Why “Peace” is not a good goal for a country or community

And what they should aim for instead

“Peace” is a utopian state that is basically impossible to achieve.

Countries and communities often talk about “peace” as their stated goal, even when they are not “at war” which we often think of as the opposite of “peace”.

And you can understand why: “peace” is such a great word. It means basically whatever you want it to mean and has whatever meaning your audience wants to hear. “Peace” has become a great brand and a marketing tool for selling just about anything because of this difference in perceived meaning.

“War” and “Peace”

At a minimum, “peace” means a lack of violence. This is where Johan Galtung, one of the founders of the peace studies field, has noted that the term “peace” should always be considered problematic because it is constantly evolving. Galtung agreed with other scholars that peace is the absence of violence, but his definition of violence was a bit, shall we say, expansive.

For Galtung, violence was any avoidable limitation on human potential. Basically a lack of social justice is violence and social justice is peace (thus, “no justice, no peace”).

For the vast majority of scholars, violence is a directly measured outcome seen in human casualties, destruction of property, and other physical manifestations of harm.

Galtung might be more accurate, but his definition makes empirical analysis really difficult. What other scholars lose in accuracy, they gain in precision by having measurable results. Once you have these, it’s not that much of a stretch to compare these numbers with other variables.

With that in mind, we know a lot about violence in the world.

First, since the end of the World War 2, most conflicts have been intrastate — that is, civil wars. Since the end of the Cold War, the disparity is even greater. Countries are much more likely to go to war internally than externally.

Second, the majority of all violent conflicts are the continuation of older conflicts. Once a country emerges from violent conflict, it has a 40% chance of having renewed violent conflict within 10 years. Having had a violent conflict in the last 10 years is the single best predictor of whether you will have a conflict this year.

Third, poor governance, corruption, and lack of economic growth are the main “return to conflict” risk factors for countries that had violence in the preceding 10 years.

“Peacefulness” or “The State of Being Full of Peace”?

Along with violent conflict, there is widespread agreement on a few broad elements of what makes a country peaceful over the long-term. “Peaceful” here means consistently avoiding violent conflict and reaping the benefits of peace. These happen to be the same factors that hold countries back in a cycle of violence.

The relative stability of these traits is linked with the relative stability of countries in the “peaceful” category, as they are the most often to be on what is sometimes termed the “virtuous cycle of peacefulness” .

Virtuous cycles of peacefulness and vicious cycles of violence are created and supported by political and economic institutions. Some scholars have noted that what makes a place peaceful or not is the level of its inclusivity and extraction.

Inclusive political institutions will have checks and balances within governing structures and broad participation in decision-making, while also having a sufficient amount of centralization to place be able to enforce rule of law. Inclusive economic institutions will support and regulate relatively free internal and external markets, while supporting private property rights from state expropriation and private invention for creative destruction.

Extractive political and economic institutions on the other hand will have highly concentrated, unchecked authority in the hands of a minority elite group. In both political and economic realms, these elites will erect large barriers for any person, group, or entity to compete with the controlling group. What also tends to occur in these environments is the consolidation of economic and political power among the same group of elites, whereas in more peaceful countries, economic and political elites tend to remain separated.

Creating Peaceful Societies

The components of a peaceful society — as exemplified by the traits of inclusive political and economic institutions — are largely dependent on three countervailing forces.

These forces push countries on paths toward peacefulness and economic development:

1 — the separation of those who control economic institutions from those who control political ones as a check on the power of both

2 — the centralization of authority for both types of institutions; and,

3 — the diffusion of decision making within institutions for the broadest possible participation.

All three of the peacefulness forces are mutually reinforcing and peaceful countries tend to have all three in large amounts. The mutual reinforcement also means that weakness in one area can drag down overall peacefulness and the strength of the other forces, a phenomenon described as virtuous and vicious cycles of peacefulness. There is also substantial debate as to whether strength in political institutions causes strength in economic institutions or vice-versa.

And when you look at all three, they are relatively straight forward to manage, but it is very difficult to get those in power on board with them. It is a simple, but hard problem.

How, for instance, do you convince a highly centralized state that it should include everyone in its decision making processes? This makes decisions slower and less efficient, but makes the overall society much more peaceful allowing for unseen efficiencies largely coming from the benefits of trust.

How do you convince political and economic elites that they have to choose? Either you get to dominate politics and lose your economic power or dominate economics and lose your political power — why would the powerful want to give up either?

Because it would make the communities they live in better, stronger, more resilient, and more peaceful.

Professor. Lawyer. Researcher. Writer. I help people learn to run better, more sustainable businesses and be better humans. Opinions my own.

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