by Tony Halstiendal
Bertha von Suttner’s novel Lay Down Your Arms, published in 1889, addresses the horror of war and is supposedly what made Alfred Nobel finally write the Nobel Peace Prize into his will. The two became acquaintances in Paris while she was working for him as a secretary in 1876, although their work relations were very brief since she returned to Vienna to get married. They did, however, continue to keep in touch through the exchange of letters for years to come.
Von Suttner traveled with her husband to Caucasus where she experienced the abominations of war which inspired her to become a peace activist. It is because of this experience that the issue on how to achieve peace became a frequent subject in her letters to Nobel. Nobel originally opposed the idea of achieving peace through demilitarization, the main idea behind Lay Down Your Arms, but rather through an equal threat of destruction between states. He was later convinced to support von Suttner’s solution to the issue and wrote the creation of the Nobel Peace Prize into his will.
But now, over a century later, is the idea of Lay Down Your Arms still sustainable or has Nobel’s original idea of equal threat of destruction proven its validity?
Last year, in 2012, the European Union was the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for their promotion of peace in Europe over the last six decades. Although the timing of the award has been unfortunate, given the fact that the EU experienced quite the economic turbulence last year; they have managed to create a peaceful union in continent whose history is full of devastating wars. The concept of the union was to create an economic dependency between the different nations in a sense to give them something to lose if someone decided to return to old habits. The spirit of von Suttner has seemingly been kept in mind during the union’s creation since the nations had to put a lot of trust in each other and resist a lot of old grudges. However, von Suttner’s main point of demilitarization hasn’t nearly been fulfilled. This is mainly due to the fact that in this global age we live in our enemies aren’t our next door neighbor anymore, but in a different neighborhood entirely and still poses a threat as if they were next door.The United States had to learn this the hard way on 9/11. As they were faced with the fact that even though the world second largest ocean separated them for the troubled region the Middle East, it still wasn’t enough to keep the tragedies of war from their homes.
Although the EU has been successful in their mission to keep the peace it hasn’t been without its criticism. The economic dependency has made war out of the question, but last year has shown us the dark side of the concept. The unwillingness of some countries to make certain economic reforms has tossed Europe into a depression. An increasing amount of people do now find themselves without a job. The question is if this is just some turbulent times the union is going through, or the price they have to pay to keep the peace.
Even though the EU has had its economic troubles, unions still seem desirable given the alternative history presents us with. However, EU isn’t the only group who has tried out the economic dependency formula. The Balkans is a region filled with ethnical grudges and has been ruled by one empire after another. The decay of the Ottoman Empire, the last empire to rule the Balkans, ignited two wars right after each other which set the stage for Word War I. After WWI was over, the nation Yugoslavia was created in an attempt bridge the ethnic antagonism with economic dependency. Unfortunately, Yugoslavia did not have a happy ending. The ethnic antagonism did not go away, but was merely kept in check by the Cold War and as soon as the Soviet Union fell apart it ignited a third Balkan war. Yugoslavia wasn’t technically a union, but a Serbian centered dictatorship and what made it fall apart was that the different ethnic groups were fed up with the government. Because of this there is a lot that’s differentiates the EU and Yugoslavia. But there is an argument to be made of the fact that Yugoslavia fell apart from hostilities towards the government and the EU is experiencing economic troubles because of some nation’s reluctance to make the necessary reforms. The similarity is thin, but the connection that both experienced reluctance from certain groups towards being told how to run their business is still there. It is, however, very unlikely that the EU will split up in bloody war between nations, but the chance that the nations in the EU might someday go their separate ways isn’t so unlikely.
It seems that von Suttner’s vision of creating peaceful unions between nations is yet to be without fault. The region where she was inspired to support peace and unions between nations, Caucasus, ironically suffers from what Nobel originally thought would be the best solution for long-term peace. Armenia and Azerbaijan, although technically still in a war, has been in a ceasefire since 1994. The war is a dispute over a piece of land which both sides claims to have the right to. And to add even more fuel to the fire, the Armenians are Christians and the Azerbaijani are Muslims. So despite the truce, it is stilll very tense and there has been some exchange of fire over the years, but nothing that has escalated to the point of breaking the truce. What might be the stabilizing factor in the ceasefire is that Armenia is supported by Russia and Azerbaijan has a lot of ties to Turkey. An escalation in the war would possible lead to a face-off between Turkey and Russia. Azerbaijan also borders to Iran who probably wouldn’t be too happy about having Russians that close to their borders. Much like the Balkans was before World War I, this too has the potential of being quite the hornet’s nest. This kind equal threat of destruction probably isn’t what Nobel had in mind, as it is uneven and very tense. Cases where there is an equal threat of destruction is rarely defined as peaceful since it is either very tense and often develop into a race to get the upper hand.
Probably the most notable case of such an arms race is the Cold War. After the end World War II there were two remaining super-powers, the United States and the Soviet Union. With two very different political views that couldn’t see any possible ways of coexisting, it became a race to get military upper hand and as many allies around the world as possible. It was times of paranoia and increase in tensions as nuclear weapons came into play. Both nations had enough nuclear weapons to wipe each other of the map, so this was truly an equal threat of destructions. There was no in between, it was either peace or complete annihilation. For that exact reason is why they called it the Cold War, because it was never any direct act of violence between the two nations. But why still define this as war? Even though the United States and the Soviet never were in direct contact they were both heavily engaged in several proxy wars. Both nations tried to impose their politics in several countries by sending troops, and in response the other nation supported the opposing factions with weaponry or whatever they need to defeat the invading troops. One example for the United States is Vietnam War, where the US sent troops to Vietnam to “save” them from communism. There they met resistance from, and ultimately defeated by, the Soviet supported Viet Kong. The same happened in Afghanistan, except this time it was the Soviets turn to invade and be defeated by American supported Afghanis. Even though there were a balance of power between the United States and the Soviet Union and war never entered either nation, this peace came at the expense of others.
Both von Suttner’s and Nobel’s solutions has the possibility to create a certain kind of peace given the right circumstances. But what is peace really? Is peace just a total deprivation of acts of violence between nations, or does it include a peace of mind as well? In the circumstances that have a balance of power (mentioned above,) whatever peace it might have achieved it wasn’t without tension and paranoia. Arguably, you might say that these haven’t been the best examples, but I still remain doubtful whether a balance of power could exist without tension or at least some suspicion. An iconic theme from the 50s American pop-culture is the poster and videos showing how to survive a nuclear attack or a communist invasion. Even though America hasn’t experienced warfare in their own soil since Pearl Harbor, there is still paranoia in the American minds coming from the fact that they are being targeted by several nations and terrorist groups. 9/11 was a terrorist attack and not technically warfare, but it still fed the increasing paranoia of the American people.
Even if there could be a completely peaceful balance of power between our nations, it would still leave us divided. And if there is one thing that’s always been true about humans, it is that we’ve always been at our best united. But a union demands certain maturity that is far too rare in the world today. This is why Yugoslavia failed. The people wasn’t ready to put aside the hatred for each other, the wound causing the hate was still far too fresh. The sad truth of today is that the global picture is one big balance of power. With so many nations with nuclear weapons in their possession there is always the chance that someday things might go horribly wrong. It is also a very uneven balance as well. And this unevenness is probably reason why questionable countries such Iran and North Korea are so eager to get a hold of them. If it is with the intent to use them or just to have a say in matters still remains to be seen. Hopefully it will be the latter. Still, I wouldn’t recommend a complete military reduction. The future is uncertain and can be unforgiving. We never know who or what might cause us harm in the future, therefor it will be wise to have some security coming from military power.
Von Suttner’s solution seems to be the best chance we have to create long lasting peace. Unfortunately we live in a world that, for the most part, isn’t ready to commit to creating unions. But still I hope, given enough time, that we one day will see a world united.