I asked this question in a comment the other day, and didn’t get any clear answer, probably because it’s a difficult question. Naturally I have my own ideas, which I will share here, but I’m not claiming I’m right – just throwing out ideas.
First of all, I’d like to point out that one kind of “peace” that we’ve seen in the past is the total extermination of one side of the conflict. There is historical evidence of quite a few aboriginal cultures in Europe that have perished this way. Many Native American tribes were wiped out in this way. It’s what made Stalin and Pol Pot famous.
I mention extermination because I think that many of the wars that we see nowadays are silently predicated on the idea of total extermination of the enemy. I don’t mean that this is a deliberate goal – I just mean that these wars don’t make sense when viewed any other way.
What I mean is that there is no exit strategy for the conflict – no set of end conditions that would mean that it was time to stop fighting – other than that everyone is dead. I’m aware of at least one conflict that looks this way to me that’s going on right now, and I’d be surprised if there weren’t more. Interestingly, it needn’t be the case that both sides be fighting on this basis – it’s only necessary for one side to have no exit strategy, and I think you have an extermination-oriented conflict.
So suppose that such a conflict comes to a conclusion. Do we now have peace? History would suggest otherwise. What actually happens is that you wind up with an empire, and then that empire eventually crashes. And then you have conflict again.
So what about getting rid of the people who are in control, who are instigating the conflict? Does that work? I ask this question because I think this is the model most people who want peace actually believe in. Get rid of the aggressors, and the conflict will stop.
Let’s consider two examples – mid-seventies Iran, and the U.S. this year, 2009. Iran is a questionable example because they were not really at war in a technical sense, but I think only in a technical sense. Really, Iran was an occupied country. The leaders of the occupation were Iranian, but they were in power because of an occupation begun by the British, and continued by the Americans.
When Iran’s occupation ended, intellectuals in Iran who supported its end were hopeful. They wanted to build a new government that was just and peaceful. This was not an unreasonable hope – nowadays we tend to think of the Middle East as a place where everyone wants war, but this isn’t really true now, and in fact historically the Middle East has been a cradle of civilization.
Unfortunately, Iran was not ripe for a peaceful government when the old government fell. Consequently, what rose up in its place was something even worse. No longer occupied by a foreign power, Iran fell into chaos and repression. War with Iraq killed more Iranians than the Shah ever did.
In the U.S., in 2009, we are tired of war. I think the old government here fell because of this. Lucky us. Unfortunately, although I think we are ripe for improvement, we are not yet ripe for peace. We want an end to the war in Iraq, but not today. So the war is currently projected to continue until 2011, and the war in Afghanistan is ramping up.
There’s an argument, and I think a legitimate one, to be made for staying in Iraq. We allowed the war to start there, and if we just leave, the chaos that follows will be our chaos. But nevertheless, if we were ready for peace, I have trouble believing that the word would be that we would stay until 2011.
So this leads to what I think peace is. I think peace is what happens when most people not only are not interested in war, but are actively interested in peace. I say most because there will always be sociopaths, and there will always be people who feel unfairly done-by, and there will always be criminals. But for peace to exist, it must be the case that those people are not in control, and that their bad behavior is completely and successfully moderated by the intentions and actions of the people who do actively want peace.
I think that people who want peace sometimes imagine that in the absence of aggression, peace would happen naturally, and would remain indefinitely. I think this is unrealistic. We don’t expect the leaves in our roof gutters to clean themselves out. We don’t expect that, once painted, our houses will remain just as bright, forever. Why would we expect peace to emerge on its own out of the ashes of oppression?
Peace, when it comes, will be the result of a very careful and deliberate effort to create the habits that perpetuate peace. We have never seen what this looks like. Perhaps it’s naive to think it’s even possible.
The reason I think it is possible is because this is actually how societies work. Societies have police forces, but it is not the police force that keeps the peace. The police force is just there for the people who can’t restrain themselves. The reason the peace is kept is that the overwhelming majority wants it kept.
And so I think it is possible for there to be peace on earth. But it will not happen because we get rid of someone, or stop someone, or something like that. It will be because we figure out what our world culture needs to be in order for peace to be possible, and because we work, over probably a very long time, to foster the birth of that culture, and to nurture it once it’s been born.