Kenneth Boulding Interview: Conversations with History: Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

National Security through Stable Peace: Conversation with Kenneth Boulding, University Professor Emeritus of Economics, University of Colorado; March 16, 1987, by Harry Kreisler.

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Stable Peace

As an intellectual problem, how should peace be approached?

There are many concepts of it and many definitions of it. The simplest concept is simply, "not war." It's what I sometimes call inclusive peace. And that is a very sharp distinction. Most historians can tell if this country and that country were at war with each other on the 15th of September, 1855, or something. It's a little hard to say when we got into war with Vietnam, maybe, by a few weeks or so.

But it's a pretty sharp distinction, and it has a good deal to do with what I call the taboo line. In peace, you refrain from doing things that you may have the power to do, and in war you don't. Like killing people and bombing cities, and all that. So it is a pretty sharp distinction and a very important distinction. I've argued that about 85 percent to 95 percent of human activity is peaceful. Peace is plowing and sowing and reaping and making things and being on television and getting married and raising a family and dancing and singing and opera, you know. It is a very large part of human activity, and war is a kind of interruption of this in a great many ways.

Conceptually, you've articulated the notion of a "stable peace," as an ideal and, in part, a reality. What is stable peace?

I've argued that this is something that's happened only within about the last 150 years. I don't think it's happened before. There are four stages here. There's "stable war," which we've had in Southeast Asia now for fifty years. This is very expensive and unpleasant, so [in time] you get intervals of peace, you get "unstable war" with intervals of peace between them. The intervals of peace tend to grow and they grow into "unstable peace," which is what we've had over a large part of the world for a long time now, where peace is regarded as a norm, but interrupted by wars. And then you have the war in order to reestablish peace, of course on what you think are your terms, and so on.

And then a "stable peace," which is something that I don't think existed very much before, certainly not before the Napoleonic Wars. I argue it begins in Scandinavia when the Swedes and the Danes stopped fighting each other, about the middle of the nineteenth century. We get it here in North America about 1870. We didn't have it in 1812, certainly. It was pretty shaky when it was "54-40 or Fight." Remember? What was that, 1839? My American history is a little vague here. [Ed. note: 1844.] And the British nearly intervened in the Civil War, but not quite. Then after that it became a habit.

Stable peace is what we have with Canada. The conditions of it are really quite simple. You just have to take national boundaries off the agenda, no matter how arbitrary they are, and after all, the 49th parallel is as arbitrary as anything you could imagine.

So that Canada is not desirous of taking over Peoria.

No, it's that the United States doesn't want to take over Canada!

Now, I argue, we have a great triangle of stable peace, from Australia to Japan, across North America to about Finland. We have about eighteen countries, I would say, that have no plans to go to war with each other whatever. And it's more complex than that: some of them are in NATO and some aren't. It is, perhaps, a little significant that they're all what you might call "social capitalist" countries.

I argue that with the nuclear weapons, this is the only kind of national security we can have, that national defense has broken down fundamentally.

I usually illustrate this by pointing out how the invention of the cannon destroyed the castle and the feudal system. When the weapons were spears and arrows, it made some sense to have a castle or even a city wall. But cannons came about 1500. The feudal system just crumbled. If you stayed in your castle, you got blown up with it.

That's what's happened with the nuclear weapons. The United States has lost our "moats." We used to have the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans. Today, these are utterly trivial.

What sorts of policies can bring about these changes to stable peace? Or are they just the result of technology?

Up 'til now, it's been rather accidental, just luck. The United States is a very good example. After the War of 1812, we got the Great Lakes Agreements of 1817, which hardly anybody knows about in this country, which disarmed the Great Lakes. I want a national holiday for this! This seems to be one of the most important events in American history, the first successful disarmament agreement, almost, in human history. But it all happened a little accidentally.

Now, what I'm interested in is making it a little less accidental. That is, I want this as a national policy. I want to state very, very firmly that national defense has broken down, it can no longer defend us in the long run, it can only destroy us. It's an illusion to think that deterrence can be stable forever. Systems of deterrence have always broken down, and there's a good mathematical reason for this. If deterrence were 100 percent stable, it wouldn't deter. If the probability of nuclear weapons going off were zero, they wouldn't deter anybody, would they? It would be the same as not having them.

So if you are to have deterrence in the short run, it has to break down in the long run if you wait long enough. One of the things I'm pretty sure about the future is that San Francisco's going to be destroyed by an earthquake in x years. I don't know what x is; it could be tomorrow, it could be 100 years from now, but it does have the San Andreas Fault underneath it and all that. The international system is the same. If the present system of international defense continues, the Soviet Union and the United States will destroy each other -- and perhaps the whole world.

What are the two or three things that might move us in the recognition of the truth that you're talking about?

One is the recognition that national defense has broken down. I'd like to see the president issue a clear statement that this is so. Oddly enough, Star Wars is a recognition of this, but I think Star Wars is humbug. It's just utterly ridiculous. There are no words to describe the lunacy. This is utter illusion because it isn't a shield, it's a better weapon. It isn't like a suit of armor. My own view is that it's highly improbable that you could ever [deploy] it. But even if you could, it's very destabilizing. On the other hand, it's almost an unconscious recognition that deterrence cannot be stable forever.

The only alternative to deterrence is stable peace, and the conditions of this are pretty simple. You just have to say to each other, "We're not going to fuss about national boundaries." I would say to the Soviets, "We will guarantee your boundaries and you can do what you like inside them," and they need to say the same to us. Then, you have to have a minimum of intervention in each other's affairs, you have to stop horsing around the world. Just stay home and mind your own business. There's an enormous amount to be said for this. The way to get rich is to stay home and mind your own business.

There's a Boulding Law that goes with this, is there not, about the relationship between power and wealth?

Yes. Yes, I said you could summarize human history in a single sentence: wealth creates power and power destroys wealth. Every empire has been an example of this.

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