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Reflections on Peace and Security in the 21st Century

The notion of Peace refers at a personal level to a state of mind, an inner state of calm and harmony. A rare commodity in the spiritual desert we are trekking through! Whenever we speak about ‘Peace in Our World,’ it signifies the absence of war and internal disorder, the cessation of military hostilities. Throughout history countless human beings have suffered from the scourge of war. Quite naturally they tried—often at considerable costs—to protect themselves with military means against this major threat to human security. The Romans, for example, acted according to the classic wisdom: ‘If you want peace, prepare war.’ Unfortunately this concept still prevails notwithstanding growing doubts about the ‘effectiveness’ of this approach in our highly vulnerable modern society overloaded with weapons of mass destruction.

There is however also another reason why this classic concept about securing peace should be replaced. Human security is not only threatened by the possibility of deliberate or inadvertent use of WMD but also by a whole range of formidable threats transcending national boundaries. For the first time in history physical survival of mankind is at stake! Mostly attention goes out to violent conflicts, acts of terrorism or proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Other major threats to human security receive too little consideration. Facts speak a clear language: in the year 2006, worldwide military spending reached $ I000 billion while only a small percentage of this outrageous sum was made available to cope with urgent world problems! This emphasis on military means and obvious neglect of the seriousness of other—non-military—threats appears clearly from the huge military budget in the USA, reaching the level of $500 billion, while not even $28 billion is made available for Official Development Assistance!

The plight of nearly one billion people living in abject poverty, the death of about 18 million people yearly for lack of food and other basic essentials, can no longer be ignored. The same applies to the alarming rate of destruction of our natural environment. It must be said: present priorities are completely lost. Peace and security however, will not be achieved as long as the overwhelming attention goes out to boost an already excessive military power while the scale of non-military threats remains critically underestimated. Without a substantial re- allocation of funds there will be no possibility for an adequate approach to pressing world needs, directly and indirectly affecting human security!

Ominous Consequences of the Present Emphasis on Military Means

Military means are—in our time—no longer a guarantee for assuring security. On the contrary! Revolutionary developments in science and technology have catapulted us into a global world fundamentally different from the epoch before the advent of the atom bomb. Spectacular technological achievements—particularly in the field of arms, communications and information—compel us to adapt our concepts about peace and security to this new reality. Unfortunately old patterns of thinking about peace and security still prevail. As a result we are now confronted with:

  • A huge arsenal of weapons of mass destruction
  • A vast assortment of highly destructive conventional weapons
  • Intensive Research and Development for ever more ‘effective’ weaponry
  • A dynamic pursuit of the weaponization of Space in order to assure the absolute dominance in all theatres of warfare
  • The demise of vital arms control agreements
  • Bloated military budgets
  • Security strategies, envisaging preventive unilateral military action.

A marked change has taken place in the approach to assure national security. The traumatic effects of the terrorist attacks on 9/11 prepared the mindset for preventive action. This time the USA will strike first, if necessary with nuclear arms, no risks will be taken! This holding on to an outdated security concept lies at the root of a perilous paradox: ever rising military expenditures not assuring more security but leading to a greater insecurity!

There are Three Basic Reasons for This Absurdity.

First of all: the sheer existence of a colossal, highly complex and sensitive war-machine is fraught with danger. Nuclear powers, facing each other with distrust, are caught in a hair-trigger situation in which perceptions play a great role. They must constantly be on high alert, prepared to strike in order to prevent the first strike of the opponent. In times of tension, wherein minutes count and vital decisions have to be taken under great pressure, perceptions play a great role. The risk of deliberate or inadvertent use of the apocalyptic potential of modern arms is far from remote!

The second reason is of a more political nature. Command over an inordinate military force tends to excite ‘arrogance of power,’ reflecting itself in unilateralism, and even ill fated military actions. This inevitably is provoking distrust among enemies and could spark of an arms race. Even traditional allies may be alienated. This growing isolation of a superpower is bound to have a negative effect on the international security situation.

The third reason is related to the large influence of the military/industrial complex on defense and foreign policy. Close personal links of leading government officials with corporations facilitate a strong hold. Also the media do not escape this grip. Even non-governmental organizations are not immune for pressures. Especially when they are—to an unhealthy degree—dependent on corporations or governments for the financing of programs. Surely, considerable interests are involved in maintaining a high rate of military spending. Millions of people and many thousands of scientists have found lucrative employment in the military sector. As this complex is well entrenched in political circles there will be little chance of success for political initiatives tending to reduce military spending without presenting a realistic conversion scheme.

But despite the formidable obstacles presented by vested interests a new approach to peace and security has to be found. We are actually living in a highly volatile situation, which risks getting out of hand if we do not succeed to reverse our basic thinking about peace and security.

The Irrationality of War in the 21st Century

Modern war, with its own laws and dynamism, has a demoniacal character. Since the launching of the first atom bomb there has been a radical change in the character of warfare. Not only as a result of a spectacular increase in the destructive potential of modern arms but also because of the breakthrough in communication, information, and space technologies. Once the gigantic war machinery starts moving it is ruthless. Defeating the enemy in the most effective way is the one overriding objective. Moral limits and human rights are subordinated to this goal. Recent conflicts show an appalling increase in the number of civilian casualties. The proportion between military and civilian victims in war is dramatically changing despite the use of precision weapons!

The use of excessive military power can also lead to results, which are the opposite of what was originally intended to achieve. This applies in particular whenever the opponent takes resort to asymmetrical warfare. The present war in Iraq clearly illustrates the limits of overwhelming military power. It succeeded in crushing the enemy on the battlefield but fails to assure stability and bring the promised democracy. In addition it is providing a breeding ground for terrorists and antagonizing a great deal of world public opinion. The costs—in loss of human lives, material terms and international standing—are clearly exceeding possible benefits!

War—particular between major powers and alliances—would be the end of politics. It represents the cessation of politics. In his fascinating book History of Warfare, John Keegan—a well-known war historian—demonstrates convincingly that the thesis of Clausewitz: ‘war is the continuation of policy by other means,’ no longer holds1. Indeed, in an age in which mass destruction has become a real possibility, war can no longer be considered as an effective extension of policy by other means. It represents the bankruptcy of policy!

The greatest danger to our security lies therefore not at the crossroads of radicalism and technology but in ignoring the urgency of a well integrated common approach to tackle major world problems!2 To reduce the security issue to threats, which can only be met by the use of military force, constitutes a grave error. The suggestion that we have first to deal with the so- called ‘hard issues’ and later with the ‘softer issues’ is seriously flawed, not only for moral reasons but also on political grounds! It fails to perceive the urgency to meet those so-called ‘soft’ threats to human security!

Why Should the Prevailing Concept about Peace and Security be Revised?

The prevailing security concept is seriously flawed; it does not take into account the changes in the security situation, which have taken place since the end of the Cold War. Moreover it ignores the close linkage between four basic facts:

  • Extreme vulnerability of modern society, even for the most powerful nations in the world.
  • The availability of an apocalyptic destructive potential of modern arms.
  • Modern terrorism with its wide-ranging potential to cause chaos.
  • The high degree of interdependence in our global world.

The first two elements make it imperative to look for other (non-military) ways to deal with conflicts. Warfare can no longer be seen as an effective way of dealing with conflicts. Only when all options are exhausted—and all conditions of the just war tradition are met—should there be a resort to military means within an international context. Governments should however realize that a major war between leading powers is no longer a realistic option under present circumstances. Not only for the simple reason that costs would largely exceed possible benefits, but also because it would entail the risk of elimination of a greater part of humanity! Hence, the futility, yes even the irresponsibility of preparing the stage for such an event! Also ‘limited conflicts’ should be handled with much prudence in view of the danger of escalation and other harmful consequences. There is simply no other way out, in our highly vulnerable modern world we are compelled to look for non-military means for solving conflicts!3

Modern terrorism—the third element—constitutes indeed a grave threat. It is therefore of the utmost importance that the fight against it will be conducted in the most effective way. This requires however more than military means. The underlying causes of terrorism should be taken seriously. The heinous terrorists attacks during the past years in major cities have opened the eyes of many people for the extreme vulnerability of modern society. There still is however not enough awareness of the full significance of interdependence in our world. Those comfortably living in the ‘North’ can no longer ignore hunger, misery and despair of millions of people in the ‘South.’ The factual degree of interdependence is such that poor conditions for human security in developing countries affect directly the security situation within prosperous nations. There is therefore—apart from moral reasons—a real need to develop a global perspective and a mechanism for a just resource allocation4.

It is precisely this close connection between all four factors, which make it imperative to apply political/economic justice together with solidarity, to all parts of the world!

Towards a Comprehensive Concept of Peace and Security

Peace and security can no longer be assured by preparing for war. This classic maxim should be replaced by exactly its opposite: ‘If you want peace, prepare for peace.’ This means developing a comprehensive concept, which will be able to deal with the major threats to human security.

For centuries attention was focused on threats to state security and the military means needed for defending it. During the Cold War we became familiar with the concept of collective security, which meant a system in which states pledge that aggression against one is aggression against all, obliging us to react collectively. In recent years it became clear that the classic borderline between internal and external security was rapidly fading. Our modern world is in need of a broader concept of security as new threats to security have emerged, which cannot be met with military means. This development prompted the Secretary General of the United Nations to appoint a High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change. This authoritative Report gives three major reasons for a new approach to collective security: today’s threats recognize no national boundaries; they are connected and must be addressed at a global, regional and national level; no state, no matter how powerful, can by its own efforts alone make itself invulnerable to today’s threats5.

The Panel defines six clusters of threats we will be facing in the decades ahead:

  • Economic and social threats, including poverty, infectious diseases and environmental degradation
  • Inter-state conflict
  • Internal conflict, including civil war, genocide and other large scale atrocities
  • Nuclear, radiological, chemical and biological weapons
  • Terrorism
  • Trans-national organized crime

All these threats are interconnected, requiring a comprehensive approach and a framework for preventive action; thus, the relevance of economic and social development. The Panel rightly sees this as the indispensable foundation for a system of collective security. It could significantly contribute to combat the actual threat to human security for many millions of people.

Another, noteworthy feature of the new look at collective security, is that the primary role is no longer assigned to military power but to political, economic, cultural, religious and other non-military means. Military force should be relegated to a subordinate role within the context of the UN or regional security organizations—only to be employed in last resort! The new comprehensive approach towards peace and security entails therefore a radical revision of priorities in dealing with major global threats.

What should be kept in mind is that peace, once achieved, is not something permanent. It could be easily disturbed. Whether peace will be stable depends mainly on three main conditions:

  • Concern about vital security needs should be met. Instead of living under fear for sudden military strikes a sense of security should be created. This basic sense of common security involves however other conditions for living related to an adequate supply of food, water, energy and environmental security!
  • Justice. The practice of justice is of prime importance for peace in our world. In the Psalms we find a poetical expression for this old wisdom: ‘Justice and Peace kiss each other.’ Without application of this principle to the political situation (for instance in the Middle East) and in North/South relations there will be little chance for a stable peace. Justice instead of military power should determine access to scarce natural resources.
  • Respect for human rights. Violation of basic human rights—certainly whenever these occur on a large scale—constitutes a serious threat to peace and security.

Implementation of the Concept of Collective Security

The following steps could enhance human security in a global world:

1- A substantial shift from military expenditures to programs dealing with major global threats to human security6. This reallocation of scarce resources could make a significant contribution to eliminate potential causes of conflicts. It could be effectuated by means of a planned gradual reduction of excessive military budgets—say 5% yearly—over a period of 10 years. Reduction of military outlays should be combined with a scheme for the conversion of war industries.

2- A deliberate shift from the present fixation upon military solutions towards a non-military approach in case of a threat to peace. This is of particular relevance for the relations with China, which should not be dominated by mutual fear and distrust. Neither a ring of military bases around China nor a renewed arms race will enhance security. A genuine effort to incorporate this rapidly emerging power in a global network of cooperation would be a more promising approach! Spectacular progress in information and communications technology has considerably enhanced the possibilities for an effective use of soft power through coordinated international action.

3- A new impulse to disarmament efforts in particular with regard to weapons of mass destruction. Consequently, full support of the Middle Powers Initiative and the New Agenda Coalition aiming to overcome the deep divisions between the nuclear and the Non-Aligned Movement7. Of crucial importance is the adherence to the obligation of article VI of the Non- Proliferation Treaty. Present security strategies, still considering the nuclear weapon as an essential component for national security, should be revised.

4- Substantial reduction of funds for Research and Development of new arms. Strict compliance to the letter and spirit of the Geneva Conventions on the avoidance of unnecessary human suffering.

5- A halt to the Weaponization of Space and an unequivocal international commitment to the exclusive peaceful use of Outer Space.

6- Strengthening of a multi-polar, multi-cultural world founded on a set of fundamental principles such as internationalism instead of unilateralism. Obviously, realistic efforts to build a just and peaceful world order demand the active participation of the USA. Not as an Imperial Power but as a major partner!

7- Effective global and regional institutions. This implies the reform of the United Nations and its subsidiary organs, taking into account the substantial shift in international relations, which has taken place since 1945. Also indispensable is the democratic reform of the World Bank and the IMF, which could ensure a greater voice to developing countries.

8- A sense of global belonging—Commonality8—should lead to a readiness to revise agreements harmful to the legitimate interests of the poor. Solidarity between nations should be put in practice. In an interdependent world Prosperous nations should take a critical look at existing trade and agricultural policies, affecting countries in need of development.

9- Substantial government support for Conflict Prevention and Peace Building could contribute in avoiding far costlier armed conflicts. ‘Prevention is better than cure’! Extensive peace education at all didactic levels should be promoted. Helpful would also be the application of non-violent methods (Satyagraha) and the establishment of a non-violent civilian Peace Corps as proposed by the European Parliament.

10- Above all a cultural change is needed, based on fundamental respect for life in all its manifestations. Universal acceptance of a ‘global ethos’ could greatly assist the awakening of a sense of world citizenship. Religions, represented in many countries, have a considerable peace potential. They could play a significant role in mobilizing public opinion for sharing the common responsibility for a sustainable form of living on this planet. To live up to this challenge however presupposes an intensification of efforts to move from confrontation to cooperation!


Peace and security are closely linked. Throughout the centuries people have tried to assure peace by preparing for war. Often at considerable costs! In our days this approach has led to a monstrous war-machine, capable of destroying life on earth. The apocalyptic potential of modern arms makes it imperative to look for other means to assure security. Governments however still persist on building up military force at exorbitant costs. This emphasis on military means for security is in our vulnerable, highly interdependent world irresponsible. Not only because of the prospect of catastrophic consequences of a large-scale use of modern military power but also for the reason that it would detract attention from major (non-military) threats to human security. Urgently needed is therefore a radical revision of priorities in spending.

In the new comprehensive security concept military power should be relegated to a subordinate role. Emphasis should be put on other non-military means. Peace is however vulnerable. A stable peace requires: security as well as respect for justice and human rights.

Essential for the implementation of the new concept of peace and security are adequate international agreements and institutions. Strengthening and reform of the United Nations and international monetary institutions are also required. Of great importance for the spreading of the notion of a worldwide citizenship is the cultural factor. Religions could play here a constructive role.

Humanity stands at a decisive turning point. If it continues to give priority to military means for its security it is bound to perish, we will destroy our own civilization with the immense power, created by our Science and Technology. The only sensible way is to march together on the road towards a new comprehensive concept on peace and security!

The Hague, 02-08-2006


1 Keegan, John. (1993) The History of War. London: Hutchinson.
2 This is the opposite of what President Bush states in his accompanying letter to the National Security Strategy of the USA.
3 Smith. General Sir Rupert. (2005) The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World. London: Allan Lane. A brilliant analysis on the limits of military force
4 Sipri Yearbook 2004, page 309.
5 High Level Panel Report, UN General Assembly 2 December 2004; A/ 59/565.
6 High-Level Panel Report, UN General Assembly 2 December 2004; A/ 59/565.
7 See the interesting ‘Report of Atlanta Consultation II: On the future of the Non Proliferation Treaty,’ Jan, 2005, Global Security Institute: www.gsinstitute.org. 
8 Etzioni, Amitai. (2004) From Empire to Community. London: Palgrave Macmillan. See Chapter7.

Author bio

Edy Korthals Altes (1924-2021) was a Dutch diplomat with a degree in economics, who served as Deputy Permanent Representative at the EEC in Brussels, and as Ambassador in Warsaw, and finally in Madrid. He resigned in 1986 in connection with his public stance on the arms race. He was an outspoken proponent of global peace and security, inter-religious cooperation, and spiritual renewal as Vice Chairman of the Dutch chapter of the Pugwash Movement (1987-95), Chairman of the Section International Affairs of the Netherlands Council of Churches (1990-96), Co-president EECOD (European Ecumenical Commission on Development, 1991-93), Member EKD Advisory Commission for Development Affairs (1992-97, Germany) and President of the World Conference of Religions for Peace (1994-99, Honorary President 1999-2004).