only as a security challenge, but as a multi-dimensional effort to improve governance across the region—through political inclusion for significant subnational groups, and greater accountability within states. A major international program of economic and social development is also needed: a Marshall Plan for the Middle East to generate prosperity and create the conditions for stability.

Trump’s misdeeds have tarnished America’s reputation, but U.S. leadership is still important, not just in military prowess, but in diplomacy, development and peacebuilding. New leadership and policies are needed to repair the harm that’s been done and restore America’s role as a reliable ally.

15412486014_31b3069ed7_oMembers of the Kurdish forces in northern Syria.  Photo by Kurdishstruggle

One cheer for Trump?

We can all feel a bit safer now that John Bolton has been fired. Trump did the right thing in getting rid of the belligerent war monger, but of course one has to ask why he hired such a maniac in the first place. It’s not like Bolton’s extreme views were a secret. Just a few months before his appointment last year he had published an op ed in the Wall Street Journal calling for the overthrow of the Iran government and had urged action to end the regime in North Korea.

The firing of Bolton was probably Trump’s way of diverting attention from his latest high pro-life diplomatic disaster, the collapse of negotiations with the Taliban. After months of talks to reach an initial agreement, the deal collapsed when the White House proposed to bring Taliban leaders and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani together at Camp David. Trump’s gambit for a dramatic high-level photo op at the famous presidential retreat failed miserably.

Not that the deal being negotiated was much to cheer about. From what is known about the draft text, it was certainly not a ‘peace agreement’. The deal was merely an understanding between the U.S. military and the Taliban for American troops to start withdrawing, in exchange for unspecified Taliban assurances that Afghan territory would not be used to launch terror attacks against the U.S. It reportedly included “localized truces” but no cease fire, and had no clear pathway for engaging the Kabul government or assuring the involvement of civil society.

But the talks with the Taliban were at least a beginning, and could serve as a future foundation for broader and deeper dialogue to end the killing and negotiate an eventual power-sharing formula. Trump said the talks are dead, but hopefully the dialogue can resume in the months ahead and evolve into a genuine peace process. That may be easier now that Bolton is out of the picture.

Why did Trump pull back recently from military attacks against Iran, and what lessons can we learn from the incident?

It’s alarming how close the United States came during the third week of June to stumbling into a shooting match that could have become a military disaster. On the basis of flimsy claims about Iranian responsibility for attacks against ships in the Gulf and the shooting down of a surveillance drone, the war bureaucracy in Washington quickly geared up for action. John Bolton’s National Security Council presented a package of proposed military strikes. The President reportedly gave the order to start bombing, but then at the last minute, when told the attack could cost 150 Iranian lives, halted the operation.

It was “not proportionate,” the President tweeted, to kill so many people over the destruction of an unmanned machine. True enough. Under ethical principles for the use of force, the harm inflicted must be proportionate to the harm suffered. Killing 150 people in retaliation for an uncertain and slight offense in which no one was harmed obviously would be unjust.

But since when is Trump interested in ethical principles? Why didn’t he think of moral issues and the human cost before approving the order?

It’s difficult to know what were the real motivations. Certainly political considerations were at play. Pressure against a strike was building from antiwar Democrats and some Republicans in Congress, and from civil society groups. A few conservative commentators and military strategists spoke out against striking Iran. Many in Washington have warned that war with Iran would be a disaster worse than the debacle in Iraq.

Trump’s former strategist Steve Bannon said this to the New York Times columnist Roger Cohen:

I don’t think any Trump supporters support further military engagement in the Middle East right now. His default position is not to be an interventionist. I never thought he’d be this far down this path, and I’m not loving the trend line. For the Trump base, war would hurt.

The expressed concern about civilian casualties may have been cover for avoiding what would have been a serious self-inflicted political wound.

Even so, it’s noteworthy that starting a war was considered bad politics. This suggests that war weariness and opposition to military intervention have become factors in domestic politics. For Trump, cancelling the plans of his trigger happy National Security Adviser was politically astute, a way of avoiding a costly mistake.

But let’s not lose sight of that concern about civilian casualties. Whether sincere or not, it was the expression of an important humanitarian impulse. The moral concern for civilian immunity and the prevention of human suffering can be a powerful argument for countering impulsive militarism.

There are lessons here for those who seek to avoid war. Focusing on the human costs of war is an effective strategy for cutting through the geopolitical justifications for military intervention, and can help to ensure that war is indeed bad politics.

 

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Headquarters of the Red Crescent Society in Tehran, which I visited in late December 2007 as part of a delegation from the Mennonite Central Committee. Credit: Richard A. Kauffman.

Cheers for Model UN

Last week I had the privilege of speaking to more than 3,000 eager high school students in Chicago’s Model Union conference at the Hyatt Regency hotel.

It was an enthusiastic and responsive crowd.

I told the students that their interest in global affairs is refreshing and urgently needed in the world today; especially when our political leaders are spouting nationalism and slogans like “America first,” and are turning away from negotiated agreements and UN diplomacy.

Our world needs the UN now more than ever, I emphasized. If the UN did not exist, we would have to invent it.

The world is becoming ever more globalized, whether we like it or not, and nations face challenges that no state can solve on its own, no matter how powerful it may be.

Our security depends upon cooperation with others. Our very survival depends on our ability to cooperate – nowhere is this more evident than in the global ecological crisis. The atmosphere knows no boundaries. The oceans have no borders. They belong to all and affect all. Both are being changed and threatened now as never before and must be protected.

The UN is leading the way by hosting global climate conferences, and helped to negotiate the landmark UN Paris Climate Agreement of 2016.

Despite its limitations, the Paris agreement is an important step forward and signifies global recognition of the need for lowering emissions.

It is shameful that the United States has withdrawn from the agreement, I told the students. “The United States should rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement, and become the world leader in saving the planet!”

That line got loud applause, which made me smile.

I also talked about UN efforts to curb nuclear proliferation and promote disarmament, recalling the UN Special Session on Disarmament in 1982 and the accompanying giant rally to freeze and reverse the nuclear arms race that brought a million people to New York’s Central Park on June 12 of that year.

We need renewed attention to disarmament now, I argued. The U.S. should work with Russia to fix the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty, not walk away from it.

“This business of shredding nuclear agreements has got to stop,” I said. “We need more agreements not less, and we need to uphold the ones that we have.”

More applause.

It was a wonderful event. To see so many idealistic young people studying global affairs and supporting calls for cooperative solutions to the world’s problems gave me hope for the future.IMG_0665

On Patriotism

Two cheers for French President Emanuel Macron for denouncing nationalism and differentiating it from patriotism.

At the recent Paris ceremonies marking the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day, Macron reminded us of the virulent nationalism that led to World War I and the senseless slaughter of millions. He warned against resurgent nationalism in our time and “the selfishness of nations only looking after their own interests.” The message was intended for President Trump and other right wing leaders in attendance, but it has meaning for people everywhere who want to protect peace.

Macron called nationalism a “betrayal of patriotism,” distinguishing between nationalism as a force for war and patriotism as a preference for peace and cooperation.

This is an important point that I have tried to emphasize over the years. Peace is patriotic. Patriotism implies sacrifice, duty, honor, selflessness, and generosity toward others. Nationalism means domination, militarism and xenophobia.

Macron did not go far enough in defining a positive vision for patriotism, but for that we can turn to others.

Howard Zinn said that it is necessary to redefine patriotism as “loyalty to the principles of democracy,” to “expand beyond that narrow nationalism that has caused so much death and suffering.”

Rev. William Sloane Coffin Jr. said, “The real patriots … are those who carry on a lover’s quarrel with their country.” They are not complacent in the face of injustice, but seek to expand the frontiers of opportunity.

Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said that his public dissent against the Vietnam War was an act of patriotism. “I oppose the war in Vietnam because I love America,” he famously said. “I speak out against this war because I am disappointed with America. There can be no great disappointment where there is no great love.” He wanted the United States to live up to its noble principles and stand as an example to the world for peace and democracy.

Let us uphold this bright vision of a generous and welcoming patriotism and reject the narrow and exclusionary nationalism that could plunge the world again into darkness.