Preventing Conflicts: Exploring the Alternatives

Interview with Dr. Randall Forsberg
Dr. Randall Forsberg

Dr. Randall Forsberg is the founding director of the Institute for Defense and Disarmament Studies, a U.S.-based policy research and advocacy organization.

SGI Quarterly: What motivated you to work in disarmament?

Randall Forsberg: The day I moved to Sweden, the Swedish government announced the creation of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). It occurred to me that this would be a very interesting field. I studied Swedish for a few months, then applied for a job. What kept me in the field was an experience I had in my first year there. I helped edit two reports that really gave me unusual insights.

One of them was a study on negotiations for a comprehensive nuclear test ban. In this study, it was recounted that when it came to verifying the halt to underground nuclear explosions, the United States wanted seven surprise on-site inspections. The Soviet Union wouldn't agree to more than five. But, instead of agreeing on the obvious compromise of six, they just said, "Oh well, we'll ban atmospheric, space and oceanographic tests, but let the underground tests keep going." So the point of this story was that they weren't really serious about disarmament negotiations. The second paper that I worked on was about military spending. It showed that even in peacetime, military spending stays as high as it is in wartime. Now that we have modern weapons systems which are very high technology and cost a lot of money to produce and maintain, there isn't really a full demobilization in peacetime. In fact, there is a permanent peacetime mobilization.

I also learned in my first year at SIPRI that all the information that you need to have an informed opinion on military and disarmament affairs is available in unclassified documents. The problem is not that the information is classified, but that the skills to access and analyze it are not taught in school. There are no high school- or college-level textbooks on the subject where people could get a liberal arts education on military affairs and disarmament. As a result, the field is run by a tiny, tiny percentage of people in the world--some thousands of people--who make decisions and debate and argue and so on. Everyone else just hears the results.

In the end, I became one of that tiny fraction. I was working with other people who were sometimes in government or who had influence on government policy. And I suddenly understood what a big gap there is between the insiders who make decisions and everyone else. I decided that if I could find a way to make a living in this field, I would try to do what I've actually done. That is, not to become an expert and go to work for a government, but to become an expert and stay on the outside and try to educate a larger audience of people so that they can participate more actively.

SGIQ: What have been some of the landmark events during the more than 30 years that you've been working in disarmament?

RF: Over the years, we have worked to encourage transparency, getting countries to be more open and forthcoming with information about their military policies, their arsenals and plans. Eventually I would like to see countries being very specific about their fears with respect to other countries, because when you get it out on the table, you can do something about it.

After my initial experience with SIPRI, I came back and studied defense policy and arms control at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) with a man who was actually working at the Pentagon. He was training people as civilian analysts who would work with the military people, trying to get them to be more reasonable.

I then got involved in starting the nuclear freeze movement. This campaign started in 1980 and reached a peak in 1983. Although we didn't see any big results until late in the 1980s, I do think that there has been a sea change in how people think about nuclear weapons and how they are treated by governments. This was largely a result of the U.S. nuclear freeze movement and the European antinuclear movement. These two movements had a profound impact, I believe, on [then Soviet General Secretary Mikhail] Gorbachev and the people around him.

My greatest sense of accomplishment was when short-range missiles were eliminated in the early 1990s. These actually constituted the majority of nuclear weapons, more even than the intercontinental ballistic missiles. They were dispersed throughout the world and were extremely dangerous. These popular movements had undermined the idea of deterrence and mutually assured destruction (MAD) and the fundamental approach of the establishment to nuclear weapons had changed. At the beginning of the 1980s, most people thought that antinuclear activists were on the fringe, but by the end of the decade, there was popular recognition that nuclear weapons are dangerous and unusable.

SGIQ: How can we deal with deeply entrenched conflicts? How do we break out of cycles of profound mistrust between peoples or societies?

RF: There are many different approaches to this question. My own view is that we need transition, a set of institutions and practices that will create a bridge between the world we are familiar with and a very substantially different world. The key difference is that this will be a world in which virtually everyone recognizes that violence is not an acceptable means for achieving political or economic ends.

So what kind of bridge can take us to a world in which war is seen as an historical form of behavior that isn't part of our life anymore? My feeling is that what we need for that bridge is to have much greater use of the United Nations and regional security organizations, such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), that act as regional counterparts to the UN. These can complement each other. The idea is to try to create a confidence and a belief in the rule of law as the way of resolving conflicts.

If countries would make a greater effort to use these organizations and build them up where they don't exist, there's a lot that could be done that would be very effective to prevent disputes from escalating into armed conflict. At present, when you have a budding ethnic conflict, the only thing that happens is that some individual countries send a diplomat, or the UN secretary-general sends a diplomat. It's very much behind the scenes and quiet and off-the-record. There could be a much more proactive approach.

A Chechen fighter runs past a burnt Russian armored personnel vehicle during the battle for Grozny, Chechnya [Mikhail Evstafiev]

First of all, the UN and the regional organizations should have access to a strong research base that would keep track of all regional conflicts and be able to inform people when one of them was getting worse. This research base would provide a very thorough understanding of the roots of the conflict, the context, history and issues, including the symbolic ones.

This could then provide guidance to a professional corps of mediators equipped with deep knowledge of given conflicts and familiar with the players in the region who would be at the disposal of the secretary-general. In this way, the secretary-general would not be limited to calling on a recently retired diplomat who just happened to be available. These people would go out to conflict areas and meet with leaders on both sides and look for ways of getting them together and talking to each other, along the lines of what happened in Northern Ireland.

But this would be only the first step. If that wasn't successful, there could be recourse to either the Security Council or the General Assembly of the United Nations. The UN General Assembly could, for example, set up a conflict resolution committee that would hold hearings on any ongoing conflict that seemed to be escalating. At these hearings they would invite representatives of the parties to the conflict to testify publicly. This should include both governments and nongovernment groups, since internal conflict is the most common source of war today.

The committee could provide a warning that things are not going well, urge the parties to come together or identify specific issues that need to be addressed. They could, in other words, provide assessments of conflicts. Both the Security Council and the General Assembly could look at combinations of measures relating not only to military threats but also to political inducements, arguments, public opinion, etc. In other words, by making conflicts and the underlying issues much more public and visible, we would bring pressure to bear on the parties involved to address the conflicting issues.

An important part of this process would be to have discussions in the UN and regional security groups on the conditions for humanitarian military intervention. These would seek to answer these questions: Under what circumstances would a situation be sufficiently dire, and after what other means had been tried and exhausted would it be appropriate to send in military force? And if so, with what objectives? How long would they stay? When would they leave? Rather than holding this kind of discussion on an ad hoc basis--trying to figure everything out in the middle of a crisis--we should start now, in the abstract and in the absence of a crisis, to establish these parameters.

In a parallel way, there is a need for better clarification and codification of minority rights, which are at the heart of so many conflicts. Many standards and protections that apply to minorities are defined in other international treaties, but I think that they need to be defined specifically as the rights of minorities. All countries should be part of this process, so that there is broad-based consensus on what is acceptable treatment of minorities. Thus, when violations occur, the violators can be held to standards that they themselves have helped establish.

I believe that we can make the transition that I referred to earlier by taking the international institutions we have--the United Nations, the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court--and incrementally strengthening them in the least controversial ways. So that we have more proactive policies, more public pressure, more mechanisms and clearer standards. These are some of the core proposals of Global Action to Prevent War, which I helped start in 1998 together with Saul Mendlovitz and Jonathan Dean. (See Box.)

SGIQ: Do you have any proposals for reducing tensions in Northeast Asia? SGI President Ikeda has proposed that scholars from the region meet as a first step.

RF: Actually, this is how the United States and the Soviet Union first came together on arms control. It's also how the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe started. The positive international institutions that exist were always originally proposed and thought through by people outside of governments. So the first part of confidence-building should be to promote in a much more systematic way a dialogue between China, Japan, the two Koreas, and probably Russia and the United States. There have been some meetings of this kind.

A good way to start would be to have a kind of Northeast Asian counterpart to the Pugwash Conference, which brings scientists together to talk about confidence-building measures. This could be a venue to talk about security, guidelines and principles, and indeed to talk about people's greatest fears, for example the Taiwan problem, or the South China Sea, or the Chinese-Russian border. But the point is to do this in a larger framework, so that there are not solely bilateral talks, which can end up being focused solely on the conflicts and issues dividing two countries. This will be a long process, I would guess at least 10 years before you could see real governmental steps toward the creation of a Northeast Asian security organization. But the sooner we start working toward that goal, the better.

SGIQ: Could you comment on the value of grassroots movements?

RF: The reason I work for a nonprofit organization in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is because I feel that in the long run we are not going to see any profound change toward a global peace system unless decision-making is much more broadly based, unless it becomes more democratic and participatory.

When it comes to issues of domestic policy--employment and taxes and housing--most voters have a relatively informed opinion. But they tend to leave foreign and security policy to the "experts." But I think that in the hands of the experts, decisions are made to spend a lot more money, to take more risks, and to be more concerned with the appearance of wielding power than ordinary people would want to do.

Chechen women plead for Russian troops not to advance towards the capital Grozny, December 1994 [Mikhail Evstafiev]

To counteract this, we need some very strong public support for different policies. And there is no way to create that support except through public interest groups and public education and information. When people hold demonstrations or go out and collect signatures on petitions, in addition to the direct impact, they help indirectly educate people who are not participating or signing. Thus, people who may never become active themselves may still think about an issue in a different way as a result of seeing people on the street or reading in the newspaper about this kind of activity. In this sense, politicians are no different than ordinary people; they receive information and can be influenced in the same way. So, in this sense, I think that the grassroots activities of NGOs are extremely important, and that they really hold the key to turning things around even more profoundly than they have until now.

SGIQ: How can programs, for example, that encourage cultural exchange help create a culture of peace?

RF: There are many facets and means in which we can build peace. Different organizations stress different facets. I think that creating tolerance for difference is probably as essential as any component of peace. Accepting and embracing diversity, and being interested in differences in cultures and expectations and mores, instead of being frightened by them, is certainly one key to preventing conflicts from getting to the point where anybody would think about violence. I think that activity to oppose racism and support cultural diversity as a source of strength is very important in creating the underlying conditions for peace.

Another way of putting this is that ultimately what prevents people from being violent to one another is a really profound degree of respect by individuals for each other and for the sanctity of life, and the dignity and worth of every individual regardless of their cultural background or other differences. The idea that violence is not an acceptable means to any end is really integral to the belief in democratic values and institutions, which are based on the idea that, because every individual has dignity and worth, every individual should participate in making the decisions that shape their lives. I really see all these values as being integrated at their foundation in terms of how human beings view each other.


The 20th century has seen over 250 wars, with more war dead than occurred over the last two millennia and more than six million dead in the last decade alone. The countries of the world have the resources and knowledge to prevent this horror--but they have not brought their resources and know-how to bear.

GLOBAL ACTION TO PREVENT WAR provides a comprehensive program for war prevention, and a coalition-building process to help individuals, organizations and governments implement it. The program aims to do all that is possible to make organized violence in all its forms (war, genocide and the systematic killing of civilians) rare.

GLOBAL ACTION would establish a world security system that includes a well-financed UN which is proactive in conflict prevention; a network of universal-membership regional security organizations with peacekeeping capabilities; and a more effective system of international civil and criminal courts.

The GLOBAL ACTION program addresses all types of warfare. To prevent internal armed conflict, it proposes a comprehensive set of conflict prevention measures. To prevent international war, it relies on cuts in conventional military forces, prescribed confidence-building measures, and constraints on force deployments. To prevent future world wars, it fosters cooperation among the major military powers, engaging them in joint efforts to prevent smaller wars and to reduce their own large standing armed forces. This program is essential to nuclear disarmament because it minimizes the naval and air "power projection" capabilities and practices of the major powers, which many fear would run rampant in a nuclear-free world.

The GLOBAL ACTION program is a work in progress, constantly incorporating new suggestions and adapting to changes in the world. We welcome your input.

Making war rare cannot be accomplished quickly, but with concerted effort it can be accomplished within a generation.

For the full text of the current GLOBAL ACTION TO PREVENT WAR platform statement and more information, see