Why common security is back on the agenda

Next year marks the 40th anniversary of the ground-breaking Palme Commission Report, which introduced the concept of ‘common security’ into a world dominated by the Cold War, the doctrine of mutually assured destruction, and the existential threat of a nuclear winter.

Olof Palme was one of my early heroes – a Swedish prime minister who epitomised the vibrant generation of social democrats that included the Nobel Peace Prize-winning former German chancellor Willy Brandt, the former Australian prime minister Bob Hawke, and the former Norwegian prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland.

Palme’s Commission began the process of reducing tensions and thawing that led to a Cold War warrior like the former US president Ronald Reagan reaching key arms control agreements with the reforming Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

But the promise of those days has not been fulfilled. The ‘peace dividend’ has been squandered on new weapons like drones and new battlefields like space. The Cold War was replaced by a Washington ‘consensus’ that no one asked the people about. And détente was replaced by a multipolar world and global terrorism.

Meanwhile, military expenditure worldwide has nearly reached US$2 trillion a year, and ‘the doomsday clock’ sits at 100 seconds to midnight. It’s time to turn that clock back.

Now, we need to confront even more existential threats – not just nuclear war, but climate change, and the threat of more global pandemics.

Trust in politicians and even democracy itself has been undermined by neoliberalism and corruption that have fuelled inequality, informality in the labour market, and low wages. Human rights and social justice have been undermined, and the space available to civil society is shrinking in many parts of the world.

We need to revisit the thinking of the Palme Commission, and recall the founding precept of the International Labour Organization: that there can be no peace without social justice, and no social justice without peace.

A reinvigorated vision for peace

The concept that none of us is safe until all of us are safe underpinned the recommendations of the International Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response that I have co-chaired over the past year, and it was a fundamental conclusion of Olof Palme’s Commission. No country becomes safer by threatening its neighbours. So, I am very pleased to join the Common Security 2022 Commission which plans to update and reinvigorate Olof Palme’s vision, four decades on.

Founded by the Olof Palme International Center, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and the world’s oldest peace campaign, the International Peace Bureau, the Commission will be looking at fundamental issues such as the need for progress on the Sustainable Development Goals to reduce global tensions and in the context of recovery from the pandemic, and the importance of a just transition as the world tackles climate change.

My fellow Commissioners include Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the ITUC, and Anna Fendley, chairperson of the ITUC Youth Committee, who is one of three youth co-chairs (none of whom was alive when the Palme Commission reported).

We are joined by Ouided Bouchamaoui, a Tunisian employer who was one of the Nobel Peace Prize recipients for her work with unions and civil society to effect the largely peaceful transition to democracy there; the former Swedish foreign minister and former deputy secretary-general of the United Nations Jan Eliasson; and civil society leaders like former Greenpeace and Amnesty head Kumi Naidoo, and Sergio Duarte, president of Pugwash International, as well as commissioners from China and Japan.

This is not a traditional gathering of the great and the good, and it is not constituted to be representative of governments. The Commission itself will have a light touch, leaving the majority of its thinking and acting to civil society. The role of trade unions is crucial.

My country, New Zealand, was a proud early signatory of the recent UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), and has been at the forefront of the movement for a nuclear-free world for decades.

Courage and leadership at all levels from individual citizens through to the highest levels of government and international organisations are needed if we are to avoid the ever-present threat of nuclear war. We must promote peaceful approaches to resolving the differences which exist between us so that our energies can be directed towards addressing the common threats all nations and peoples face.