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How the U.S. Can Help Humanity Achieve World Peace (Yes, World Peace)

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Driving through my hometown recently, I passed half a dozen neighbors holding antiwar signs. One declared, “BRING ALL OUR TROOPS HOME,” with “ALL” underlined. I honked and gave them a thumbs-up. Like many doves, I’m glad that the U.S.—after eight bloody years and the deaths of 4,500 Americans and tens of thousands of Iraqis—has finally withdrawn its armed forces from Iraq. But I’d like to see my country take much bolder steps toward peace, not only for Americans but all people. As I argue in The End of War–which is being published today and has already received attention from MSNBC, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and The Chronicle of Higher Education–our goal should be to eradicate war and even the threat of war among nations.

Humanity is, according to some measures, headed in the right direction. Since the cataclysm of World War II, there have been no comparable wars among major powers. The Cold War, along with the threat of global nuclear annihilation, ceased without bloodshed two decades ago. Since then, the number of international wars and civil wars has declined, and combat casualties have plummeted. The psychologist Steven Pinker and political scientist Joshua Goldstein, authors of books on the decline of armed conflict, proposed last month in The New York Times that war may be “going out of style.”

I share this optimism, with one big caveat: The U.S., which continues to cling to the atavistic adage that peace can only be assured by fighting and preparing to fight, remains a major impediment to a post-war world. We insist that we are a peaceful people, and yet we maintain a global military empire, with soldiers deployed in more than 100 countries. In the past decade we have been embroiled in two major wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as contributing to the recent bombing campaign against Libya.

Consider, moreover, these statistics from SIPRI, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, a respected, independent tracker of trends in conflict. The U.S. military budget has almost doubled in the past decade to $700 billion. If you include spending on nuclear weapons and homeland security, our annual outlays approach $1 trillion, which exceeds the defense budgets of all other nations combined. We spend more than six times as much on defense as China, our closest competitor, and more than 10 times as much as our former nemesis Russia.

The U.S. is also by far the world’s largest arms dealer. Our weapons sales, which according to SIPRI came to $247.2 billion in 2009, surpass those of all other nations put together. Just in the past month, U.S. officials signed off on fighter-plane sales of $29.4 billion to Saudi Arabia (a deal announced on Christmas Eve!) and $7 billion to Japan. The U.S. has also pledged to transfer $11 billion in tanks and other weapons to Iraq’s fledgling government. Some security analysts fear that these latter weapons, rather than maintaining the peace there, will simply help the Shiite-dominated government crush Kurds, Sunnis and other rivals for power.

The chasm between our nation’s rhetoric and behavior is embarrassing. We rail against Iran for allegedly trying to build a nuclear bomb while we maintain a stockpile of 8,500 warheads. We denounce tyrants such as Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi and Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad for killing civilians, and yet our own military operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere often result in the deaths of innocent people. We carry out drone and commando assassinations in other countries, in defiance of international prohibitions against assassinations, and we imprison suspected enemies indefinitely without a trial. And yet we bristle when observers call us hypocrites.

We could help lead the entire world toward a more peaceful future if we backed up our dovish words with actions. For starters, we should cut our military budget in half, a level that would still be greater than the military spending of China and Russia combined. (The measly reductions recently proposed by the Obama administration, which would reduce by the budget by less than 10 percent over the next decade, are not nearly enough.) We should start recalling our troops from Afghanistan and other nations and stop peddling arms overseas. We should cease assassinating people with our robots and commandos. In tandem with these steps, we should seek more creative ways to prevent and suppress armed conflicts nonviolently.

Of the current crop of U.S. presidential candidates, only one, Texas Congressman Ron Paul, advocates deep cuts in our armed forces. Even disregarding Paul’s opposition to social safety nets such as Social Security and Medicare, which I view as triumphs of enlightened governance, I will not vote for him. My main objection to Paul is that he is too isolationist; he advocates pulling out of the United Nations, which in spite of its flaws helps reduce armed conflicts around the world through its diplomacy and peacekeeping operations.

Paul’s rivals for the Republican nomination, far from advocating reductions in defense spending, have called for increases. And Barack Obama has not exactly become the Peace President that many of us hoped for. In fact, while accepting the Nobel Prize for Peace two years ago—just nine days after he announced that he was sending 30,000 more American troops to Afghanistan—Obama seemed to suggest that war is a permanent part of the human condition. He declared that “war, in one form or another, appeared with the first man” and that “we will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes.”

Our leaders—and would-be leaders—should repudiate this sort of fatalism. For inspiration, they might re-read a speech that President John F. Kennedy gave at American University in 1963, just months before his death. Kennedy pledged his commitment to the goal of “world peace,” which he defined as “not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women—not merely peace in our time but peace for all time.” He urged his young audience to reject the “dangerous, defeatist belief” that “war is inevitable, that we are gripped by forces that we cannot control. We need not accept that view. Our problems are manmade—therefore they can be solved by man.” Demonstrating his sincerity, Kennedy announced that the U.S. would cease testing nuclear weapons in the atmosphere.

With this sort of courageous, visionary leadership, the U.S. can help make war between nations not only improbable but also inconceivable, as much so as war is now between Canada and the U.S., or even between New York and New Jersey. Most people find this scenario implausible, even impossible. But far from being a utopian fantasy, ending war should be a moral imperative.


John Horgan About the Author: Every week, hockey-playing science writer John Horgan takes a puckish, provocative look at breaking science. A teacher at Stevens Institute of Technology, Horgan is the author of four books, including The End of Science (Addison Wesley, 1996) and The End of War (McSweeney's, 2012). Follow on Twitter @Horganism.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. infomebaby 10:18 am 01/17/2012

    Excellently stated, sir. I’m going to go find a “The End of Science” book cover to read. Funny, though have you ever noticed on youtube the United Nations gets max 30-300 views on their videos ? Seems peace is not a popular topic outside of beauty pageants. Refreshing to see an educated person agree and state it so well. Reform?

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  2. 2. naya8 12:25 pm 01/17/2012

    The world needs peace-writers like you John.Good writers can promote peace in our planet.There is no sense in war but ego.I live in the Middle-East and every day I hear sad news from our neighbors as a result of war.It hurts so much to see humans fight on every reason. If every one considered the long-period of evolution it takes to get the homan kind, no one will try to kill the other. Instead of flourishing our planet, we could only destroy it by war.War today is an indicator of primitive behavior.Developed brains would not make war but peace.

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  3. 3. schaney 1:48 pm 01/17/2012

    It is unfortunate that Scientific American agreed to post a political opinion article. This dribble lacks even the slightest hint of scientific evidence for such broad stroked optimism. Where is the science?
    SciAm is a journal in pursuit of scientific truths. Conflict has been objectively studied by scientists. War is the fallback position in a conflict over resources. It is not something that can be naively boxed in and resolutely handed over to extinction. John, please understand that scientists study nature and are still trying to come to terms on the very simplest axioms of organizational behavior. At any level of complexity, cooperation in a species is a benefit until resources are insufficient to support the population. And the fairytale world envisioned in this article can not exist given the number of variables that change over time.
    Aside from the objective view I inadequately summarized above by many biologist, naturalists, and sociologists I will wade in and provide an opinion in exchange for yours. It is very evident that the author has never experienced oppression at the hands of a corrupt government. Nor has any “dove” ever watched their child starve from lack of food and water.
    Pay close attention to the spending statistics over the next few years. The time is coming when we won’t be spending more on the military than other countries. And it doesn’t take a scientist to figure out what happens after that.
    Please retract your article and post on a more appropriate political site.

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  4. 4. lagbenektelse 3:29 pm 01/17/2012

    As stated above there is very little evidence cited to allow for the broad stroke assertions you make. Additionally, you yourself present a status quo where the US is able to project force globally( though very rarely used relative to other nations historically) and a general decline in armed conflict. Therefore the argument as stated cannot satisfy the requirement of showing a need for change beyond tu quoque and special pleading assertions. The belief that the United States ought not act as a global police force has merit but not on the idea that creation of a power vacuum leads to a reduction in conflict.

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  5. 5. jgrosay 4:35 pm 01/17/2012

    The USA is fighting for peace the way it has been doing this for centuries: declaring war to countries, or provocating them to start a conflict, and then destroying the supposed “offender”, or just threatening it in a so serious way that the competitor just fades, or inducing some kind of revolution, always in the name of democracy, as in the arab and some asian nations, no matter the people engaged in upheavals had no previous ballot support, once they win, they’re the sole in possesing enough resources for winning any election after they take power, and it seems in some cases an advantage has been obtained from “Leninist” manoeuvres, you start an uprising, and as the number of victims caused by those who try to repress violence, many violences use to be repressed by violence, producing victims is like adding gasoline to a fire. Besides this, the USA engages in head hunting, the way Sion did with the nazis, but many times in a preventive way, acting on the intelligence services suspiciousness and paranoias, or on the diverse rationales that stablisehd the cultural differences in politics implicit in the american laws. No matter nobody knows who killed the Kennedys and other out of line individuals, the USA system is the ultimate perfection and can’t be discussed, evenmore this kind of bullfighting policy is good for the american economical interests in foreign places, you’ll always find people opening place for US companies in exchange of support in reaching and staying in power ( See the NYT and others’ support for some socialist candidates in Spain, a classical marxist party) .

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  6. 6. EyesWideOpen 5:15 pm 01/17/2012

    Interesting you say, “We should cease assassinating people with our robots and commandos.” The so-called ‘people’ to whom you’re referring are terrorists the likes of who murdered civilians in the World Trade Center, and vow to do it again, and again, until there is no breath left in their soulless bodies.

    You’re putting President Kennedy on a pedestal by claiming he was altruistic in stopping atmospheric testing. Couldn’t his true intent be to preserve the atmosphere from nuclear fallout which could have entered the jetstream? Do you honestly think Kennedy would have opposed the Guantanamo Bay detention camp or something similar for those too dangerous to roam free in this world? Kennedy was no saint, but he was a visionary! However, even this man would not have been so naive as to compromise United States military superiority in the misguided belief it would suddenly turn terrorists whose goal is to destroy “the west” into allies.

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  7. 7. marclevesque 5:22 pm 01/17/2012


    “Cooperation in a species is a benefit until resources are insufficient to support the population”

    It seems to me that by far most past and present wars have not been about a need for resources to support a population.

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  8. 8. brumon7 2:09 am 01/20/2012

    Hmm…, OK, everything well said and plenty of deservingly hopeful thinking. However, in a world like ours now and as long as some shady characters stick around, I stand by my ancestors who said “Si vis pacem, para bellum” and prefer living at the side of a strong America…

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  9. 9. tombaxter 2:28 am 01/20/2012

    EYESWIDE OPEN is correct when he says: “Interesting you say, “We should cease assassinating people with our robots and commandos.” The so-called ‘people’ to whom you’re referring are terrorists the likes of who murdered civilians in the World Trade Center, and vow to do it again, and again, until there is no breath left in their soulless bodies.” 99.99% of the people who have been killed by US bullets and bombs in Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan Bahrain, and Yemen were directly involved in 911, except for the handful of collateral damage, just as the millions of communist terrorists I help murder in Vietnam, which prevented the invasion of California. Les us not forget the US was founded on fighting terrorist savages, criminals who gave refuge to fleeing property, trespassers who refused to leave land even though they had no deed and took nearly a century before they bowed down to our Manifest Destiny allowing the building of a City on the Hill a beacon of Justice and Freedom to all Mankind.

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  10. 10. dubina 3:35 am 01/20/2012

    Atta boy, John.

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  11. 11. marom 8:32 pm 01/22/2012

    There is nothing scientific about this article except for a lot of political wishful thinking. Besided this, to suggest (by implication) that it is the US that stands in the way of eliminating future wars is worse than absurd, it is plan silly. Also to compare the US with Iran, a state whose declared policy is to use its miliatry power to destory a member state in the UN (i.e. Israel) is a deonstration of the one-sidedness of this article.

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  12. 12. klatu 5:14 pm 02/6/2012

    I also find it odd that such a non scientific article should grace the pages of SA. Yet however attractive Mr. Horgans idealism may be, like his religious counterparts, he is deaf, dumb, and blind to the realities of those ranged against such ends. However many may pay lip-service to such ideas, to presume that such ‘vision’ is on any political agenda, just cloud cookoo land. I suspect part of the problem begins with assumptions about human nature itself. History paints a much less attractive picture of our species that most ‘respectable’ people would recognize in themselves. So before any peace can ever exist, confronting the gap between what we are and what we think we are will have to start. The problem is that humanity is too instrinsically dishonest with itself to begin! And John Horgan serves himself up as a perfect example.

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