Peter N. Stearns is Provost of George Mason University, author of Globalization in World History and editor of the new UIP book Demilitarization in the Contemporary World. He answered our questions about the book.
Q: The book covers the demilitarization efforts in Japan and Germany following World War II, but also in Costa Rica. How did that effort come about in Costa Rica in the late 40s, and why where those efforts of particular significance?
Peter Stearns: The Costa Rican decision reflected, first, the rather surprisingly low traditional level of military spending in the region, but more specifically a political calculation by the President in a situation of potential disorder. The result was really an unusually thorough and longstanding process of demilitarization, that would draw fire from more conventional countries like the United States. It’s a really interesting case, with some larger regional impact ultimately.
Q: What do contemporary demilitarization efforts share in common with those of much older societies?
Stearns: I see contemporary demilitarization as rather distinctive, compared for example to the successful but more militarily-based policies of neutrality in countries like Switzerland and Sweden. Of course militaries have been cut back before, but the contemporary examples couple this pragmatic policy with more interesting cultural and political changes.
Q: Has involuntary demilitarization in countries like Germany and Japan led to a long term rethinking of the purpose and structure of the military?
Stearns: Yes though apparently more in Germany. Huge decline of military interest in both societies, striking contrast to their past
Q: In the countries that this book focuses on what are some examples of how demilitarization function was tied to more widespread cultural and social changes?
Stearns: In the countries studied, demilitarization has been associated with substantial public commitment to peace and overt hostility to efforts to rekindle a military role. The results have also led to interesting complexities in relationship to the United States and its military policies. Obviously, cutting back the military has also been linked to heavy investments in the domestic economy and to a degree in welfare measures – a “civilian” orientation as opposed to a military one.
Q: What are some of the challenges of researching cases of demilitarization as opposed militarization and conflict?
Stearns: The two most obvious challenges are, first, historians, social scientists and much of the public is accustomed to looking for historical work on war and related military development. Cutting back or reversing militarization is less familiar and may jostle some people. The second challenge is that demilitarization (except to a degree in the Costa Rican case) is not a complete abandonment of things military; it encounters counter-pressures, and it evolves, and research on the “demilitarized” cases must take all this into account. As the essays in the book suggest, and as current news headlines reinforce, the problematic elements currently apply particularly to Japan.
Q: Superpowers have the largest stores of weapons. But they also have a large role in the elimination of weaponry around the world (as seen recently in Libya and Syria). Does the United States have a positive or negative role in demilitarization since World War II?
Stearns: No question that while the United States has participated or even led in some constructive weapons limitation efforts, the US has been largely hostile to demilitarization. US assumptions about what a “normal” state should be like were of course conditioned by apparent Cold War needs, but they went deeper, and the US relationships with demilitarization efforts in Central America are particularly revealing and interesting in this regard.