As we approach a new millennium, there will undoubtedly be a wave of general public introspection about the state of the human race -- where we've been and where we're headed.
If we look back on the last few centuries, it's clear that each one has been defined by singular and historic moral projects that affected the world's entire population.
The 18th century introduced the modern concepts of democracy and the social contract. The 19th century saw the end of slavery in most of the world and its condemnation as an immoral human relationship. In the 20th century, the universal moral project has been expanding civil and human rights and ending racism.
What will be the moral project of the 21st century?
This is difficult to predict, obviously, and it will depend on what seizes the imaginations of millions of people, and on leaders who can move people to action. But here's a worthy candidate for consideration: severing the relationship between scientific-technological progress and the means of war.
The "technological imperative" of improving weaponry has lodged itself in our minds as an inescapable part of the human condition ever since our primitive ancestors first improved the club. But if we take away any lesson from this century, it should be that continual improvement in weapons threatens the long-term survival and welfare of the human race.
If the 20th century is remembered for anything, it will certainly be for the introduction of vast advances in the ways we kill one another -- for nuclear weapons, mass-produced biological and chemical weapons, "smart" weapons, bombers, tanks, machine guns, ad infinitum. This is the historical blight that must be corrected, and this will require jettisoning the stubbornly held idea that people and nations will always seek better and more deadly weapons.
It may seem naive or utopian to suggest that science and technology be decoupled from weaponry in the next century. But we should remember that people once believed that kings, slavery and the notion of racial superiority would be with us forever too.
What steps can we take toward such a goal? Fortunately, we have a number of opportunities before us right now, but we need leadership to take advantage of them.
First, the end of the Cold War is a unique historic opportunity, one that we have yet to recognize fully. No other nation in the world is now a military threat to the United States the way the Soviet Union once was. Because of this, we should regard the military spending of the Cold War as an anomaly in U.S. history that can be corrected in a time of peace.
This correction could lead to a significantly lower defense budget than we have even now, nearly a decade after the demise of the Soviet Union. We could take steps to dismantle the remnants of the "national security state," end our war-posture nuclear weapons alert status and shut down the laboratories that continue to work on nuclear weapons.
Unfortunately, President Clinton recently announced a large increase in defense spending, the largest since the huge military buildup of the Reagan years. He wants $100 billion more for defense over six years, and Republican leaders in the Congress want even more than that -- as much as $150 billion.
Chris Hellman, senior analyst at the Center for Defense Information, a Washington-based organization founded and led by retired senior military officers, calls this proposed increase "an unnecessary waste of American tax dollars." Hellman thinks we can cut $20 billion to $30 billion from a $270-billion annual defense budget without hurting national security. He notes that the U.S. still spends $25 billion per year in preparation for a nuclear war and is still "continuing to improve and enhance the performance of nuclear weapons."
The year 2000 software bug may, interestingly, pose another opportunity for rethinking defense policy. Defense experts are concerned about the sensitivity of the highly interdependent "hair-trigger" nuclear command and control systems in both the U.S. and Russia -- especially in Russia, because the Russians haven't begun to address the Y2K problem and have no hope of fixing it in time. Last November, the Pentagon's Defense Special Weapons Agency was caught lying about its own Y2K preparations involving U.S. nuclear command and control systems: The agency reported the systems had been fixed when they hadn't even been tested.
Because of this, public interest groups such as the British American Security Information Council have called for a year-end shutdown of all nuclear weapons systems around the world to prevent problems caused by the software bug. This seems prudent, given the risk. But if we shut these systems down, why would we need or want them to be turned on again? Coming to grips with this question may be one of the few benefits of the Y2K problem.
Another opportunity is provided by the Internet, launched and funded for many years by the Defense Department. Now that the Net is a nearly ubiquitous global communications medium, the world is tied together as never before. That makes the prospect of war that might disrupt this interdependency increasingly unlikely. As the Internet grows and becomes more and more embedded in world commerce, the need for globe-spanning military resources should diminish, not increase.
High-tech-industry leaders should grasp the present contradiction between the impact of the Internet and rising defense budgets.
Congressman George Brown (D-San Bernardino), the ranking Democrat on the House Science Committee, told me, "We're too interconnected now to have sane national leaders contemplate war as a viable national option for solving problems."
Brown believes that in 20 years, U.S. military research-and-development spending could be half its current level of about $32 billion per year, and decline further after that. "We cannot continue to sustain the illusion that we're going to fight a war with nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction," he said.
To cut the ties between technological progress and war, to shut down the indefensible and obscene international arms trade and reorient hundreds of thousands of scientists and engineers around the world to peaceful and sustainable work, we'll need courageous and determined moral leaders. And those people will almost certainly come from the common citizenry -- no social change of this magnitude has ever been sparked or led by political officials.
Those leaders may be living among us already.
Gary Chapman is director of The 21st Century Project at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. The 21st Century Project focuses on increasing public participation in science and technology policymaking.
This column, first published in The Los Angeles Times is reproduced here with the author's permission. (Copyright 1998, The Los Angeles Times)