War in human society is as pervasive as the wish for peace is universal. The use of force and the possibility of controlling it and so controlling others has preoccupied rulers and scholars alike since time immemorial--from Thucydides, Kautilya, and Machiavelli to Karl Marx, Mao Tse-tung, Hans Morgenthau, and Henry Kissinger. But so too have some of the most charismatic and influential personalities in human history--from Gautama Buddha and Jesus Christ to Mahatma Gandhi--reflected on the renunciation of force and the possibility of eliminating it from human relationships.
The twentieth century captured the paradox only too well. On the one hand, we tried to emplace increasing normative, legislative, and operational fetters on the right of states to go to war. On the other hand, the last century turned Out to be the most murderous in human history, with over 250 wars and more dead than in all previous wars of the past 2,000 years. The twenty-first century has opened with a new kind of war: mass terror across borders.
How to explain the paradox? Each conflict is unique and has its own distinctive attributes and dynamics. At the same time, many of today's conflicts are peculiarly resistant to efforts at resolution because adverse and contradictory logics tilt the balance toward their perpetuation.
While almost all contemporary armed conflicts are internal, almost all international conflict resolution modalities are designed for interstate warfare. The question of how to manage a future crisis in the Taiwan Strait--a potential flashpoint in East Asia--is an example of an especially acute dilemma for the United Nations, given that China is a permanent member of the Security Council and most countries accept its claim that Taiwan is an internal matter. The International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) got around the philosophical difficulty with the imaginative formulation of "the responsibility to protect," (1) which embeds the responsibility to intervene within a continuum that includes the responsibility to prevent and rebuild.
Sadly, it takes two to make peace but only one to keep conflicts going. Thus, on the Korean peninsula, the North cannot afford to make peace, for fear of regime identity being completely submerged in a unified country; but also it cannot afford to go to war, knowing that it would lose. And so its policy is to continue the conflict by maintaining tension at a level short of provoking war.
Most long-lived conflicts develop an equilibrium and a set of vested interests that militate against efforts at finding peaceful solutions. In Kashmir, for example, a peaceful resolution of the world's most likely nuclear flashpoint would diminish the role of the military in Pakistani politics and destroy their historically privileged position. On the Indian side, the dispute is the most potent rallying focus for the Hindutva (Hindu-first) ideology of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the dominant member of the coalition government in New Delhi. Peaceful relations between India and Pakistan would be damaging to the prospects of the BJP.
Sometimes vested interests take the form of financial stakes. In the decade-long war between the Vietnamese-backed regime in power in Phnom Penh and the Khmer Rouge on the Thai-Vietnam border, some Thai generals made fortunes from illegal gem mining and smuggling, as well as from "taxes" on international aid flowing to the refugee camps. More recent examples of the profitable political economy of war include the so-called conflict diamonds in Angola and Sierra Leone. Aspects of global "uncivil society"--for example, those involved in trafficking women, arms, and drugs, or moving men (mercenaries) and laundering money--also do very nicely out of protracted conflicts. Sometimes wars may start over control of lucrative resources; in other cases, they may be rooted in group grievances but may still end up being sustained by the greed of those who discover that profits can be made from fighting. Many of Africa's contemporary wars seem to fall into the pattern of greed and grievance. (2)
Then there is the persistence of competitive nationalisms despite the reality of increasing globalization. In Kashmir, in an age of global media, politics, economics, and terrorism, the secular nationalism of India collides with the religious nationalism of Pakistan and the ethnic nationalism of Kashmiris. Globalized information and telecommunications technology in the age of mass media, combined with the global diasporas of many ethnic communities, means that conflicts can be kept alive through appeals to kinship loyalties (and pocketbooks) of expatriate groups. Britain, for example, was never happy about the role of the American Irish community in sustaining the armed struggle waged by the Irish Republican Army (IRA). The same applies with respect to Sri Lanka and the role of the Tamil expatriates.
Alternative and potentially competing units of world order and affective political identity can be contradictory. In idealized Western political theory and actual practice in mature democracies, the state acts as mediator and neutral arbiter of intergroup competition. In much of the developing world, the state is itself one of the most prized assets for capture by one group in order to oppress others. If this is done on the basis of ethnonational differences of territorially bounded groups, the excluded and oppressed groups can launch wars of state formation based on their separate sense of national identity--for instance, the Kosovars in Serbia, the Tamils in Sri Lanka, and the Timorese in Indonesia. To borrow Kal Holsti's terminology, the cycle of "wars of national liberation" from colonial rule is followed by "wars of national debilitation" of artificially constructed states. (3)
The structures of state authority can collapse if their institutional development is insufficiently resilient to absorb and channel rising demands for the authoritative allocation of goods, services, and values. How much of central Africa's present armed violence can be laid at the doors of a Belgian colonial state that was essentially predatory and rapacious, that did not pay heed to the necessity to develop the institutional capacity of its dependent colonies? Was it either fair or wise to have abandoned Afghanistan to its fate--which in due course became intertwined once more with that of the United States--after the Soviets had been driven from that country? Terrorism highlights graphically the nation-building nexus between security and development.
The logics of steadfast resolution and negotiated resolution are at odds, as the Americans discovered during the domestic trauma of the Vietnam War. To resolve a conflict, we must recognize that there are at least two parties, each with elements of right and wrong, and that there is a need for flexibility and pragmatism that permits compromise and accommodation. National or religious zealotry vitiates any such recognition because principles are neither negotiable nor for sale. Describing war as based on values rather than on the pursuit of national interests, as in Kosovo in 1999, further circumscribes the scope for negotiations and compromise. And, of course, to say that one is either with us or against us further constricts the diplomatic space for mutual accommodation.
The logics of the past and future also can be at loggerheads. Peace or even coexistence requires communities to jettison the inherited baggage of historical hatreds. But competing myths are important for the social construction of political identity, and therefore history is a fiercely contested terrain, as the authors of officially approved history textbooks in Japan and elsewhere know only too well. How can one be Jewish today without internalizing the collective consciousness of the Holocaust? Palestinian refugees view efforts to refuse them the right to repatriation as an attempt to deny their collective history and identity.
The logic of power is inconsistent with that of justice. Peace in the Middle East or on the Indian subcontinent cannot be grasped without bending to the military superiority of Israel and India. But no peace agreement will last if it is fundamentally unjust, denying the right of self-determination and the right to live in dignity free of daily humiliations to whole communities. Such an accord will rest on the temporary inability of the territorially revisionist Palestinians and Kashmiris to challenge the entrenched--but ultimately transient--might of status quo powers whose military presence is regarded as unjust occupation. In the de facto territorial partition of Cyprus, too, there is a discrepancy between military reality and demographic composition. Occasionally the weak seek recourse against the strong in the logic of asymmetric warfare, including terrorism.
The logic of negotiation tends to be contradictory. The stronger see no reason to compromise. In the last general election, Israeli voters put the security of the in-group above justice for the out-group. The weaker fear that negotiations, if not delayed until parity or superiority has been attained, will force them into humiliation. The Palestinians felt that the offer at Camp David was based on their military weakness. They seek justice in full, not the crumbs of charity--that which was theirs and had been taken from them by force was being offered back to them as "concession," and then too not in full.
Another problem lies in the contradictory logics of peace and justice. Peace is forward-looking, problem-solving, and integrative, requiring reconciliation between past enemies within an all-inclusive community. Justice is backward-looking, finger-pointing, and retributive, requiring acknowledgment and atonement, if not trial and punishment, of the perpetrators of past crimes. Japan has found it extraordinarily difficult to establish fully normal relations with key neighbors who lack conviction about the genuineness of its official apologies for wartime atrocities. By contrast, many Japanese argue that the victimhood industry has been too profitable for too many neighbors to give up.
The pursuit of human rights violators can delay and impede the effort to establish conditions of security so that displaced people can return home and live in relative peace once again. But while mercy has a role in reconstituting society after trauma, justice has many more, and more fundamental, roles to play beyond bringing wrong-doers to account. These include acknowledging the suffering of victims, educating the public, deterring future criminal atrocities, and establishing universal justice.
The question of how best to handle the ghosts of past misdeeds of Augusto Pinochet in Chile or Hadji Mohamad Suharto in Indonesia remains deeply divisive. Many in South Africa would have liked to see all those guilty of criminal activity during the apartheid era tried and punished for their crimes. The African National Congress (ANC) decided that following the criminal justice route would only serve to perpetuate group-based social-racial cleavages, and it opted instead for a truth and reconciliation commission. Not all people in Northern Ireland are comfortable with amnesty for past violence, including murder.
Tensions must be reconciled on a case-by-case basis rather than a rigid formula. And it is best resolved by the countries concerned, not by outsiders. In none of the above-mentioned cases was the solution negotiated by the political elites supported by all segments of society. Europeans in particular must resist the temptation to embark on a new wave of judicial colonialism against Latin Americans, Africans, and Asians. If outsiders are going to step in where domestic authorities prove unable or unwilling to try cases of crimes against humanity, it is better to seek recourse in universal institutions like an international criminal court.
The democratic peace thesis holds that democracies do not go to war against one another and that one reason is the beneficial impact of open public debate and lack of public support for waging war against other democracies. Yet, empirically, some of the oldest and most prominent democracies are among the most involved in warfare, albeit against nondemocracies. On the one hand, this may be because dictators too often misperceive democracies as weak and prone to appeasement. On the other hand, it could be that leaders who may be inclined to negotiate peace are held back for fear of electoral consequences. The fate of Ehud Barak of Israel is instructive. He offered more to the Palestinians in July 2000 than had been conceivable even a few months earlier. Ariel Sharon went to Temple Mount in September 2000 and provoked a Palestinian uprising, the downfall of Barak, and his own election as prime minister. Would an elected leader of India or Pakistan dare to make concessions to the enemy over Kashmir--or the leader s of Greece and Turkey vis-a-vis Cyprus--when political rivals are waiting in the wings to ridicule any "sellout"?
The moment when opportunities arrive for making peace may not be the most propitious for forging a consensus to make necessary decisions and compromises. History is full of missed opportunities, but there may be good political reasons why these opportunities could not be grasped. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat missed his moment at Camp David in July 2000. He simply could not have sold that package to the Palestinian people and his fellow Arabs. For the first time in fifty years, India under Atal Bihari Vajpayee showed signs of a willingness to engage in a peace process in Kashmir. But the political, economic, and religious mix in Pakistan was inauspicious for achieving liftoff of the peace process. Both Cyprus and the Korean peninsula have seen many false dawns attendant upon sunshine policies. Could the same peace agreements have been signed over Cambodia and Northern Ireland five or ten years earlier, or did we have to wait in both cases for mutual exhaustion?
The final contradiction is between war as the historical method of settling conflicts and its contemporary illegitimacy, but with no decisive alternatives in the international tool kit. The logic of force is escalatory. It is difficult to impress upon nationalists the enormous disparities between the ends sought, the means used, and the price paid. A good example is Slobodan Milosevic's decade-long quest to create a Greater Serbia. During the war in Kosovo in 1999, while waging war against Milosevic, London and Washington urged restraint on India in responding to the Kargil invasion from across the Line of Control in Kashmir. While waging war against the Taliban in Afghanistan for having harbored terrorists, London and Washington counseled restraint on New Delhi in responding to the terrorist attack on India's parliament on 13 December 2001. Israel has appropriated the U.S. war on terror for its own campaign against Palestinian terrorism. Who in Washington is going to convince Sharon that the ruthless applica tion of massive force does not work?
Warfare is not the normal condition of human society and peace the exception, but war often trumps peace. Ironically, there is little correlation between peace and Nobel prizes. One has been awarded in the Korean context, none in the Kashmir, and several in the Middle East. How many more Nobel prizes will it take for peace to take hold in the Middle East?
Ramesh Thakur is vice-rector of United Nations University (UNU). The views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the UNU or the UN.
(1.) The International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, The Responsibility to Protect: Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (Ottawa: International Development Research Centre for ICISS, 2001). For additional arguments, see the supplementary volume,
The Responsibility to Protect: Research, Bibliography, and Background (Ottawa: International Development Research Centre for ICISS, 2001).
(2.) See, in particular, Mats R. Berdal and David M. Malone, eds., Greed and Grievance: Economic Agendas in Civil Wars (Boulder: Lynne Rienner, for the International Peace Academy, 2000).
(3.) Untitled lecture at "Think Canada" symposium, Tokyo, 17 April 2001.…