Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Roots of Peace and the Problem of Fear

I spend a lot of my time thinking about war, conflict, and how conflicts are resolved. Somebody (I think it might have been J. David Singer) at a conference years ago said that if you scratch conflict scholars a little, you find peaceniks not far below the surface. Basically, we study what we do because we think that conflict (or, at least, certain forms of it like violent conflict) is bad, and we'd like to find better ways of dealing with it.

Because there is so much conflict in the world, those of us in the business don't want for things to study. There's plenty to keep us busy, and probably always will be. What we don't always do very well, however, is think about peace, beyond a vague sense that peace is the absence of active conflict.

A part of the problem here is that "peace," as a state in which you and I are not fighting, makes my peace dependent on what you do. And there is undoubtedly some truth to that. There are plenty of actors in the world who can disrupt an otherwise-peaceful situation by unilateral action - gunning down worshipers in a mosque, blowing up Catholic schoolchildren, or setting off a truck bomb in front of a daycare building. In that sense, we are all dependent on each other for peace.

But the danger in making my peace dependent on what you do is that I blame my lack of peace on you. My not having peace becomes your fault, which means that I don't have to examine myself or what I am doing or thinking or feeling. It becomes an excuse to externalize everything, especially the blame.

So here's a thought that occurred to me this morning, as I've been rattling around ideas about conflict and justifications for using force. What is my role in creating peace? What does it mean for me to be in a peaceful state? I think one of the roots - maybe the root, maybe one of several - is the absence of fear.

We often think of war and peace, or conflict and peace, as opposites. But as many have pointed out, conflict is ubiquitous and inevitable. It is how we deal with conflict that matters. Do we escalate to violence? To we lash out to hurt the other side? Or do we deal with the conflict constructively to find mutual solutions? That's a dichotomy that's pretty universal across the negotiation literature.

What determines the choice we make? In large part, the presence or absence of fear. If I am afraid of the other, I will likely decide that a mutual solution is not possible. In fear, I feel the need to lash out. The strong support among Americans for retaliation after 9/11 was not because we were angry or filled with hatred for al Qaeda - it was because we were afraid. Hatred, C.S. Lewis reminds us, is "the compensation by which a frightened man reimburses himself for the miseries of Fear."

The scholarly literature on conflict is replete with the same logic - although we don't often frame it that way. What's at the root of the conflict spiral, the arms race, the security dilemma? Fear of the other. What drives enemy images, demonization of the other side, escalation of our perceptions of the other? Fear. Anarchy, the realists might say, is a problem precisely because in the absence of a central authority we are all afraid of one another.

The corollary to all of this is at the same time simple and very hard. If I want peace, I need to cultivate fearlessness. I need to find ways to become less fearful. Where I cannot change the world around me - and usually I can't - I need to do what I can within myself to conquer, subdue, and eliminate fear.

How to do that? That's a subject for another day - probably, for a lifetime. But for today, it is a beginning simply to know that the more I fear, the less peace I will have.

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