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SIPRI's 40th anniversary

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by Sissela Bok

It is a special honor for me to speak at this event marking SIPRI’s 40 years. SIPRI’s accomplishments of the past forty years have exceeded all expectations; but alas the need for the kind of careful, objective research it has sponsored is as great as ever. I look forward to today’s discussions about the directions that peace research might take, and want to suggest some examples of possible new opportunities for such research – opportunities that were not even on the horizon in 1966.

I shall first explore several meanings of “peace,” beginning with the basic one of peace as the absence of war, a meaning fundamental to SIPRI’S aims. That basic meaning was central to one reason given for locating the Institute in Sweden: that Sweden had known peace for over 150 years, not being at war since 1814, when it took control over Norway.* I shall then look back at the aims that my parents, Alva and Gunnar Myrdal, expressed for SIPRI at the time of its founding and afterwards, in their Nobel Lectures, both of which refer to SIPRI. Finally, I shall close by mentioning certain new opportunities for peace research that can serve to reinforce my parents’ stress on ethics and science in studying the age-old questions regarding war and peace.

When SIPRI was founded, in 1966, the Vietnam War and other wars contributed to large parts of the world not being at peace even in the basic sense of “peace” as “the absence of war.” And the tensions and hostilities in so many regions between groups not engaged in outright war rendered a second meaning of “peace” as “harmonious relations, freedom from quarrels and disagreements” still less common. A third meaning of “peace” as “the establishment of peace between nations having been at war” seemed almost outdated, since so many wars were fought without either declarations of war at the outset or peace treaties at the end of hostilities.1 Meanwhile populations the world over lived with the threat of annihilation that could result from nuclear war between the superpowers.

It was against such a background of wars, conflicts, tension and insecurity that SIPRI was founded to focus, not merely on peace between particular states but internationally; and not merely on peace as some elusive ideal state of affairs, but rather on peace research dealing with all the factors that support or damage the prospects for peace; and above all to provide a solid basis of trustworthy research on the world’s military arsenals, arms expenditures, and conflicts.

I remember my parents, Alva Myrdal and Gunnar Myrdal, speaking and writing in 1964 and 1965 about what such peace-oriented research might entail. As Sweden’s chief delegate to the United Nations Disarmament negotiations in Geneva, Alva Myrdal had grown increasingly impatient with the abstract talk of peace and the symbolic gestures in its name that took the place of serious international cooperation to reduce the threat of war. Her letters speak of what she saw as needless, debilitating conflicts among delegates and of their inability to arrive at agreement – what she would later describe so tellingly in her book The Game of Disarmament that appeared in 1976.2

Alva Myrdal saw the disarmament negotiations as crippled by the lack of reliable information, with the result that slogans took the place of serious negotiations. A letter of August 23, 1964, mentions that delegates were enthusiastic about her proposal to bring into the sterile negotiations a stress on objective research as a baseline on which governments might more easily agree. Later that year, Prime Minister Tage Erlander asked her to chair a committee to plan for the creation of what was to become SIPRI. She then served as the first Chair of its Governing Board; a position Gunnar Myrdal took over when she was asked to join the government in 1967 and could no longer serve as Chair.

For my parents, this peace research institute was as much a collaborative project as any book they had ever worked on together. Both were convinced that an informed debate could help generated new approaches to long-standing conflicts such as those in South Africa and Vietnam, as well as mitigate the nuclear arms race. In turn, each such shift could allow the transfer of resources – what was later called a “peace dividend” – from destructive aims to pressing human needs the world over.

In this joint work, their emphasis was, however, somewhat different. For Alva Myrdal, disarmament was the central preoccupation, with international development a close second; for Gunnar Myrdal, the reverse was true. Together, they held forth a vision of peace in yet another meaning of the word “peace”: as a process of working toward implementing peace. Such a process could not by itself be sufficient to eliminate poverty, discrimination, and exploitation; but it could release energies and resources for international collaboration to reduce these evils. As she put it in 1982, at the end of her “American Update: So Much Worse” of The Game of Disarmament: “The ruin of the planet is there for all to contemplate. But so, too, is its possible richness, if we learn to cooperate. We still have a choice. But we must act now as never before.”3

Gunnar Myrdal underscored the interaction between the arms race and failures to bring about economic development, and referred to SIPRI in this context, in his 1974 Nobel Prize Lecture, “The Equality Issue in World Development”:

It has become a convention adhered to by almost everybody speaking about mankind's future, to stress that all problems are now becoming global, and that they can only be solved by close collaboration between all governments. . . .

We are, however, far from giving any reality to these high ideals . . .

Even outside, and beside the oil crisis, the food crisis and the population explosion, there are other imminent pending dangers mounting in the world. The protracted armaments negotiations have not stopped the armament race between the superpowers and the increasing militarization of the national economies in developed as well as underdeveloped countries. The costs for armaments are calculated to exceed total production in all the underdeveloped countries taken together. These huge expenditures most certainly belong to the unnecessary and exceedingly harmful use of resources I talked about that in a rational world should be cut down drastically. As the publications of SIPRI, the independent peace research institute in Stockholm, have amply demonstrated: for such a change the prospects have rather deteriorated from year to year.4

Gunnar Myrdal also spoke of what he saw as the loss of a sense of morality, of increased disrespect for international law, of the spread of torture in many nations, along with the increasing militarization of societies that SIPRI had documented. He often stressed the perspective of institutional economics, and the ways in which factors such as poverty, unemployment, poor education, and poor health care can interact to generate what he called, in An American Dilemma, vicious circles. It was in that book, as well, that he launched the term “virtuous circles,” arguing that it is possible to reverse the direction of development by strategic intervention against one or more of the deleterious factors.5 Now, in his Nobel Lecture, he brought together armaments, population growth, hunger, violence, and disrespect for morality and for international law as reinforcing one another in a manner most damaging for humankind.

Alva Myrdal took up a number of these themes, and again mentioned SIPRI in her 1982 Nobel Peace Prize Lecture, “Disarmament, Technology, and the Growth in Violence”:

. . . I for my part, with some colleagues of mine, have presented many concrete and elaborated proposals. Sometimes we have had some success, though more rarely on major questions. But I have, for example, managed to get the Swedish government budget to pay the costs of SIPRI (Swedish International Peace Research Institute) as well as the less known seismological Hagfors station. That enables us to monitor independently, and systematically even the smallest subterranean nuclear tests, using the most modern equipment, and to publish the results internationally, unhampered by any political considerations.

. . . The driving force in the development of our civilization, at least since the Renaissance, has evidently been the progress of technology. But technology is two-edged. It can always be exploited either by good forces or by evil forces. . . . The credit side of this necessarily double-entry form of bookkeeping has naturally to record the tremendous progress that has helped to overcome so much misery and raise millions of people to a comfortable living standard. The inventions and the great discoveries have opened up whole continents to reciprocal communication and interchange, provided we are willing. The scientific innovations, not least in the field of medicine, and a great deal more must, of course, be placed to the credit of technology.

But on the other hand, the triumphs of the evil forces are visible in numerous areas. I shall confine myself here to what I really know something about, and which is also the most ominous development: the growing role played by armaments. First and foremost arms are tools in the service of rival nations, pointing at the possibility of a future war. War and preparations for war have acquired a kind of legitimacy. The tremendous proliferation of arms, through their production and export, have now made them available more or less to all and sundry, right down to handguns and stilettos. . . . It is disclosed by science that practically one-half of trained intellectual resources are being mobilized for murderous purposes. . . . I have indicated how armaments promote -though admittedly not cause -collective military violence. But we should never forget the interconnections with the fact that the aforementioned personal violence, the crimes of violence committed in our cities, are to a large extent a result of the spread of arms. How great is not the importance of weapons being so easily available? This should be studied. How often and with what weapons are killing and murder committed, in society and within families, which actually appears to be the commonest scene of violent crime? Where do these arms come from, these Saturday night specials that constitute the instrument of threats in bank robberies, or the hand grenades used by terrorists?
How can their sales and their import be permitted?6

In looking back at my parents’ two Nobel Lectures, I am struck by their highlighting the same interlocking themes: not only the factors that add so much, and so egregiously, to human suffering and to the risks of war; but also the need, in order to counter these, and in a sense to reverse the vicious circles, for a greater stress on ethics and on impartial, objective research, openly documented and published. And I am struck, too, by the fact that each mentioned SIPRI in this context.

SIPRI’S work remains as indispensable as in 1966. And the field of peace research is as wide open as it seemed then. Over the decades, SIPRI’s research has always been based on underlying moral premises: the preferability of arms reduction, denuclearization, conflict resolution, and other measures promoting peace. The discussions this morning and afternoon, bearing on institutions, conflict management, armament and disarmament, and the needs and possibilities for peace research continue in that tradition even as they open new prospects for research as SIPRI looks to the future. Along the same lines, I want to point to just a few among many new opportunities for research that are opening up, as 21st century science addresses age-old ethical and political questions of war and peace.

Mohandas Gandhi spoke to the age-old nature of these questions in stating that he had nothing new to teach the world: “ Truth and nonviolence are as old as the hills.” There is surely nothing new in stressing truth and non-violence nor in the corresponding constraints on deceit and violence, for these, too, are as old as the hills. Every major religion, every moral tradition, every society has recognized the need for at least some constraints on deceit and violence, since these are the two ways by which human beings deliberately injure one another.

There is growing historical and anthropological research showing the claim that societies share no values whatsoever to be erroneous.7 No community can survive long without some limited set of internal constraints on violence, deceit, and fraud, and some positive duties of mutual care and reciprocity, along with rudimentary procedures and standards for what is fair and just. These basic values are indispensable to human coexistence, though far from sufficient, at every level of personal and working life and of family, community, national and international relations.

As Charles Darwin pointed out in The Descent of Man, humans share with many animal species a disposition to provide mutual care and support; and “No tribe would hold together if murders, robbery, treachery, &c., were common; consequently, such crimes within the limits of the same tribe are ‘branded with everlasting infamy.’”8 Darwin added, however, that such crimes “excite no such sentiment beyond these limits.” Even the most fundamental constraints, such as those he mentioned, are shared in the sense that they have been indispensable everywhere within communities; but they are precisely not shared in another sense – that of being recognized by all as applying to outsiders, strangers, enemies. Indeed, they are not even shared by all within any single community. These values have surely also been violated within all societies, even as they have often been held not to apply to outsiders and enemies at all. But any community, no matter how small or disorganized, no matter how hostile toward outsiders, no matter how cramped its perception of what constitutes childcare, say, or torture, requires at least rudimentary forms of nurturing and of internal curbs on violence, deceit and betrayal, in order to survive.

One hundred years ago, the philosopher and psychologist William James proposed, in a lecture at Stanford University, that more than moral analysis and exhortation was needed for what he called “ the war against war.”9 Trained as a doctor as well as a philosopher and psychologist, he called for rigorous study of the reasons why peoples and nations get into wars, given that peaceful resolutions of conflicts were not only more ethical, but also so much less brutalizing, corrupting, and destructive. If William James had known the term ‘peace research,’ he would surely have used it.

By now, new research is becoming available each year from fields as different as neuroscience, genetics, computer technology, and primate studies. James would have been fascinated by terms such as “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder,” or “the World Wide Web,” or “Brain Imaging,” and by their implications for peace studies. So, of course, would those who took part in the launching of SIPRI forty years ago. By now, SIPRI is in the forefront of those studying the role of the Internet and the World Wide Web for data bases, efforts at transparency, espionage, and arms transfers. In closing, I shall take up ways in which the other two concepts – “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder” and “Brain Imaging” might be of use to peace research.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was first classified as a psychiatric disorder among returning Vietnam War veterans, some of whom found it impossible to return to ordinary life, impossible to engage in close human relationships, impossible to deal with the memories of the violence that they had experienced, unable to stop reliving those memories. Now PTSD is seen as affecting, as well, victims of rape and assault more generally, as well as children who witness violence in their families and their neighborhoods. The interaction between genetic and environmental factors in generating what is now seen as the addictive aspect of violence is being mapped, as are the changes in the brain that result from so-called “neuroadaptation” to violence. Such adaptation can produce euphoria --what William James called “the thrill of the kill,” along with increasing blindness to the effects of violence on victims and to the self-destructive aspect of the addiction. It is now possible to specify the pathways by which perpetrators become inured to violence, sometimes delighting in it, and grow increasingly pitiless toward their victims.

Researchers are learning more about the effects of trauma on the brain and the hormonal system, both on those who experience it directly, whether as victims or as perpetrators, and on witnesses, who are often victimized in their own right. It is becoming clear, as well, that these effects can be long-lasting among persons much younger than earlier thought. Child soldiers exploited in so many conflicts exhibit precisely the same traits. Recently, evidence has come to light regarding medication that might reverse the effects of PTSD – effects that even prolonged psychotherapy have often failed to counter. It will not be possible to deal adequately with conflict management in areas where populations have endured generations of such traumatization, such as Sri Lanka or the Middle East, without taking into account the scientific research on PTSD that has accumulated in recent decades and that is now coming to a head.

The concepts of “brain imaging” and of “”functional magnetic resonance imaging” ((fMRI) are more recent still, only coming into use in recent years. But their potential for research and for practical application continue to grow. As Dr. Eric Kandel, who received the Nobel Prize in medicine six years ago, has put it, “Understanding the human mind in biological terms has emerged as the central challenge for science in the twenty-first century.”10 For the purposes of peace studies, research examining what happens in the human brain, with respect to both force and fraud, violence and deceit, is proceeding apace. Such imaging studies are already being connected to questions of arms transfers, spotting potential suicide bombers, and other issues highly relevant in an age of “non-state actors.”

In a recent Washington Post article, for example, Joel Garreau discusses work on brain imaging techniques for lie detection, to improve on the unreliable polygraph methods now in use. He mentions one possible technique, “meant to work from across the room, even if you do not wish to cooperate. Think of it as the ‘mental detector’ at your airport screening, and not without good reason. Much of this research is being funded by the military as part of the anti-terror juggernaut.”11 The mind boggles at the implications if such techniques were to become available, not only for security measures but for seeking greater transparency while protecting individual privacy.

Even though it is surely the case, then, that we now have to take into account forms of warfare and types of weaponry not known in 1966 when SIPRI was founded, we also have new tools for studying them. To the extent that we seek out resources new and old from innovative diplomacy and rigorous scholarship, we shall have greater opportunities at all levels, from the most personal to the regional and the international, to take active part in shifting the balance away from addressing conflict through force and fraud, violence and deceit. Considering what we have learned over the past decades and the new resources at our disposal in aiming to shift that balance, I want to conclude, therefore, by expressing the hope that the words of Mohandas Gandhi may still hold true:

We are constantly astonished at the amazing discoveries in the field of violence. But I maintain that far more undreamed of and seemingly impossible discoveries will be made in the field of nonviolence.12

* Indeed, if Sweden had responded militarily, in 1905, to the Norwegian Parliament’s announcing its intent to leave the Union with Sweden, it would not have been possible to make such a claim. Instead, Norway and Sweden succeeded in finding a diplomatic solution rather than a military one, reflecting the value of non-aggression from both a moral and a strategic point of view.


1 See Sissela Bok, A Strategy for Peace: Human Values and the Threat of War (New York: Pantheon Books, 1989); Peter van den Dungen, Foundations of Peace Research (London: Housmans, 1979); Johan Galtung, “Om internasjonal fredsforskning” (Oslo: Pax, 1966).

2 Alva Myrdal, The Game of Disarmament (New York: Pantheon Books, 1976).

3 Alva Myrdal, The Game of Disarmament (New York: Pantheon Books, 1982), p. xxiv.

4 Gunnar Myrdal, 1974 Nobel Prize Lecture, “the Equality issue in World Development”, excerpts.

5 Gunnar Myrdal, An American Dilemma (1944), Fiftieth Anniversary Edition ( New Brunswick: TransAction Publishers, 1996), pp. 75-78 and Appendix 3. I discuss my father’s writing to me about the role of what he called “the principle of cumulation” and the vicious and virtuous circles, in my Introduction to that Anniversary Edition, p. xxiii.

6 Alva Myrdal, Nobel Peace Prize Lecture, 1982, “Disarmament, Technology, and the Growth in Violence.”

7 Sissela Bok, Common Values (Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 2002); and “Rethinking Common Values,” in Ken Booth and Tim Dunne, Worlds in Collision: Terror and the Future of Global Order (London: Macmillan, 2002) pp. 284-292.

8 Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man (1859; Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981), p. 101.

9 William James, “The Moral Equivalent of War,” lecture given in 1906, book published in 1910, reprinted in Frederick Burkhardt, ed., The Works of William James: Essays in Morality and Religion (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1982).

10 Eric Kandel, In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2006), p. xi.

11 Joel Garreau, “Brain on Fire,” The Washington Post, October 30, 2006, p. C01.

12 Mohandas Gandhi, quoted by Arun Gandhi, personal correspondence. See Sissela Bok, Mayhem: Violence as Public Entertainment (Reading, Massachusetts, Perseus Books, 1998), p. 158.