Peaceful Societies – Where Are They?

By Johan Galtung

3 July 2017

There are many of them – of different kinds – in world geography. We can try to identify the characteristics of their peacefulness.

Or we can start by identifying belligerent societies and then see peaceful societies as their negations. Let us try this one first.

Belligerent societies have a track record of violence across border, on the territory of others, often invoking “defense”– preventive, pre-emptive, proactive. For that they need weapons, arms, as an army or not. And the weapons, with their carriers, must be long range, offensive, to work across borders, inside another society.

By negating, we get three characteristics of peaceful societies:

1) having only short range defensive weapons for defensive defense;

2) having no weapons, arms, at all, nor the capacity to make them;

3) having a track record of no war, no attack across borders.


No. 3, no track record, is no guarantee for the future.

No. 2, no arms, is no guarantee they cannot start making or importing.

No. 1, defensive defense, is no guarantee against longer range arms.

Peaceful societies may change? Yes, so may belligerent societies. They may stop attacking others, abolish their army (Costa Rica) or not get one–about 30 societies–or have defensive defense (Switzerland).

Have a look at the world: about 200 societies, countries, states. There may be border skirmishes, but attacks are rare. One reason: very few can afford submarines, ocean navy, tanks, bombers, missiles. An army only to defend the borders – the inland with militia – and if occupied non-military defense–rooted in doctrine to be credible, costs less.

Most countries practice offensive defence unwittingly.

The [1]->[2]->[3] scenario is a good peaceful society policy.

However, look at another approach.

Robert B. Textor compiled Characteristics of primitive societies correlated with warfare, comparing 34 “where warfare is prevalent” with 9 where it is not.

The 9 were located in East Eurasia, including Chinese Himalayan slopes, were largely nomadic, no husbandry, no metal work, no towns-cities, community size below 50, only two local levels, no classes. More cultural, no slavery, no corporal punishment, less taboo on sex, less need for achievement, no focus on military glory or bellicosity, no games of chance only of skills, low on narcissism and boastfulness.

The 34 where warfare is prevalent had the opposite traits.

The structural traits spell development. Are peaceful societies low on development and high on peace culture? Yale Human Relations Area Files(*) gave the same conclusion: low on development, ritualistic, non-lethal “warfare”; high on development, aggressive, lethal warfare.

Does this mean that we must choose between development and peace, maybe using warfare, slavery and colonialism for own development? The West got rich and developed that way, at the expense of others, taking risks, but mainly attacking those weaker than themselves.

Nonetheless, that is only one track among many. And the three points above are also for belligerent Western societies like USA and Israel.

All these traits are only correlations, which is not causation. What, then, makes a society belligerent or peaceful? Correlated traits make their contribution, but may be neither necessary nor sufficient?

Textor, an anthropologist, focused on one society at the time and missed inter-society structure. A society high up wants more benefits from structural violence; a society low down wants less exploitation.

That lifts the analysis from the societal to the inter-societal.

Again, where are now the peaceful societies? Where the inter-societal structure is egalitarian: the Nordic, EU, ASEAN countries, much of Latin America and Africa.

And where are the belligerent societies? Where it is inegalitarian or where a society wants it to be with itself on top.

Then there is the cultural factor, pointed to in the traits list. Being peaceful or belligerent–justified with reasons for being so.

So, a revised formula for a peaceful society might be:

* no recent track record of inter-societal direct violence;

* not a party to structural violence as an exploiter or exploited;

* not having a national culture justifying war more than peace.

We cannot turn history backwards. Development was spurred by an intense desire for material comfort, for protection against nature. If wars were needed, OK; if it led to warfare, belligerence, also OK.

And that points to a basic cause: what humanity, not only the leaders, wants strongly enough, it may get.

And so, we must want peace more.

The peace movement has not wanted peace; it has been anti-war. Not good enough. A correct approach has to focus on the positive, spelling out peace benefits and making them attractive and credible, spelling out what has to be done and making the work feasible.

True, our good health is based on being anti-illness, but only as a necessary, not as a sufficient condition. Then came the interplay between health theory and practice. As now also emerging for peace.

And it works.

Societies become more equal by being members of a region, like the three regions mentioned. States disappear as their borders weaken with backlashes. Regionalism emerges. And localism.

Violence becomes more targeted; from below as terrorism, from above as state terrorism. Less interstate violence, fine; but more local violence, and possibly regional violence. What went wrong?

Maybe from the very beginning in the focus on societies instead of on the system of societies. And beyond that, a focus on concrete conflict and trauma, on solution and conciliation, at the societal macro, and personal micro, intra-society meso, inter-regional mega levels.

But we still have societies, countries, states, with policies. Defensive defense leading to disarmament makes sense as state policy.

As do more horizontal, egalitarian, systems of societies and regions.

The world moves in that direction. Let us make this optimism self-fulfilling.


(*) Johan Galtung, “Belligerence among the Primitives”, Essays in Peace Research Vol. II Ch. 1, Copenhagen: Ejlers, 1976.

This article was originally published at Transcend Media Service, TMS, here.

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