Joining hands across borders

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

TODAY as the world stands poised on the edge of war, a paradoxical phenomenon is emerging on the international scene. This is the worldwide peace movement which has been spawned by the growing thrust towards war. The massive turn-out at the rallies in Washington, London and other European capitals against an American attack on Iraq should leave no one in doubt about the strong pacifist sentiments the world over.

Its significant feature is that it transcends international boundaries. For the first time in contemporary history, people struggling for a common cause are joining hands transnationally to demonstrate their commitment to peace.

The threat of war has galvanized the peace activists into action. Earlier, the risk of impoverishment and deprivation which looms large on the horizon — and has already begun to impact on people’s lives in Third World countries — had roused the conscience of thousands who came together in the anti-globalization protests in Seattle and other cities where the World Trade Organization meetings were being held in the last few years since the WTO was founded in 1995. They have now joined hands under the banner of the World Social Forum to resist the growing avarice and the monopolistic tendencies of the corporate sector.

The peace movement is following a similar pattern, though it reflects a greater sense of urgency, given the imminence of war against Iraq and its terrifying consequences. What is significant about this protest is that it has brought together on the same platform like-minded people from different countries. The extensive reach of the protests has given them strength and visibility which have created a deep impact.

This is the other side of the globalization process unintended by its protagonists. It has facilitated the movement of capital, and, to some extent, people too, and has lowered state barriers. This has allowed the people of different states to interact with one another and rally round common causes which affect them all. Communication technology has helped in this process by facilitating the exchange of information, and the trans-border education and mobilization of people.

This may not exactly be the withering away of the state as visualized by Karl Marx. But it certainly means some dilution of the concept of national sovereignty as envisaged as a feature of the modern state which had emerged in Europe — followed by the rest of the world — after the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. The present process is not a redrawing of the political/geographical map of the world. It is a new political trend which is now gathering force and momentum in step with the globalization process itself.

As a result of this trend, the affinity of the social classes now runs across international boundaries. For instance, the workers, be they in Pakistan, America or Europe, have many common interests uniting them in their equations with the capitalists and they can relate to each other quite naturally. When the workers in one country feel threatened by an event in one country, their colleagues in other parts of the world also feel concerned. Thus the globalization process which is undermining Third World economies has been challenged in the West as well. The protesters in the industrialized countries also have a cause to worry. They fear the loss of jobs if their companies move to the Third World to set up their factories in regions where labour is cheaper and plentiful.

The universalization of the English language and the spread of intellectual ideas — the Internet has played a phenomenal role in this — has also led to the jelling of like-minded people into cohesive intellectual groups, international boundaries notwithstanding.

This emerging phenomenon has significant implications for world politics and international relations, as well as for the domestic politics of different countries. It has made it possible for the people from the so-called “enemy countries” to join hands to form pressure groups for peace. One just has to look around to see how people who at one time would have been on different sides of a political divide now find themselves drawn together sailing in the same boat.

Numerous friendship groups have sprung up in India and Pakistan, the West Bank and Israel, and other places where the people on the opposite sides of the borders have united on a common platform of shared views and aspirations irrespective of their governments’ official stance. Their aim is to find the middle ground.

Such moves have the potential of generating pressure in favour of peace and conciliation and against a policy disposition to hostility and belligerence. Although so far this has not created the required impact on the official policies of different governments, one hopes that it will serve as a restraining force. Thus the governments of India, Pakistan and Israel continue to adhere to their policies in spite of what the peace activists have to say. In the United States, one cannot be certain that the massive rallies against a war on Iraq will actually deter President George W. Bush from attacking that country. The second significant implication of this trend is that the polarization which takes place is not between different states/governments; it is between different classes spread across the national boundaries of sovereign states. This could have profound implications for the domestic politics of states while also affecting international relations.

The failure so far of the peace movements to palpably influence their governments is a paradox in a world which sets great store by democratic norms and participatory governance. There are three instances which stand out conspicuously. In India, the numerous voices of sanity and moderation which have been raised and the strong protests by secular forces against communal killings in Gujarat failed to swing the vote against the BJP and its leaders such as Narendra Modi in the state elections in December. However, the series of state elections due in India later this year would be the true test of the influence of the peace activists on the voting trend in the country.

In the United States, opinion polls have registered a slide in George Bush’s popularity from 80 per cent or so in early 2002 to 52 per cent a few weeks ago. And yet in the mid-term elections in November the Republicans won a landslide victory. This is a phenomenon which peace activists should study to determine the factors which prevent the peace mood from translating into votes in the electoral process.

Likewise, in Israel, where the fledgling peace movement PEACE NOW has struggled against the injustices of the occupation, Ariel Sharon’s hawkish Likud party was swept back into office in the general elections in January.

There is a horizontal polarization which appears to be taking place. The scenario that is emerging could be a destabilizing one because we could see states pitted against each other internationally while fissures within them could lead to civil strife. All this points to the urgent need to speed up the pace of efforts towards creating a peace culture and a climate of tolerance and coexistence.

The scope for doing this is quite considerable. Globalization has been accompanied with high technology communications, such as satellite and cable television and the Internet, and this has facilitated greater interaction between the institutions of the states and their people. This interaction is taking place even between citizens of supposedly ‘enemy’ countries.

In these conditions, the theory of balance of power as it developed in the post-Congress of Vienna European system now appears to be quite obsolete. The only option for statesmen is to devise a new international system untied to the myth of state sovereignty in the traditional, puritanical sense and seeks to create an equitable equation among states based on tolerance and coexistence. The protagonists of peace are potentially stronger than their opponents. While those in the peace movement can unite on a minimalist agenda of non-violence, secularism, social justice and humanitarian values from all over the world, the radicals outside the peace movement stand divided and at loggerheads with one another.

The need of the hour is for the supporters of the peace movement to prevail over the governments with militant and hardline policies. At present they are simply catching the media’s attention. This is not enough. It is equally important to persuade those in office to change their course.