Taming the Pentagon and More: A Funder's Quest to Build a New Peace Movement

The Cold War ended a quarter century ago, but you'd almost never know it given the scope of U.S. defense spending and the continued forward deployment of U.S. military forces worldwide. Combating terrorism, of course, has been a key driver of national security spending since 2001, but it's easy to forget that the likes of ISIS and al-Qaeda are minor foes compared to the former Soviet bloc. 

One reason that the Pentagon has remained so generously funded long after the Cold War's end is that few voices challenge this spending. Last year, for example, there was strikingly little public debate over outlays for U.S. national security that totaled $989.7 billion for 2015. 

This spending crowds out investments in any number of areas that foundations care about—education, health, science, the environment, etc.—but surprisingly few funders engage in grantmaking to bring more critical scrutiny to the military budget or build a peace movement that can balance the strong special interests that favor high security spending, as well as interventions overseas. 

One funder that is working this case is the Colombe Foundation. 

Managed by the Proteus Fund, Colombe aims to foster a “shift from wasteful military spending to investments in programs that create real national security grounded in meeting human and environmental needs.” As well, it "supports organizations that advocate for foreign policy that is balanced with diplomacy and prevention rather than dominated by Cold War threats, war and aggression."

We recently caught up with Dini Merz, who guides Colombe's work at Proteus, to get her thoughts on the current security landscape, the future of the peace movement, and Colombe’s approach to bringing increased scrutiny to the U.S. military budget.

According to Merz, Columbe has “always focused on traditional peace and security issues like anti-war and anti-weapons of mass destruction,” all of which are inextricably linked to defense spending—an issue that drew new attention from Colombe beginning around 2011.

It was around that time when Merz and Colombe founder Edie Allen began to notice growing political apprehension about the federal deficit from all sides. These concerns created an opening for a new debate about the military budget that could escape the age-old deadlock on this issue between liberals and conservatives. Instead, it was possible to imagine a new "transpartisan" constellation of voices coming together to fight Pentagon excess that included both Tea Party types committed to fiscal austerity, and progressives interested in redirecting federal resources elsewhere. 

Merz and Allen saw the potential to “really widen the conversation to bring in new players, because we were finding in Congress it’s easy to marginalize people on the left. It’s a lot harder to marginalize a coalition that is transpartisan.”

The campaign that emerged, starting in 2012, included National Security Network, Women’s Action for New Directions, Win Without War, and the Project on Government Oversight. But it also included theNational Taxpayers Union.

In uniting unusual suspects with very different motives, it was important to be agnostic about how to use the savings generated by cuts in national security spending. That was a point that liberals and libertarians would never be able to agree on. 

Four years on, the campaign has resulted in new challenges to military spending and has garnered support from funders such as the Arca and Compton foundations, as well as the Fund for Nonviolence. 

Meanwhile, Colombe is seeking to foster a stronger peace movement broadly—another challenge that has required new thinking. 

A major problem, here, is that there is a chasm between the—let’s face it—old, white and dying field of nuclear security and peacebuilding and a younger generation that didn’t grow up under a cloud of nuclear threat or cinematic portrayals of a post-apocalyptic nuclear landscape. Even 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq in 2003 can seem like ancient history to young Millennials. 

While some areas of progressive politics have been teeming with new energy and activism (economic justice comes to mind), the area of peace and security feels like a sleepy backwater. National security spending may be edging close to a trillion dollars annually; U.S. military forces may be engaged in constant action abroad; and nuclear threats may actually be as scary—or scarier—than ever. But it's hard to see a peace movement that's getting much traction. All this is very much on the minds of Colombe, as well as select other funders who've been in this space over the long haul. 

“Colombe has been dedicated to the grassroots peace movement from its inception,” said Merz, “but as time has gone on, I’ve noticed that the grantees have become less and less effective and less and less politically relevant.” That reality led the foundation to take a deep dive into what Merz referred to as the “new organizing.”

While Colombe continues to support its defense budget work, it is launching a new way of strategic thinking about the peacebuilding field. Beginning much as it did with its budget campaign, Colombe began reaching across different divides by getting together with leaders from the current peacebuilding movement, as well as those from various grassroots movements such as women’s rights and environmental causes.

A major purpose of this initial outreach was to gauge the general perception of what the peace movement meant to organizers fighting for causes that are, on the surface, seemingly disparate—when, in fact, they are deeply intertwined. At the same time, Colombe was keeping a larger goal in mind—finding out how to bridge the gap between peacebuilding veterans of the old school and a new generation of activists.

The path to bridging that gap, Merz said, “was not particularly clear.” But the research did indicate that the interest was there. A great many activists of all stripes understand the need to work for a more peaceful world and also tame the excesses of today's national security establishment.

But what's the right way to make this happen in a dynamic way that can shape policy? Said Merz: “Is there a way to move forward together—addressing wars abroad while also addressing wars in communities? Is there a way for the peace movement and new organizing to come together to forge new alliances?”

To answer those questions, the foundation is moving carefully and in a manner that is respectful to both veteran and new organizers, seeking new ways to get traction on peace and security issues. “That might mean we have to change the definition of peace. It might mean we have to change how we go about the work. And that’s going to be hard for old-style peace movement people,” Merz said.

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