Not much peace? It’s also the mediators’ fault

By Johan Galtung

Not so difficult is to argue against war and militarism, against the suffering in war that may also accrue to oneself, and against the doctrine that the lasting solution to conflict is military victory. Be strong, deter, win; dictate peace does not convince. Nor is it so difficult to argue that solving the underlying conflict is a better approach: engaging antagonist verbally, in dialogue with or without mediation, in a joint search for an acceptable and sustainable solution. A military victory delivers neither one, nor the other.

More difficult is to argue the significance of conciliation, of clearing, closing the wounds of the past, for a future together; the only future there is in a globalizing world. There are so many wounds.

One of them is the trauma of having traumatized others, with the intense fear that one day revenge will come. Unreconciled trauma causes not only stress but leads also to mental disorders in both. There is fear of demands for compensation; moreover, like for conflict some may want no solution, processing conflict and trauma into aggression.

Most difficult is to argue positive peace: cooperation for mutual and equal benefit and harmony, emotional resonance. Easy to explain, with examples, difficult to make attractive, even compelling, so much so that they join security–no threat of violence–as major goals.

Peace studies are not alone in this predicament. Health studies focus much more on absence of disease than on presence of positive health, with only vague efforts to spell it out. Like psychology: long on mental disorders, but still short on positive psychology.

There are, say, four explanations, not justifications, around.

1. The tendency in the West to focus more on wrong than on right; on forbidding, than on encouraging; on laws promising punishment than on rewards; on the wrong acts of commission rather than the good ones. So also for peace, health, mental health. Crime is the model.

2. This being so there is more consensus and willingness to act on what is wrong than on what is right; or so people believe. The peace movement during the Cold War: what matters are big demonstrations. NO to the nuclear arms race unites; what peace might look like divides.

3. There is also the idea “get rid of the evil-bad-wrong, and the sacred-good-right is already here, it comes naturally, is all in us.” All that is needed is to remove impediments, deviance and deviants.

4. And then the idea that freedom is absence of want, fear and other negatives, and, on top of that, the free choice of the positives, not to have them thrown on us like a strait-jacket.

There is some truth to all four. But that does not rule out general visions – not commands – spelling out dimensions, examples, opening for dreams and creativity. When asked “what kind of person would you like to be in five, ten years”, and the answer is “rich”, to ask how? and relations to your family? to others? and your joy at being alive, a part of Creation? is not a strait-jacket, but an eye-opener.

When released from a hospital after a successful operation it makes great sense to ask “how am I going to make use of this new lease on life?” Or the convict walking out of prison, freedom regained, how best to use it? A big void for new goods may easily be filled with old bads. Not one dogmatic answer but a cafeteria, leaving the final menu to be decided. If not, somebody else will do it. Like in today’s Syria.

Two general positive guidelines are equity-parity, and resonance.

To mediate marriages means switching from blaming each other to a focus on what good marriages look like. From Israel and Palestine, blaming each other, to what a peaceful Middle East could look like. Many believe that he who can heap most verified accusations on the other wins the future by being right about the past. Undo the wrongs and the future is there! But this locates peace in the past, and that past produced the wrongs that happened. Something has to change.

If the parties explore, separately, later on jointly, a positive and creative future together, guided by equity and resonance, we are already half way, maybe more. But here enter our limitations: How good are we ourselves as marriage partners? And our countries at practicing mutual and equal benefit, and at sympathy across borders?

The fifth and major obstacle now shows up: a good marriage, like any good relation, requires work. One way of avoiding that challenge is not to know about it. Sounding out not only one’s own but also one’s partner’s problems, to resolve them as if they were one’s own, looks like doubling the task of existence on earth; so also for inter-state relations. Holding high the benefits may be useful. Help and you are helped in return! But I don’t need any help! Not today, but disaster may strike. Old age will come. Do you really expect care to come out of your own lack thereof? Take the extra job of triple union, sex with parity, reciprocated love, joint projects – not just to be amply rewarded, but because they are so good in themselves.

Why is positive peace so problematic? Because there is work to do, here and now. Economically, to equalize numerous side – effects, not only to get the price right. Military-security wise to identify conflicts, and their solutions by peaceful means. Politically to negotiate, all cards on the table, no arms-twisting. Culturally to dialogue; mutual learning being a goal. Much work, but not impossible. Instead we often inherit, with no questions asked, bad habits from our parents’ marriages and our countries’ history. But, unless blatantly in the wrong, we want neither to disavow our parents, nor ourselves.

And then, point no. 6: War may be wrong, but an alternative may be not right or wrong, but right and wrong; yin/yang! A better map of reality? Alternatives, in the plural? Try them out in different parts of the country or one after the other till the shadowy sides show up, then switch. Maybe that is doing what comes naturally, not clinging to one.

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