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Peace as Avoidance of War

Opponent states have several options, each with its own pros and cons, to resolve conflicts and achieve peace

by Khaled Ahmed

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Peace is difficult to define unless you want to reduce it to a condition of “absence of war.” If you look for a definition among opposite states, you are liable to run into philosophical arguments. If peace is absent, there is war; if peace is threatened there is a threat of war. “Threat,” on the other hand, resides in a perception of threat. There was a time when a perception of threat to power was primitive and was based on direct physical harm. Today, threat perceptions are scientifically formulated and cannot be interfered with by agents of peace appealing to humanity.

Early philosophers thought that peace was a state of mind and also equated it with happiness. Down to Mahatama Gandhi, they insisted that it was an internal state. A man could think himself into feeling peaceful and therefore happy: peace was not an external phenomenon caused by outside factors. In a strange turn of events, this is what is happening to the states as well: they are internally threatened too and just like human beings, they tend to externalize their internal lack of peace.

Ultimate solution

War in the traditional sense requires two combatants. At home, a state feels threatened externally by an enemy state. To preserve its internal peace, it must fight the external foe. For that it prepares for conflict; hence, the adage that for peace be prepared for war. People living in one state have no way of realizing that the ‘enemy state’ might also feel the same way: it might feel threatened by its neighbor. Both states might start acquiring the identity of combatant states through preparation for war to preserve peace.

Political science calls this phenomenon nationalism. A nation links its identity to peace only if it can be preserved against the hostile designs of an external enemy state. It is quite possible that peace is threatened by internal factors of clashing identities and that the state feels threatened by this lack of unity. One way to cause people of different identities to unite is to tell them that unless they forget their differences they will be conquered and enslaved by an external foe. Peace in the world has often been destroyed by states externalizing their internal conflicts through nationalism.

Forgotten normal

Peace is often approached as a situation that prevails when the threat of war is removed. How is the threat of war to be removed? There is the direct approach: sit down with the enemy state and resolve outstanding bilateral issues causing conflict. It is believed that once bilateral issues are resolved peace will prevail. This is what combatant states often believe after having finished fighting an inconclusive war. But the problem with the pledge of ‘talks’ is that both must first decide on being flexible vis-à-vis their national posture. Each expects the other to give ground and peace remains elusive.

Then there is the indirect approach. This approach is based on an inversion of the realization that when there is peace there is a lot of trade with the enemy state leading to the prosperity of both. Inversion of this finding means that if there is a lot of trade with the enemy state, it will lead to peace. After realizing that ‘talks’ on the basis of two clashing nationalisms will always fail to achieve peace, the international community now recommends ‘free trade’ under a global agency. There is a hidden persuader here based on co-dependency which inhibits attack.

Cooperation for war or peace?

The pressure of feeding large populations towards the end of the 20th century pushed many states into regional arrangements called blocs where leaders get together to talk about everything under the sun except inter-state disputes. What they envisage is a state of inter-state co-dependency based on trade and investment. States that believe in the first method of achieving peace through a prior resolution of disputes complain that such regional blocs do not facilitate discussion of disputes. But peace through co-dependency is a reality of our times.

Peace through bilateral co-dependency is easy for the status quo rival state. The revisionist state, opposed to the status quo, finds that acceptance of this co-dependency goes against the national narrative. Therefore ‘talks’ become important before a green signal is given for free trade and investment as tools of co-dependency. On the other hand, the status quo rival state is reluctant to engage in talks that might move towards a possible change in the status quo going against its own national narrative. It then behaves in such a way that ‘talks’ are either postponed or the agenda of talks is loaded with more disputes created as obstruction to the core dispute.

Fate of the revisionist state

The revisionist state, if strong, changes the status quo through coercion. If weak, it relies on conflict that remains low in intensity so as not to provoke total war in which it can be defeated. It uses non state actors as ‘raiders’ so that it can use denial when accused of aggression. One must remember that all conflict is actually supposed to be a national effort to achieve peace. But the use of non-state actors weakens the revisionist state through a partial surrender of internal sovereignty to them. Why has low intensity war gained acceptance?

One must go back to Mahatama Gandhi’s saying that peace is an internal feeling. Perhaps he was referring to intra-state peace when you extrapolate peace from person to state. Increasingly, conflict is intra-state in our times. Because of media connectivity the world knows that a state is internally convulsed because of lack of justice. Hence when the non-state actors wage cross-border low intensity war the world condemns it but not without also morally disapproving of lack of justice in the status quo state.

Before peace, justice?

Peace is also a by-product of justice. If there is injustice, peace is threatened. Justice has been defined in many ways because the philosophers made it a central topic in their discussions of ethics. The polis must do justice if it wants the polity to live in peace. But today the new philosopher, the economist, defines justice as equality of development within the state. Intra-state peace is destroyed by inequality of growth. An overtly successful state may be subject to internal upheavals because some parts of it have flourished while others have not.

State sovereignty is a problem that haunts the modern state and stands in the way of many solutions. Sovereignty seems to hark back to days of tribalism where identity gave rise to aggression and conflict. When states plead sovereignty they seem to prize the tribal virtue of honor. Peace cannot prevail in circumstances of state hubris. In their internal behavior states have governance in accordance with laws. In international affairs there is no governance. States therefore formulate ‘policy’ to engage outside their borders. Inside, it is governance that is needed; outside, it is ‘policy’ that is required. Nationalism, if it lasts, embodies a nation’s sense of honor and, like honor, is related to war and martyrdom.

Distortion of nationalism

However, if nationalism stands for honor, the national economy stands for wisdom. If nationalism cannot abide analysis, the economy demands constant analytical review. Because of its fundamental principle of ‘rational choice’ the economic function also brings forth the element of rationality in wisdom. The economy wants peace at all cost and will countenance no war, just or unjust. It will not function under isolationism which is a characteristic of honor. In this sense, the national economy is a ‘dishonorable’ enterprise. Honor is prized in tribal societies more than in urbanized societies. It is also a trait of the low-literacy populations mainly because of its requirement of emotion rather than reason.

Regional peace is a negation of state sovereignty and its tribal behavior but it is no longer an unfamiliar sound in the ears of the nation state. In Europe, region has won over the state at the intellectual level to an extent that the common man has still to digest the death of state sovereignty. Economic-minded Southeast Asia, riddled with border and territorial disputes because of the proliferation of islands there, thought of creating a trading region without conflict and was determined to achieve a single market in 2015. In South Asia, the warriors have thought of the idea but are not terribly convinced that a common market itself is a good idea.

Trade for forced tolerance

Bilateral trade has not flourished and the idea of free trade area is only dominating the minds of the South Asian economist. An economist prime minister has circulated a fascinating scenario of regional ‘connectivity’ but he remains walled in by politics and inter-state pathologies in the region. Yet, energy shortage and dwindling trade has concentrated the minds of the economists who now agree that road networks should be created to connect the region within itself and with the neighboring regions like Central Asia.

Peace in the last resort must prevail to allow the regional states to unite against common threats from the changing environment, much of it from population but some it also from the changing global climate. Water shortage has so far elicited warlike growls from states the lower riparian states and provinces, but finally it is peace that will deliver the answers. But absence of peace can be reversed into absence of war if the states revise their national narratives and initiate normalization of relations before tackling difficult problems like water shortage. All over the world, states have displayed unusual selfishness when it comes to sharing waters; but if peace is first ensured through indirect means, water shortage can be approached as a ‘collective problem’ imposed from outside the region.


Peace cannot wait for “unfinished business” among states to conclude before it begins to reign. Peace must be contrived first by those who think and front-load it instead of letting it languish as something that is forever waiting to happen.

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