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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?


Ireland is already united – it’s just that a lot of people haven’t noticed.

2 Jan

The prospect of a united Ireland has moved up the political agenda in the midst of Brexit uncertainty, but Ireland already has been united – to all intents and purposes – for many years. This united Ireland is one forged in the everyday activities of millions of people on the island. It is a united Ireland of travel patterns, family relationships, businesses, sport and culture that work around (or more precisely – across) the border. It is a united Ireland that is embodied, enacted and lived.

This notion of a united Ireland is based on a sociological understanding of politics and society that sees politics (and most aspects of life) as a verb – something to be enacted through everyday living rather than a noun – something that is declared by constitutions and political leaders.* The actual behaviour of many people on the island of Ireland is one that traverses the political and economic border and renders it an anachronism. Examples of this abound: people working in Belfast but living in Dublin (less than two hours journey time in the car), over a million passengers per year from Northern Ireland using Dublin airport, the thousands of northerners who attend stadium concerts in Dublin every year, and the all-island sports of rugby, GAA and many others that see people cross the border every weekend. Added to this are the thousands of businesses that trade on both sides of the border, the huge number of northerners with second homes in Donegal (in the Republic of Ireland), and the countless shopping trips that criss-cross the border on a daily basis.

Those waiting for formal united Ireland – one enshrined by a constitution and recognised by the United Nations – may have some time to wait. Brexit uncertainty has made the prospect of a vote for a formal creation of a united Ireland more realistic, but it is hard to see a united Ireland coming about without opposition from Northern Ireland’s unionist population. And the Brexit-supporting English political elite would probably re-discover the value of the Union if it was really in jeopardy. The blue-prints of project fear, which worked so well during the Scottish independence referendum, would be dusted off and the massed ranks of the pro-Union media and the English Establishment (it really does exist) would be energised.

The beauty of the de facto united Ireland is that trenchant unionists can avoid it. They don’t have to travel south if they don’t want to. They can fashion lives that are British, unionist and have little to do with the Republic of Ireland. It is still possible (indeed all too easy) to lead lives that are segregated from political and religious others; 90 percent of children still attend either all Catholic or all Protestant schools. Social housing is still overwhelmingly segregated according to religion – as is the private sector. The cultural hegemony of a British unionist identity has taken a battering as Irish (or Catholic nationalist) identities have grown in confidence (and gained economic power). Yet, it is still possible to be proudly British and avoid the de facto united Ireland.

To some extent this united Ireland has been enabled macro-political developments – most importantly the removal of the hard security border in the wake of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. And there have been some formal cross-border cooperation in the health and energy sectors. But, to a large extent, this united Ireland has occurred in spite of macro-political developments: people have just got on with their lives. People want to see Bruce Springsteen playing in Dublin so they cross the border; they want cheaper booze in Tesco in Newry so they cross the border; they want to spend their summer holidays in Donegal so they cross the border. This ‘getting on with it’ is the default activity of most people where circumstances allow. Despite the Troubles, people still had to hold down jobs, get the kids to school and engage in elder care. The border was a massive inconvenience during the dark days of the Troubles, but many people ignored it as best they could. The same is true today.

Brexit has simultaneously complicated and clarified things. The complication comes from the fact that no one – and certainly not the British government – can tell the impact of the withdrawal from the European Union on everyday lives. The clarification comes – if it were ever needed – in making it clear that the vast majority of people in England know nothing about, and care even less about, Northern Ireland, Ireland and border life. Indeed, British Home Secretary Priti Patel’s comments on food shortages in Ireland in the event of a crash out Brexit make clear the extent to which a couldn’t care less attitude sits comfortably at the apex of government. In the face of such attitudes, and in the face of similar attitudes over the decades, people have just got on with living an all-Ireland life as best they can. This has accelerated in recent years as people have become richer, safer, more mobile, and gotten used to free movement across Europe. This united Ireland is here to stay – and very probably will become more entrenched – regardless of the ‘un-care’ from Downing Street.

*This notion of everyday politics lies at the heart of the Everyday Peace Indicators research programme (

Donald Trump’s false proclamation of the end of liberal internationalism

23 Aug

Donald Trump’ s August 2017 speech on Afghan and South Asian policy was quite remarkable in its bellicose tone. In recent history at least, many foreign policy speeches are heavily coded with diplomatic phraseology in which threats and leverage are muted. As we have come to expect with Trump, the language was that of a barroom brawl. Whether ‘we know who we are and what we are fighting for’, or references to American ‘warriors’ and American ‘warfighters’, this was a speech that made explicit that the US would deploy military power to achieve its aims. It defined US foreign policy as ‘principled realism’, with the principle being (as far as I can work out) that the US is top-dog and fights to win.

Perhaps one of the most remarkable passages of the speech was its step back from liberal internationalism, or the notion that by spreading liberalism (democracy, trade, rule of law, rights) within and between states will decrease conflict. This notion of the liberal peace (sometimes called the democratic peace) has been a mainstay of peacebuilding and peace support interventions and policies for the last thirty years (although it has a much longer historical pedigree). The finest exposition of liberal internationalism was probably Tony Blair’s 1999 Chicago speech in which he extolled the virtues of righteous intervention against despots, of the liberating potential of trade, and of the need for a community of nations to intervene for the greater good. The ‘liberal peace’ has been manifest in dozens of countries (former Yugoslavia, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guatemala, Cambodia, Bougainville etc.) as international actors have introduced and supported good governance, democratisation and a host of reforms.

Crucially, the US – along with the UK, EU and major international institutions like the World Bank – have been mainstays of this liberal peace. Whether through military force, military advisers, and billions of dollars in assistance and loans, the US has played a key role in spreading the liberal peace and proselytising the virtues of democracy, accountability and liberalism. Obviously there have been bumps along the road, but there has been a good deal of consistency of messaging (if not practice). And then Trump comes along and signals a retreat from liberal internationalism:

“But we will no longer use American military might to construct democracies in faraway lands, or try to rebuild other countries in our own image. Those days are now over. Instead, we will work with allies and partners to protect our shared interests.”

“We are not nation-building again. We are killing terrorists.”

“I share the American people’s frustration. I also share their frustration over a foreign policy that has spent too much time, energy, money, and most importantly lives, trying to rebuild countries in our own image, instead of pursuing our security interests above all other considerations.”

According to these quotations, the US is no longer interested in democratisation and nation-building (more correctly statebuilding) – both key pillars of the liberal peace. The notion and practice of the liberal peace depends on viable and accountable institutions. Without them the liberal peace does not make sense.

Clearly Trump was speaking – in part – to a domestic audience, many of whom will lap up lines about tough love overseas and in order to protect the folks at home. But the idea that you can walk away from the liberal peace is crazy for a state like the US. Notions and practices of liberal internationalism are hard-wired into development and peacebuilding support. If the Trump White House wants any sensible engagement with the rest of the world it is going to have to follow a liberal internationalist path in some respects – otherwise international engagement grinds to a halt.

Trump’s speech demands or hints at the following expectations from overseas clients:

Accountable institutions (“not a blank check”)
Belief in individual rights (“it is up to the people of Afghanistan to take ownership”)
Reform of institutions (“I am a problem-solver”, “we will learn from history”)
Free trade (lots of references to economic development and trade)
Liberal optimism (“allow our children to live better and safer lives”)

All of these are in the liberal internationalist playbook. They all can find intellectual routes in liberalism.

And the odd thing is, even Trump’s speech – for all of its talk about warfighting and realism – also mentions partnership and common interests. He knows – or more likely the more intelligent of his advisors know – that tough talk and military might can only go so far.

Even though Trump’s rhetoric disavows many of the key points of liberal internationalism, he will find that he cannot escape it.

Weeding …. and peace and conflict studies

18 May

Paddy the Dog inspects the heather bed


The heather bed

With less weeds

If you have made it past the title of this blog post then you are a special person. Weeding hardly sets the heart racing. But, in the long summer evenings, I try manage to grab 10 or 15 minutes to weed a heather bed I have been developing in my garden over the past few years (seriously, if you are still reading, you are special). It gives me enormous pleasure, but it also makes me think about the subject I study and how I study it.

With weeds

Here are four thoughts:

Hurrah for mud under your fingernails
The world of work – whether academic study or the administration of connected study and teaching – is full of sophistry. Whether it is the study of international intervention or administrative tasks, there is often a vernacular and a series of postures that are highly artificial and take us away from real world concerns. The language of postcolonialists, the datasets of conflict scientism or the argot of New Public Management mean that we are surrounded by artifice that seems very far removed from real world problems. Weeding, and I guess other apparently mundane tasks like kneeding dough, are good reminders that the ground level exists. It is good to turn up to university meeting with mud under your fingernails – a good reminder that we all have a connection to the soil – even if that is generations ago and even if we go to extraordinary lengths to deny it.

The tough fecundity of the margin

The thing about weeds – unless you use some sort of Agent Orange-type toxic weed-killer – is that they often come back. Obviously you try to take out the roots, although that is not always possible. The weeds are a great reminder of what Iain Sinclair calls ‘the tough fecundity of the margin’ and remind me of the persistence of individuals, communities, identities and ideas against immense odds. Obviously I am not saying that particular groups or individuals are weeds (!) – merely a reminder that communities and ideas often persist in the face violence and discrimination. Weeds that I was sure I had gotten rid of can reappear and multiply. Weeds are ‘inventive’ and ‘resourceful’ in the sense that their roots can be a long distance from any obvious manifestation of the weed in terms of the stem and flower. Often weeds will be rhizomes, with complex root structures underground. Deluze and Guattari have written extensively on the rhizome as a metaphor for multiple sites of authority and initiative. Basically, weeding can make you think about politics as a network.

The local matters
Weeding makes you pay attention to detail – to the hyper or nano-local. Miss a root and the weed will come back. Forget to look under a bush, and a host of weeds might be lurking there, ready to come back next spring. The point is that weeding is not just about taking out the great big thistles and nettles. It is also about taking out the small weeds. That requires going over parts of the garden inch by inch, picking out sometimes tiny weeds. It is a good reminder that the local and context matters in relation to international intervention and local and national responses to that intervention.

One man’s weed is another man’s flower

Of course there are good arguments about whether one should be weeding in the first place. Gardening, after all, is a supremely colonial exercise in which we are imposing a particular type of order on territory. This order depends on a set of aesthetics that prioritise one form of beauty over others. What is striking is that some weeds are quite beautiful. All of this is good for reflecting on international intervention and how, in the name of peace, order or stability, it seeks to impose systems of governance and authority on others. Of course, these prescribed systems often have to compromise when they meet local and national circumstances, expectations and even resistance. All of this brings us to a world of mimicry, hybridity and the need to see intervention as long-term processes involving multiple actors. It also explains why my heather bed is not a complete weed free zone (in fact, it is often quite overgrown with weeds). I have resigned myself to managing the weeds but not eradicating them completely – that would take too much time.

And if you have made it to the end of this blog post then you are extraordinary.

After Nice

15 Jul

How can you deal with an enemy that is truly incorrigible? That is the problem facing western European states (notably France and Belgium) in the face of mass casualty attacks by Islamic State and their affiliates. The playbook that many western states have been using is based on a set of premises that simply do not apply to Islamic State and the lone attackers they inspire. The playbook goes something like this: alongside robust security responses to attacks, we can very probably negotiate with our foes. These negotiations are not about finding some sort of perfect peace. Instead, they are about lowering the costs of violence, seeing if there can be negotiated outcomes on some issues and – cynically – exhausting foes and encouraging splits within their ranks.

The basic premise is one of negotiation. There are, of course, my varieties of negotiation (face-to-face, shuttle, leveraged, pre-conditioned etc.) but the notion of exchanging ideas is constant. But what do states do in the case of opponents that seem to want only one thing: your life? These opponents live in a zero sum world in which there is no prospect of harmonious co-existence between groups.

The obvious response is a security one: if the other party is not open to listening then there is no point in speaking. Yet, security responses have been the default. Britain, France, the US and many other states are engaged in permanent war (with airstrikes in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere) and permanent securitization of travel, infrastructure and key events. Doubtless this has averted many attacks, but events in Paris, Nice, Brussels and elsewhere show that security is less than total and that civilians are likely to be the main victims.

But looking at the profile of the attackers, they seem disaffected individuals and small groups of individuals who feel no stake in the society they live in. This, it strikes me, is more fruitful territory to try to stave off further attacks. This strategy would not please Captain Kneejerk or Colonel Bomb Them Back to the Stone Age. It does not have any immediate pay-off and does not bring a sense of ‘striking back’. There is no guarantee that it will not stop lone actors. As the Anders Brevik case showed, even a society with good social provision can produce disaffected individuals capable of extreme violence.

But minimising disaffection seems to be the best long-term strategy. This would involve multiple measures and be something more than the empty rhetoric of a ‘360 degree response’ (copyright David Cameron’s speechwriter) that delivers the same old nonsense. Minimising disaffection would involve addressing the legacy of colonialism, avoiding pointless and unwinnable wars, an ethical foreign policy (that disassociates western states with serial human rights abusers like Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Israel), a political rhetoric based on understanding the other and – fundamentally – domestic policies of social inclusion that regard ghettoes as unacceptable.

All of this might sound like pie in the sky. But consider, for a moment, the level of disaffection required to make an individual drive a truck through a crowded street – crushing children along the way. This level of indiscrimination came from somewhere. Surely it deserves serious investigation.

Otherwise yet another set of European politicians can don on black clothes, come up with the usual statements, and continue along the same path.

Northern Ireland – another opportunity to miss an opportunity

9 May

Northern Ireland has just held elections for its powerharing Assembly. The results can be best described as ‘steady as you go’. There were no major shocks, with the two largest parties, (the pro-United Kingdom Democratic Unionists, and the pro-united Ireland Sinn Fein) retaining their hold of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister positions. Seats were traded here and there, and two seats for the People Before Profit party should make life in the Assembly a little more colourful, but there are no fundamental changes.

That lack of change means that Northern Ireland is condemned to at least five more years of embedded sectarianism and limited scrutiny of a dysfunctional Assembly packed with (at best) mediocre politicians. The Assembly’s primary role will be to administer the austerity agenda of the London-based Conservative government.

There are other mid-sized parties in Northern Ireland: the former largest unionist party (the Ulster Unionist Party), the former largest nationalist party (the Social Democratic and Labour Party), and the cross-community Alliance Party. These parties had hoped to make breakthroughs in the Assembly elections but that did not happen. The UUP and SDLP were ‘ethnically outbid’ by their in-group rivals the DUP and Sinn Fein respectively.

The powersharing Assembly uses the complicated d’hondt system to apportion seats in the Assembly Executive or cabinet. Up until this stage, that means that the two largest parties, the DUP and Sinn Fein have been joined at the cabinet table by the middle sized parties: the UUP, SDLP and the Alliance. What that means is that everybody is at the table. And no one (apart from the odd independent or micro-party) is left in the Assembly chamber to provide the type of scrutiny and oversight that legislators need. Scrutiny is needed especially given that the already mentioned mediocre calibre of the legislators and the bickering dynamic that is the hallmark of ethnically based parties.

So Northern Ireland is destined for another five years of non-productive nonsense. Electoral participation rates – once the highest in the United Kingdom – have been falling as people realise that the powersharing Assembly talks a lot but delivers very little.

But things could change if the mid-sized parties were brave enough. There are few signs that they possess this bravery. The leaderships of these parties range from the conservative to very conservative in terms of vision, charisma and ability to think critically. But – and let’s suspend belief for a few moments – if the SDLP, UUP and Alliance were prepared to give up the possibility of a seat or two in the Assembly Executive then they would be able to stand outside and try to hold the Executive to account. Joined together they would be the second largest party in the Assembly – more seats than Sinn Fein.

At the moment, the three mid-sized parties trade in their ability to truly scrutinise the Assembly’s operations by accepting a few ministerships. They effectively prop up the dysfunctional Assembly because they want ministerial crumbs (basically, they have positions like Minister for Lettuce or Minister for Bouncy Castles). The DUP and Sinn Fein hold the main ministries and are the driving force behind the Assembly – and the direction of Northern Ireland politics.

The Alliance Party of Northern Ireland fought the Assembly with a series of slogans like ‘Forward faster’ and ‘Better sooner’. More accurate slogans would have been ‘Just the same’, ‘status quo forever’ or ‘nowhere fast’. They, along with the SDLP and UUP, truly lack vision to take brave steps and recognise that their current strategies amount to a continuation of their own marginalisation. They are the authors of their own stasis. If they had leadership (and I am operating in the realms of fantasy here) they would consider being brave and stop propping up the weird edifice of the Assembly. The Alliance Party in particular is culpable for the continuation of a dysfunctional polity. It claims to want a different sort of politics for Northern Ireland, one that is post-nationalist and post-unionist and is aimed at uniting people. Essentially, by taking ministerial positions (that the other parties usually don’t want) they have been bought off.

Clearly the mid-sized parties have different political agendas – especially on constitutional issues. But there is a lot they could agree on, especially in relation to public policy issues. By working together, they could form an effective scrutinising bloc that could make life difficult for the two main parties, and suggest that a new type of politics is possible.

The UUP, SDLP and Alliance have a chance to be brave. They won’t take it because they want one or two of their members to be Minister for Table Legs.

Two visions of Gaza in 100 years time

19 Dec

Gaza 2114 Version 1

The last Palestinian in Gaza was killed today in a planned pre-emptive operation. The 87 year old woman was living in a shack behind Gaza’s largest settlement, ‘Sunnyside Villas’. An Israeli Defence Forces spokesperson said, ‘The indicative metrics showed that the terrorist infiltrator was planning an outrage so a judicial assassination bot took pre-emptive measures. It was also known that she was planning to break the curfew. All Palestinians know that they are only allowed out of doors between 3 and 4 AM’.

Israel, a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council following the collapse of Russia, took the opportunity to tell the world body that ‘Israel is now free from terrorists’. The news was welcomed by US President Sarah Palin IV of the Republican Tea Patriot Party. ‘Terrorists know that there is no hiding place and I congratulate Israel on reaching ISO standard 19315 in becoming terrorist free. A new era of peace and prosperity beckons.’

The eradication of Palestinians from Gaza marks the endpoint of a long-term Israeli goal. The Palestinian population had been seriously depleted following the war of 2099 in which Israel deployed tactical nuclear weapons after a small child was seen acting suspiciously. Since then, a strict no child policy, robust security measures, and enforced deportations have meant that the Palestinian population has rapidly dwindled.

Reaction in Arab capitals was muted. The League of Princes and Sultans, the body that speaks on behalf of the ruling monarchies throughout the Middle East, said ‘We are watching developments with interest.’ An unnamed source close to the Royal Family in Riyadh was quoted as saying ‘Thank God. The Palestinians were a pain in the neck. The Israeli strategy against the Palestinians has inspired our strategy against the Shia underclass across the Middle East.’


Gaza 2114 Version 2

The closing ceremony of the 2014 Gaza Olympic Games was regarded as one of the best ever seen. Not only were a number of world records broken on the athletics track, but the Games were also seen as a triumph of cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians who now share the Middle Eastern state of Hummusland.

Following decades of conflict between the state of Israel, Palestinians and neighbouring Arab States, Hummusland has only been in existence for 25 years. It was formed following a string of popular uprisings across Arab states in which populations swept away corrupt western-backed monarchies. These newly democratic states then pressured the only non-democracy left in the region, Israel, into a transition away from apartheid.

Hummusland has had its ups and downs, but with support from the world’s economic powerhouse – the African Union – it has been able to rebuild its destroyed infrastructure. More importantly, the one-state political solution seems to be working. Rigorously enforced equality laws have meant that cases of gender, sectarian and racial discrimination are respected.

Hummusland’s joint Presidents (one Israeli and the other Palestinian) officiated at the Games closing ceremony. They put out the Olympic flame, which will be lit in four years time as it goes to the next host city Pyongyang. But away from politics, these Olympics will be most remembered for Archibald Mac Ginty’s 100m sprint in 8.27 seconds.

Poppy Bling

2 Nov

One of the laudable initiatives of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission was that all gravestones for British, British Empire and British Commonwealth soldiers would be the same. So a highly decorated general would have the same gravestone as a lowly private. The standard headstones (in Portland stone) made a magnificent statement: all sacrifices were equal ( Rank and status did not matter when it came to death.

If you walk among the thousands of headstones in cemeteries maintained by the CWGC in France and Belgium then it is possible to see graves marking people of all ranks next to one another: A major next to a private next to a corporal. All the gravestones contain basic information: name, regiment, rank, number, decorations and date of death. They are usually adorned with a simple cross (other religious symbol such as the Star of David) and in some cases there is a religious inscription along the bottom. Most also have the crest of the regiment to which the soldier belonged.

The standardized headstones are a striking act of egalitarianism and stand in marked contrast to the dominant ethos of the military (highly stratified through ranks) and British society (and the seriousness with which it takes class). They set the tone for remembrance that was humane and saw the loss of a soldier (general or private) as a common tragedy with individual parts.

But over the past few years it is noticeable that the other “equal” act of commemoration, the wearing of the poppy in the weeks leading up to the 11 November Armistice Day commemoration, has become under threat from massive variations in the style of poppy. The wearing of the poppy (signifying the fields of northern France where so many young men lost their lives in WWI) began in 1921 and is very popular in the UK. The standard poppy is a simple stiff card and plastic affair, with the money from their sale each autumn going to the Royal British Legion, an organization that looks after servicemen and women and their families. It has become noticeable, especially on television, that the standard poppy is not good enough. Many “celebrities” and presenters wear modified poppies that are actually fashion jewelry: they (the poppies) glitter and sparkle and compete with one another to be more glamorous than the next. The standardized symbol becomes enlarged, adorned and decorative. In one variation, the green cardboard sprig behind the poppy flower has been replaced by a gold sprig.

With much else in society, many individuals and groups want distinctive materialistic displays. This is what the fashion, and to a certain extent jewelry and car, industries rely on. Yet it seems incongruous that the poppy becomes just another fashion accessory, something to ‘jazz up’ an outfit and add a little sparkle. It may be that the wearer/manufacturer of the more elaborate poppies give more money to the poppy appeal fund. I simply do not know. But the price seems very expensive – a retreat from the egalitarian notion behind a sombre homogenous symbol of commemoration. Despite the high monetary price of the pimped-up poppies, they seem to devalue the symbol.

None of this is to engage with the other debate on whether or not people should wear the traditional red poppy or the white poppy (favoured by pacifists) or indeed on the line between commemoration and celebration. It is, instead, to wonder about the motivations behind ‘poppy bling’ and the reduction of a symbol into a fashion accessory.

Should we ever use the word ‘peace’ in relation to Israel-Palestine?

7 Jul

With regret the answer seems to be no, or at least, not very often. This is not because Israelis and Palestinians are somehow naturally given to violence, or that they are incapable of tolerance and justice. Instead it is due to deep structural factors that militate against any serious moves towards peace. By peace I mean efforts to work out a long-term accommodation between the peoples, identities, claims and aspirations of the region. I do not mean short-term ceasefires brokered by the Egyptian junta’s military intelligence between Israel and Hamas. Nor do I mean the utterly pointless spasmodic attempts by successive US Secretaries of State to ‘jumpstart’ the Israeli-Palestinian ‘peace process’. That process does not exist. There is more chance of jumpstarting a melon.

The Israeli state is just not designed for peace

So what are these structural factors? First and foremost we must look at the nature of the Israeli state. It is structured and operated in such a way that means that a just accommodation with Palestinians is an irrational goal. This is not an Israel-bashing exercise. Israel is culpable of mass human rights abuses and is a regional bully, but this blog posting wants to look beyond that to examine the structural factors that sustain conflict and make genuine reconciliation a near impossibility. The Israeli state is a war system. It is a national security state with enormous vested interests in the perpetuation of its conflict. It has an existential narrative (“Israel’s very survival is at risk”) that gives it a raison d’etre for a permanent war-footing (whether this existential narrative has basis in fact is a very different matter). It has a $16bn annual defence budget, a political culture that venerates military ‘heroics’, national service, and an enormous number of jobs, mortgages, careers and livelihoods bound up in the security sector. It has a thriving business of selling arms and expertise to other repressive states. The United States pays about a quarter of Israel’s defence budget.

Second, Israel has created facts on the ground that mean that there are few incentives to talk to Palestinians. It has physically withdrawn from its most vulnerable colony: Gaza. It has built its separation wall to more or less eliminate suicide bombings. It controls virtually everything in the Palestinian Authority: arresting elected politicians at will, controlling the budget, and the water and electric supply. It has made sure that the Palestinian Authority has no defensive or offensive capability: the PA’s main role is to police militants. It has fractured remaining Palestinians lands to make a viable Palestinian state virtually impossible. It has immiserated Palestinians: 43 percent of men in Gaza are unemployed. The United States will take Israel’s side every time, and on every issue. Arab states have no love for the Palestinians. Given that Israel holds the upper hand, why should it talk to Palestinians? There is absolutely nothing in it for Israelis.

Third, many Israelis are prosperous. Certainly there have been cost of living protests, and poverty is especially acute among the incoming population, many of whom are Eritreans (Israel awards refugee status only in truly exceptional cases – successful claims for asylum run in single figures per year). With US subvention, preferential access to European markets, a booming hi-tech sector, and safety from Palestinian attack (due to the separation wall and other security measures) most Israelis do not feel seriously threatened – in an existential way – by Palestinians. This is despite the political narrative of an existential threat. So again, why engage with your ‘enemy’ if your enemy is not in a position to harm you, or is not even visible? Polling shows that serious engagement with Palestinians is simply not an issue for the vast majority of Israelis.

Fourth, ‘peace’ has little traction in domestic Israeli politics. There was a sizeable peace movement in the 1990s, but that has fallen away quite dramatically. The real political action is to be found on the right where political leaders seek to exploit the security dilemma and accuse each other of being soft on security and ‘terror’. Demonising Palestinians, Arabs, Iran and ‘haters’ wins votes. Talking up the long, expensive and frustrating road to peace wins few. Right-wing and Jewish fundamentalist constituencies are growing rapidly, and political parties are alive to this.

Fifthly, ‘the international community’ (in other words the United States and its European clients states) gives Israel a clear run. It might occasionally chide it for building a few thousand settler houses or for a particularly gratuitous human rights abuse (unhelpfully caught on camera) but the Israeli state is made from Teflon in terms of international condemnation. There are no good reasons in international law to deny Palestine statehood, yet last year the US and UK mobilized other states to block such a move at the UN. The paucity of arguments against Palestinian statehood was revealing. Hillary Clinton and William Hague looked more vacuous than usual with their justifications for vetoing statehood. ‘Er, the time is not right’ was the height of their rhetorical flourishes. It points to grubby realpolitik being the reason for the use of the veto.

Finally, the region is a mess and is incapable of putting pressure on Israel. Lebanon is regularly bashed by Israel in punitive raids and wars. It is sinking under Syrian refugees and its own confessional tensions. The squalid monarchy in Jordan is compliant. Syria is engaged in cannibalism. Egypt is back to Mubarak regime, only this time with a different Mubarak. Turkey is, perhaps, the only state in the region that can influence Israel – through sheer force of its dynamic economy but it is otherwise occupied, not least with the rise of Kurdistan.
All of these factors coalesce to mean that Israel has no incentive for peace. This applies internally and internationally. It would be irrational for an electorally-minded Israeli political leader to engage in a genuine peace process that would involve serious concessions of land and rights to Palestinians.

And the Palestinians

Of course, Palestinians are not entirely without power and agency. It has to be said that this power and agency is hugely constrained by Israel and its backers. But where they do use it, they either use it poorly or are up against such insurmountable barriers that it is few opportunities for success. A great example of Palestinians using their few cards poorly is in the representatives they put forward for the western media. The Israelis are masters of this: American accented, calm individuals with very European or American sounding names. They appear extraordinarily reasonable as they justify the unjustifiable. Just last week a reasonable sounding Israeli Defence Force spokesman described the massing of Israeli forces on the border with Gaza as an act of ‘de-escalation’. It was pure Orwellian doublespeak but said in the bed-side manner of a seasoned medical practitioner. Contrast this with Palestinian spokespeople who are usually enraged (justifiably so) and often with poor English. They were probably appointed to the media presentation gig because they are someone’s cousin. Palestinians can complain that they have poor access to education and the outside world, but they have had generations to get wise to the importance of cosying up to the western media. This is only an example, but it is telling of how poor they are at
playing ‘the game’.

So what is to be done?

Firstly, let us not further degrade this word ‘peace’ by using it in such an unpropitious context. Let us not use it in relation to temporary ceasefires and sham ‘peace processes’ that will not address fundamental issues. So let’s use this ‘peace’ word very carefully.

Secondly, we can continue to highlight the systemic nature of the conflict and how it is embedded in the political and cultural systems of the Israeli state. Many other actors are implicated in this system, including much of the ‘peacebuilding’ industry. So we need to look beyond ‘peace initiatives’ and responses to the latest crisis and instead focus on the structures and systems that allow war and repression to triumph over peace and genuine relations between equal peoples.

Third, the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions (BDS) response is wholly legitimate. It provides a useful contrast to the violence, repression and exclusion that are the staple of Israel’s apartheid strategy. Indeed, Israel’s response to Palestinian activism is officially termed ‘sanctions’ so there can be no argument from Israel that sanctions are somehow ‘unfair’. There are arguments that sport, culture and academia must be exempt from BDS, but they don’t seem to have a basis in logic.

Fourth, there are signs that Israel’s apartheid is becoming internationally unacceptable just as happened with South Africa’s apartheid. Condemnations of Israel are beginning to come from sources (parts of the US media) that previously looked the other way. This can only be good and might lead to interesting places – such as the timidity of Israeli security personnel travelling abroad lest they are subject to human rights cases. Community punishments, detention without trial, house demolitions and many other indignities are justifiable in Israel, but increasingly less so abroad.

And a few concluding words

We must not be naïve enough to think ‘Palestinians good, Israelis bad’. The world is much more complex than that, and we cannot look across the Arab world and see it as a repository of calm and tolerance. But it is legitimate to ask: where does power lie? Power, ultimately, lies in Israel and its powerful patrons and it is towards these sources that the bulk of condemnation must be directed.

The basic point is that we must be very careful when using the word ‘peace’. It might seem defeatist to rule out using the word peace in relation to Israel-Palestine. After all, peace relies on imaginative, optimism and creativity. Situations can and do change for the better. In the grim days of the late 1980s, no one contemplated that the Cold War would end – and end quite abruptly. While political leaders and the military-industrial complex might not be in favour of peace, there are courageous individuals who show tolerance and non-violence in their every days lives. So yes we can use this word peace, but guardedly, and certainly not in relation to initiatives taken by politicians – at the moment.