Peace in the 21st Century

As we have learned in both Iraq and Afghanistan, security in the 21st century will demand a comprehensive response that uses a full spectrum of resources. “Soft power,” in the form of diplomacy, economic development and human rights enforcement, will be more in evidence than military force. Twenty-five years ago this month, when the National Conference of Catholic Bishops issued The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response, the national preoccupation was with averting a global nuclear war. The nuclear threat is still serious, but the other great dangers to peace are not matters of grand military strategy, though they may require military personnel and logistical capacity to address. For after proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, climate change and failed states rank high on the list of strategic dangers. Both will make serious demands on policymakers, because solutions must be multifaceted and long-term, and will require the United States to shift resources from space-age military capacity to civilian agencies and constabulary forces.The first requirement of national and world security is to strengthen the nuclear nonproliferation regime. Negotiation, backed by sanctions and limited punitive measures, may offer some promise of establishing restraint, as it did in Libya and seems about to do in North Korea. But other factors may prove more difficult to check. In Pakistan, for example, the A. Q. Khan network, which assisted North Korea, Iran and Libya in their pursuit of the bomb, remains intact, and the control of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is unsure amid the shifting political tides in that country. With the growth of Islamic militancy in Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province and the continuing ties between Pakistan’s military and the jihadists, preventing the spread of nuclear weapons has become a daunting challenge.

Furthermore, the progressive nuclear disarmament on which the bishops conditioned the moral permissibility of deterrence in 1983 has been stalled for a decade. Unless the nuclear-armed nations make good on their own commitments to progressive disarmament, we can continue to expect that other nations will try to acquire nuclear weaponry. The recent history of North Korea has also shown that the possession of weapons and missile capacity increases a nation’s ability to resist outside interference and improves its chances for getting its demands met at the negotiating table. So the first step toward nuclear security must be manifest reduction of nuclear arms by the nuclear powers, followed by negotiation of a new nonproliferation agreement.


Climate change threatens peace because lives and livelihoods, national boundaries and human settlements are at risk—from rising sea levels, the increase in storm activity, the frequency and intensity of drought and spreading desertification. These climatic changes can also produce environmental refugees. Careful negotiation and policing will be needed to manage migratory pressures. Refugee populations, moreover, will demand multinational support and supervision. Likewise, as worldwide food riots this spring have shown, disruptions in food and water supply will require greater regional and international collaboration.

Failed states are a different problem. As we have seen in Afghanistan, Central Africa and the Darfur region of Sudan, bringing peace to long-conflicted regions demands more troops and more time than either the United States or the international community has been willing to give. Peacebuilding in such countries requires just economic and political development along with appropriate constabulary military forces. In Afghanistan, which has certainly been a high priority for international intervention, resources of every sort have fallen well below what donor nations have committed themselves to provide.

During his address to the United Nations General Assembly last month, Pope Benedict XVI laid out an ethic for international cooperation under the rubric of “the duty to protect” (see “Duty to Protect” in this issue, pg. 9). “Questions of security, the goals of development, the reduction of inequality both locally and globally, protection of the environment, of resources and of climate,” he said, “require all those who are responsible for international life to act in promote solidarity with the most vulnerable regions of the world.” He challenged the permanent members of the Security Council, including the United States, noting that “a multilateral consensus” that should make such activities possible “continues to be in crisis because it is still subordinated to the decisions of a small number” of states. To supply the conditions of peace for the quarter-century ahead, the Security Council’s permanent five will have to undergo a major change in how it conducts the world’s business.

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