The invention of peace

A leading military scholar talks about what caused the world wars, why Kissinger was a true peacemaker and whether peace is incompatible with human nature.


Suzy Hansen
April 12, 2001 11:43PM (UTC)

Lasting peace often seems out of humanity's reach -- a condition that prevailed long ago or that we hope to achieve sometime in the golden future. But Sir Michael Howard, one of Britain's foremost military historians, argues in his new book, "The Invention of Peace," that the idea of ongoing political peace is a relatively modern concept. In lucid, spare prose, Howard's 100-page argument spans 12 centuries and is a synthesis of his life's work. While he affirms peace as a worthy objective, Howard makes the case that it remains a "far more complex affair than war" and a matter of meeting specific, yet ever-changing challenges. To achieve the harmony that we dream of, we must understand the contradictions and elusiveness of peace itself.

Howard spoke to Salon from his home in West Berkshire, England, about the historical origins of peace, America's controversial and significant role in the international community and the prospect of peace in our post-heroic age.

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If peace was "invented," are you saying that man is in his more natural state when he is at war?

Conflict is a natural state at every level of human life. Peace involves, over many years, structures, organizations and laws which exist to manage that conflict. That is not a natural condition. That is something which develops only over long periods of time with a great deal of hard work and many back-slippings. Peace is not a natural state of society, any more than war is a natural state of society. Conflict is what is endemic and, if you like, is natural. There is only going to be peace if those conflicts can be managed and subsumed. That is what peacemaking is really all about.

What is the difference between positive and negative peace?

Negative peace can be defined as the absence of war, when people are not actually fighting one another. It doesn't indicate that they're not likely to start fighting one another at any moment; it may be just a brief interval between conflicts. But at the same time, they're not actually trying to kill one another. Positive peace is a situation in which there is not any probability of conflict, where people do not have to prepare for it or think about conflict, where there is a stable organization of society in which there's neither need nor inclination to resort to violence.

How do some of the conditions of peace turn into war?

During peacetime, conflicts boil up which eventually do explode into war. It is the nature of the structure of society during peacetime. For example, in Europe, between the two world wars there was peace. Nonetheless, there were intensive rivalries and hostilities. Even in a democratic structure such as Weimar Germany, extremist movements could come to power which either could not achieve their objectives without war or which genuinely looked forward to war as an agreeable occupation.

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You say that the idea of peace was more or less invented by the Enlightenment thinkers.

Yes. It was taken for granted, certainly within European society, that war was natural and inevitable and that society was organized for war. The people in charge of societies were warriors or the descendants of warriors who really regarded it as their job to prepare for and, if possible, to win the wars which were going to happen. Peace was just the intervals between wars which were very largely taken up with preparing for the next war. The idea that society could be organized without war at all -- without the possibility or probability of war happening -- was something which only developed with the 18th century Enlightenment and became, increasingly, the accepted view of Western societies. It took quite a long time for it to get through.

But new ideologies glorifying war did develop after the Enlightenment, didn't they?

In the 19th and the early 20th century, you get the philosophy of social Darwinism -- the idea that conflict is inevitable between people and between peoples, and unless you strive for dominance, you are going to be dominated. That was very much the sense before and during the First World War: Either you conquer or you are conquered. Therefore, fighting was not only natural but necessary and desirable. Men -- and it is a masculine, male-dominated society -- found their finest fulfillment and justification in fighting. They believed that peace was a bad thing and that in peace people rotted, they became decadent and societies degenerated.

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There had been 40 years of peace before the First World War -- why did it happen then?

There had been overall peace for 100 years, since 1815. What was distinctive about that period was that the European powers had emerged from the Napoleonic wars with a kind of balance between them. There was an international -- or, rather, supranational -- class of aristocrats who no longer were warriors, who had become wealthy and prosperous. Through diplomacy and family contacts, they were able to preserve a kind of order -- the Concert of Europe -- which combined and cooperated in solving crises and avoiding war. At this time, there was a desire to avoid war not because people liked peace but because if there was going to be another major war, it was likely there was going to be another major revolution. Peace was in the interests of the ruling classes of all the European states.

How was this balance disturbed?

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With the unification of Germany. The pattern was disrupted at the same time as major changes in society took effect: The agrarian society dominated by great landowners of the 18th century was being transformed into the industrial global bourgeois society of the 20th century. It made the development of this kind of ferocious, competitive nationalism much easier to establish and made these uprooted peoples more willing to follow new nationalistic concepts and leadership.

Fascism seems to be the extreme case of the idea that the state cannot exist without domination and war. Was it inevitable that totalitarianism would come about, or do you think Germany was a special situation?

As a historian, I have to say that nothing is inevitable. The Germans were fighting the British for world dominance. There was a degree of demand on the British and German populations to be loyal, to obey what the state was asking for and not to dissent from what was happening. In Britain, there was a strong democratic counterpressure which prevented that ever from developing. But in Germany, there was not that democratic counterpressure. The pressure for national loyalty and subordination to a state fitted in very much with the pattern of German historical development.

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What makes the Balkans unique and how does that relate to the trend toward national self-determination?

With self-determination, you first have to ask the question, Who is the self which is determining itself? Over a long period of time in Western Europe, by the beginning of the 20th century, there had been a gradual development of national self-consciousness. The Brits knew who they were and the French knew who they were and the Germans knew who they were and the Italians knew who they were and the Spanish knew who they were -- though there were complications with the Irish and the Basques and others.

In Eastern Europe, however, ever since the 14th century, for 500 years, there had been a Turkish hegemony where everybody was equally ruled by these foreign conquerors. They had no opportunity to develop a concept of national self-consciousness. What did develop, however, was a concept of religious self-consciousness -- Christians protesting and rising up against the Muslim dominator. At the beginning of the 19th century, you saw three different focuses of religious resistance developing: one in Greece, one in Serbia and one in Bulgaria. Around these nuclei, national consciousness begins to develop.

When the Serbs and the Bulgarians begin to develop national self-consciousness, then their neighbors begin to realize they're not the same as those people, they speak a different language, they dress rather differently. They begin to think, "We're not Serbs, we're Croats" or "We're not Croats, we're Slovenes" or "We're not Slovenes, we're Albanians" or "We're not Albanians, we're Macedonians" and so on. The greater the degree of self-consciousness that develops, the greater the degree of consciousness of separation and distinction and difference.

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Then, for various reasons, the great powers outside choose their clients and each becomes a protector of one of these groups. Therefore, the internecine quarrels in the Balkans spread to the major conflicts between the great powers. We have still not reached the stage when any overall consciousness of community has developed among the Balkan peoples. They're still much more conscious of their separation than they are of any kind of common interest, let alone common identity or common nationality.

Do you think that humanitarian intervention, such as the kind that occurred in the Balkans, is what it says it is?

It is what it says it is, but it doesn't necessarily achieve what it sets out to achieve. If people are fighting one another, you can freeze it and stop them from fighting one another by refusing to sell them arms or by putting sanitary cordons between them. But that doesn't solve the problem. It's very difficult to intervene humanely without taking sides. If Side A is bombarding the towns of Side B, and you stop Side A bombarding those towns, that gives Side B a chance for refueling and replenishing its towns and retraining its armies. It's an enormous dilemma.

If one is inclined to humanitarian intervention, as I think we all are, one has to distinguish in one's mind, first, that what is going on is so terrible that it has got to be stopped, these children must not be killed, these civilians must not be bombarded, whatever the ultimate consequence may be. But then, second, you've got to accept that this does not solve the problem. You may be letting yourself in for a far longer haul and far greater difficulties -- incurring far more costs to yourself and to your own people than you had ever expected in the first place. That is the situation we face in places like the Balkans today, let alone in places like East Timor or Israel.

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Many people in Europe resent America's intervention in all three of those places. Why is that?

The Americans can't win -- you've got to accept that. If you intervene, we complain. If you don't intervene, we complain. It is as easy as that. If you are the strongest guy on the block, you're not going to make friends, and you have to live with that possibility. It's very important to realize that although you're likely to be unpopular, it's desirable to do it in such a way that you are [the least] unpopular as you possibly can be. It is not a comfortable situation to live in a world consisting entirely of people who are jealous of you and dislike you.

Is it possible that people are resentful of American capitalism, and all it symbolizes, rather than American military dominance?

It's more subtle than that. It's not American capitalism, because among the people most resentful of the United States are the French, who are just as capitalist as you are. It is something both more subtle and more simple: a dislike of other people if they are powerful and aren't doing the things you would like them to do or are doing the things you would not like them to do.

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There's a certain difficulty among many Americans in accepting the fact that most other people in the world are very unlike Americans. And they are not likely to get any more like Americans as time goes on. They will have their own prejudices, their own way of doing things and above all their own pride. Probably the word "pride" is the one that I'm searching for. Nations desire to do things in their own way and resent somebody coming along and saying, "No, that is not the way to do it; this is the way you've got to do it." It does require enormous tolerance and patience to accept that.

Do you think that for the most part the reason why America gets involved in foreign conflict is because it wants to spread democratic values or because of economic interest?

These two things go side by side. It is in the interest of American business, as it is in the interest of British business, that we should be able to do business with as many countries as possible in the world. We should open up markets, we should get access to raw materials, we should have as many peoples in the world who will buy our products and open up their countries to capitalism. That does, however, involve getting to grips with all kinds of different regimes. I think that greed, if you'd like to call it that, and humanity can exist in the same breast and quite often do. When you get into a country in order to do business with it, you discover that the most horrible things are going on. And you feel a certain obligation to prevent that from happening. If you are not actually involved in that country through one's business interests, you might not give a damn about what is going on there. You might just leave them alone.

For example, the complete indifference of the West to what has been going on in central Africa for the last 20 years can be attributed to the fact that, apart from some rubber and mines in Katanga [Congo], we'd much rather not know or not get involved in the vast area of equatorial Africa. We have no particular financial or economic interest there.

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Attempts to install democratic governments usually fail.

They fail with Western-style democracies, which have grown from very, very different roots and very different traditions. That's part of the problem about so many different kinds of third world countries. If one looks at Africa -- the West really only started impinging on Africa in the middle of the 19th century -- you had had small tribal societies which had their own way of self-governing, laws and hierarchies. All that is destroyed by modernization and colonization. But colonization was not wicked. It was something almost inevitable. If it was not going to be done by governments, it was going to be done by businessmen. But it did destroy traditional structures of society and created a confusion which was very hostile to the building up of any kind of Western society.

You had to first have radical changes and development -- the development of the bourgeoisie, the development of adjudication, the development of concepts of law and, above all, the development of an uncorrupt bureaucracy. That is the real foundation of Western democracies. Without an uncorrupt bureaucracy, democracy is simply going to fall into the hands of people who buy the government.

Do people need the process of fighting for their own rights in order to learn to pull together as a nation?

If one is looking at nation formation, or nation building, it has to be said that one of the most powerful elements in nation building has always been people fighting for their independence, not least in the United States. I wouldn't go as far as to say that you can never get nations built when they don't fight for their independence. I always cite the example of Norway, but I think it was fairly obvious to the Swedes that if they didn't give the Norwegians independence in 1905, the Norwegians would probably fight for it. Britain gave the Irish independence in 1922 because they fought for it. Britain gave the Indians and the Pakistanis independence in 1946 and 1947 because, quite obviously, unless we did do that, we were going to be stuck with an absolutely endless war which we were unlikely to be able to win. After that, Britain said that the moment anybody starts saying they want independence, we will preempt them and give it to them.

But that did mean that the Nigerians and the Tanzanians and others found themselves with an independent government in their hands which did not command the kind of massive support it would have commanded if they had fought for their independence and recruited their country to do so. That did make it more difficult for them to impose their will and to create the consensus necessary for real nation building.

Generally, how do you feel about international tribunals -- the League of Nations, the United Nations -- as peacekeeping initiatives?

This concerns the concept of an international community. There is an international community defined by democracy, the rule of law, a liberal economic policy and, above all, a sense of mutual identity of peoples who, give or take the problem of national pride, are conscious of common values. Within that kind of community, the creation and functioning of international tribunals and international courts do make sense. But it has got to be accepted that this international community is a very limited one. There are a large number of states that do not belong to it, that have different ideas about how the world should be run and whose internal systems are radically different from ours. To try to impose on them our values, however desirable they may be, is really pointless.

Let's take the case of Yugoslavia. Under the regime of Slobodan Milosevic, Yugoslavia was a state that simply did not accept these Western values. It was run in a totally different, totalitarian, disagreeable way which was not unpopular -- there are still a large number of Serbs who intensely resent the overthrow of Milosevic. But once you do get a change of regime, and people emerge on top who do share our Western values, then they become part of the international community. But they can drop out again. Look what happened in Germany. Between 1919 and 1929, the Germans were part of the international community, the Concert of Europe. Then there was an internal change -- the good guys are overthrown and the bad guys are on top. Then, an international community, rule of law and international tribunals are a pie in the sky.

You mention a few specific individuals in the book -- along with Napoleon and Hitler, you mention Henry Kissinger. I was interested in that, especially in light of the two articles by Christopher Hitchens accusing Kissinger of war crimes that recently appeared in Harper's.

Henry Kissinger was Machiavellian in both the best and the worst senses of the word. He believed in the necessity for his country to be strong. But also, if the peace was to be preserved, then there had to be the creation of a concert of powers. He did not believe that the United States alone could impose peace on the rest of the world, nor did he believe, being a skeptical European, that the Americans were more virtuous than anyone else. He was concerned with re-creating the old European balance of power by balancing the Russians against the Chinese against the Europeans against the Japanese. He believed that that consortium of powers would be able to keep the peace. He didn't regard the Russian or the Chinese leadership as inherently evil but, rather, as people with whom you had to do business. It certainly did not mean that the United States should abstain from doing disagreeable things if it was necessary for policy. You did them, but you best not let anyone know anything about it.

Kissinger was a devil figure for good liberals who believe that peace can be kept by purely virtuous means. He's also a devil figure for old-fashioned patriotic Americans who couldn't begin to understand what he was doing talking to these Russian and Chinese leaders. But he was entirely consistent in his policy, and it is arguable that on the whole, thanks to opening up better relations with both the Russians and the Chinese, he in the end did a great deal more good than harm.

Throughout the book, you mark the emergence of these new world orders. The Cold War was a faceoff between two different ideas of a world order. Why didn't the Cold War go hot?

Neither side really wanted to fight. Both of them had had very disagreeable experiences in World War II. That went for the Russians more intensely than it did for the West. The Europeans after World War II just were not prepared to fight any more wars if they could avoid it. The United States, which had been only marginally involved in World War I and had not really suffered much in World War II, still preserved traditional patriotic commitment in being prepared, at least in principle, to make heavy sacrifices for the country. But the experience of Vietnam was so disillusioning and so disagreeable that after that even Americans found themselves as cautious and unwilling to get involved in a serious conflict as their European allies. That still remains the case.

Do you think people have the same sort of patriotism that they once had?

It varies from state to state. In the United States, there is still a very, very strong feeling of patriotism and willingness to serve. But elsewhere, and especially in Europe, the old loyalties to the nation-state have disintegrated as a result of the two world wars. In countries like Germany and Italy that suffered so terribly from the two world wars, there's no longer the sense that the young manhood of the nation should be trained for war. The disappearance and downplaying of the whole concept of the nation-state have left a vacuum of loyalties on the part of many of its inhabitants.

If there were to be a war in which civilians in Britain or the United States or France were under the kind of bombardment and risk of death that, for example, the Israelis are under now, I honestly don't know whether it would be a disintegrating or a reintegrating factor. But the fact that we have not been under that kind of threat or pressure for many decades now has very much eroded the sense of loyalty and self-sacrifice which did distinguish our countries in World Wars I and II.

Now we are in what you call a post-heroic age. There isn't face-to-face fighting and we keep our fighting at a distance; modern weaponry enables us to fire at a distance.

In World War II and all previous wars, if you were engaging the adversary, even if you couldn't see him, he could kill you. Now you have a situation in which you -- by you I mean the United States -- can fire off Tomahawk missiles with a range of hundreds or thousands of miles without the faintest possibility of anybody getting back at you. That does create an entirely new attitude toward war. It chimes in with the general development in Western society of risk avoidance -- the belief in the undesirability of death or of being wounded and the sense that governments have the right and the duty to save their peoples from risk and to save them from death. That certainly was not the attitude 100 years ago, let alone 200 years ago, when it was regarded as the duty of people to fight and die for their country and the right of government to ask them to do so.

What do you think is the possibility of peace or full-scale war for the 21st century?

Oh, a century is a very long time. When historians prophesy about the future, the one thing that history teaches us is that they will fall flat on their faces and get it wrong. All that one can say is that if we act as if peace were necessary and possible, we are more likely to achieve it than if we don't.


Suzy Hansen

Suzy Hansen, a former editor at Salon, is an editor at the New York Observer.

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