Prophecy is suggesting the possible

"Our values of interdependence are no longer crazy talk. Our language has been mainstreamed." Diana Francis reports on a discussion between peace academics about how to globalise the work of conflict transformation
Diana Francis
23 November 2010

Is conflict transformation possible? Would it not be more realistic to approach peace as 'mediated tension', perhaps with some 'transformative moments'? These were the questions with which Jim Whitman began a recent discussion at Bradford University's Peace Studies department on the possibilities of transforming conflict at the global level. The conversation, called by Tom Woodhouse, opened with a summary of From Pacification to Peacebuilding in which I called for the application of experience and research based knowledge about local and national conflict transformation to global relationships and disarmament. Tom recalled that disarmament was a taken-for-granted goal in the early days of peace studies, which had somehow got lost as a limited notion of conflict resolution took centre stage. This was an opportunity to consider how the radical values with which the Bradford's Peace Studies had begun in the early 1970s could be revived and advanced, and disarmament re-instated as a core value of peace research and conflict resolution.

Jim's questions launched an animated discussion about realism, hope and possibility. Neil Cooper agreed that disarmament had been somewhat sidelined in peace studies, arguing that in the post Cold War era the 'peace community' had taken on a humanitarian agenda rather than sustaining a broad critique of militarism, to which they should return. Although for some years there was a reduction in arms expenditure, since 1999 it has again been on the rise and we are now witnessing frightening developments, in biological weaponry, nano-technology and robotics, and despite a short period of concern for 'ethical foreign policy’, arms sales have become ‘normal’ again and funding for peace research is down.

Despite these setbacks, Paul Rogers asserted and reasserted the possibility of making progress on disarmament and noted that change could come more quickly than expected, as with the progress made on banning land mines and cluster munitions. He reminded us of the shifts that have taken place in recent decades: ‘If we had been meeting in the Autumn of 1983 the Korean Airlines Jumbo Jet 007 would just have been shot down over the east of the USSR, which US President Reagan saw as an 'evil empire'; Cruise missiles would have been arriving at Greenham and Molesworth (US) bases, Pershing 2s in West Germany and SS-20s into Eastern Europe; operation ‘Able Archer' would have just taken us very close to war and Margaret Thatcher would have been re-elected after the Falklands victory.’ Much has changed since those days, not least in public opinion. The spectacular failures of military action have had their own impact and the lessons need to be hammered home repeatedly. As Daniel Schaefer, a PhD researcher in peace studies noted, though military violence is still widely accepted, there has been a shift in perceptions about the threats that really need to be addressed. There is also a new level of concern to minimise the deaths of 'our own' soldiers, at least, and increasing unease about civilian deaths among 'the enemy'.

Tom spoke of his experience of the Chevening programme at Bradford, in which young leaders are educated in political possibilities for transforming conflict and building peace. Some of the students in the programme are serving military officers and in a discussion on future peacekeeping deployments many told Tom, perhaps surprisingly, that they would prefer to serve in peacekeeping missions with non-violent, pro-peace modes of working. This preference in the military for peaceable functions was born out by work Paul Rogers cited, which was done in the early 1990s by a former colleague at Bradford, Jim Smith, with Canadian Army personnel in Croatia, and published in an Occasional Paper by the Strategic and Combat Studies Institute of the Army Staff College at Camberley.

Paul said that military think tanks with concerns similar to ours are taking a different approach and looking at the interests of one state, rather than at global needs, and that he believes that they are trapped by their perception of their role as defending against future threats rather than preventing the threats emerging. Transformation in military thinking is possible but it will be slow. Policy makers themselves have no time to think and look to outside bodies for knowledge and ideas. In Jared Ordway’s words, 'The last thing military leaders want is to go to war. There is potential for peace in humanizing and learning about the adaptability of the military. The decision to go to war is ultimately a political one, so we must help the decision makers to think differently.'

This suggests an important and influential role for peace academics - a view articulated by Tom, 'I am increasingly optimistic that we are having a cumulative impact. Our values of interdependence are no longer crazy talk. Our language has been mainstreamed.’ He pointed to the work of the All Party parliamentary Group on Conflict Issues, arguing that ‘the very existence of such a body should encourage us.'

A sense of possibility was seen as potentially self-fulfilling and key to the power to bring about change. It did not need to be detached from reality. As Paul said, 'Prophecy is suggesting the possible'. But Lisa Cumming working with the Programme for a Peaceful City, talking about the potential for change at the leadership level, said that in a context of converging crises including resource depletion and climate change, she did not see any creative thinking coming from people with power. She saw interdependence as something to be worked at, through dialogue, and being for 'us' as much as 'them. '

‘Militarism does not originate in the minds of the military’, said Daniel, ‘nor yet in the minds of top level leaders, but is situated in the norms of societies. Will events in Afghanistan and Iraq create a crisis in militarism that will give society an opportunity to reflect more on the interdependence option?’

Goranka Slavujevic cited 'The great transition' of the New Economic Foundation as a good model for the upbeat wording and breadth of aspiration we should emulate. Yet, she said, 'My generation, the young people of today, are not trained to think in terms of possibilities. We see only the awful problems of the times we live in.' Tom’s response was to refer us to Elise Boulding’s concept of ‘the 200 year present’ and the importance of a longer view of trends and changes in enabling us to see that change could happen.

As evidence of the possibility of transformation, Daniel pointed to the changes that have taken place in Europe since the end of World War II. The interdependence of the EU's member countries means that ‘war is no longer an option'. At the global level, the future depends on the degree to which common goals are identified. The dangers of climate change and food insecurity can be framed as common challenges, which can increase the perception of the importance of collaboration. As Marina Kharlamova from Russia said, quoting Nelson Mandela: ‘ It always seems impossible until it’s done’.

Rachel Yordy had the final word when she commented that being motivated by fear, being akin to coercive power, was liable to make people ‘miss the point’ and was not the best engine for positive change. She recalled the argument between the sun and the wind as to which of them could succeed in persuading a man to remove his coat. While the wind caused him only to cling on to it more tightly, the sun’s friendly warmth soon persuaded him he could do without it.

It was clear from the discussion that vital academic work on disarmament continues. Indeed, disarmament was the strongest theme in this consultation. Given that one of the objections to demilitarisation is the need to counter the power of violence, I raised the importance of developing the theory and practice of nonviolent people power. Stellan Vinthagen’s recent article on openDemocracy makes a cogent case for it and has generated a vigorous debate. Early responses have focussed on the ideological context of noviolence theory and practice, with the possibility for people power to be used destructively. As Stellan himself argues, the goal of nonviolence is important. I would go further and say that nonviolence, to qualify for the name, requires nonviolent goals, characterised by inclusiveness, care and respect. These are the values of conflict transformation and the need to find effective responses to violence is one it must address, if it is to respond to the urgent need to create peaceful global relationships and a world freed from the scourge of war. Let the debate continue and the new research begin.












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