Will the Western Peace Movement Die in Ukraine?

Will the Western Peace Movement Die in Ukraine?

The Western peace movement that mobilized against Russian aggression seems reluctant to raise its voice enough against Western governments and boldly revive a mission it started decades ago.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has produced multiple crises on the global level. In addition to the humanitarian, food, and energy crises, threat perception both on state and people levels has implications for Western societies. The fear of potential Russian attacks diffused from the global East to the global West and grew after Russian president Vladimir Putin’s threat to use nuclear weapons. Today, feelings of insecurity could reverse decades of the Western peace movement achievements by influencing the choices of official political actors and the cultural context in Western societies. Worries of reversal are based on three trends and forecasts: the end of post-Cold War denuclearization, the growing expenditures on arms, and a dramatic shift in public opinion manifested in support for arming and maintaining nuclear weapons in the West. After decades of decline, nuclear arsenals and weapons expenditures are expected to grow in response to Russian threats and popular perceptions of insecurity.

For decades, the reduction of nuclear arsenals and military expenditures were key contributions of the Western peace movement. Although the role of the movement in ending the Cold War is contested in academic literature, there is a semi-consensus that the movement's effects were deeply felt at the broader societal and cultural level. That included shaping the norms and values of the twenty-first century on peace, breaking the official monopoly over the decisions of war and peace, and sensitizing a substantial part of the Western population against war and nuclear weapons. That was in addition to integrating the movement’s values in mainstream parties and multilateral institutes, pressuring the global powers to reduce their nuclear arsenals, and shaping the values of new generations and progressive leaders. All those factors combined have shaped the context where nuclear reduction treaties between the United States and the Soviet Union (and later Russia) were signed and implemented.

Decades before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, particularly between 1981 and 1983, pacifists in the West advocated nuclear disarmament following NATO’s December 1979 decision to base Pershing II missiles in five European countries (Belgium, Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, and West Germany). As a result, the world witnessed massive mobilization, including one of the largest waves of protest in Western Europe since World War II, when hundreds of thousands protested NATO’s decision and the nuclear arms race. On June 12, 1982, the movement in the United States achieved a peak by leading possibly the largest demonstration ever in U.S. history, comprising one million people that filled a street in New York City. 

Afterward, the West and the Soviet Union (later Russia) took serious steps toward de-escalation. The data shows a significant decline in military expenditures in the West and another decline in stockpiles of nuclear arsenals. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), military expenditures as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) have declined from 4.3 percent in 1982 to 2.2 percent in 2019. Military spending in countries like the United States, France, Germany, and the UK, has dropped within the same period from 6.8 percent, 3.25 percent, 3.04 percent, and 5.4 percent to 3.43 percent, 1.84 percent, 1.26 percent, and 2 percent, respectively. Data also shows that Global Nuclear Warhead Inventories have significantly declined from 70,374 in 1986 to 12,705 in 2022.

The 9/11 attacks were a challenge after years of ebbing. Building on the post-Cold War pacifist norms, the peace movement challenged George W. Bush and Tony Blair’s Global War on Terror. Although the movement could not stop the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, mobilizing millions against the wars proved that the movement mattered and had constituencies. And despite accusations of being infiltrated by radical Marxists and Islamists, the result of these conflicts proved the movement’s stance was valid. Bush’s war on terrorism did not eliminate terrorism. Instead, it pushed the U.S. Army on a slippery slope, created chaos in Iraq that ultimately produced the Islamic State two decades after, a more brutal version of Al Qaeda, and made Iran more potent than before.

Another benchmark in the history of the movement was in 2015 and 2016 when two politically progressive leaders were on the rise in the United States and the United Kingdom. Bernie Sanders, who ran in the Democratic Party’s 2016 and 2020 presidential primaries, and Jeremy Corbin, who led the British Labour Party between 2015 and 2018, became superstars among younger progressives. Both leaders, known for their ties to peace movements, were able to break a taboo from within the platforms of mainstream parties by opposing the development of nuclear weapons and advocating cutting military expenditures.

In the present day, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has not only triggered a renewed focus on defense and security but has also weakened the positions of those who argue for the reduction of military expenditure and nuclear arsenals. In the United Kingdom, support for replacing Trident (four Vanguard-class ballistic missile submarines) with an equally powerful nuclear missile system has jumped to 42 percent in August 2022 compared to 32 percent a few months before the Russian invasion. Within the same period, those who believe that the United Kingdom should give up nuclear weapons have declined from 24 percent to only 16 percent. That trend was despite knowing that the operational cost of the trident system is between £2.3 and £2.9 billion each year, while the total acquisition cost equates to approximately £20 billion in 2021–22 prices. That represents almost 20 percent of the United Kingdom’s public spending on education in the same year, an estimated £95.6 billion. In Scotland, A poll by Survation found that 58 percent believe the United Kingdom should “retain its independent nuclear deterrent.” In comparison, only 20  percent said it should not retain the deterrent.

In Germany, a country that used to be orthodox against militarization and arms transfers to conflict zones, the domestic public attitude changed after the Russian invasion. The decision to transfer heavy arms to Ukraine was made in a context where many of the German voters seemed supportive of German chancellor Olaf Scholz’s creation of a special fund of €100 billion for military procurement and allocating more than 2 percent of Germany’s GDP to defense. That funding represents almost 41.4 percent of the German education budget (€241.1 billion). Nonetheless, according to a poll in March, 69 percent of German voters support the government’s proposal to boost military spending, compared with almost 39 percent in 2018. Moreover, as a part of Scholz’s plan to make Germany the “best-equipped in Europe,” the U.S. State Department has approved a potential sale of over $8 billion worth of F-35 stealth fighter aircraft to Germany. Moreover, opposing the stock billing of NATO’s nuclear bombs on German soil may not face the same opposition it used to. Before the Russian invasion, a “Germany free of nuclear weapons” was a goal of the new government formed by the center-left Social Democrats, environmentalist Greens, and Free Democrats. Today, that goal seems undoable. In a recent survey commissioned by the ARD (the country’s public broadcaster), 52 percent of the voters favored keeping the U.S. nuclear weapons in Germany. A year ago, the percentage was only 14 percent in a similar survey.

In the United States, where almost 80 percent of Americans worry about a wider war or the possible use of nuclear weapons by Russia, an increase in the military bill for FY2023 goes without real challenges. According to Rep. Anthony Brown (D-MD), “there was almost no debate” within the House Appropriations Committee deliberations over the draft fiscal year (FY) 2023 budget last June. The estimate of the national defense budget for FY2023 is $773 billion, with increases of $30.7 billion and $69.3 billion from the budgets of FY2022 ($742.3 billion) and FY2021 ($703.7 billion). According to the U.S. undersecretary of defense, the FY2027 budget is expected to reach $828 billion, with an increase of $124.3 billion compared to FY2021. That increase almost equals 16.25 percent of the U.S. federal, state, and local governments’ funds for K-12 public education. This sizable increase in the military budget is justified by “provid[ing] critical security assistance to Ukraine” and matches the aspirations of 55 percent of the Americans who support further military assistance for Ukraine as of May of this year. 

In such a sensitive context, the Western peace movement that mobilized against Russian aggression seems reluctant to raise its voice enough against Western governments and boldly revive a mission it started decades ago. That mission requires tangible action to ensure that Western responses to the Russian aggression do not come at the expense of the vulnerable citizens in the Western communities, where many are still struggling with the economic consequences of the coronavirus pandemic and, more recently, increases in energy prices. The movement should mobilize its resources to practice maximum scrutiny and monitoring of Western military budgets and aim to slow the rush into re-nuclearization that would affect public spending on social welfare.

All this requires an explicit and straightforward framing of the movement’s stance, emphasizing that, while military spending increases may deter Russia and China in the short term, as a long-term consequence this may exacerbate existing socioeconomic grievances and social insecurities in the West. That, in turn, could benefit populist movements, diminishing the resilience of Western societies from within and ultimately strengthening the Russian and Chinese regimes on the global level rather than weakening them.