Paul WalkerPaul Walker, PhD, is the winner of the 2012 Sidel-Levy Award for Peace, which recognizes an APHA member who has made outstanding contributions to preventing war and promoting international peace. Walker currently is director of the International Environmental Security and Sustainability Program for Green Cross International and Global Green USA and has worked throughout his career to eliminate nuclear and chemical weapons and promote worldwide peace through firm diplomacy, sound science, advocacy and education. Over the past 16 years, he and the Environmental Security and Sustainability Program have helped facilitate the safe elimination of more than 50,000 metric tons of chemical weapons, dozens of nuclear submarines and hundreds of nuclear warheads and launch systems. In this conversation with Public Health Newswire, Walker talks about the intersection of public health and peace.

Q: Do you feel there is a growing acceptance both among the public health community and the public that peace is a public health issue?

The public health community has long recognized the direct linkage between peace and good health.  But I’m still concerned that the general public doesn’t quite get the connections between public health, peace and the environment.  I’ve always said that a peaceful community is a healthy community, and vice versa; and that a violent community is a sick (not healthy) community.  One cannot have good public health unless peace and conflict resolution are present.  War and violence, in all of its manifestations, have tremendous negative impacts on people’s physical and mental health, and on the solidarity of a community.  Whether it’s local crime, domestic violence, terrorism or war, both individuals and communities are always impacted by injury, death and socio-economic effects.  So one of our very top priorities in the public health field must be to build peaceful resolution of conflict and thereby improve public health.

Q: In the 1970s you helped establish the Boston Study Group, which then produced the book The Price of Defense: A New Strategy for Military Spending that argues that a 50 percent reduction in military spending would actually produce much better security. Is this still the case?

The Boston Study Group’s analysis in the late 1970s and early 1980s arose out of our concern that the fundamental questions in the post-Vietnam War era were not being asked: Who’s the enemy now?  How has the Vietnam War impacted our foreign and military policy, and how should it be restructured? How much military force and spending is enough, now that we’ve learned that we can’t win a regional, guerrilla (read terrorist) conflict?  We proposed in the book, The Price of Defense, that we restructure forces to reduce reliance on nuclear weapons and focus on meeting the Soviet conventional threat in Europe. These assumptions allowed considerable force reductions in the post-Vietnam period, and considerable budget savings well into double digit percentages. However, our military budget then was about $150 billion.

Today, we face very difference threats, with both the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact dissolved, and major reductions in nuclear forces. But our general direction would be similar — carefully evaluate the threats, size the needed military forces and cost out how best to field these forces in as efficient a manner as possible. Having had the good fortune to work on the Armed Services Committee in the U.S. House of Representatives overseeing the annual military budget requests in the early to mid-1990s, when the budget had increased to about $250 billion, I learned, however, that rational analysis often doesn’t work in our representative type of government. Much of our military spending today is based on political jobs and revenue back home — as they say, “bringing home the bacon” to the congressional districts to maintain military industry and bases, whether the services request them or not.

Ending the war in Afghanistan will save $50 billion-$100 billion annually, as did the recent end to the Iraq War, but the military budget could certainly be reduced by $50 billion annually for the next few years, just as will happen if sequestration takes place in January. And this would not reduce national security in any major way, if done with a high degree of care by not only the Pentagon but also by the House and Senate Armed Services and Defense Appropriations Committees. We must wean our economy away from being overly military-dependent in order to create a more robust and productive industrial sector; we sought to do this in the early 1990s, only to be turned back by pork-barrel politicians and lobbyists. But it also shouldn’t be done with a dull knife, making arbitrary cuts; a careful and rational reprioritization of military goals and forces, asking the question, “How much is enough?” as some colleagues did in the 1960s, will help us build a much stronger and healthier nation and world.

Q: How can we bring international and national security discussions to the forefront?

We all must make the connections between an over-militarized economy and violent world, and the widespread poverty, illness and environmental pollution (including global warming) that are destroying our planet.  When we spend about $1.5 trillion annually on military forces and preparations for war across the globe, and yet cannot afford to provide potable water, vaccines, energy, food, housing and a clean environment to our people, something is wrong with our priorities. This is not only a U.S. problem, but a global problem. As we acknowledge only a partial victory in meeting our Millennium Development Goals by 2015, emphasized at the Rio+20 Earth Summit this past summer, we should include one or more new Sustainable Development Goals, which begin to address the central needs to abolish all weapons of mass destruction (nuclear, chemical and biological) and reduce global military spending. 

Q: What is the most pressing national or international security issue of today? How can the public health community help address that issue?

The public health community must link its human health needs — widespread preventive care, immunizations, poverty eradication, quality housing, clean environments and excellent behavioral and medical treatment, etc. — with reductions in violence and military forces and spending. In today’s budget-constrained world, we cannot put up with a U.S. military budget well over $600 billion annually (the equivalent of the rest of the world combined), while we squeeze all other discretionary spending well below that total. One of my favorite sayings is “It will be a good day when the Air Force has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber.” While this is overly simplified, it points to the fact that we need a much better balance between human services and military services, although both are necessary. If countries are peaceful, they will be healthy; and if they are healthy, they will be peaceful.

Walker received the Sidel-Levy Award for Peace during the recent 140th APHA Annual Meeting in San Francisco.