The genie is out of the bottle. Most nations, if not now, then in the very near future, will have ready access to weapons of mass destruction—nuclear, chemical, biological. And increasingly, such deadly capability is becoming available not just to nations, but to ethnic factions and terrorists.
Is widespread destruction inevitable? Many would say yes. New defensive measures will only spawn equally ingenious ways to circumvent them.
Our hope, ultimately, must lie in something deeper—on a lessening of the forces that lead to war. But is this sufficiently possible. Enemies have been part of the human equation from our earliest beginnings. Strong social bonds have required that we simplify reality, view our own people as in some way “chosen.” This in turn has required “evil others”—that we project the less savory parts of ourselves onto our neighbors.
Some have argued that our ever more globally interconnected world will eclipse such sentiments—which is likely in part true. But as Robert Frost reminded us: “Good fences make good neighbors.” Just proximity does not guarantee fondness—indeed, often quite the opposite. And as the weaponry genie inevitably escapes its past confines, the world will become an increasingly dangerous place to be someone else’s “evil empire.”
Perhaps transcending what lies at the heart of war is a naive dream. If so, major calamities will be inevitable, and increasingly frequent. We must simply prepare as best we can.
But at least a start at realizing that dream may not be as impossible as we might think. With recent decades, we’ve witnessed at least momentary tempering of our historical need for symbolic demons.
We’ve seen the Berlin wall fall—and with its fall a dampening of the sentiments that have for much of the last century divided the globe into polar camps. And we see leaders less and being able to garner knee-jerk respect and allegiance by fanning the flames of animosity.
We’ve had no shortage of “holy wars”: in Boznia, Somalia, Rwanda, Kosovo, to name just a few. But these were regional conflicts born from old ethnic hatreds. For the most part, the rest of the world did not take sides—as it often has in the past. When other countries did get involved, it was most often in an effort to restore peace.
And while terrorism has brought conflict closer to home for people in the United States than at any time since the American Civil War, even here, while for its perpetrators the United States was very much the Great Satan, most in the West did not return the projection. Most people recognized that while terrorism is horrendous, its roots are complex.
Might it be that polarized images of ally and enemy are becoming outmoded, at least for major portions of the world. Certainly, such projection no longer serves to make us physically safer—in a globally interconnected world safety is dependent on everyone feeling safe. Just as much they are ceasing to serve cultural identity.
Such would in no way eliminate conflict—such is not in the cards. But it would certainly offer that we might address conflict more maturely and creatively.