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On Point

What Is Peace?


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 condition.

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 infinitum.

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 Is Peace?"

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 resolving conflict.

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.

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