Archive | March, 2022

Let’s talk about peace

15 Mar

Let’s talk about peace

For obvious reasons, there is a lot of war commentary around. Much of it is a bit too interested in military matters for my liking and seems disinterested in wider political and cultural issues that are needed to stop the war on Ukraine and further wars. Stopping the horrific attacks on civilians in Ukraine is necessary and urgent. But can we go further? Can we also ask questions about how it was possible for this war to start in the first place and how we might prevent further wars like this one beginning in the future?

There is – of course – a ready-made negotiating space in place in the shape of the United Nations. But, of course, leading states have worked hard to make sure that the United Nation’s multilateral approach is always subservient to the unilateral solo-runs by those same leading states. That most of us need a few moments to remember the name of the UN Secretary General tells us all we need to know about the current status of the UN.

We seem to be in a 1930s moment: war and militarism raging in Europe and elsewhere; commodity price are experiencing shock after shock; the cost of living crisis is real and fuelled by globalised capital; an ugly populist nationalism is on the rise in many states (including the UK and US); and resurgent states are brazenly upsetting the “international order”. That international order was always precarious and the nostalgia for a “rules-based international order” contains more than a few comforting myths about just how good it was. It was better than nothing but deeply flawed and based on fundamental economic and racial inequalities.

One major difference between the 1930s and the current era is the lack of thinking about peace. The period after WWI saw a number of public intellectuals, many of them personally traumatised by the War, think seriously about peace and an international system that could ensure peace. It is easy to criticise much of this thinking as naïve, too insulated in fashionable literary sets, and removed from the “realities” of the “real business” of statehood. But one thing that was very present in the peace thinking of the 1920s and 1930s was creativity. Initiatives like the Peace Union Pledge, or the thinking behind the League of Nations, required imagination and modes of thinking that were different from the orthodoxy (an orthodoxy that was based on a balance of power and occasional war to “rebalance” the system). What the pioneers of the 1920s and 1930s were doing was thinking about a peace system rather than a war system. Looking around now, it is difficult to hear the public intellectuals who are thinking about a peace system. Those thinkers are there, of course, it just seems that in the midst of war no one wants to talk about peace.

It is particularly worrying to see NATO being touted as the answer to Europe’s problems (there are of prominent voices pushing for Finland and Sweden to hastily join NATO). It needs to be said with clarity that NATO is a nuclear armed military alliance. It is not in the business of peace. It normalises militarism and nuclear weapons (arms manufacturers love it). But the nature of military alliances is that those who feel threatened by the alliance make their own alliance and tool up. It is a classic security dilemma or vicious circle of armament and re-armament. An emphasis on NATO will not lead to peace in Europe. At most it will lead to a militarised Europe subservient to the United States and a hyper nervous Russia and China (anyone relaxing at this thought?).

So is it possible to think of a peace system rather than a war system? Is it possible to think of routeways to de-escalation and mediation? Is it possible to think of systems that do not reinforce the logic of war? In the current situation that is a tall order. The necessity to stop the assault on Ukraine clouds out most other thoughts.

If we were to sit down and think about an international peace architecture, would it look radically different from the United Nations? Any new system would need to be as universal as possible, to set down acceptable and unacceptable behaviours, to have mechanisms for mediation and intervention, to have humanitarian capabilities, and to have its own powers of initiative. So a new system would look a lot like the current one. But, fundamentally, it would need to prioritise peace over ceasefires and humanitarianism. This would mean moving beyond the veto powers held by the “winners” of WWII, recognising that Africa and South America exist, and that many of us transnational lives that have very ambiguous relationships with states. An international peace architecture that reflected realities would be tolerant of the multiple ways that we identify – with families, clans, social and cultural movements, professional associations, sexual orientation, and spirituality etc. It would move far beyond the current state-centric stitch up.

All of this might sound dreadfully naïve, but then those pioneers of humanitarianism, mediation and multilateralism were derided as dreadfully naïve. They started out from a recognition of the horrors of war (many of them experienced it first hand) but needed imagination and creativity to think a-new. Do the men we see in suits in the news have that imagination?