Considering Peace with Peter Stearns

[Posted by M. Bogen: 8-25-15] One of the problems with discussions around peace building is that many people — proponents and critics alike — don't take enough time either to consider what we think peace actually is or to analyze how the topic has typically been treated. One person who wants to help rectify this situation is Peter Stearns, University Professor and Provost Emeritus at George Mason University, whose areas of expertise include world and social history. Dr. Stearns will also be one of the featured speakers at this year's Ikeda Forum, called "Dignity in Practice" and scheduled for October 26.

Peter Stearns

A prolific writer, Dr. Stearns tackled the oft-elusive subject of peace in his forthrightly titled book of 2014, Peace in World History. Here are some key points from his Preface that offer context as we think about peace and how best to achieve it. *

  • "Certainly historians have not for the most part treated peace kindly. There are far more studies of war than of peace." Peace studies is an emerging field, but for most, the study of history is synonomous with the study of war. Peace in World History intends to advance the conversation toward a thoughtful consideration of peace.
  • "There are at least three kinds of peace: There's a personal or group quest for calm and tranquility. There's an effort to establish a larger society that is not wracked by excessive strife or violence. And there is, finally, the attempt, conscious or unconscious, to minimize the possibility of war." Failure to make these distictions can dilute peace building efforts.
  • "The history of peace can involve deliberate attempts to minimize, even eliminate military organizations," with the argument being that "real peace and military capacity are ultimately incompatible." Yet we know that "peace has also resulted at times from the existence (as well as the careful guidance) of strong military organizations."
  • Simply put, "some people and societies don't like peace." Others value it, "but have little idea how to articulate relevant goals and scant notion of how peace might be pursued." We do best when we know our audience.
  • The relationship between religion and peace is often contradictory and paradoxical. For example, as the "classical civilizations began to crumble" Christianity and then Islam contributed "important new thinking about peace." Further, both "generated new communities of peace, and some major peace movements that would dot subsequent world history." Yet the history of each religion is intertwined with the practice of war. The topic of religion and peace building always requires some unpacking.
  • New developments in peace and human rights, flowing out of movements such as the Enlightenment, have been offset by new developments in our technical capacity to wage war. This is another tension we must negotiate.
  • Following the catastrophe of World War I, new means of lessening international conflict were conceived, such as the League of Nations, which finally took the form of the United Nations. But the "misguided attempt at conciliation" with Hitler in the 1930s has to this very day given "compromise a bad name" So while we see progress we do not necessarily see a clear trend toward international cooperation.

Stearns concludes that "the history of peace is not the story of definitively conquering the darker sides of human nature, but it is not an insignificant story either — and it is not just a study in failure. As always, the historian must argue, we have a better chance of building a successful future if we know the foundations built in the past."

* Ed. note: For some points I've added observations on its implications for peace building individuals and organizations.

 

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