Empathy Note #2: Imagining Real National Security – Empathy versus Empire

Current approaches to “defense” and “security” often damage our actual well-being rather than enhancing it.  The massive resources currently wasted on counterproductive strategies of “defense” and “security” can be invested to promote real security.  National and global security regimes can get real by grounding their work in empathy and addressing universal human needs.

.     “We keep wondering: ‘Why do they hate us?’  Well,
.     maybe some people are mad because we are doing
.     things that we would regard as unjustified and
.     heinous acts of war if anyone dared to do them to us.”
.         — Stephen M. Walt in Foreign Policy magazine
.     “A nation that continues year after year to spend more
.     money on military defense than on programs of social
.     uplift is approaching spiritual doom.”
.         — Martin Luther King, Jr.

As noted in Empathy Note #1, we live in a world where smaller and smaller groups have access to more and more destructive capability. This technology-driven danger presents us with an odd transformational imperative in which proactive love, trust and caring for each other have become more practical – I repeat: practical – than our usual strategies for self-protection.

Imperial power

Self-protection at the national level usually goes by two names: “defense” and “security”.  Unfortunately, those two words have often been used as PR cover for policies that looks more like empire – the use of military, diplomatic, and economic force (informed by surveillance and supported by educational and cultural dominance) to make sure that other peoples do what the power center wants them to do.

Although they are not alone in this, Western powers have a notably long history of maintaining empires.  Nowadays American power centers are particularly adept at framing their imperial activities in terms of “defense” and “security” on the one hand, and “democracy and freedom” on the other.

America has so much going for it.  So many people around the world have believed it represents human rights and affluence.  But democracy and healthy economies are often seriously undermined by things America does in the name of “defense” and “security”.  U.S. military interventions and bases around the globe are legion, well known, and widely resented.  See

These lists do not cover America’s economic, diplomatic, cultural, and PR interventions in other countries, sometimes through international agencies, sometimes through foreign aid, sometimes through covert operations, sometimes through the everyday actions of its multinational businesses.  The Wikileaks diplomatic cables gave a good taste of the day to day flavor of this activity.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, the personalities and institutions of the American-led global empire are constantly at work directing the creation of national policy.

Of course nowadays the U.S. is just first among equals in the global elite who shape national and international political, economic, cultural, and military affairs.  I’m lately seeing intriguing and more readily accessible material about the nature of these elite transnational networks, like Occupy.com’s Global Power Project (Intro, Part 1, and Part 2 so far)

All this is not new.  I recall 25 years ago reading Endless Enemies: The Making of an Unfriendly World (1984) by Jonathan Kwitny.  Kwitny, a correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, argued that U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War supported governments that undermined not only democracy and freedom, but even free market capitalism.  That startled me, given his capitalist employer – The Wall Street Journal – but his point was that U.S. interventions favored the narrow monopolistic interests of a few mega-corporations rather than the establishment of truly free non-monopolistic economies.  His analysis is painfully relevant even today when the U.S. “war on terror” is not only not working (see official statements here and on subsequent pages) but generates more terrorists.

Golden Rule Power

It seems obvious to most people in the world that war is not the best tool for peace… that exploitation is not the most sustainable path to affluence… that manipulation is not the best grounds for friendship…. and that spying is not the most fertile ground to grow liberty and trust.

The alternative approach is to treat ourselves and others with respect and to care about the needs and interests of all involved.  This is the empathy-based Golden Rule: to treat people the way we wish to be treated.  This approach is the primary proven route to security and happiness in all relationships – a rule that most definitely applies to communities, even a community as large as Planet Earth.

“We” need to expand our sense of “us” to include “them” – including all other living beings and living systems – here and there, living today and in the long tomorrow.  We need to see ever more clearly that real “national security” looks more like “sustained global wellbeing” than like defending ourselves within our fortified borders and projecting imperial power around the world.  When we think about this with clear eyes and an open mind, sustained global wellbeing is obviously what a REAL National Security Agency and a REAL Department of Defense would be very busy handling if they were actually focused on keeping us all safe.

The most obvious change implied by this revolution in perspective would be to take the vast resources currently wasted on “defense” and “security” and invest them in increasing national and global wellbeing, especially in ensuring healthy human and natural communities.

The rational guiding principle of every government on earth would be empathy.  Their foreign policy would be the Golden Rule.  Their motto would be: “Let’s make it easy for everyone around us to love us and partner with us in making life good.”

Swords to Plowshares

The U.S. military budget exceeds that of the next 15 largest national military budgets combined.  (For an even more dramatic chart see this one.)  Imagine what that money could be used for that would make a positive difference…

One group in the U.S. that promotes a “swords to plowshares” budget approach is The Green Shadow Cabinet.  They say, “Green Shadow Defense policies will include immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan, a closure of all foreign bases, a cessation of combat drone attacks and a cut of 50% to the Pentagon budget.  There will be a strict adherence to international law, and military force will only be used in situations of legitimate self-defense.  The U.S. will not participate in illegal wars of aggression, thus saving the lives of innocent people, and saving the U.S. taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars to be reallocated for programs of social uplift.”

Globally, the power of this idea was vividly articulated twelve years ago by The World Game project.  It created a remarkable chart comparing global military expenditures with what would be needed to address 18 of the world’s biggest problems.  Although both military budgets and global problems have increased since then, this remarkable chart can and should still blow our minds wide open.

As we contemplate this, we might remember that money is not the be-all and end-all of meeting human needs.  Empathy – especially when it manifests largely through money – can easily degrade into pity and paternalism – a phenomena clearly visible among many well-meaning elites who make plans for the better world they will make with their money.  The empathy we’re looking for here, however, involves a focus on empowerment and partnership.  It is more about peer conversation, mutual evolution, and collaboration than it is about helping, per se.

As one Australian Aboriginal woman famously said: “If you are coming to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you are coming because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”  Money can be a tremendous help in that “working together” – and shifting from “swords to plowshares” makes it doubly precious, bringing us peace as well as funding.

I find it both remarkable and encouraging that the American public, who strongly support their military, also strongly favor significant cuts in the U.S. military budget.

The Challenge

Of course, powerful economic and political interests are heavily invested in the military-industrial complex and its attendant national security state.  Furthermore, the deeply embedded “culture of violence” in the Executive Branch of the U.S. government makes it hard for reformers to make a difference even when they want to, even when they are President.

Within our existing systems, it is hard to imagine how these interests and institutions would be effectively addressed.  While efforts to address them must continue, the ultimate solution will necessarily lie in the transformation of our culture, our political systems, and our economic systems.

So beyond reinvesting misallocated defense and security funds, a empathy-based, realistic security regime – and any National Security Agency worthy of the name, with which we could all cooperate freely and enthusiastically – would promote nonviolence and peaceful conflict resolution, foster equity, eliminate victimless crimes, redefine the nature and role of capital and corporations, and build economies and cultures that authentically satisfy universal human needs.

I’ll address all these in future essays in this series, and explore the role of empathy in all of them.


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