Disarmament Insight


Monday, 26 March 2007

ORG-anising Human Security

A couple of weeks ago I participated in a workshop organised by the Oxford Research Group (ORG). The meeting was held in beautiful Oxfordshire countryside at a place called Charnley House Manor, which reminded me a lot of my home town on the other side of the world in New Zealand.

The workshop's theme was extremely topical, the vote scheduled that week in the British House of Commons on the United Kingdom's Trident nuclear deterrent, and MPs from each of the three major parties in the Commons joined us at the meeting after the vote to explain their positions. The meeting was also a good opportunity for informal trust building, something that in the DHA project we're always banging on about as important. For my part, it was good to be plonked amongst a largely different crowd to that of the Geneva disarmament community.

Mary Midgely was one person at the ORG meeting with insights that impressed me deeply. Mary modestly describes herself as a "free-lance philosopher", but she has many decades of deep thought and experience in pressing issues as diverse as nuclear disarmament and the ethical treatment of animals. On the first evening of the workshop, she was asked to briefly share with us a few of her general observations about human security. The meeting followed the Chatham House rule, which prevents me quoting precisely what she said, but fortunately she furnished me with a couple of different texts that capture the flavour of a couple of the many fascinating points she made. For example:

"There is an immense difference between what may be called the front view and the back view of any weapon. Weapons are not just tools. They are powerful symbols carrying messages that go far beyond the conscious intentions of those who carry them. This is why what is meant as deterrence often turns out to act as provocation. The owner, who is, so to speak, sitting quietly behind his machine-gun sees it merely as a comfortable defensive shield. He just innocently puts it (as it were) in his front window and sits down behind it to read Proust. But the passers-by who come within the range of it don't see it in the same way at all. They tend to assume that, if he has taken the trouble to buy the thing, he probably has a use for it, and that he may already have some idea what that use will be. The owner can, of course, tell them reassuringly that the gun actually doesn't mean anything at all, that it is just a harmless, neutral umbrella of a kind everybody needs. But, in so far as the passers-by believe this they are liable to imitate him. They may then go off and order umbrellas for themselves, thus giving rise to a lot of misunderstanding.

"Part of the trouble here stems from the awkward fact that human beings, unlike other animals, put their threats in permanent form. They use weapons, buildings, written words. Unlike the noises and gestures used by other species, these things don't go away when the occasion of anger is past. They stop around and continue to send out menacing messages to those around them."
(Mary Midgely, "What do we mean by security?")

Understanding the profound importance of the impact others have on our perceptions and behaviour, as well as vice versa, is deeply relevant in a world in which we're told from many quarters of the need for various umbrellas, whether against nuclear attack, ballistic missiles or germ warfare.

Mary highlights the risks involved in environments in which the signals we send and receive take on an institutional dimension. NATO's pain in recent years has been in part due to the challenges in reinventing a role for an institution founded to repel a Soviet invasion during the cold war, when perceptions of threat have since changed so much. It's understandable that Russian suspicions persist.

Moreover, it's doubtful that if nuclear weapons had only been invented recently in a post-cold war world that the powers with this technology would see the need to produce the huge stockpiles the United States and Russia possess today thanks to an earlier superpower rivalry. But these huge stockpiles continue to send threatening signals, and - worse - have become badges of prestige and even bargaining chips.

As someone who has lived in Wellington, one of the windiest capital cities in the world, I'd add the observation that there are situations in which the best umbrellas only provide a false sense of security and are rendered useless by conditions. Or worse, you could find yourself carried Mary Poppins-like, into the air and swept out over Cook Strait.

Maybe, in a turbulent world, umbrellas aren't our best protection.

John Borrie