Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Is unilateral nuclear disarmament by the UK the whole of the Peace Testimony? A lesson from World War One and the Franco-Dutch War.

Chapter 24 of Quaker Faith & Practice deals with the Peace Testimony.  The introduction points out:
“…in our personal lives we have continually to wrestle with the difficulty of finding ways to reconcile our faith with practical ways of living it out in the world. It is not surprising, therefore, that we have not always all reached the same conclusions when dealing with the daunting complexities and moral dilemmas of society and its government”
The chapter goes on to say that public protest is a practical expression of our peace testimony but it also deals with reconciliation and mediation so it presents a very balanced view of the Peace Testimony.

It is possible for a Quaker to uphold the Peace Testimony while being convinced that nuclear disarmament  by the UK unilaterally, in defiance of its allies and without regard for wider, multilateral arms-control procedures, would be internationally destabilising and not conducive to peace-building.  As Hilary Benn has said, do we want North Korea to be the only country with nuclear weapons?  For my part I think that the quiet processes of reconciliation and mediation do far more for peace in the long run than waving banners about Trident.

The 2016 Swarthmore Lecture prompts me to query whether unilateral nuclear disarmament is consistent with the Quaker peace testimony.  The lecturers told us that the  prerequisite of peace-building is trust between communities, without which there is risk of violence (whether with machetes, as in Rwanda, or nuclear weapons).  I invite Friends who urge the non-renewal of Trident to ponder what such a move by the UK Government  would do to international trust. Our allies would lose trust in the UK; other powers such as Russia and China would be incredulous and would treat the move as a gimmick and a temporary aberration; the Iranians would feel they had been tricked into a non-proliferation deal which the UK would have let them have for free; while the North Koreans would claim the UK had succumbed to its threats.  Unilateral nuclear disarmament by the UK would simply destabilise the international situation. The lesson of the Swarthmore Lecture is that multilateral, not unilateral, disarmament is the secure way - and the truly Quaker way - to build trust and so to build peace.

It is disappointing that there seems to be very little recognition or even acceptance of the multilateralist point of view in the Society.  The CND lobby goes largely unchallenged; indeed, unilateralism is close to that most improper thing, an article of Quaker dogma.  This is in contrast with the openness in the Society a hundred years ago about the quandary in which Friends were placed by the First World War. I would commend the essay 'Quakers and the Great War 1914-15' by David Rubinstein in his Essays in Quaker History (Quack Books, York 2016).  Rubinstein concludes that the mood of many Friends at the time of the Yearly Meeting of 1915 was to support the War but to remain committed to peace as an ideal.  It is interesting that many British Friends, perhaps most, agreed with the Government that the War had been justified by German aggression against Belgium.  (If there is a error in Rubinstein's essay it is that he denies the basic truth in the press reports of German atrocities and brutality in Belgium, a truth which was attested by the Belgian refugees who had arrived in Britain and were being cared for by Quakers, amongst others).  In the face of challenges such as world war or weapons of mass destruction, the only credible Quaker position has to be a nuanced one, which recognises the importance of peace as an ideal but also that democratically elected governments are answerable to a constituency beyond the Society of Friends.  A credible line on Trident would be to urge the British Government to do more to reduce the global nuclear threat but to recognise that retention and, as necessary, renewal of a minimum independent nuclear deterrent, as agreed with the UK's NATO allies, can act as a diplomatic bargaining counter to bring about workable disarmament agreements.  Such a position is not jingoistic but progressive.

Much earlier than the First War World the Quakers were tested by another war on the Continent.  In 1676 Robert Barclay travelled with George Fox and others to Holland and Germany on a mission to a Europe which at the time was torn by a war between France and their allies, on the one hand, and the Dutch.  Barclay published a pamphlet in 1677, An Epistle of Love and Friendly Advice to the Ambassadors of the several Princes of Europe met at Nimeguen, to consult the peace of Christendom so far as they are concerned. This was a  call for peaceable behaviour amongst kings who were Christians with a religious duty to behave accordingly, Jesus being Lord of All.  Barclay includes in his pamphlet the ringing phrase, ‘Magistry is an ordinance of God who bear not the sword in vain’, drawing on Rom 13:1-4.  This means he upholds lawful state violence for internal security.  He calls not for unilateral disarmament or even multilateral arms control but, rather, for peace-making.  The Treaty of Nijmegen of 1679 established a long peace between France and the Dutch Republic, and placed the northern border of France in very nearly its modern position.  This suggests that Barclay’s call for wise and effective peace-making did not go unheeded.


  1. This doesn't answer your query, Mark, but just to add that I find Friends very reluctant indeed to discuss issues such as genocide. Was the US right to bomb the Serbians (in the 1990s) who were continually lobbing bombs into Serajevo's markets killing innocent shoppers including children? They bombed, the killing stopped.

    Was it right for the Vietnamese to invade Kampuchea and put an end to the massacres of innocents under Pol Pot. No doubt the Vietnamese waited too long, no doubt they had ulterior motives (e.g. fear of China) etc., but they did invade and the genocide was halted.

    Was it right to put an end to Nazism by military means? What would have happened to other Jews, Roma, Slavs and Gays if the Nazis had won? These questions bring the question of the 'peace testimony' (the title is modern) into acute focus. I raise some of these issues in my "The Growth and Development of Quaker Testimony" (Mellen, 2005) which people can download in pdf from my website; it will be up and running by 1st June, viz., .

  2. Dear Gerard, thanks for your posting. I went off to the library in Friends House, London, to read your book. As for your point, I think by the time you get to the hard question whether to bomb or not to bomb, you've already failed. Peace-building is a quiet process and there are obvious examples where it has failed but, as Steven Pinker has shown and to misquote Martin Luther King, the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards peace.

    1. Well, from my own experience of 'Third World' conditions and war zones, it is really hard---impossible in fact---to convince those who are suffering horrendously from military attacks or genocidal policies that they should listen to King or Gandhi. In the short term at least things need to be done to protect innocents and that may include military action.

      All that said, I think it is vital that the Society of Friends remains a pacifist organization because such a stance represents a public standard to which hopefully we can all move towards and uphold in the future.