Warrior for peace

Many a Cold Warrior believes dealing with the Russians is like trying to perform Handel's ''Messiah'' on the tuba. But Robert Fuller whistles a different tune. As the saying goes: There are two groups of people - those who divide people into two groups, and those who don't. Fuller doesn't. Americans and Russians, he believes, are adrift in the same lifeboat, facing a shared predicament: how to ''design a better game than war.'' To that elusive task, Fuller has dedicated his life and genius.

Mr. Fuller is a former Oberlin College president and Columbia University physics professor, who, in the 1950s, apprenticed with the men who designed America's first nuclear weapons. He believes international diplomacy is too important to be left up to the guys with the pin stripes and attache cases. Fuller has embarked on a personal ''peace-finding'' mission, the Mo Tzu Project, which has taken him and several families into the war-torn regions of Northern Ireland, the Middle East, and, most recently, Poland and Africa. The maverick scientist has circled the globe five times.

Fuller's father, Calvin, was the Bell Laboratories chemist who invented the first solar cell. Robert inherited that creative itch; his diplomacy is more inquiry than negotiation. He loosens the seams of the impossible by ''changing contexts,'' as English anthropologist Gregory Bateson used to say. Fuller delights in giving the players rules by which they can change the rules of the game themselves.

In 1971, Fuller reread Count Leo Tolstoy's ''War and Peace,'' and became intrigued with the enterprising voyage by the character Pierre to get a firsthand look at the Napoleonic Wars. Then in the midst of his Oberlin presidency, Fuller caught the next plane to Saigon and spent a week watching the Vietnam war as an anonymous tourist on a motor scooter. A few years later, he decided it was high time he went eyeball to eyeball with the Russians, so he gathered his savings, his wife, and one-year old son and trekked across the Soviet Union.

In the late 1970s, California Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. proposed a ''peace institute'' at the University of California. Fuller, anticipating the creation of another brain trust churning out position papers, founded the Mo Tzu Project. It was named after the world's first ''shuttle diplomat,'' who scoured China in the fifth century BC, negotiating peace settlements between warring lords.

The goals of the Mo Tzu Project, which is funded by private donors, are ambitious but profound: Take ordinary citizens and their families and, as Fuller did in Vietnam and the Soviet Union, ''immerse them invisibly in a country, to learn all they can, and see what they can do to broker a better relationship between the partners in conflict.'' Referring to Fuller's Mo Tzu Project, Stewart Brand, a West Coast editor and visionary, said: ''Amateurs can wade in where angels fear to tread, and by their very directness surprise war, tempt it with a greater complexity than conflict, a more heroic endeavor.''

In October, this reporter met Fuller in Paris hours before his train was to leave for Warsaw. The interview was conducted over breakfast at the Deux Maggots , a popular Left Bank cafe where art students and French literati flock mid-morning to dunk croissants and read book reviews in Le Matin. Fuller arrived early, wearing a blue windbreaker, scuffed track shoes, and an Iowa farmboy grin. During the next several hours the soft-spoken physicist held his own with the bells across the street in St. Germain-des-Pres, Paris's oldest church, and expounded on everything from the arms race to advertising. Some excerpts:

The world is looking for answers to war and peace. Are we asking the right questions?

Not really. The question people in the peace movement should ask themselves is, ''What would you do with your life tomorrow morning if God said there won't ever be another war?''

Every peacemaker better have a good answer, such as ''I'd go fishing or collect photographs of grasses.'' Chances are, they're searching for peace with a certain hidden element of belligerence, attacking somebody, some enemy, domestic or foreign.

My ultimate question is, ''Is there a better game than war?'' War has been an activity that men and women have played and have loved, and if we're ever going to transcend warmaking it's crucial we admit our own eternal fascination with its moments of individual exhilaration, camaraderie, nobility, and glory. The Mo Tzu Project is an attempt to invent that ''better game,'' to meet the same objectives of war and make them fun.

How do you meet the objectives of war?

Wars in history have been caused by material deprivation, or by greed, which is the fear of deprivation. Ending hunger is a way of reducing the probabilities of war, an activity we can't afford to play anymore. It's too dangerous a spectator sport.

The key question for me a few years ago was, ''Is disarmament itself a realistic goal for the peace movement?'' The answer was ''No.'' Then the question became, ''Is peace a proper goal for the peace movement?'' And again the answer came up ''No.''

Peace is the absence of a very exciting activity, war. Nobody ever opted for nothing in place of something. Expressing peace as antiwar says only what you're against. You've got to figure out what it is you are actually for. Otherwise, peace sounds like all serenity and bliss.

If you look at who favors peace and quiet, it's usually the privileged. People who are hungry and oppressed never want peace and the status quo. They are willing to make revolution and war to produce food and justice.

So how does Mo Tzu fit in?

My definition of ''Mo Tzuing'' is finding what you love within what you hate. Until you know what you love in what you hate, you can't hold your hatred in its proper subordinate place and get past it.

The minute you find what you love in someone else, you're more powerful yourself. That's the real meaning of power in the 21st century. Our only real safety today is not in getting rid of weapons; it's in inoculating ourselves against acting out of our fear of each other.

Disarmament and the nuclear freeze are false issues?

If we got rid of our nuclear arms, we would have enough conventional arms to make a war that would make the Second World War look like a picnic. The bombing of Dresden at the end of the Second World War killed 300,000 people - three times as many as the atom bomb at Hiroshima. There's no great increase in safety offered by anything we can do in disarmament in the next decades.

So what's our next move? Take the arms race, for starters.

The other day I was running around the track and realized no matter how fast I ran, my shadow kept up with me. That's the arms race, a race with one's own shadow. No matter how fast you go, the other guy's going to keep up with you and stay connected to you. In fact, he is you, the shadow side of yourself you don't like. The Russians are our shadow. We project on them all the stuff we fear in ourselves, and vice versa.

What American shadows are the Russians wearing?

We fear we can't live up to, or honor, our own ideals. So we project that all on the Russians, saying they don't care about liberty, justice, and equality. In fact, they do - but in reverse order.

How real is the Soviet ''threat''?

They threaten us because they are afraid of us. There's nothing more dangerous than a very scared bear and a very scared eagle. The threat isn't so much that they're sitting there hoping to conquer our land. They couldn't run it if they had it.

How can the superpowers end up trusting one another?

Building trust by exchanging symphony orchestras and ping-pong teams is certainly not the answer in coming decades. We have poised weapons which, in less that a half an hour, can incinerate each other's nation. You can take conscious steps to reduce that fear of each other - for example, the agreements we have with the Soviets to give them advance notice of missile firings and troop exercises.

There is a sense of potency and vitality in the Soviet people that is matched in my experience only by Americans. It has to do with being the citizens of a superpower. The big difference I noticed in the Soviet people comes from having suffered over centuries. They do not have a kind of naive optimistic faith in the future that Americans tend to have, so they're less experimental and resourceful.

Nobody really wants a war, so what's the subtle attraction?

Why do some discussions turn into arguments and some arguments into shouting matches? There's a release that comes from simplification, usually oversimplification. Initially, it feels better to scream than to hold it in. The spasm of natural violence that we are now capable of delivering unto each other is the ultimate nuclear spasm. You might say we, in the 20th century, have stolen God's fire for a second time. Though this time the fire doesn't just burn your finger - it can destroy your civilization. The limits that places on our impulse to escalate violence are going to transform the nature of the human animal.

As a graduate student at Princeton and Berkeley, you worked with the scientists who fathered America's atomic weapons. What are your memories of those days?

Most of the men who worked on nuclear energy and weapons had an infectious boyishness about them. For five years, Oppenheimer, Fermi, Teller and Wheeler were part of my daily life. All of the graduate students felt completely dazzled by them.

There's something pretty heady about creating stars?

It's the same headiness that a 10-year-old experiences when he sets off his first detonation of gunpowder.

Were you that 10-year-old?

Yeah. As a kid I had this volcano that was an inverted flower pot. I set a charge of gunpowder laced with magnesium, and then detonated it from 100 feet away with a toaster wire connected to my train transformer. I took it to school one day, and it made me a hero. The power of the explosion rubbed off on me.

That's the way it was for the nuclear physicists of the '40s, '50s, and '60s. The very men who were releasing this physical energy were also walking the corridors of power in Washington. A few of them, such as Oppenheimer, felt ambivalent, but it was irresistible to proceed, despite your doubts, despite your moral qualms. Anyone would have done it.

And yet you gave it up?

I began to change in the '60s. My politics were opposite most of my professors on civil rights and Vietnam. I became so involved with these social issues I was drawn into college administration, and very swiftly moved to the top.

Student protesters of the '60s seemed to warn us of crises just around the corner: Watergate, inflation, the environment. What are students telling us today?

Young people are warning us about the colossal danger of warmaking, and the colossal danger of the Puritan work ethic. My generation always did its homework and mowed the lawn. And my teen-ager's willingness to accept not being prominent or becoming famous goes against every value my generation was reared on. But there isn't room for that many important, famous people, and a lot of them do a lot of harm.

You spend a year here in Paris studying mathematics. How did that discipline alter your vision?

Very deeply. In political economy, the focus has always been on who has what privilege, what power. The prevailing view is: ''If I've got something, you don't have it,'' which certainly makes for a predisposition to dispute. A mathematician doesn't assume, for example, that my loss is your gain. A zero-sum game is one in which my gain exactly equals your loss, but there are also non-zero sum games in which it's possible that we could both gain.

Kenya can't make microchips and America can't grow cocoa beans. So they swap and they're both better off, even though both paid for the transaction. In politics, too, we've got to hold out for that solution in which everybody experiences a win simultaneously.

Diplomacy is called the art of restraining power. Are you redefining that notion?

Power is redefined every century. We're now leaving behind power as military coercion. Economic coercion is still legitimate, attempts to sell countries and companies, but limits to that are very much in the air. In the '60s we did begin to experience the power of music, art, and poetry in the nonviolent movements of Gandhi and King.

What about the sheer power of truth, the power of a good idea?

When an idea's time has come, it can start a fire. Its content and expression can move like a sharp knife through soft butter and establish a resonance in everyone who's exposed to it. The job of us nonpoliticians is to hone ideas and rhetoric so that when it is spoken by politicans from a public forum, it moves people toward better goals, such as feeding the world and eliminating warmaking.

Don't diminish the contribution of a good adman. The final polishing of what initially occurs as a vague philosophical idea isn't that far from what a good adman does. Just think what Stokely Carmichael did to distill it all down into two words: ''black power.'' They absolutely catalyzed the nation into a new view of civil rights. Crafting rhetoric so that it speaks to millions and releases energy is a legitimate function of advertising. The fact that they sell unworthy objects with these techniques is beside the point.

How is Mo Tzu diplomacy any more effective that the more conventional State Department style?

The human quality of Mo Tzuing is compelling. When people see that we're nonpartisan, they cease being as righteous or defensive. They look for at least a theoretical solution to conflict, which leaves both parties with their self-respect. They sense they both own a piece of the truth. If $5 billion, or 1 percent of the money we're now spending on defense internationally - over half a trillion dollars - were spent globally on large-scale citizen exchanges like Mo Tzu, in just five or 10 years we could create real inertia against war.

In the meantime, until you get the $5 billion, how do you cope with the feeling that your effort is just a drop in the bucket?

A dozen people immersed in a foreign culture does feel like a drop in the bucket. Yet it seems there is nothing more important to do with my life. When you throw a stone in a lake, you don't see the water level rise. Yet you know the stone's sitting on the bottom of the lake. And the lake must be bigger for it.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.