Is the World Headed Toward Peace?

By Kent D. Shifferd

With the 20th century having been the bloodiest in history, and with bombs falling in Libya, explosions in Iraq, Hamas rockets falling on Israel and a seemingly endless war in Afghanistan, the answer to the question above seems an obvious “No!” However,  if you take the long view and look at  some trends that have been going on more or less unnoticed for a couple of hundred years, it could well be a “maybe.”

Peace is a Relatively New Idea

Consider this.  After thousands of years of warfare, the first organized peace societies in history began to form and work in the early 19th century.  By 1899 their efforts resulted in the calling of the first ever world peace conference, and out of that came the first ever court to adjudicate disputes between nations, the so-called “World Court.”  (Its actual name is the International Court of Justice.)  By itself it was not enough to stop World War I, but some 22 more trends — developed over that century and ongoing today — when viewed together make the twentieth century not only the bloodiest century, but also the century marked by the most progress toward controlling war of any in history.  Ironic and paradoxical though it seems, it was a century of peace.

First there was the development of courts, as mentioned, including the International Criminal Court to deal with individuals who commit genocide and war crimes.  Second, the century saw the development of international institutions to control war — first the League of Nations, and then the United Nations.  While the League did not prevent World War II, it did prevent a couple of smaller wars, and after all it was the very first experiment with such things.  There have been no world wars since the UN has been in place, although there have been smaller wars.  The UN has done wonderful humanitarian work on its shoestring budget (less than a day’s worth of world military expenditures annually), and don’t forget the Blue Helmets’ dozens of peacekeeping missions.  In addition, there are regional bodies, such as the Organization of American States, the African Union, and the European Union, that are also bulwarks against interstate war.

NGOs Play an Important Role

Another unprecedented development has been the rise of tens of thousands of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) doing important international work on peace, human rights, health, environment and economic justice.  One shining example is the building of over a hundred schools in Pakistanby Greg Mortenson of Three Cups of Tea fame. These kinds of organizations did not exist a hundred years ago.  People are cooperating around the globe, something made possible in large measure by two stunning technologies: the Internet and cell phones.  The world is now a very small and transparent place.  It’s hard for dictators to get a away with human rights abuses—and the rise of the human rights movement is another unprecedented development.  Before 1948 there was no international movement for human rights and they were violated with impunity.  Then, under the auspices of the UN, a Universal Declaration was drafted and the movement took off.  Today human rights are still violated in some places, of course, but watch-dog advocates such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch make such violations harder to hide and they can bring global pressure to bear.  The protection of human rights is now the norm while the abusers are the deviants.

Peace Studies Expand Our Understanding

Also unprecedented has been the turning of

human intellect to the understanding of the causes of war and the conditions of peace.  Peace research, carried out by institutes of scholars is now well-supported, and peace education is being carried out all over the world from K-12 through university courses and graduate degrees.  A whole literature of hundreds of books and articles is readily available.  Related to this is the development of entirely new techniques of negotiation, eschewing compromise for something better, mutual gains or win-win, started by Fisher and Ury in their book, Getting to Yes.

Perhaps the most revolutionary development has been the evolution of nonviolence from an individual ethic preached by religious teachers to a powerful political tool for bringing down dictatorial regimes including the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe, Marcos in the Philippines, the Communist counter-coup in Russia, and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, all begun by Mohandas Gandhi in his successful campaign to free India from the British Raj.  It was even used successfully in various campaigns against the Nazis in Norway, Denmark, Bulgaria, Greece, and France.  Read about it.

Other Trends

There are other trends too: the liberation of women in major parts of the world, the environmental sustainability movement that could deliver us from oil wars, the rapid spread of democracy in the last 110 years.  It is well known that democracies rarely attack one another.  And too, there are broad areas where no wars have been fought for a long time, including Scandinavia and North America.  No one expects tanks to come rolling across the undefended border between the U.S. and Canada.  Another trend is the end of colonialism. When I was a kid, the map was pink because Britain owned the world.  No more.

There are also the spreading religious peace movements including Pax Christi, the Muslim Peace Fellowship, the Jewish Peace Fellowship, and Buddhists like the Dalai Lama.  The growth of the treaty regime is also noteworthy. It has created the beginnings of international law to curb war, including the partial test ban treaty, the ban on child soldiers, the treaty banning land mines, the law of the seas, and many others.

When you look over the last hundred or so years, the number, variety and kind of developments leading us in a new direction are breathtaking.  War is not gone.  It’s still the old story, but it’s no longer the only story. That brings to mindthe time around 1785 when there was another old story—slavery. It had been in place for thousands of years, sanctioned by law and religion, and embedded in the economy.  Yet by 1885 none of that was true any longer.

Look forward; we may be on the brink.  Φ

Kent Shifferd is founder of Wisconsin’s first Peace and Conflict Studies program and emeritus professor at Northland College.

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