Tag Archives: Weapons

Major Dad:  Sharing the Burdens beyond the Weapons, Dr. Robert Zuber

16 Jun

Fist Bump

Do you really believe that your child is an idiot?  Because you said it, she now believes it.  Dan Pearce

Once, at the hardware store, Brooks had shown me how to use a drill. I’d made a tiny hole that went deep. The place for my father was like that.  Elizabeth Berg

We are not bonded to our fathers’ fate, but rather called to build on their trespasses or triumphs for a better future.  Cristina Marrero

A man can know his father, or his son, and there might still be nothing between them but loyalty and love and mutual incomprehension.  Marilynne Robinson

That was the first time, months after his birth, I felt like Sam’s father. In a chair I never wanted, holding the child I desperately did. Aaron Gouveia

I’ve come home from another journey at the cusp of Father’s Day, a bittersweet remembrance for many (including those facing a first Day without a father), a time to recall both triumphs and trespasses, words that stung and words that healed, teachable moments and pedagogical awkwardness, the “hole” that for some was small and deep, for others broader and more shallow.

Pedagogical awkwardness was certainly on order for me and my brood of brothers.  We were idiots, it seemed, not absorbing what we were taught and generally not wanting the lesson to continue.   There was plenty to learn, to be sure, certainly from a dad who seemingly could fix anything and who did so routinely and without asking for family and neighbors alike.  But the lessons were often pitched a bit too harsh; it wasn’t always palatable to play the idiot within those pedagogical moments, to be little more than the conduit for disconnects that could have been more fruitful than the mutually-incomprehensible annoyances they mostly became.

But there are times looking back when we see things that weren’t clear when we were younger, the learning that we thought we missed out on but actually bored deep inside us, making us the persons we are, for better and for worse.  I did learn things from my father that turned out to be of great benefit in my later life – to hit a baseball and catch a football, to plant vegetables and catch fish.

And to use and care for guns

I haven’t cleaned or fired a gun in many years, but the echo of weapons respected but not feared has stayed with me.  Now, I and my UN colleagues are more concerned with the policy surrounding our weapons-saturated world than with their maintenance and uses, but there has been value in being able to connect with persons in the security sector – military and police, peacekeepers and guardsman – for whom weapons in some form are as indispensable to their work as a laptop computer is to mine.  And not only to connect, but to make the sector inclusive of women and others, and to make good use of the platform from which we can remind the sector that “security” is increasingly more complex (and more urgent as well) than weapons and their threats alone.

This past week, during a period at the UN defined by Kuwait’s fine Security Council presidency and important treaty bodies on oceans and persons with disabilities, I was honored to be overseas, acting as “copilot” for a course in small arms and light weapons conducted by Roman Hunger who now works with NATO but was once a fixture in the UN, including in the office of the President of the General Assembly.   The course was held at a NATO facility in the German Alps and brought together a group of 27 military officers and diplomats from 20 or so countries.   It also brought together officials from the UN, NATO, the OSCE and the European Union to comment on agreements to manage the arms trade and threats of weapons diversion, and included as well technical experts on weapons destruction, landmine removal, stockpile management and other practical skills.  And, while there were only four women participants in this particular course, there was a welcome NATO focus on Women, Peace and Security, reminding officers of their/our responsibility to make safe and secure spaces for women that they might finally bring to the security sector the full complement of their skills and vision.

As regular readers of this space could well imagine, the role of Global Action in this setting was intended to move the room a bit beyond the “tell me what I need to do and I’ll do it” mode that understandably characterizes much of the discourse of persons in uniform.   I talked about our need to be better “promise keepers” when it comes to the international agreements we craft and the commitments we publicly espouse.  I talked about the many stakeholders at work in the security field – including NGOs like mine seemingly in eternal “doggie paddle” mode – organizations that identify and address a range of security threats that are related to our seemingly unquenchable thirst for weapons procurement, but are more broadly related to issues like climate change and economic inequalities.   I talked a bit about the need for restraint in security matters, especially when we are unsure – as we often are – that armed violence in any form won’t simply make matters worse.  And with Roman Hunger in the lead, we discussed the government corruption that leads to weapons diversion or to the accumulation of new weapons that waste precious resources and, in some instances, represent “gifts” that national militaries have not themselves determined a compelling need for.

There was plenty more from us over the week, mostly filling around the primary task of introducing officers and diplomats to the current “state of play” on small arms and light weapons, the weapons we produce in huge quantities that intimidate households and communities, the weapons favored by non-state actors seeking to sow discord in societies, the weapons we procure without a firm grasp of how we will manage the armaments they’ve replaced over what is often a longer lifespan than our own careers.

Fortunately, as the week progressed, participants used the afternoon discussions (what NATO calls “syndicates”) to raise and debate some of the issues both within and adjacent to the small arms and light weapons field.   These (mostly) men thought harder than they might generally about how to ensure a respectful place for women in uniform.   They applied some nuance to the threats that they are duty bound to defend against, threats that come in different shapes now, threats that harbor no recognizable artillery or air assets.  They even interrogated their own views of human nature/potential beyond the cynical (and at times even dystopian) worldviews that still come just a bit too easily to men (and women also) in uniform.  They located the keys to open their minds without compromising their duty.

A few even brought their children along for a bit of holiday, basking in the refreshing air and copious ice cream parlors in the nearby village.  I hope that someday these children will one day come to appreciate how hard it had once been for parents and all of us to protect them in this weapons-riddled, plastics-inundated time of rising seas and falling trust, of corrupt governance and our equally-corrupted sense of honor. I also hope that while they are being raised and protected, while they are being taught and nurtured by the people who have literally incarnated and magnified their spirit, their fathers will never forget how “desperate” they have been to hold these children close.

I wish I could have had conversations like this with my own father, conversations about the world and its blessings, its possibilities and threats, the duties he accepted and laid down, sharing beyond the guns and sports and fishing gear that kept us connected in real time by an often-thin thread.  We certainly could have used a family-friendly version of the NATO “syndicate.” But the interactions we managed to have also served me well even though I wasn’t as open to the learning as I could have been.  Our communications flaws could not be laid at his doorstep alone. They never can be.

To all those “Major Dad” types who are stretching to connect with their children while worrying about our threat-saturated world, please allow something nice to happen to you today.   Maybe an ice cream in a mountain town, or maybe a conversation with someone younger about our current, uneasy state of affairs; perhaps even to share what might still be done to overcome the violent distractions that sap our resolve to create a more “triumphant” future, one that can keep both our fragile planet and its human aspirations buoyant.

Happy Father’s Day

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Gun Running: New Prospects towards Silencing the Weapons, Dr. Robert Zuber

18 Nov

Ignore those that make you fearful and sad, that degrade you back towards disease and death. Rumi Jalalud-Din

Why do we call all our generous ideas illusions and the mean ones truths?  Edith Wharton

Grief does not change you.  It reveals you.  John Green

Those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.  George Bernard Shaw

This past week, I was honored to team-teach a course at the NATO School, located in the German Alps.  The School attracts military and diplomatic personnel from NATOs 29 members, but also from other states which are considering membership or which have training needs that cannot routinely be fulfilled at national level.

To say the least, NATO isn’t the usual stomping grounds for Global Action.  Indeed, we were one of the voices (rightly or not) that questioned the existence of NATO as the Cold War subsided, assuming that the continued existence of such a partisan, militarily-focused organization in the absence of a clear security threat (“enemy” as they would say) would likely stoke future tensions as sustain their elimination.

And then Crimea happened, and whatever we imagined to be the trajectory for a thaw in global tensions had to be recalibrated.  Moreover, and despite the occasional Russia-obsessive policy responses within NATO countries, there appeared other visible, credible threats to international peace and security in the form of climate degradation, famine in Yemen, insurgencies across the Sahel, DPRK missile launches as well as nationalist and racialist resurgences inside several NATO states on both sides of the Atlantic.

And then there are the weapons which we continue to develop and then deploy in every corner of our proximate universe: modernized nuclear weapons, weapons in outer space, autonomous weapons, new generations of rapid-firing small arms, more target-efficient shoulder mounted weapons, all of which push from prominence previous generations of arms, weapons that are still deadly, still a major generator of grief in our communities, still threatening to civilians and protection forces alike.

The concept note for the course stressed two matters seemingly unrelated but integral nonetheless.  The first is an opening to leverage the impact of a large alliance that NATO created in June at the review of the UN Programme of Action on Small Arms and Light Weapons, an opening for greater collaborative engagement as stressed in the statement written by the widely-respected Roman Hunger (also the primary director for this NATO course).  The second piece is the recognition that our agreements and resolutions, at the UN and beyond, have largely failed to alleviate a problem that seems to get more serious by the month – weapons being “improved”, trafficked over borders and through port facilities, leaked from storage, sold on the black market and on the dark web, printed 3-D or created as “craft weapons” or improvised explosives.  This arms activity creates gaps between what we have promised global constituents and what we have so far been able to deliver.  It is this need for better “promise keeping” together with enhancing prospects for NATO as an honest broker on arms production, destruction and trade within its alliance that created the incentive for our own participation.

Our group of 18 consisted of active military and equally active diplomats.   NGOs and NATO representatives were brought in to cover both the status of international small arms agreements and the “state of play” on technical matters from arms destruction and landmine clearance to addressing arms trafficking and the need for more comprehensive data on arms movements, especially in areas such as the Balkans where circulating arms too-often seem to hone in on unauthorized and unstable users.  We also spent time on the gendered dimensions of the arms trade in the process reaffirming the non-negotiable premise that all security sector dimensions must be better balanced by gender.

As one might expect, there were disagreements among participants regarding where and how to push, largely due to their positioning in the world.   While diplomats wrestled with how to better engage NATO in all areas of disarmament, including in the often-neglected area of small arms, active duty military had a somewhat different interest – how to protect themselves and those they in turn were tasked with protecting from small arms ambushes or makeshift explosive devices while on patrol.   Some of these differences of focus were narrowed during “syndicate” meetings which allowed participants and their “coaches” to debate and share recommendations for NATO on how the world we collectively inhabit can be made safer, fairer and more fulfilling for persons within and beyond the NATO orbit.

Perhaps the one thread that most linked course discussions beyond the weapons themselves was the need for accurate, timely data on small arms throughout their (often lengthy) life cycle.  Given the vast numbers of “second hand” weapons that have been dumped on our streets and in otherwise unstable societies, and given the “lust” of governments (of more or less corrupt dispositions) for state-of-the-art armaments, the challenges of monitoring weapons flows, weapons storage and weapons availability is vast.  Once ammunition is thrown into this mix — and as the “oxygen” of weaponry it needs to be there — these data challenges merely multiply.

Two highlights (for me) emerged from the many insights in our discussions. First, that while data is essential to evidence-based policy, we might also consider producing a “user’s manual” for data in terms of its reliability, its comprehensiveness of scope and relevant disaggregation, its timeliness in unfolding ever-evolving security contingencies.  In addition, as noted by one of the more senior military officials in the course, we must ensure that data does not become a substitute for action or even an impediment to it.   Getting the numbers right and getting the world right are overlapping but not identical tasks.

The other learning of high note had to do less with numbers and weapons, and more with ourselves.  We seem now to have greater insight into our tools and toys than the humans behind the controls.  We routinely have better success (though not enough of it) manipulating the outside world than fixing our inner spaces.  We recognized through this course that, regardless of our disarmament views, we must do a better job of ensuring that future procurement is relevant to civilian protection, a better job of making security from weapons fully beholden to the goal of security for communities.

This weekend before boarding a plane for home, I was privileged to visit the Alte Pinakothek in Munich and its extraordinary collection of paintings by Rubens, including one of his “Allegory of Peace” series along with many other of his graphic images of war and even interpretations of Armageddon that routinely sent shivers down my spine. Yes, we might indeed have come a considerable way as a species in terms of our thirst for violence, lust and revenge, but we have also created new threats to our very existence that we have not properly prepared for.  Moreover, whether we like to acknowledge it or not, we are in the midst of a cynical cycle of half-hearted actions and half-baked solutions.  More than we might recognize, we need to find the path to believe again in life-upholding change, to reaffirm our ability to prevent and transform threats of violent conflict.  We need to believe that the thin coating of civilization that barely now protects us from the worst of our predatory impulses can be fortified and made more sustainable with additional layers of varnish.

Our best impulses on moving (carefully as many of our students warned)  to a world of fewer arms made, fewer arms sold, fewer arms trafficked, fewer arms used to intimidate and abuse are not at all “illusions.”  These impulses are necessary to creating stable environments from which we can address our other sustainable goals commitments – from governments we can trust to oceans that can continue to support the life on which we all depend.   Terror and other threats notwithstanding, these and related promises simply will not come to pass at the tip of a gun.  For all the weapons we have convinced ourselves we need, we will never be able to shoot our way to a sustainable future for our children.  Our grief will some day overcome us if we think otherwise.

What became clear from this course amidst all the technical guidance and skepticism about peaceful change is that the ingredients to sustain ourselves and our planet are still available to us.  Our task now is in part about us:  to refuse to settle, to ask the next questions, to keep pulling metaphorical spices from the shelves until the recipe for our common survival is satisfying for all.   We can do this, but it will take more caring and flexibility from each of us in all our diverse deployments, more resistance to the current degrading of our humanity which promises little more for our common future than “disease and death.”

Bucking Inevitability:  Putting Technology in its Place, Dr. Robert Zuber

8 Oct

Everybody gets so much information all day long that they lose their common sense. Gertrude Stein

Once a new technology rolls over you, if you’re not part of the steamroller, you’re part of the road. Stewart Brand

It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity. Albert Einstein

I have spent a good bit of this past week in the community of Georgia Tech, a university whose rise in quality and prominence is mirrored by the city of Atlanta of which it is a prominent part.

I come here in part at the urging of Professor Robert Thomas and in part because I get to speak to – and with – some very talented students (including former interns) who ply their wares in fields far removed from my own but in no way irrelevant to what we and others try to accomplish in New York.

It is not irrelevant because, of course, the skills they now cultivate are essential to fulfilling our sustainable development promises.   These are people who can design sustainable cities, not just talk about the need for them.  These are people who can help create funding strategies that might actually support healthier oceans and gender-balanced schools.  These are the people who can engineer transportation systems that can reduce both emissions and rider frustrations.

It all sounds quite positive.  What could possibly run this train off the tracks?

To answer this fairly, we should take a step back.  Earlier this week at the UN, Kazakhstan sponsored an event that focused on technological advances and their impacts on weapons systems and disarmament prospects.  Among the presentations was one focused on the increasing speed with which (hypersonic) missiles will be able to find their targets and the knowledge and response deficits that this speed helps create.  The scenario was painted of leaders having to take action without definitive knowledge about the payload or intent of the incoming threat, and the sometimes grave mistakes that can proceed from such “decision-making on the fly.”

As is the case in some of the more intimate UN “side event” discussions, the train of thought moved in even more productive directions, inspired in part by a comment that much of what technology demands, in domains far beyond military defense, is rapid response.   In the personal realm, for instance, we tend to react immediately and at times thoughtlessly to the messages on our smart phone; we respond to email messages at a rapid fire rate in an attempt – usually futile – to keep those messages from dropping on our screens past the point that they are visible enough to prompt action. We feel the urgency to “get back to people,” those hostile or not, before we have thought through the longer-term implications of our shorter-term communications blasts.

And it’s not just our smart phones that are motivating responses that lack a concern for the longer-view. Indeed, the demand for short-term gain, for instant investor gratification has become something of a hallmark of our modern economic system.   Despite the obvious threats that our economic choices can unleash, we continue to make “business decisions” without considering the impacts on prospects for our children – the stable, secure and healthy environment that we all could do more to ensure and in which they might find productive and socially-useful pathways for talents that have often come at the considerable cost of time, effort and even tuition.

At the UN where we sit each and every day, such a stable environment is at best a patchwork of possibility. Success in Colombia and Liberia is offset by new patterns of misery in places like Syria, Myanmar and now Cameroon.   Determination on sustainable development is contextualized by armed violence that destroys community infrastructure and saps hope.  Progress on global migration governance is stifled by governments erecting walls of all sorts and even inciting otherwise generous souls to turn their backs on forcibly displaced.

And there is another alarming back story to our current technological preoccupations, a second, discouraging dimension of “dual-use.”   The dual use of our common policy discourse is unsettling enough – technology that appears to serve civilian uses but is actually a platform for more military-friendly applications.  Here we are thinking of space-based, communications technology that covers for military intelligence gathering, or drones that can deliver consumer packages and annoy neighbors but are equally well-designed to deliver remote-controlled explosives.

But “dual use” has another dimension, one that the engineering and science majors working on grant-related research often come to understand well.   In the US as with many other parts of the world, the major “investor” in research and development are Departments of Defense.   As a result, initial applications following successful research are often military in significance.   Consumer applications come later, often in the form of new products that can generate significant revenue and are frequently presented (and accepted) as some form of inevitable imposition, akin to death and taxes, and invoking a similar sense of resignation.  Are we really clamoring for driver-less cars?   For robots that make products we no longer have the revenue to purchase? For yet another generation of phones that rob us of self-directed skills, stoke our narcissism and anxiety, and fill our heads with other peoples’ nonsense? For computer applications that reveal all sorts of juicy tidbits about other people that we really have no business knowing?

This is dual use with an unsettling twist.  The military establishment gains the benefit of the skills of many of our brightest minds and the rest of us get the shiny dregs in the form of too many products and “services” of convenience for which “desire” and “need” have been relentlessly stoked; that can violate most of what remains of our privacy; and that can increase the complexity and anxiety (and ecological footprint) of our lives more than bring us closer to a sustainable future.

Needless to say, not all of the students I am with this week choose to take on the implications of this dissonance.  Some prefer to stay in their labs, their DNA fully intertwined with their technology, letting the world take care of itself.  But if you probe a bit, there are cracks even in this narrative, cracks occasioned in part by the unlikelihood that any of the real-world implications of technology carefully developed will stay, at least to some degree, in the hands of its developers.  Indeed, few of the academicians who teach engineering or technology and who make chunks of their living from grant-related research in these areas have any illusions regarding their ability to control the consequences of their research beyond the confines of their labs.

Fortunately, there are many other young people who are questioning this inevitability-producing system, who demand more control of the implications of their labors, who seek ways to use their considerable skills to make a safer, saner, more predictable world for all, having an impact greater than simply developing technologies to service military objectives and line the pockets of their consumer counterparts.

Technology has proven itself to be what Einstein and others have long predicted – a great blessing on the one hand, a potentially toxic and dis-empowering addiction on the other. We have showered our technologists with well-deserved admiration but also with excessive deference.  We too often treat technology like some approaching tsunami, something we feel compelled to watch from an unsafe distance and for which we are largely unprepared as the water reaches threatening levels.

We must find ways to do more than manage the technology that is positioned to “flatten” us, more than merely “give way” to its seductive allures.  Later this week at the UN, we will attend an event entitled The Future of Everything – Sustainable Development in the Age of Rapid Technological Change. But we know this already: that any such “future” must be characterized by a deeper commitment to get better control of technology’s “pace,” to ensure that any future innovation has more than a “puncher’s chance” of being placed in the service of a safer, healthier and more equitable world.

There was a story this week that the person who created the “Like” button for Facebook decided to delete Facebook altogether from his “smart” phone. Whether or not this is some “declaration of independence,” I have no way of knowing.  The issue is not whether technology is good or bad.  The issue is who controls its development and application, to what ends, at what pace, to whose benefit.   These are questions fundamental to sustainable development, to the inclusive well-being of global citizens, questions that we have barely begun to pose.

If we don’t get the answers we need, we must rethink the inevitability of this current technological wave.  My hope and sense is that there is a new batch of clever young people open to doing precisely that.