No matter how the current situation in Ukraine evolves, the global peace movement faces new and increasingly difficult challenges in the years ahead. A renewed arms race had already begun, with nations ramping up military spending in order to defend themselves against the delusional ambitions of madmen. The high costs of weapons manufacturing and troop readiness, including renewed calls for nuclear capability, will further jeopardize spending in other areas such as refugee resettlement, education expansion, infrastructure development, agricultural growth, medical research, support for the arts, and climate change responses, just to name a few. These aren’t just “peacetime” activities; they are essential to improving the quality of life around the globe and preventing the sorts of stress and anxiety that authoritarians exploit for their own selfish and irrational purposes. Welfare or warfare: the ideal civilization can’t cry poverty in response to one while signing blank checks for the other.
None of this is new to us. In addition to the ghastly toll in human lives and livelihoods, the economic devastation that armed conflict requires in terms of preparation, engagement, and reconstruction renders it a catastrophe for the winners as well as the losers. The Polish railroad industrialist Jan Bloch confirmed this hypothesis in his six-volume, data-filled treatise The War of the Future in its Technical, Economic and Political Relations (Budushchaya voina i yeyo ekonomicheskie posledstviya). Published just before the end of the 19th Century, peacemakers around the globe (and even a few political leaders, including Tsar Nicholas II of Russia) embraced the book as proof that a brighter future, one not overshadowed by the constant threat of war, lay ahead in the 20th century. The book’s influence energized efforts to convene the momentous 1899 Peace Conference in the Hague.
Bertha von Suttner, one of the most notable organizers and attendees at that conference, had already anticipated Bloch’s positivist philosophy in her earlier book The Machine Age (Das Maschinenzeitalter). Originally published under the pseudonym “Jemand,” (meaning “someone” or “anyone,” since she knew that few readers of the time would pay much attention to a woman writing about such serious topics), Bertha imagined a speaker in the future reflecting on the past—reflecting on her present, in other words. “Oh, the bad old days!” she sets out in the introduction, though she saw much to appreciate and celebrate in 1887, particularly in the ways that science was supplanting superstition. In a last-minute revision to the book’s first edition, Bertha inserted news of the 19th Century’s burgeoning peace movement, about which she had just learned in the salons of Paris. Spoiler alert: She would soon thereafter become one of that international movement’s most prominent leaders.
As a promoter of peace, Bertha did much more than provide simplistic platitudes or meme-worthy quotes in her numerous essays, books, speeches, and articles. She founded and sustained numerous peace societies throughout Europe. With her many allies, she proposed a confederation of nations (much like the League of Nations, the UN, and later the EU) that would help bring peoples together rather than distance them from one another. Likewise, she was one of the leading proponents of the International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice (previously the Permanent Court of Arbitration), which currently resides in the Peace Palace, built in the Hague by Andrew Carnegie at the request of Bertha and her contemporaries. These tangible accomplishments not only earned her the Nobel Peace Prize in 1905; they had guided Alfred Nobel in outlining the basic prerequisites for that award.
International courts have become crucial players during the crisis in Ukraine, particularly as they determine when, where, and by whom various human-rights abuses and war crimes have been committed. Sadly, however, justice only prevails when all parties agree to abide by established law. Although it is a signatory member of the Court of Justice, Russia—along with the United States, it should be noted—claims exceptionalism and refuses to be bound by its jurisdiction. Declarations of being “above the law” or “beyond prosecution” (or, in the economic context, “too big to fail”) only serve to embolden dictators and authoritarian regimes. When warmongers aren’t held accountable for their actions, the prospects for a more peaceable and civilized world diminish for all of us.
We stand at a moment in history when we risk falling back into “the bad old days” of the past, pouring money into the coffers of the military-industrial complex while mass-producing coffins for the many innocent victims of armed conflict. Coordinated economic sanctions have proven to be somewhat effective as a form of punishment, if not as a deterrent, but it remains to be seen how they might affect the global balance of power in the long run. Meanwhile, demands for vengeance and violent retribution ring out loudly alongside pleas for justice and peaceful resolution. As a consequence, we risk compromising our investment in human rights and freedoms around the globe.
It’s tempting to imagine ourselves, as Bertha did, looking back on these days from ten or twenty years in the future and seeing hopeful promises fulfilled. The dark fog of war, however, obscures any clear view into the weeks, days, and even hours ahead of us. It steals the future and stains the present. No matter how the situation in Ukraine plays out, we must, as citizens of the world, strengthen our commitment to establishing and maintaining peace whenever and wherever possible, and most especially in the here and now. This may come at a greater cost than ever before, both at home and abroad, but the losses we suffer in the future will be far greater if we succumb to the warlike ways of the past.