Alan Cranston Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Democracy, Disarmament, and Public Education: Conversation with Alan Cranston, former U.S. Senator from California; 4/17/00 by Harry Kreisler.
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Looking back at your career, Senator Cranston, there has been a concern about shaping, creating, forming new institutions to deal with problems. The nuclear problem transcends the state, it transcends sovereignty if we're going to address it adequately. Looking down the road, do you think that we will have to reconcile ourselves to the continued existence of state powers and states negotiating, or will we ever fulfill these dreams [for world federalism] that you had after World War II?

There will always be nations. Cranston meets with Deng Xiaoping, 1978. The United States will last a long, long time, I believe. France and Germany and Japan, China, other nations, they're going to exist. But they're losing their significance and ability to deal with certain matters. As Helmut Schmidt, the former chancellor of Germany once quite eloquently put it, "The nation state is too big for the small problems and too small for the big problems." Problems like global warming and warfare between nations cannot be dealt with by a nation alone, it has to be done in cooperation with others, and just plain cooperation doesn't always work. If you depend upon the good faith of the other party, they may or may not go along.

Virtually all the wars going on now, and there are some thirty right now raging around the world, are civil wars, are over the issue of sovereignty, who gets to have sovereignty where. That's been in part the root of every war we've fought in this century. There were sovereignty issues that led in part to World War I, in part to World War II. In Vietnam it was a sovereignty issue in good part, along with ideology. In Korea it was also a sovereignty issue between North and South plus, again, ideology: communism versus democracy and so forth.

The concept of sovereignty, I believe, has to be changed. There isn't just national sovereignty. We give some of our [individual] sovereignty, whi ch is the power to make decisions for us on things we can't do alone, to a city, like Berkeley or San Francisco or New York; to a state, like California or Minnesota, or to a nation, like the United States or France or Germany. But there's no place to put sovereignty on the world basis, where you can place a little bit of your sovereignty to deal with the problems that cannot be dealt with by nations alone. So we have to get over the idea, which is presently the general notion, that sovereignty belongs only to nations. It belongs to individuals, and we give our sovereignty to various levels of government to do certain things that cannot be done otherwise. You don't want the nation dealing with Berkeley problems. You don't want the state dealing with Berkeley problems. So you give some sovereignty to Berkeley and, as I said, on up elsewhere. That was the concept of the Founding Fathers of the United States. They saw sovereignty as something that we give to various levels. So we've arrived at the last point where we have to recognize that we need to place a limited, carefully defined amount of our sovereignty in a world institution, presumably the United Nations, in order to have it capable of making decisions that can achieve what we want to achieve but cannot as a nation do alone.

Is humanitarian intervention another issue, like nuclear weapons, where that kind of work has to be done at a higher level?

I believe so. We could have prevented the slaughter in Rwanda had we acted, but in that case we didn't choose to act. Sometimes we act, sometimes we don't act. And one of the problems is that there's no world peace force to act. The UN, if it wants to intervene -- and that depends upon unanimity in the Security Council, where the decisions get made and can be vetoed by any one of the permanent big five members -- must persuade the United States and France and other countries to provide troops from their own armed forces for the purpose. Sometimes they'll do it and sometimes they won't. And there are politicians in our country and elsewhere who say, "American boys will never fight under any foreign leader under the UN flag for a UN mission. They've got to be commanded by Americans." When each nation tends to adopt that viewpoint, the system is not going to work.

Furthermore, there's no purse for the UN to finance the operation. They have to beg the United States to pay its dues so we can do what we're supposed to do at the UN. Sometimes we pay them, sometimes we don't, depending on how we feel about the UN at that point. That has to be changed by giving the UN some authority, and one thing I think would help tremendously on this intervention business is creating a volunteer United Nations peace force which would consist of young men who volunteer to serve the world in this capacity who would be under the control of the Security Council, hopefully a Security Council modified in some way so it can work better. Then there'd be a force ready to go. But you also have to provide funding to ensure that it will be capable of going.

I'm curious what your thoughts are about whether we're ready for this kind of forward movement with regard to giving a piece of sovereignty to international organizations. Do you think, for example, that we've learned the right lessons from the Vietnam War so that we can participate in the kind of intervention that you're talking about for humanitarian purposes?

No, we have a long way to go in persuading and educating citizens and leaders that this is the way to go. The abolition of nuclear weapons may help lead us in that direction, because there's now widespread acceptance of the fact that we should reduce the numbers in the arsenals of the United States and Russia under the START process to much lower numbers than where we are now. When we started the process, each of us had over thirty thousand nuclear weapons. We're down now to around six to seven thousand strategic weapons in each arsenal. We've agreed under START II, when it's totally ratified -- if it is; it hasn't been yet -- to get down to 3500 on each side. Yeltsin and Clinton agreed to go down in START III to 2000 or 2500. It's possible that we will go lower, maybe down to a thousand and then maybe down to five hundred. But the issue then is, how do you get to zero? How can we get to zero? That hasn't been thought through adequately yet. How do you get to zero in a way that we can breathe and know will work, that there would be adequate inspection, verification, and an enforcement process that's reliable, unlike the present system where you have to depend upon a veto-ridden UN Security Council to make the decisions for the world? I believe that as we convince people we have to get rid of these weapons and then begin to talk about how we make that last step down to zero eventually, which would be years ahead, that will compel us to think through the need for a UN that can function effectively.

And can be involved in humanitarian interventions where it's not a question of nuclear weapons but a question of deployment of force to stop civil conflicts.

That's right.

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