To get peace, we must first understand the causes and logic of war.
Today is the International Day of Peace proclaimed by the United Nations. It recalls the noble words of its 1945 charter to save us “from the scourge of war.” Thus, the work of generations of politicians, diplomats and security forces has been framed by the dogma that war is always bad and peace is an undeniable good that must prevail.
War per se is not illegal. The UN Charter allows combating crimes of aggression. The concept of “just war” also exists in international humanitarian law. War can also be necessary, even moral. In the past, genocides and crimes against humanity were ended with violence.
At the same time, our record of peacemaking is unimpressive. In the last half century, it’s hard to think of many armed conflicts that have truly and completely ceased. Instead, most of them grumble and cook up or down regularly. Think of the historic conflicts in Palestine or Kashmir, or the many battles on the periphery of Myanmar, or the uprisings in the Maghreb and Sahel. Many national authorities are grappling with persistent internal divisions, for example in Pakistan, which is facing unrest in tribal areas, and South Sudan, which has experienced ethnic violence.
Internationally, the UN has spent billions of dollars and deployed tens of thousands of peacekeepers in numerous countries. Dozens of UN envoys, as well as those from regional organizations such as the European Union, African Union and ASEAN, criss-crossed war zones. Think tanks and non-governmental organizations are busy, peace-building projects abound, and peace conferences headed by eminent personalities fill the calendar.
Some efforts are sanctified by momentous UN Security Council resolutions on the increasingly rare opportunities for consensus among the great powers. The stick and the carrot are being dangled by sanctions and relief incentives.
But this well-rehearsed modus operandi of the peace deal brings meager returns. It can put a temporary end to the violence as pressured protagonists sign every piece of paper that offers a breather and an opportunity to regroup. Then the conflict flares up again until the next ceasefire or “peace agreement”. And so the cycle continues.
Worse, there is concern that premature interference in the peace will prolong conflicts, as has happened in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Korean Peninsula. Because conflicts only end when they are ready for it. Ideally, this would be when the underlying causes or differences are resolved, including accountability and justice for wrongs done. But in reality that hardly ever happens, and so wars only end when one side has decisively won. Think of World War II or the Vietnam War.
But modern warfare is multidimensional and much more resilient, especially when outside sponsors intervene on different sides. The duration of any eventual peace depends on two key factors. First is the viciousness of the way the earlier war was fought. The reality is that today, appalling atrocities are the norm and raped, tortured, starved, dispossessed survivors are in no mood to reconcile with their attackers. Then comes the second factor – the magnanimity or wisdom of the victors. This is almost always in short supply.
The irony is that while we know a lot about making war, we’re not smart about making peace. It’s easy to bestow Nobel Peace Prizes, but many winners are embarrassed when their efforts don’t stand the test of time. Prominent examples include former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Ethiopian President Abiy Ahmed.
For this reason, all peace is temporary, and once a society has experienced violence, it is perpetually vulnerable to it, especially when Hollywood, Bollywood, and Netflix myth-makers shape history’s memory.
We should therefore not be surprised that endless armed conflicts have accumulated over the decades: around 170 of different types are raging around the world today. The number of people killed directly in combat has increased to 120,000 in the past year, roughly triple the mortality rate in the early 2000s. Such statistics give an incomplete picture of the human cost of war, as they underestimate the indirect consequences, which mostly affect civilians. These have proliferated in recent decades as wars become longer and more vicious. The United Nations estimates that a quarter of the world’s population – two billion people – currently live in conflict zones.
The War and Peace Theory says this shouldn’t be the case. As more of us become educated, healthier, and more prosperous, we should become more peace-loving, for that serves our self-interest of achieving stable prosperity. Also, we should have less reason to fear or fight others when more of our essential needs are met and more of our higher needs for voice and esteem are realized through representative democracy.
Even if we do that, we have a plethora of norms and demands, laws and institutions that limit us. Therefore, our disputes – within communities and nations or between them – should be settled calmly, based on the rationality of the facts and a balanced give and take.
Indeed, global indicators of poverty reduction, human development and institutional capacity suggest that despite periodic crises, including the current energy and food crises, we have made historically unprecedented progress across most economic, social and political dimensions. But that did not bring world peace. Does that mean the theory is wrong?
Not necessarily, as history also suggests that more education and development will bring greater enlightenment about what is wrong in our world and the entitlement and ability to do something about it. We have fought for most of our social and political progress.
For example, all of the human rights we take for granted today were won through struggle. This happened first in a pioneering setting, and then when certain rights, such as food and water, the right to vote, or freedom from torture, were codified, they became universal.
But without the solid defense of hard-won rights, they easily turn into injustices, sparking new conflicts. And some rights have yet to be fully realized everywhere, like the right for women and girls to study in Afghanistan or have reproductive choices in parts of the United States.
Those who enjoy such rights in peace and comfort have no moral right to prevent others from acquiring them. While peaceful means are preferable, conflict often ensues when authoritarian regimes thwart progress.
Looking ahead, even more conflict looms with new geopolitical tensions and new uncertainties brought on by climate change, pandemics, resource competition and dysfunctional globalization. These lead to violence as inequalities within and between societies increase and people around the world continue to fight against their interests to win new human rights.
Every conflict has a logic that must be understood before facing it fairly and equitably in order for the resulting peace to be sustainable. Otherwise, we may be forced to give conflict a chance first in order to achieve peace.