The View from Down Under

On a recent visit to her native Australia, physician-activist Dr. Joanne Santa Barbara spoke with two leading members of the peace movement there--Keith Suter, a theologian and writer, and Stella Cornelius, a peace educator. These activists are preparing materials for peace education, which emphasize conflict resolution.

By Joanne Santa Barbara (interviewer) | 1986-06-01 12:00:00

Keith Suter: I feel that the peace movement is running into problems. It is full of charming, pleasant people who are naive. We have been successful in the last six years in making an issue of the arms race, but we are now running out of steam. The medical people are, I think, the best example. They are verging on redundancy because of their fixation with talking about the medical consequences of World War III--at least in this country--which bores me silly and is having the same effect on the general public. What is required is to be a lot more sophisticated. At the beginning it was all right for them to say that nuclear war was a bad thing. Six years on, they are still saying that and there are few signs of progression. People are going to get bored with us and think we are just a long-playing record. Most peace groups have difficulty moving beyond that. The issue of human rights behind the iron curtain is one example. I like to talk about the "triangle of peace work"--keeping together all three topics: justice, disarmament, and conflict resolution.

I talk about disarmament, both nuclear and conventional, throwing in chemical too--yet most groups deal only with nuclear weapons, which, after all, represent only 20 percent of the world's military expenditure. So when the medics start talking about cutting back on military expenditure by getting rid of nuclear weapons and recycling the money into other products, I agree, but it would not be a large amount of money. The real problem is in conventional explosives, which is 80 or even 90 percent of the world's expenditure.

Peace groups are also running into another problem if they just focus on nuclear disarmament and say that human rights are not really our concern. We are then being seen as putting peace as the end result and peace at any price. I don't think we are in that business. I am a supporter of the fighting now going on in East Timor against the Indonesian regime because they have no other choice. We run the risk of playing into the hands of people who accuse us of being like Neville Chamberlain, in being willing to overlook human rights violations in the interests of maintaining wider peace. Human rights is important for the peace movement and the war issue is important for the human rights movement, because Amnesty International won't touch the military issue very much except in the area of torture. It has taken them ten years since their Paris Conference to move into that area.

What one is really trying to get at is a holistic approach to peace work. We have to bring these various things together in a platform, which is why I think the real debate in the peace movement is only just beginning. When it expands wider, certain professional people will say that we cannot dabble in politics. People will fall by the wayside at that point and then when you throw the net still wider and involve politics and all the rest of it, more splits will start to appear. You can keep people united on a single issue. If the single issue stands on its own, you're all right--like the campaign to save the whales. In the end we got the Australian government to change its view on whaling, but you can't say "stop nuclear weapons" in the same way. With whaling, only a handful of people are involved and you can reemploy them elsewhere, but with nuclear weapons, what are people going to do instead? You've got to be able to throw in an alternative, which is why we bring in the conflict resolution issue. So I think that the human rights issue has to be confronted and I think that the physicians or any other groups that say they are only in the business of trying to stop nuclear weapons, they are just going to burn themselves out.

Joanne Santa Barbara: Basically I agree with you about the linkage between peace and human rights but it is an extremely delicate issue. If the physicians' groups start making trenchant statements about the abuse of human rights in the Soviet Union we will destroy the organization that we are creating to achieve this work against nuclear war.

Keith Suter: You'll build up linkages with the Soviet Union but you'll lose your market in the United States.

Joanne Santa Barbara: That's relevant because what happens is that visits are fostered. The physicians who come over stay in the homes of Canadian physicians and sit up late at night talking over beer. And under those circumstances human rights issues are raised and they hear the perceptions that westerners have of human rights abuses in the Soviet Union which they would not be exposed to otherwise. I think that's how these matters will get better in the Soviet Union--when there are more trustful relationships and people can talk in a less belligerent way about what they dislike in the other country.

But now I'd like to ask you about the manuals and kits you are putting together for peace education.

Keith Suter: There are three stages involved in preparing for peace education. First is marketing the concept. Second, exploring the current literature--and there is a lot. Third, doing the manual. Now the reason for the first point about marketing is that I am not at all clear that there is widespread support in favour of conflict resolution. Richard Nixon has said that the object is not to resolve conflicts but to win them, and one comes across that quite a bit.

Stella Cornelius: That's the hidden agenda behind our opposition--they don't want it resolved; they want it won.

Joanne Santa Barbara: I am impressed that your presence has been felt enough to generate opposition.

Keith Suter: That's an encouraging way of looking at it. It seems to me that a major task is just to get the phrase into our language, whether it is "conflict resolution" or "management of conflict." We have to market the concept. The first step is just talking it up and that is one thing that can be done for the International Year of Peace. One of my concerns is that IYP can easily come and go and there won't be any major change or else we will spend all our time talking about the nuclear winter. I am much more concerned about the nuclear spring--in other words, the world that is beyond nuclear winter. Not after one, but beyond one that has been averted. That's why the conflict resolution campaign appeals to me. It is something positive.

The good news is that last year in New South Wales the Department of Education carried out a survey on peace education among the general population; the Department broke peace education up into five headings identified by UNESCO--teaching about the UN; teaching about the causes of war; teaching about conflict resolution, and so on. At least 70 percent of the people favored teaching about all these topics.

What we require in this country is a real debate over peace education. A lot of us are unclear as to how to implement it as a full course of studies. We need criticism from the other side, so we can have a debate, just as the economists have debates with the new right. If you could import Jeane Kirkpatrick to this country it would make our life better.

Stella Cornelius: For a long time, peace studies suffered from the fact that we who work in the peace movement had to keep on teaching disarmament horror stories because there was no debate about alternatives. We were defending people who only wanted to keep on saying, "Ain't it awful."

Keith Suter: I work in adult education with the Workers Education Association and the Centre for Continuing Studies at the University of Sydney where I live and there we have had an extremely good run of courses. The course that I have just finished at the University was entitled The Politics of Terrorism and we had six members of the New South Wales police force sitting at the back wearing civilian clothes. I find that if you go around talking about peace it seems to be wimpish and pretty dreadful, so I talk about war instead. We have "War in Modern Society," "Conflicts and Crises," and "The Politics of Terrorism." You start off on the sexy bits of violence and gradually work round to the end, when you talk about disarmament. If you start off with disarmament first, you lose the audience. The value of adult education, as distinct from university courses, is that in adult education, if they don't like it they just don't come back for the second week. It is very useful to be able to keep their attention throughout the course.

I think the peace movement should forget a bit about disarmament. Disarmament is not about the removal of weapons; it is really a debate over security.

Stella Cornelius: I would quarrel with the 'forgetting' about disarmament.

Keith Suter: Put it on a back burner then. The problem is that the peace movement is not a disarmament movement, but an arms control movement. After all the demonstrations, not one nuclear weapon has been destroyed. The most significant peace organization in the world is the treasury of every country. If we didn't have bureaucrats who were opposed to the expenditure of money, the arms race would be still worse off than it is. That is where the power is. We have not had a scrapping of one nuclear weapon. If we were to stop Star Wars, the deployment of cruise missiles, have nuclear free weapon zones around the world and a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which are the main goals of the peace movement at the moment, not all of those activities added together would result in the removal of any nuclear weapons. So the peace movement is into arms control, not even into disarmament. We are merely indulging in the theatre of disarmament negotiations. The peace movement is linking its agenda to the agenda of the disarmament negotiations and those negotiations are going nowhere.

But there are other things going on. The UN is doing its work on the economic and social consequences of the arms race. On the International Satellite Monitoring Agency. On conversion. All of those things are where the action is, not in the disarmament negotiations.

Joanne Santa Barbara: I have to agree with you, but I feel your criticism of the peace movement is a bit strong.

Keith Suter: There are more issues than just the removal of weapons. What I find fascinating is the irrelevance of the debate between the United States and the Soviet Union. Our critics on the right see the world as static--as consisting of two power blocs which are not going to be easily reconciled. I see this as increasingly irrelevant, which is why I keep talking about the new international order.

A very small example which I have mentioned in my new book, The U.N. at Forty, is the debate over computers in the USSR, where they live in an information vacuum. Since 1981, for example, the grain production figures have been a state secret, which means they are going down. The Soviet Union has a lot of muscle--nuclear weapons--but it is basically a Third World country. Now it has a problem: If it wants to keep up with Toffler's Third Wave, it has to make people computer literate. You cannot make elderly people computer literate, but you can make the children computer literate. But they have to grow up with computers, so you have to start putting them in their homes. (Mrs. Thatcher has made the British the highest per capita consumers of personal computers in the world, much to her credit. It is very rare that I congratulate that woman.)

If the Soviets have any aspirations as a developed country, they have to give their kids access to computers. But then they are able to access information. With phone lines, they can start communicating around the world. In Poland it is illegal for a home to have its own stencilling machine whereas if you give people computers you are giving them a word processor. They start to erode themselves when they make that one decision--which is why I get impatient with the image of the USSR and the US as locked into permanent adversarial positions. The world is being changed by technology and by economics.

You know, the Rockefeller family has handled the Soviet Union's balance of payments since the twenties. Cold wars come and go, but you always have your bankers. And David Rockefeller says that he often prefers to deal with Communist governments rather than western ones because they are more stable. If you talk to bankers, they tell you that there is only one world economy. Reagan talks about the evil empire out there, but bankers know there is only one world. Stella Cornelius: We make a great error when we look at the world as static. I spent a lot of my life in the fashion world, and there is one thing that you learn there. You get it right into the bones: Nothing is static. You make friends with change, you welcome it, you're excited by it. It was preparing me for this peace work that I didn't know about. I gained transferrable skills, and all the stuff I learned about management was tranferrable too, and deserved to be put to work for the peace process. So that's how I got to be a tribal elder of the peace movement.

Peace Magazine Jun-Jul 1986

Peace Magazine Jun-Jul 1986, page 10. Some rights reserved.

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