Many brilliant ideas are cast aside as “politically impossible,” even before being put into words, or in some cases even before being allowed into consciousness. But I learned from my father a motto used by the Army Corps of Engineers: “The difficult we do right away, the impossible takes a little longer.” (This sentiment also appears in a Bessie Smith lyric, and in the title of a book by activist Paul Rogat Loeb and another by citizen diplomat Sharon Tennison.) Some things do turn out to be impossible, but many of the developments that have shaped civilization were said, at the start, to be impossible. They just took a little longer.
This came up for me in a lunchtime conversation with a prospective client in 1984, a story that I have told elsewhere. A successful entrepreneur, he was then a prospective author; I, a book creation coach who worked with private clients. “What is your goal?” I asked. He wanted to help end the Cold War, which nobody at the time thought would ever end. “That’s noble,” I replied, “but it might be difficult.” “I know it’s impossible, Craig,” he said, “but it’s necessary.”
This project could have remained in the province of utopian thought, a nice dream, but my prospective client, soon a partner, was accustomed to making things happen. Wealthy, he set up a foundation, and among other beneficiaries, we supported many groups which were pioneering “citizen diplomacy” with our Cold War rival.
From my perspective, citizen diplomacy was one of five main factors that ended the Cold War (at least the iteration we then were living with). The others were:
- (a) the experience of perilous instability when the leader of the Soviet Union may have almost launched a preemptive nuclear strike when he became suspicious that a NATO war game called Able Archer in 1983 was the cover for an actual Western attack on the USSR;
- (b) the accession of relatively young Mikhail Gorbachev to the leadership shortly after the Able Archer close call ,which he must have observed, surely concluding the system was unstable;
- (c) Gorbchev’s desire for peace abroad while he tried to reform the Soviet system, the politics as well as the economy;
- (d) the concept of “common security,” introduced by Olof Palma and a close associate of Willy Brandt of West Germany, a concept also expounded in a book edited in our foundation. In addition, Gorbachev needed:
- (e) a welcoming hand from the West, which came in a few forms, including citizen diplomacy.
Many changes that enable a new and better society stated out being dismissed as impossible, or as a physicist once said, with quick contempt, “not even wrong.” When a change is widely adopted, in science as in politics, its first stage tends to slip into darkness. Everybody always knew, the way everybody in Europe later claimed to be in the anti-Nazi resistance during World War Two.
The desire to identify with early stages of a system that works and brings benefits is understandable, but it’s a serious distortion. It tends to hide the actual process, and to facilitate new dismissals. “Oh, that’s impossible, not worth talking about, don’t waste your time.” Let’s study the actual history of what started as impossible and later became the norm.
The system isn't working. It isn’t working with regard to, for example, climate change (widespread denial), or the danger of nuclear war (normalization). It might help to articulate what we want, even if it seems impossible. This is not a call for utopian fiction, if only to contend with a flood of dystopian visions. It is a call to specify what we want, what would work, or at least what would help.
To return to the example of the end of the Cold War: without the other factors, citizen diplomacy might have accomplished little. Of course in specifying what we want, the modality within our reach may require something else or much else. But unless we say what we want, we are unlikely to get it.
One barrier to saying what we want is) the risk of being thought foolish or impractical or, as in the case of citizen diplomacy, too, sympathetic to the other side. Another barrier is the fear of failure or penalty. A third is the charge of obsessiveness, as in “the danger of nuclear war seems to have obsessed Helen Caldicott (born in Australia), Yvgeny Chazov (Soviet Union), Daniel Ellsberg, Beatrice Fihn (Sweden), Randall Forsberg, John Hersey, Robert Jay Lifton, Bernard Lown, Eugene Rabinowitch (Soviet Union), Bertrand Russell (the U.K.), Jonathan Schell, and many, many others, including some of the same scientists who created the bomb, such as Leo Szilard (Hungary).
Recently Lifton has compiled evidence that a growing number of people are engaging with the two big issues of our time, the danger of nuclear war and of climate change. They are, he says, “swerving” toward something other than denial or rejuction, as shown, for example, by the Paris conference on climate change. Okay, one of the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases isn't a reliable partner (that would be the U.S.). Okay, the commitments lack any enforcement mechanism. And okay, the commitments even if met would be inadequate. But, says Lifton, the Paris conference was a start, a taking seriously of the danger, of promising some remedial action.
If the Cold War could be ended around 1989, if the number of nuclear devices could be reduced, can we reach a world much safer than today’s? If the means exist for renewable energy that doesn't emit greenhouse gases, can we make the necessary transition? Can we create a world that is more secure than it feels now? More secure and even less impoverished for many?
Perhaps the first step is to paint a persuasive picture of what we truly want, without the crippling assumption that it is impossible. If Vaclav Havel had thought it was impossible to overthrow the deadening system in his country, would he ever have gone from doing menial work as a dissident to becoming the first President of the Czech Republic?.