On Point: What Is Peace?


by Austin Bay
December 24, 2008

As we approach the New Year, hope for Peace on Earth, and wish oneanother cheer and goodwill, it is fair to damn our terriblecondition.

Conflict is endemic to our species. The poet Petrarch wrote: "Five greatenemies to peace inhabit within us: avarice, ambition, envy, anger and pride. Ifthose enemies were to be banished, we should infallibly enjoy perpetual peace."

Avarice, ambition, envy, anger, pride: Shakespeare made villains of themall. They reappear every 30 minutes on all news television. Indeed, they are atthe root of Sept. 11 and the War on Terror, Sudan, Congo, Somalia, Mumbai,Beslan, Georgia, Kosovo, Bosnia, Rwanda, Burma, Tibet -- a list proceeding adinfinitum.

For the past five years, I've taught a strategy seminar in the Universityof Texas' Plan 2 undergraduate honors program. I sometimes kid the students andtell then that the course title ought to be "Big Plans." We do consider a fewrather large-scale planning problems, like Alexander the Great tackling thePersian Empire, Hannibal challenging Rome and the Mongols conducting operationsfrom East Asia to Central Europe.

Without exception, one of the most difficult assignments comes very earlyin the semester: I have the students write a paper answering the question, "WhatIs Peace?"

I've yet to get a definitive answer, but without exception each class hasproduced deeply thoughtful and provocative analyses.

The moral and philosophical facets of the paper are obvious, but there isalso a practical angle. When you make a plan for anything -- much less a warplan, or a plan for creating peace -- you either explicitly or implicitly have agoal. If peace is the goal, in order to achieve it shouldn't you have at least aglimpse of what it is or might be?

One young man -- after demurring with, "It is tempting for the cynic todescribe peace as merely a time between clashes" (a phrase reminiscent of theclassic, "Peace is the brief timeout between wars") -- subsequently insisted hecould find no better goals that "will give us our ultimate tranquility" thanFranklin D. Roosevelt's "Four Freedoms." Freedom of Expression, Freedom ofWorship, Freedom from Want and Freedom from Fear. "Taken together, I believethese freedoms could establish an existence of peace and prosperity for allhumankind." 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 castigatedutopianism, particularly economic utopianism -- not the idea of freedom fromwant but the notion it can be achieved. She concluded "peace" based on met needswas in fact "an undesirable end" because conflict "drives people to excel andforces improvement." Curbing conflict, however, "in order to avoid violence andmass destruction" is possible -- but she asserted that required creativity inresolving conflict.

A business major decided to sidestep issues of human imperfection andpropose a "market model" for assessing peace on the planet. Peace exists whenknowledge is shared ("transparent") and "prevailing information is bothnon-aggressive and anticipated. ... Nations and participants know with certaintythat other nations will not act in an aggressive manner."

Peace derives from a reduction in fear and an increase in trust. Thebusiness major's marketplace meshed with a philosophy major's theory that peaceresulted when a population's "collective expectations about the future" favoredequilibrium or continuity on a "scale of perceived stability." Thus soft talkand 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 thedeep problem. Peace exists when "different desires" are "in agreement." Whendesire refuses "compromise," the clash of desires can escalate to the clash ofarms and clash of civilizations.

To find out more about Austin Bay and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.

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