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Is war a pre-requisite for peace?

NU London | July 1, 2018

Is war a pre-requisite for peace?

By Anna Cleary

Northeastern University London Essay Competition 2018 Third Place

 Peace, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is the absence or the end of war. So on one level, peace is a negative concept. It cannot exist without war, just as death is a meaningless concept without life. For some, however, “true” peace is a positive concept, signifying harmony in world affairs, or perhaps well managed social conflict.

There has long been a tension between those who regard war as inevitable and in certain circumstances necessary, righteous and preferable to an “unjust” peace; and those who regard war as always and everywhere an evil that can and should be eradicated. From a religious perspective, it is a tension between those who regard humankind as by nature “fallen” and ever ready to succumb to the temptations of power, greed, fear and xenophobia; and those who look forward to the perfectibility of human nature and human institutions.

There is plenty of authority for the view that, in a chaotic and bloodthirsty world, war and the threat of violence are the essential building blocks for peace and stability. Thinkers in the ancient world, from China to Greece to Rome, regarded military might as essential for the maintenance of international order. The Chinese General Sun Tzu advised “In peace prepare for war, in war prepare for peace”; Aristotle noted that “We make war that we may live in peace”; while the Roman General Vegetius remarked “If you want peace, prepare for war”. More recently, this “realist” view of international relations was echoed by US President Theodore Roosevelt when he coined the phrase “speak softly, but carry a big stick”.

Nor is it simply a question of the use of the threat of force as a deterrent in order to avert war and safeguard peace. It is also a matter of being prepared to use force to combat aggression or injustice: war being preferable to a “cowardly peace”. At the beginning of the 20th Century G K Chesterton was one of the strongest voices in the UK arguing for a robust response to the spectre of German militarism. He argued that just as any liberal-minded person would defend the right of people to rise up in revolt against oppression, we must also admit that wars can be necessary and just: “If he [a liberal] permits revolt, he is permitting war”.

Chesterton’s thinking of course drew on centuries of Catholic teaching on the “just war”. The writings of St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas provided the foundation for the just war doctrine of “legitimate defence by military force”. Resort to war was justified if it was waged for a just cause and with just intentions, if other options had proved useless, if the force used was proportionate to the danger, and if there was a reasonable prospect of success. In such circumstances, just war may be the only right and feasible path open to us to restore a just peace. By contrast, appeasement or surrender does not preserve peace but rather enables injustice to rule. The appeaser, as Winston Churchill memorably said in 1940, is one who “hopes that if he feeds a crocodile, the crocodile will eat him last”.

Equally, there is a long pacifist tradition, evident not least in Jesus’ exhortation to “love thy enemy” and “turn the other cheek”. More recently Mahatma Gandhi propounded the superiority of non-violent resistance using the concepts of ahimsa and satyagraha, and his commitment to non-violence was only strengthened by the destructive potential of atomic weaponry. Martin Luther King’s successfully led non-violent resistance to racial segregation.  Albert Einstein argued that “Peace cannot be kept by force; it can only be achieved by understanding.” In 1963 John F Kennedy issued what might be regarded as a call to arms for opponents of war everywhere when he expounded his vision of “genuine peace….not merely peace in our time but peace for all time…. World peace, like community peace, does not require that each man love his neighbor–it requires only that they live together in mutual tolerance, submitting their disputes to a just and peaceful settlement. And history teaches us that enmities between nations, as between individuals, do not last forever….So let us persevere. Peace need not be impracticable, and war need not be inevitable”.

Nor is the just war tradition without its detractors. A 2016 conference co-hosted by Pax Christi and the Vatican’s pontifical council argued for a new framework, proposing that the Catholic Church shift away from the concept of just war “to a Just Peace approach based on Gospel non-violence”.

Many, perhaps most of us, would consider war justified as a last resort in order to prevent genocide or protect human lives and human rights. Yet war is always destructive, kills innocent people, and war “will always threaten human rights in the theatres in which it is played out, and at home”.

While there are certainly no easy answers to the moral and philosophical issues raised by war and its consequences, from a purely practical and historical perspective is there evidence to support President Kennedy’s belief that war is not inevitable? Once again, there are two schools of thought.  Some argue that human history, and especially recent centuries, have witnessed a sharp decrease in fighting and violent mortality. The rise of the nation state, with its monopoly of violence, helped establish internal order and peace. Since then, the incentives to maintain peace have strengthened in the form of increasing economic interdependence, while the costs and risks of war are becoming prohibitive due to nuclear weapons, new vulnerabilities such as cyber warfare, and the apparent lesson of recent history that wars are becoming increasingly difficult to win.

Critics of this optimistic assessment assert that the 20th Century was the most violent and murderous on record – a hundred years of almost unbroken conflict: “the most terrible century in western history” as Isaiah Berlin lamented. Violence was ever-present, and even where “peace” appeared to be restored, people in reality were living a “cold war” under the shadow of mutually assured destruction.

That cold war was evidence of a further trend – the blurring of the boundaries between war and peace. As Eric Hobsbawm noted in 2002, the “clear distinction between war and peace” has become obscure. The political relationship between Israelis and Palestinians cannot be properly described as either peace or war. For over 60 years North and South Korea have endured a sometimes fragile ceasefire, with no peace agreement in sight. Wars are waged via proxies in the Middle East and the Horn of Africa, or external intervention is denied, as in Ukraine. In times of “peace”, states wage “war” against terrorism, against drugs, or indeed against any of a range of social evils. States use legal arguments based on war to justify the targeting of their own citizens in drone strikes in third countries or the imprisonment of suspects without trial. War and peace have become “false binaries” when war-fighting and counter-insurgency have been framed as elements of post-war reconstruction, while peaceful reconstruction efforts often occur in the midst of  wars.

The question therefore we face today may not be whether war is a prerequisite for peace, but whether war and peace can be disentangled. The problem may lie less in the soul of man than in our political organisation. The sociologist Charles Tilly has argued that war and the nation state are inextricably linked. War has been crucial for the formation of the nation state, and remains crucial for its continuation. Anthony Giddens similarly views a link between the internal pacification of states and their external violence. It may be that, if we want a durable peace, a peace built on something other than war, we need to consider how to construct societies based on something other than the nation state and its monopoly of violence. That was undoubtedly the primary motivating factor behind the creation of the European Union – an attempt to foster interdependence and reduce the significance of national frontiers in order to never again experience the horrors of war in Europe. The decision of the UK, the strongest military power in Europe, to withdraw from the European Union and restore its national sovereignty might suggest that the internationalist goal may be a utopia. But as Oscar Wilde wrote in “The Soul of Man under Socialism”: “a map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at…Progress is the realisation of utopias.”


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