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Dietrich Fischer, USA, born and raised in Switzerland, is a Professor of Computer Science at Pace University. He is author of several books on nuclear issues, non-military aspects of security, and conditions for peace, and has lectured on peace and security in 20 countries. He is Co-Director of TRANSCEND, a peace and development network. (More on: http://www.transcend.org).

THE POWER OF IDEAS

Dietrich Fischer

When Johan Galtung, the Norwegian who is widely regarded as the founder of peace research, founded the first International Peace Research Institute in Oslo in 1959, he and his colleagues sent copies of their working papers to about 400 institutes around the world, including the Institute for World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO) in Moscow. They received acknowledgements from many places, but never heard anything from IMEMO. It was as if the papers disappeared into a black hole, leaving no trace. Despite this lack of feedback, the members of the Oslo team persistently kept sending their papers on alternative approaches to peace, security and development to IMEMO throughout the 1960s and 1970s.
In 1979, Johan Galtung attended a conference at IMEMO. During a break, the librarian took him to the library in the basement, opened a locked room, opened a locked cabinet inside the room, and showed him a pile of papers. Here was the entire collection of papers that he and his friends had been sending over the years. This was the “black hole.” Surprisingly, the papers were worn out from having passed through many hands, edges bent and torn, with portions underlined and numerous notes in the margins.
In 1991, Vladimir Petrovski, the Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister, came to see Johan Galtung in Oslo and said, “I really wanted to tell you once how grateful we were for all your papers that you kept sending us. During the Brezhnev era, I was part of a group of young scholars at IMEMO who met frequently to discuss new ideas, and we studied your books and papers intensively, among others. We knew that our system needed reform, and that the time for change was coming. You provided us with valuable new concepts and concrete ideas how to proceed.”
The end of the Cold War has many sources, but new ideas developed by Western peace movements — on human rights, economic and political participation, nonviolent conflict resolution, security based on mutual cooperation instead of threats and confrontation, conversion of military industries to civilian use, and non-offensive defence — which seeped into the former Soviet Union through various discrete channels and apparently found receptive ears, have played an important role.
Can individuals make a difference for the course of history, or are their efforts insignificant compared to major trends, like the movement of a single molecule in the wind? It is clear that if a situation is not ripe for change, if nobody wants to hear new proposals, one individual can make little difference. But if people are unhappy with their present conditions and search for new ways, a good idea, persuasively argued, can go a long way.
Yet even when an opportunity for major change arises, someone must seize it or it may be missed. Similarly, if one plants a fruit tree in the desert, it will die. But even in the most fertile soil, under the best climatic conditions, only thorns may grow unless we plant something better. And we never know for