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Vijay Mehta's Peace Beyond Borders Book Review by Bernie Holland


Review by Bernie Holland, Member, Uniting for Peace and Soka Gakai International


In his latest book, “Peace Beyond Borders”, Vijay Mehta commences by presenting a historical overview of the relationships between various European nation states from the beginning of the 19th century onwards, explaining the industrial, social and political developments that were unprecedented in their rate of acceleration.

The advent of mechanised warfare is no better exemplified than that of the brutal horror of the Great War of 1914-18, the lessons of which had not been learnt, as was evident by the relatively short lived peace of the inter-war years, only to be broken again by the emergence of the tripartite axis formed by Germany, Italy and Japan which was to culminate in the first instance of the use of thermo-nuclear weapons which brought devastation to entire Japanese cities during the summer of 1945.

Despite an initial awakening to the pressing  need for an organised common peace programme, as demanded by the anti-nuclear movements which were spawned throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Mehta rightly observes that a myopic  habituation to the idea of the necessity of nuclear arsenals has been set within a complacency that persists to the present day, which continues to be exacerbated by the spurious dogma of deterrence, established upon the bedrock of a combination of unfettered economic growth and authoritarian  politics, the victim of which has been democracy, the very idea of which has always been anathema to autocratic forces which in recent times have devolved to non-state actors such as Boko Haram, al-Qaeda, the Taliban and so-called Islamic State.

For these reasons, Mehta highlights the importance of the creation of  new regional unions based on the federal model, that of the European Union having provided a pathway in the direction of pacific enlightenment. Echoing the very title of Mehta’s book here, it is the potential for conflicting national identities that necessitates a transcendence of the dangerous mindset regarding border policies, and that initiatives such as the European Union, despite its economic failures and administrative blunders, have exercised a benign influence upon parties both sides of any such divide.

Mehta presents a series of ten mechanisms by means of which programmes of regional unity, such as the European Union, have the potential to secure peaceful outcomes. I will proceed in discussing these principles in the order which they are presented in his book.

#1 Enshrinement of Democracy and the Rule of Law.
Since the mid-1970s, former dictatorships such as Spain, Portugal and Greece, have returned to civilian rule, thus becoming a touchstone of unity between otherwise disparate elements, all of which have been beneficiaries of  financial incentives.

#2 Economic Truce.
This principle provides a further initiative for peaceful co-existence between nations that no longer see any advantage in employing trade embargoes and punitive border tariffs as forms of economic weaponry.

#3 Open Borders and Human Ties.
Herein lies the opportunity to lessen the potential for the excesses of national identity, thus reducing the dangers of separatism and concomitant armed insurrection.

#4 Soft Power and Shared Values.
Such notions serve to encourage a citizenry in search of a common identity, rather than a divisive preoccupation with separatism. Historically it is the perpetuation of ‘tribalism’ which has brought about division, dispute and conflict as exemplified by the rise of extremist factions, whether they occur within Christian, Buddhist, Islamic or other communities. Here one cannot ignore the expansion of criminal atrocity which has spread, not just within Europe and Africa, but now on a global scale, as has been evident by recent tragic events within the Indian sub-continent.

#5 Permanent  Discussion, Dialogue and Diplomacy.
Here, Mehta recognises that peaceful situations, if  left unmanaged, can quickly deteriorate when the inherent belligerence of the human condition is allowed free rein. It is by dint of egotism that  people display their capacity to find fault with others, criticising and blaming them for the ills of this world, with a lack of self-reflection that does little to foster good will. Such shortcomings when magnified become firstly a cause for factional disputes, and if left further unchecked, can lead to conflict between nations resulting in the irrational brutality and barbarism of war. It is only by means of non-confrontational dialogue that the requisite conciliatory mechanism can improve poor relations between any member states, all of which can be carefully and tactfully moderated by the parent structure which is designed to avoid the dangers of serving any discrete interest. Furthermore, such enlightened transaction can allow previously alienated member governments to discover common interests within the ether of dialogue directed towards peaceful outcomes.

#6 Financial Incentive and Support.
Mehta observes that there is a particular value in the concentration of financial support on localised poverty, which is in itself a decisive factor in the outbreak of violence within areas of acute disenfranchisement. Such support can effectively narrow the gap between rich and poor regions. A very good example of the amelioration of such economic disparity can be seen here with the dedication of more than 30 billion euros to the development of southern Italy which lags far behind the industrialised north and by bringing about a greater degree of regional equity it is possible to prevent poverty and inequality being exploited by violent political movements. However, Mehta is realistic about the problems inherent here, in particular the pressure from the USA for the EU to increase its military budget which currently exceeds 170 billion euros annually, such difficulties having been discussed previously in his eye-opening volume “The Economics of Killing”.

#7 Veto and Consensus Building.
The importance of these principles lies in the ability of member states to share the consensual authority to decisively shape any of the directives proposed by the Union, thus preventing the agglomeration of bullying factions of the kind that brought about the conditions for the outbreak of the First World War. These principles are ever more important in our times when it should be even more apparent that ‘prevention is better than cure’, particularly with regard to the erosion of democratic values that occurs when giant corporations, shielded by their anonymity, force their agendas in pursuit of their own narrow selfish interests. In short here, when the loud-mouthed bully arrives in the room, his intemperance must be moderated.

#8 Resistance to External Interference.
As this suggests, this principle is designed to  safeguard against any ‘special interest’ outside of the Union which may attempt to sponsor proxy institutions within the member states. These ‘special interests’ can be indentified in the form of the giant, rootless, multinational corporations who spend billions on lobbyists whose primary concern is to influence elected officials in ways that do not reflect the will of the electorate. Nowehere is this more evident today than in the ‘moneyed politics’ that have infected democratic processes in the USA, bringing about the phenomenon of corporate giants such as Monsanto who not only exploit their way to obscene profit, but also erect impediments to the very democratic processes that  exist as the only means of bringing them to account.  Mehta emphasises the importance of such objections being raised in plenty of time to bring about the necessary checks and balances in respect of any free-trade deals, such the  ‘Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership’ (TTIP) which, to the shame of the European Union, is a series of trade negotiations being carried out mostly in secret between the EU and US. As a bi-lateral trade agreement, TTIP is about reducing the regulatory barriers to trade for big business, things like food safety law, environmental legislation, banking regulations and the sovereign powers of individual nations. It is, as John Hilary, Executive Director of campaign group War on Want  has described “An assault on European and US societies by transnational corporations.”  In all, the empowerment of such bestial organisations can be regarded as in reverse proportion to the facility of democratic franchise and has given rise to the revolutionary political thought of figures such as Bernie Sanders in the USA and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, both of whom have engendered substantial grass-roots support.

#9  Rules, Human Rights and Multiculturalism.
As enshrined in the European Human Rights Act (EHRA) these principles are essential on countering the breeding of violence against ethnic, religious or regional minorities. Here, the shared values concept encourages secularism, peace, cosmopolitanism and multilateralism. It is based upon philosophies of inclusivity,  tolerance and diversity, however, the legislation here has often been exploited by individuals for selfish and irresponsible aims and has to be administered for the public good, rather than for individual advantage.

#10 Mutual Trust and Peaceful Co-Operation.
The tenets enshrined here are central to the philosophy that has guided Vijay Mehta over the years that he has nurtured the organisation “Uniting for Peace” of which I am proud to be an associate, and are a by-product of the preceding nine mechanisms that have already been discussed. In this context the European Economic Community (EEC) and its successor the European Union (EU) have been transformed from being a particularly warlike region to a peaceful one. Whilst others may argue that it was the European Commission that was the most effective arbiter, in the grander scheme of things, such claims are no more than the splitting of hairs, particularly in respect of the fact that previous assertions that peace has been maintained by the perpetuation of the principle of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) do not stand up to intelligent scrutiny. Moreover, the concepts of MAD have actually made the world a more dangerous place, particularly for those smaller countries by sucking in regions that were far removed from the actual belligerents. The Buddhist principle of ‘Kosen Rufu’ is worth mentioning in this context as it advocates ‘spreading peace and prosperity to all nations’ by person-to person, community to community, outflowing to the international community of humankind. Here, the use of educational resources via the internet thus widens the scope for replicating, not only Europe’s peaceful experiment, but also similar initiatives which are now in place across the globe with a view to providing plausible strategies for bringing an end to some of the bloodiest and most intractable conflicts that have been the scourge of humanity.

Having set forth his ‘ten mechanisms’, Mehta continues by testing the plausibility of claims that the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation is the only viable solution to the supposed problem of Russian expansionism.  Whilst it may be true that Josef Stalin  personified the greatest menace in this respect, it has to be acknowledged that, since his death in 1956, his successors have gradually become less ambitious in this regard. I would argue that the most creditworthy figure here, was Mikhael Gorbachev who happily co-operated with US President Ronald Reagan in reducing the nuclear stockpile during the late 1990s. It is an unfortunate fact that, as Mehta rightly observes, the NATO alliance, led by the USA, persist in presenting Russia as an aggressor as a pretext for continued interference around the borders of Eastern Europe. The ambition of NATO to outmatch Russia militarily serves no purpose other than isolating Russia diplomatically and does little to advance the interests of world security. With regard to this, any right-minded individual could propose that NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) would be better supplanted  by a new union, GTO, an acronym for Global Treaty Organisation, with Russian President Vladimir Putin being a willing participant. However, the moneyed interests of the Western Industrial Military Complex do little to bring about the realisation of such a vision any time soon.

Adopting a more optimistic tenor here, Mehta proceeds to identify other areas of the world where the virtues of the European model could be embedded in further unions based on the inclusive federalist model. Examples presented include the United States of Africa  – itself not an entirely novel idea when one considers the visionary ideals expounded by that great African leader, Jomo Kenyatta who, decades ago, saw the possibility of a Pan-African union, the bedrock of which was revealed in 2002 as the African Union. This has been celebrated as a watershed in collaboration between African states which were no longer prepared to tolerate the worst excesses of greedy and corrupt Africans such as Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana and Hastings Banda of Malawi, who created brutal aurocratic regimes that concentrated wealth and power in their own hands. The bloody conflicts of the 1990s in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, Rwanda, Angola, Somalia, Zaire and Burundi, stain the history of the African continent at a time when such unbridled selfishness caused so much misery to others. Nevertheless, Mehta places great emphasis on the role played by the African Union in achieving a greater degree of stability within the sub-Saharan continent – further that the initiatives of the African Union can be perceived as a mirror image of the European model.

In similar fashion South America has made greater strides towards an EU-like regional union and has reaped the benefits with a decrease if inter-state conflict under the auspices of “Union de Naciones Suramericanas” (UNASUR)  with no less than twelve countries entering a single-mechanism stretching from Colombia in the north to Argentina in the south, its headquarters in Quito, the capital of Ecuador, being opened as recently as 2014.

However, with regard to the North American Union, Mehta draws a contrast between the federal systems of the United States and those of Canada. Whereas Canada has maintained true federalism, the United States has slipped towards a unitary super-state with alarming consequences in terms of civil unrest and criminal violence all of which has come about within a dominant climate of militarism, evidenced by the stark reality of its gun-culture which is the subject of news reports which are ever increasing in their regularity. The current presidential campaign presents an ugly political scenario  with the rise of figures such as Donald Trump expounding extremist views, aimed in particular  towards America’s Muslim community, which translate into hatred and intolerance at the grass-roots level. Added to this, the predominance of ‘moneyed-politics’ and the ignoble pursuit of obscene profit by agricultural, pharmaceutical and military interests, presents a picture of a diseased nation, the leadership of  which has in recent decades infected other areas of the world in respect of a foreign policy  which, rather than its purported aim of bringing justice to the world, has achieved the opposite. A comparison of  the 1% of GDP expended on the Canadian military with nearly four times that amount spent by the USA , whose military/industrial interests often equate to a job-creation scheme, goes some way to explaining why Canada does not suffer from the gun-crime related problems currently endemic within US society. In this context, Mehta observes that the over-centralisation of political power in Washington has caused  some of the ten ‘pro-peace mechanisms’ to unravel, which accounts for the erosion of democracy constricted by a two-party system entrenched by outrageous gerrymandering. Furthermore, the US response to organised crime is, again, centralised and militarised. The very hard border between the US and Mexico has become a driver for violence. Mehta speaks of the increase in power of brutal drug cartels, in particular Los Zetas which started out as a US-trained special forces unit, before it was decided that it was more profitable for them to become traffickers. Canada suffers less from such a malaise by virtue of its more open border policy and its more enlightened attitude to the decriminalisation of soft drugs such as cannabis. If the US is to enjoy a happier destiny here, it must  move away from the vicious, militaristic cycle and return to the type of federalist policies which can facilitate more localised decision making as exemplified by the more provincial autonomy of Canada.

A further example of the more benign, federalist model is presented in the case of Australia and Oceania and it is a source of renewed optimism that the ‘Pacific Islands Forum’ is working with the explicit aim of building the same kind of regional institutions that have brought peace and prosperity to Europe. Nevertheless, Oceania’s big countries are just as much at risk as the smaller ones of becoming the instruments of larger powers and it is depressing to reflect upon a comment made by George Bush in describing Australia as “my sheriff in Asia” along with northern city of Darwin now hosting a rotating contingent of US Marines, regarded by Washington as an essential part of the US strategic pivot in Asia. By way of contrast here, New Zealand, by employing the eighth mechanism (Resistance to External Interference) has declared itself a nuclear-free zone and thus effectively banned US warships from its ports, given that they refuse to either confirm or deny whether they are carrying viable nuclear devices. This is a creditable rebuke to the ‘coalition of the selfish’, those industrialised nations which place the interests of  their  carbon-polluting industries before the survival of  the independent, indigenous communities of Australasia. This highlights the dichotomy between the Western ‘extractive industrial’ mind-set and other less materialist world views.
Some of the more apparently intractable problems of the modern world are discussed  in Chapter 8 - “What The Ottomans Knew” – which is prefaced by the following extract:

“Nowhere is more in need of peaceful, permanent institutions than the Middle East and North Africa. Little progress has been achieved in this regard. Regional groups such as the Arab League and the Gulf Co-Operation Council, only find strong consensus when presented with an external enemy such as Israel or Iran. This failure has promoted the rise of groups such as the Islamic Caliphate (IS) which seeks to deliver a regional union at the point of a gun.”

In this instance virtually all of the ten ‘pro-peace’ mechanisms are absent and it is the total disconnect from humanistic ethics, fuelled by inequity, poverty and lack of prospect, that have driven the alienation and despair that has acted as the recruiting sergeant for such nihilistic ideologies which are purportedly justified by a perversion of true Islamic culture by bestial ideologues who know nothing of the nature of authentic religious experience. However pessimistic one may become when contemplating the prevailing reality here, it is worth considering that such regimes, when starved  of their material or human resources, will eventually wither on the vine and whilst it may be of little comfort to those who are immediately scarred by the grief and despair of such abject brutality that is rapidly infecting so many regions today, it may be a source of reassurance that this dreadful malaise will not prevail.

With regard to the herald of future peace and prosperity it is important to consider these two words carefully, for prosperity can only be borne of peace – and not vice versa. It is the propensity towards placing economic, monetary and material considerations to the forefront of one’s considerations here, that is tantamount to placing the cart before the horse, for all the material wealth imaginable remains but a chimera  should we not be sufficiently advanced in the wisdom of our ways.
Vijay Mehta’s  perceptive analysis and  his carefully considered proposals, as presented in his beautifully crafted text here, only serve to strengthen my conviction that, as he has so often said to me, ‘together we will make a difference’ – further, that this is far from an empty slogan when we finally acknowledge the very real possibilities of actually building a world worth living in, by the assiduous promotion of those most noble of human values that can sustain life, in its myriad forms, for centuries to come.

Bernie Holland
July 2016.