A peaceful world?

Many people around the world are celebrating Christmas this morning.  A central wish around this holiday is “peace and good will for all.” Why is enduring peace so difficult to achieve?  What are the prospects for us in the twenty-first century?

Peace and conflict are related, but they aren’t precise opposites.  Conflict between individuals and groups can take many forms, and it is possible to manage or resolve conflicts without violence or hatred.  This village uses its pasture and forest for gathering; that village begins to encroach with its livestock herd.  The two villages have a conflict over the pasture.  This conflict may eventually escalate into violence between the villages, with armed groups from each waging small-scale war against the others.  But it doesn’t have to work out this way.  Leaders of the two villages may negotiate a set of land use customs that do something to satisfy the needs and interests of both villages, and they may be successful in getting their constituents to honor those agreements.  Or there may be a state capable of establishing and enforcing property rights that are binding on both groups, while permitting each group to pursue its most important life activities.  Or, perhaps, the two groups may have normative and religious bonds of solidarity that lead each member of the group to possess a reservoir of good will that makes resort to violence impossible to imagine.

So conflict of interests and wants doesn’t necessarily lead to a breaking of the peace.  But these conflicts have the potential to do so.  And political theorists in the social contract tradition since Hobbes have held that this is the key role of the state — to establish an acceptable set of rules for property and person that determine clear rights and obligations for everyone, and clear procedures for punishment if rights are violated.  Only through a system of law can we avoid the state of nature which is a state of war of all against all. 

Other theorists, notably Elinor Ostrom, have argued that populations have solved the problems of conflict over resources in non-state ways, through “common property resource regimes” (Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action).  The conditions under which a CPRR is stable are more complex than those of a state — essentially, the CPRR needs to be supported by normative and cultural elements that give all participants a reason to honor the rules — but Ostrom and fellow researchers have documented many successful instances.  And, of course, a common property resource regime needs to have some kind of processes for addressing and resolving conflicts among participants — fishermen who disagree about the catch, water users who disagree about the management of upstream resources.

So what are some of the large causes of breakdowns of peace in populations of people?

A key source of sustained violent conflict on a large scale is perceived unresolved injustice.  One party or nation blocks access to resources or opportunities to which another party believes it has a moral right; demands are made; the situation persists; and violent acts begin to occur. 

Another important source is conflict over access to important natural resources — water, oil, minerals.  Conflicts over resources may occur at the local level, or they may rise to the level of inter-country armed conflict and war. 

We can’t overlook the religious and ideological origins of much conflict in humanity’s history.  The prolonged conflict, often violent, between Hindus and Muslims over the Babri Mosque in India is a good example.  The site has religious importance for both communities; leaders are able to mobilize their followers in defense of their claims; violence ensues.

So what can humanity do to improve the prospects for peace and good will?

Sustained efforts at conflict resolution are a good place to start.  People of good will can often enough find the resources they need to bring down the degree of conflict and hostility between groups, and to find procedures that make resort to violence less likely.

Recognizing and addressing injustices between peoples and nations will help.  Justice and peace are intertwined.

Promoting the universality of human needs and the value of inter-group tolerance and respect is a very good step.  And spiritual leaders of all faiths are sometimes very committed to this work.  (Others are not, of course!)

So, this fine Christmas morning in 2011, let us all work for peace and justice for our grandchildren!

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