Is it still possible to imagine a world committed to peace?
It was not too long ago that a durable global peace seemed not only conceivable, but also inevitable. At the end of the Cold War and with the fall of the Berlin Wall, discussing the “peace dividend” was popularized by conservative politicians like George H. W. Bush and Margaret Thatcher.
Today, a decade-and-a-half after the inception of the Global War on Terror, global peace seems like a distant ideal, naive and unattainable to the point where peace is not even mentioned in popular discourse.
But this has little to do with genuine political realities and far more to do with the failure of current political leaders to provide the vision and the will to produce such a future.
There are several reasons why peace seems so distant today. First, current political leaders — and those seeking positions of power — find it easy to engage in discourse that assumes that violence and war are the natural state of affairs between nations. Demonization of Muslims in Western countries (and vice versa), the summoning of Manichean worldviews that group nations or beliefs into good and evil, and use of “us versus them” mentalities are prevalent. There is little room for nuance in this type of thinking, but it is easy and it has the effect of stirring up emotion in the political conversation.
In the 1960s, at the height of the Cold War, President John F. Kennedy challenged the American people in a June 1963 speech at American University to look beyond propaganda and to at least consider the notion of peace with the Soviets. He said:
No government or social system is so evil that its people must be considered as lacking in virtue. As Americans, we find communism profoundly repugnant as a negation of personal freedom and dignity. But we can still hail the Russian people for their many achievements–in science and space, in economic and industrial growth, in culture and in acts of courage.
Among the many traits the peoples of our two countries have in common, none is stronger than our mutual abhorrence of war.
This is simply not the type of message that is prevalent today, from government, from politicians, or from the media.
A second reason that distances people from the hope for peace is the failure to understand the root causes of current political violence and terrorism. The Cold War conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union was in many ways a classic “Big Power” rivalry. Understanding that, and also understanding the hell that would be unleashed if war (particularly nuclear war) ever broke out, leaders had both the correct analysis and the correct incentives to prevent a major war.
Today, in contrast, there remains little attempt to understand the root causes of terrorism. Citizens of Western democracies are entertained with the gore and imagery of each attack, told to be afraid, and made to believe that terrorists “hate freedom” or some similar explanation that has no factual basis. People are told that it is not important to understand the reasons for terrorism, even though it should be plainly obvious that understanding the reasons why someone wants to commit violence is not the same as agreeing with those reasons.
In fact, when terrorists do explain themselves, their reasons for terrorist violence are couched in terms of fighting against perceived injustices of US and Western imperialism, including the support of tyrannical regimes in Saudi Arabia, the invasion of Iraq, and the killing of civilians through drones and other measures. It will be impossible to end or prevent terrorist violence without understanding these stated concerns, and analyzing whether such perceived injustices have any real validity.
Third, peace has become a distant vision because the threat of terrorism is manufactured to the public as a larger threat than it really is. Much in the same way that air plane crashes promote the false idea that air travel is unsafe (air travel remains one of the safest forms of transportation) the spectacle of terrorism, and the non-stop news coverage that accompanies terrorism, promotes the view that terrorism is an existential threat. It is undeniably true that terrorism kills people, and that every such death is tragic. But only 29 Americans had been killed between 2005 and 2015 because of terrorist acts in the US. As the Washington Post reported last year, Americans are more likely to be crushed to death by furniture than be killed in a terrorist incident. Yet there are no cries for a “War on Furniture.” That would be recognized by all rational people as a ridiculous political stunt.
I believe it is possible to engage in political discourse that not only permits the possibility of peace, but advocates for a durable global peace as the inevitable product of civilization. But in order to do that, thinking people will need to reject the failed and dark visions espoused by current leaders, the irresponsibly inaccurate reasons put forth by so-called “experts” regarding the reasons for terrorism, and replace these with a world view that understands the reasons that encourage terrorism and places the risk of terrorism in rational perspective.
Perhaps the greatest reason for the failure of peace is the failure to believe that such a future is possible. There are powerful forces and thousands of people who wake up every day, dedicating their lives towards creating a world of dominance through violence. This energy must be matched and countered by those who believe that a more civilized age is possible based on human rights, equal dignity for all peoples, peaceful coexistence and the rule of law. This is perhaps the greatest challenge of the current era: inspiring and encouraging people of all ages and backgrounds to dedicate whatever time and energy they have towards a future that will make the world more livable and sane.