Why War Trumps Peace. (Global Insights)

By Thakur, Ramesh | Global Governance, October-December 2002 | Go to article overview

Why War Trumps Peace. (Global Insights)


Thakur, Ramesh, Global Governance


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. …

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