Many Green parties have roots in the peace movement and a strong commitment to the principles of pacifism, disarmament, and nuclear non-proliferation. The invasion of Ukraine has challenged pacifist approaches to security and defence policy, throwing up difficult dilemmas and exposing divisions within Europe. Yet this is not the first time Greens, particularly in power, have had to confront questions of intervention, and the question of the purpose and future of armies seems set to remain salient.

In the early stages of the Ukraine war, desperate defenders opened up damns and flooded areas of countryside to protect Kyiv. Battles continue to wage in and around nuclear power stations including Chernobyl, raising the risk of a nuclear catastrophe in Europe. For Greens, particularly those in government, the conflict has forced them to engage with security and defence policy and a set of threats that had played a key role in their formation during the Cold Ward but had largely disappeared with the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Pacifism, the rejection of war and militarism, had its roots in both religious and political movements in Europe going back to the Reformation. Early pacifists refused military service on an individual basis, campaigned against war and in favour of diplomatic solutions, and often advocated for the brotherhood of man in either or both a religious and socialist sense. That did not prevent practitioners of pacificism, such as Gandhi, however, from engaging in non-violent resistance in the face of military force.

Green roots in the peace movement

Many European Green Parties have their origins in the peace movements of the 1950s through to the 1980s. Environmental movements in Europe had significant crossover with peace movements, especially in opposition to the development, use, and misuse of nuclear technology for power and the military. The presence of both huge nuclear arsenals and large conventional armies in Europe as part of the Cold War meant there was a very real fear that even a small conflict could quickly escalate to a nuclear strike. This new reality was about the survival of humanity, hence why pacifist and peace movements grew during this time with a focus on political action to scrap nuclear weapons, demilitarise, and improve relations between the Soviet Union and United States.

In West Germany, huge protests followed the deployment of short-range nuclear missiles in the country by the US in the early 1980s. These helped propel the Green Party into parliament for the first time. “It was, of course, a pacifist party,” explains Reinhard Olschanski, an advisor to the German Green Party. The West German Greens were anti-NATO as a military alliance with nuclear weapons, and in favour of disarmament. “It was a great point of identity with the Green Party,” he said.

In the Netherlands, GroenLinks (Green Left) was formed in 1989 by the merger of four left-wing parties, including the Pacifist Socialist Party. In the UK, the peace movement and Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament had a strong influence on the emerging Green Party, with a significant crossover in membership. Green Parties generally advocated unilateral nuclear disarmament, opposition to NATO membership, and a broadly pacifist policy combined with the promotion of democracy and human rights.

“We weren’t necessarily wrong back then [in the 1980s],” said Erik Apel from the Swedish Green Party. “The main ideas of détente, non-alignment, and international nuclear disarmament are still there. But now we are no longer caught in the build-up between two superpowers threatening nuclear war.” Yet the emergence of a more militant Russia means Sweden faces real and immediate threats in a way it did not in the 1990s. “Both these things have undermined the case for pacifism and non-violent defence,” Apel said. 

“We are not against defending ourselves, our freedom and democracy, and our human rights. Human security is worth defending even with arms, but that’s the last choice of action.” – Erik Apel

The Green parties of central and eastern Europe emerged in the 1990s out of movements of resistance to USSR-backed communist governments, where political dissent was heavily suppressed. These movements were also strongly anti-militarist and pro-peace, based on the threat and experience of occupation. The USSR used military force in the region to maintain its power, invading Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. As such their Green parties have a different history and perspective on Russia. “Greens in the [eastern European] region were always more sensitive to this Russian threat,” said Benedek Javor, a Hungarian Green MEP from 2014 to 2019. This was one reason why they were very positive about joining the EU and not particularly critical about joining NATO or of military spending (which was in decline at that time). “Euro-Atlantic accession was always a priority for Greens and there was no major opposition,” Javor said.

The end of the Cold War also meant a significant shift for traditionally “non-aligned” countries such as Sweden. There the government had maintained a relatively large military and arms industry independent of the US, NATO countries and the USSR. When the Berlin Wall collapsed, so did the rationale for maintaining such a large military and while the Swedish arms industry found a new purpose in exporting weapons, the armed forces were slowly “degraded” and defunded over time. One Social Democratic prime minister famously said, “the last billion you can always take from defence”. This consensus towards military disarmament extended across Europe and meant Greens could focus on other pressing political issues.

Rethinking intervention

However, it was in reunified Germany in 1999 that Greens and Alliance 90, a group of democracy and human rights groups from East German that had merged into the Greens, then newly in government at the federal level for the first time, had to face the prospect of deploying the armed forces to Kosovo in an act of humanitarian intervention. “It was one of the first things we had to deal with,” said Reinhard Olschanski. The global community, particularly the UN, were still dealing with the legacy of failing to protect people from genocides in Rwanda and the Balkans. Dutch UN troops had been present in Srebrenica, but failed to protect the people of the town leading to the deaths of 8000 Bosnian Muslims.

The debate within the Greens was “hard,” with the then Green leader and Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer being hit with a paint bomb during a Special Party Congress before he succeeded in gaining the support of party delegates to back intervention by a delegate vote of 444 to 318. The votes split across different wings and factions, although the broadly “left” and “fundi” factions opposed military action while the broadly “right” and “realo” factions backed intervention. Fischer and his supporters emphasised that the Balkans conflicts had been inherited by the new Red-Green government and that it would be wrong to tie the hands of their ministerial team. They also made the argument that ethnic conflict had returned to Europe, in part because of the end of the Cold War. In his speech, Fischer said “the prerequisite for peace is that people are not murdered, that people are not expelled, that women are not raped,” and recounted how he had personally “pleaded” with the Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic to end the use of force in Kosovo. With the other options exhausted and in the face of ethnic cleansing, he argued, how else could they fulfil their moral obligation to peace and human security?

From that point on, Olschanski said, Greens moved towards a policy of supporting the use of the German army in peacekeeping and other crisis operations around the world but, similarly to Sweden, the army was degraded. This reflected the view that “Germany is surrounded by friends,” Olschanski said, with the country focusing on being an economic powerhouse and playing a lesser role in global affairs outside of economics.

After the Kosovo intervention, Greens still retained their scepticism and opposition towards military intervention, particularly by the US – such as in Iraq in 2003 – but more broadly moved towards a position of humanitarian intervention beyond Europe. “With the rise of the Responsibility to Protect, I think that also changed some of our policy,” said Erik Apel, “towards the idea that we have a responsibility to be part of the international community, even with arms, not just civilian means.” For example, in 2011 European Green parties backed limited intervention in Libya, on the basis that it establish a ceasefire and lead to mediation between the different political factions.

New understandings of security

Greens also led in thinking beyond traditional security threats and focusing on resilience, according to Erik Apel. “Building resilience against everything from terrorist attacks, to cyberattacks, pandemics, blackouts or huge forest mega fires, as we have had in Sweden these last couple of years,” he said. This is something mainstream political parties have now incorporated into their thinking, responding to security threats from climate change as well as traditional defence policy.

The invasion of Ukraine in 2014 and the occupation of Crimea was another turning point for Greens. “Russian interference and intervention in the former Soviet bloc was harshly opposed by the Greens everywhere,” Javor said. This, he says, contrasts with the approach of some mainstream parties, such as the German Social Democrats and Christian Democrats, who were both more uncritically accepting of Russia and focused on economic cooperation such as the NordStream 2 gas pipeline. “Mainstream parties all over Europe were in a way paralysed by those strong economic links they built,” he said.

As the security and geopolitical landscape has changed, Greens have an important role to play in and out of government on defence policy.

There was also a strong history of internationalism and West-East solidarity among Greens, forming links and supporting social movements and civil society in communist countries in eastern Europe. “Many of those who participated in organising Green politics in eastern Europe, they were rooted in the democratic opposition or the democratic resistance in the communist era,” Javor said. This means they had first hand and personal experience of what it was like to organise against an anti-democratic regime, and they pursued these issues by supporting human rights NGOs and pushing it up the agenda. “This is the reason why Greens all over Europe were much critical towards those regimes, because they had much closer ties to the local opposition of the regimes and they knew very well how these regimes behave,” Javor said.

However, there are Greens that maintain a traditional pacifist approach while maintaining that opposition to authoritarian governments. Grace O’Sullivan, an MEP from Ireland, has spent decades in the peace movement including with direct action campaigns against nuclear weapons. “I fully support aid going to Ukraine,” she said, adding that Ireland has a long history of humanitarian and peacekeeping work, which is where she believes its efforts should continue to be focused.

“I do have concerns about new mechanisms being used in the future to send EU-made arms to other countries following this conflict,” O’Sullivan warned, adding that the arms industry is both heavily subsidised and highly-polluting. “Military power is dependent on controlling and exploiting the environment, and any attempt to protect the environment is seen as a threat to that power,” she said.

Grace O’Sullivan described the Greens’ most recent security and defence position paper as a “balancing act” but broadly favourable with its focus on human security, and strengthening controls on arms. Benedek Javor believes this new position is closer to what the eastern Greens were advocating 15 years ago than the more pacificist position held by some western Green parties, and that the two have moved closer together on that issue. “Living next door to Russia needs some security guarantees and security guarantees are given by NATO. But this also means that the military is a reality. And our security needs some military investment,” he said.

Defining a pacifism for the 21st century

In Germany, it was Greens who were advocating support for Ukraine in the months before the Russian invasion, explains Richard Olschanski. Since the start of the conflict, the party has generally remained united in supporting military aid – including the traditionally more pacifist left-wing. This rejected the long-held view in conventional politics of Russian “spheres of influence”. Olschanski wants Greens to support better and deeper EU integration for central and eastern Europe so that the relationship is similar to that between Germany and France. “We don’t come only from a pacifistic background but also from the background of autonomy and self-determination,” he said. This idea of individual self-determination, decentralisation, and national self-determination stood in contrast to the thinking of mainstream centre-left and centre-right parties that accepted some countries and peoples were in the “sphere of interest” of a larger power such as Russia.

As the security and geopolitical landscape has changed, Greens have an important role to play in and out of government on defence policy. It is possible to do this while criticising and opposing militarism, the arms industry, and expressing solidarity with democratic opposition within Russia and other authoritarian states. Longer-term, traditional Green scepticism towards US-led military adventures sits uncomfortably with NATO membership, but in the absence of a clear alternative it is no surprise that NATO continues to be the default option.

“I would say we’ve gone from pacifism to anti-militarism,” said Erik Apel. “We are not against defending ourselves, our freedom and democracy, and our human rights. All of these things matter and are worth defending. Human security is worth defending even with arms, but that’s the last choice of action. Civilian means, diplomacy always comes first.”

How Green defence policy develops now is still very much open. While there appears to be a broad consensus in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine to provide military aid, there are many questions that have yet to be answered. Russia has shown the ability to carry out atrocities in the areas it has occupied and to engage in potential war crimes in its attacks on energy infrastructure, but this capacity for ruthlessness has not resulted in the territorial gains they had hoped. Neither have Europe, or the international community’s efforts to use economic sanctions had an impact on Russian policy. If this breakdown in international relations continues, what impact will it have on humanitarian and peace-keeping operations? What would a re-armed European army (or armies) do? And how will Greens continue to pursue peace in world undergoing deep transformations?

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