by Austin Bay
December 24, 2008
As we approach the New Year, hope for Peace on Earth, and wish one
another cheer and goodwill, it is fair to damn our terrible
Conflict is endemic to our species. The poet Petrarch wrote: "Five great
enemies to peace inhabit within us: avarice, ambition, envy, anger and pride. If
those enemies were to be banished, we should infallibly enjoy perpetual peace."
Avarice, ambition, envy, anger, pride: Shakespeare made villains of them
all. They reappear every 30 minutes on all news television. Indeed, they are at
the root of Sept. 11 and the War on Terror, Sudan, Congo, Somalia, Mumbai,
Beslan, Georgia, Kosovo, Bosnia, Rwanda, Burma, Tibet -- a list proceeding ad
For the past five years, I've taught a strategy seminar in the University
of Texas' Plan 2 undergraduate honors program. I sometimes kid the students and
tell then that the course title ought to be "Big Plans." We do consider a few
rather large-scale planning problems, like Alexander the Great tackling the
Persian Empire, Hannibal challenging Rome and the Mongols conducting operations
from East Asia to Central Europe.
Without exception, one of the most difficult assignments comes very early
in the semester: I have the students write a paper answering the question, "What
I've yet to get a definitive answer, but without exception each class has
produced deeply thoughtful and provocative analyses.
The moral and philosophical facets of the paper are obvious, but there is
also a practical angle. When you make a plan for anything -- much less a war
plan, or a plan for creating peace -- you either explicitly or implicitly have a
goal. If peace is the goal, in order to achieve it shouldn't you have at least a
glimpse of what it is or might be?
One young man -- after demurring with, "It is tempting for the cynic to
describe peace as merely a time between clashes" (a phrase reminiscent of the
classic, "Peace is the brief timeout between wars") -- subsequently insisted he
could find no better goals that "will give us our ultimate tranquility" than
Franklin D. Roosevelt's "Four Freedoms." Freedom of Expression, Freedom of
Worship, Freedom from Want and Freedom from Fear. "Taken together, I believe
these freedoms could establish an existence of peace and prosperity for all
humankind." Fear, however, would "destroy any Peace ..."
The "imperfect nature" of human beings utterly dismayed another student,
but dismay was no cause for denial of rank imperfection. Instead, she castigated
utopianism, particularly economic utopianism -- not the idea of freedom from
want but the notion it can be achieved. She concluded "peace" based on met needs
was in fact "an undesirable end" because conflict "drives people to excel and
forces improvement." Curbing conflict, however, "in order to avoid violence and
mass destruction" is possible -- but she asserted that required creativity in
A business major decided to sidestep issues of human imperfection and
propose a "market model" for assessing peace on the planet. Peace exists when
knowledge is shared ("transparent") and "prevailing information is both
non-aggressive and anticipated. ... Nations and participants know with certainty
that other nations will not act in an aggressive manner."
Peace derives from a reduction in fear and an increase in trust. The
business major's marketplace meshed with a philosophy major's theory that peace
resulted when a population's "collective expectations about the future" favored
equilibrium or continuity on a "scale of perceived stability." Thus soft talk
and no surprises passes for peace. I asked them both if they supported very,
very large intelligence budgets -- and indeed they did.
A student from an immigrant family (he's now in medical school), however,
returned to Petrarch's crooked traits, pegging the clash of human desires as the
deep problem. Peace exists when "different desires" are "in agreement." When
desire refuses "compromise," the clash of desires can escalate to the clash of
arms and clash of civilizations.