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Global Peace Movement Still Vibrant
Published on Tuesday, June 24, 2003 by the Asia Times
Global Peace Movement Still Vibrant
by Marco Garrido

Although the war in Iraq is over, the global peace movement has not gone away. Indeed, late last month, it went to Jakarta.

From May 18-21, representatives of some of the largest anti-war coalitions around the world met in the Indonesian capital to formulate a plan of action for dealing with the emerging postwar order in Iraq. Delegates hailed from 24 countries and included members of the Asian Peace Alliance, Stop the War Coalition (UK), United for Peace and Justice (US), the Italian Social Forum, and the Istanbul No to War Coordination-coalitions that had succeeded in organizing massive demonstrations in their respective countries in the months preceding the war.

The conference closed with the publication of the Jakarta Peace Consensus. The Consensus condemns the war in Iraq as "illegal, unjust, and illegitimate" and, consequently, demands "an immediate withdrawal of all foreign troops". Further, it insists that Iraq's reconstruction be administered entirely by Iraqis, calls on the United States to pay war reparations to Iraq, and even proposes that the "perpetrators of war" (by this is certainly meant US President George W Bush, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and Secretary of State Colin Powell) be tried as war criminals. To these ends, signatories to the Consensus commit to organizing fact-finding missions, constructing Occupation Watch Centers, developing "multiple methods of engaging directly with Iraqis", including through an information website, and - especially for Bush, Rumsfeld, and Powell - establishing an International People's Tribunal.

The Jakarta Peace Consensus leaves little doubt that a good part of the global peace movement, which mobilized so dauntingly in the months before and during the war, intends to remain very much active in the years following it.

The 'other superpower'

Had there been no war or threat of war, there would have been no movement, at least not one of such unprecedented size and breadth. This "other superpower", as the peace movement has been called, exists as a direct consequence of the opposition the United States as superpower has generated, particularly on the question of war with Iraq. It embodied the most cogent articulation of the other side of the global debate over the war, effectively upping the stakes for the governments caught in between.

While not joining the US-led coalition carried consequences, the movement ensured that so did joining it. Jonathan Schell, writing in The Nation, points out that "the question everywhere was which superpower to obey - the single nation claiming that title, or the will of the people of the Earth". Ultimately, the coalition of the willing ended up little more than a coalition of governments. "On the brink of war no public but the Israeli one supported it under the conditions in which it was being launched - that is, without UN support. Public opinion polls showed that in most countries, opposition to the war was closer to unanimity than to a mere majority."

Clearly, the peace movement's greatest strength is its broad base of support, a base that extends more deeply into the United States than its policymakers acknowledge. Fundamental US institutions such as churches and trade unions have come out resolutely against war. Increasing numbers of Americans of all political stripes, not just liberal activists, have swelled anti-war demonstrations across the country.

As Schell points out, one reason the movement has grown so fast is that it has been extremely effective in getting its message out. Just as there would have been no movement without the threat of so controversial a war, there would have been no movement had there been no e-mail. The Internet has enabled the peace movement to become increasingly agile and organized. Consider the "rolling" demonstrations that swept the globe before and during the war, erupting in multiple cities simultaneously.

A mistake, misguided policy, or imperial ambition?

With such differences held together tenuously under the cover of a broader and more immediate objective - to stop the war - it is no wonder that the Stop the War Coalition listed as the second item in its platform (right after "we oppose the war") that "supporters of the Coalition, whether organizations or individuals, will of course be free to develop their own analyses and organize their own actions", wisely adding: "But there will be many important occasions when united initiatives around broad stop the war slogans can mobilize the greatest numbers."

But now that the war is over, the one message that managed to motivate so broad a constituency is no longer available. And so the diversity, if not actual incompatibility, of political allegiances and agendas within the movement are becoming distinct. For instance, such platforms as the Jakarta Peace Consensus, although they purport unity, hardly reflect the full spectrum of opinion encompassed by the movement. The Consensus itself represents the analysis of harder-line cadres, an analysis that, for the most part, was virulently anti-American - or anti-imperial - to begin with.

Certainly not everyone in the peace movement shares this view. For most people, it took the war itself, or its imminence, to drive them into the movement's fold. They may not even consider themselves as part of a movement per se but are simply protesting out of conscience. Had there been no threat of war, there would have been no reason for them to protest.

The various elements that make up the peace movement differ significantly on how deeply they cut faith with the United States. In an approximate way, one can divide the movement's range of politics into three categories: those who oppose the war, those who oppose the Bush administration, and those who oppose the general drift of the American state. The first category is by far the largest, but since its opposition was specifically directed against war with Iraq, now that the war is over, its numbers have receded. This category includes, for example, the US trade unions that came out against war with Iraq but generally supported the war on terror, including the campaign in Afghanistan. The latter two categories - roughly, the liberal internationalists and the anti-imperialists - have developed political analyses that sustain them well beyond the war. They have come to dominate the terms of debate within the peace movement.

Liberal internationalists and anti-imperialists share a vision of the world with less militarism and greater multilateralism and adherence to international law. They disagree on whether they believe the United States can contribute meaningfully to this vision. Liberal internationalists consider much of the foreign and domestic policy of the Bush administration to be disastrous. On the other hand, to an extent, some anti-imperialists welcome Bush's brazenness because it serves to expose imperial designs that are much larger than himself; indeed, that, in their view, have become an underlying imperative for the American state. Arundhati Roy writes in The Guardian: "[Bush] has exposed the ducts. He has placed in full public view the working parts, the nuts and bolts of the apocalyptic apparatus of the American empire."

Even when they agree, they seem to disagree. David Cortright, author and founder of the Win without War Coalition, identifies "removing the Bush administration from office and electing a new political leadership dedicated to international cooperation and peace" as the peace movement's immediate goal.

Hampshire College Professor Michael Klare frames the same goal in anti-imperialist terms: "The next step is to expand the movement into a permanent opposition to the administration's imperial design." His call sounds more ominous because the rhetoric of anti-imperialism is informed by a more comprehensive, and darker, vision of world dynamics, where such phenomena as globalization and militarization go hand in hand and international institutions such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and even the United Nations serve to perpetuate imbalances of power in favor of the world's elite, led by the United States. For liberal internationalists, however, international institutions such as the UN figure centrally in their vision of a preferred world order.

A different kind of power

For all its internal fractures and seeming fragility, the global peace movement has made the world wonder whether the United States is as powerful as it seems. William Pfaff, writing in the International Herald Tribune, notes that since Bush was elected, assertions of military "hard" power have diminished America's "soft" power. Soft power includes a country's capacity to influence or persuade or simply to command respect and legitimacy. This is due, in no small part, to the exuberance of peace campaigning around the globe.

Perhaps more significant, the peace movement has succeeded in making the US doubt itself. Speaking before the National Press Club in Washington, DC, actor Tim Robbins describes a US that has grown "bitterly divided" since September 11, 2001, that has had its democracy compromised as civil liberties have been stripped, and that has incurred the wrath and rancor of the world population. James Carroll, writing in the Boston Globe, complains about how the war in Iraq has contributed to "the bad weather over America": "America was not meant to be like this. We are no longer ourselves."

Even Harvard history Professor Charles Maier, who has long qualified America's imperial forays in the past as undertaken reluctantly or with legitimate cause, finds little to defend in this latest war. Maier writes: "If an empire, post-World War II America was the empire that dared not speak its name. But these days, on the part of friends and critics alike, the bashfulness has ended ... Eventually, I fear - if not this year or even this decade - historians will have fateful consequences to narrate if we persevere in this myopic option."

With the aid of the peace movement, this growing self-doubt may yet prove transformative.

Copyright 2003 Asia Times Online Co, Ltd.


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