Arms Race No Winners

In an arms race, there are no winners

Fresno Bee, July 15, 2016

  • We ought to imagine alternatives to violence and the arms race
  • Security and peace require more than military power
  • Polish examples provide a nonviolent alternative to violence

An ancient lesson teaches that those who live by the sword will die by the sword. That remains true in a world of guns and bombs. An armed world escalates insecurity. But we cannot seem to figure out how to disarm ourselves.

The arms race is like the rat race. There is no winner in such a race. Instead there is anxiety, fear and violence.


I am in Warsaw, Poland, this week, attending an international conference on global dialogue and peace. Last week, there was a NATO summit here focused on military defense.

The NATO powers issued a communiqué at the summit describing “an arc of insecurity and instability” on the periphery of the alliance. It warns of Russian aggression, instability in the Middle East and North Africa, and increased intensity in global terrorism.

The NATO document recognizes the need to “address the conditions conducive to the spread of terrorism.” But those conditions are psychological, social and ethical.

Human beings need respect, equality, happiness and love. Lack of those spiritual goods is the source of violence, hatred, fear and insecurity. More guns and better weapons can do nothing to change the spiritual malady that leads to violence.

Here in Warsaw last week, President Barack Obama responded to recent outbreaks of violence in the U.S. He warned against fear and violence. He advocated building upon “the better angels of our nature.”

And yet, it seems easier to invest in material solutions to violence than to buttress our better angels. We tend to look at security in technological terms. We want advanced surveillance and mechanized firepower. We want missiles, robots, drones, and more and better guns. But the world needs education, dialogue and mutual understanding.

Material security seems easier. The logic of the arms race is simple. If your sword is bigger than mine, I need a bigger sword. But if I get a bigger sword, you will buy a stronger shield. And so on.

Of course, those who make swords and shields will cheer on the arms race.

Raytheon1Around Warsaw there are massive billboards advertising Raytheon, an American defense company. It seems odd to see an American defense firm advertising in Poland. But Raytheon is working to close a $5 billion deal with Poland for missile defense.

And so it goes.


Just last week a robot manufactured by Northrup Grumman, another American defense company, killed an assassin in Dallas. This was the first time a robot has been used by police to kill. I suspect it won’t be the last. Nor, unfortunately, will this be the end of the arms race in our streets.

Gun sales have skyrocketed. According to Fortune magazine, American gun sales are up 40 percent from last year. After mass shootings, people buy more guns. Some want these guns to defend themselves. Others worry that the government may curtail gun purchases.

Of course, the gun companies don’t mind the business.

All of this is a bit depressing. Violent solutions to violence escalate violence. This increases anxiety and fuels a further arms race.

A different approach needs to be imagined. A hint is found in Eastern Europe, where nonviolent movements brought about the end of communism. If we spent as much on nonviolence as we do on robots, missiles and guns, we might feel more secure.

In Poland, Pope John Paul II is a local hero and beloved saint. His support of the nonviolent Polish Solidarity movement helped to end the communist regime. John Paul once said, “Violence and arms can never resolve the problems of men.”

Violence requires a spiritual solution. Without more basic social and spiritual goods, armed security is a mere stopgap.

Human beings need meaning, hope and love. We thrive when there is respect, dignity and communal feeling. Our fears dissipate when we have stable communities, satisfying work, decent living conditions and trust in the future. We need security. But security must be grounded in liberty, happiness and solidarity.

The fallacy of the arms race is the idea that violence produces peace. In reality, the arms race enriches arms dealers while escalating violence. And in the end, our fascination with material solutions to spiritual problems prevents us from imagining ways to beat our swords into plowshares.

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