Despite Appearances, Are We Headed Toward a Better World?
by Kent 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 of whether peace is possible seems an obvious “No!” But if you take the long view and look at the totality of trends that have been going on more or less unnoticed for two centuries, it could well be a “Maybe.”
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 inaugural 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 the century and are ongoing today, which when viewed together make the 20th century not only the bloodiest, but also the century marked by more progress toward controlling war than in any other in history. Ironic and paradoxical, yes, but it was a century of peace.
First, 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 number of other wars, and after all it was just the first experiment with such things. There have been no “world wars” since the UN has been in place, although there have been many smaller wars. The UN has done wonderful humanitarian work on its shoestring budget of less than a day’s world military expenditure. Add to this dozens of peacekeeping missions of the Blue Helmets. And 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.
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. For example, Greg Mortenson of Three Cups of Tea fame built over a hundred schools in Pakistan. These kinds of organizations did not exist a hundred years ago. People are cooperating around the globe, 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 harder for dictators to get a away with human rights abuses — and that’s another unprecedented development, the rise of the human rights movement.
Before 1948 there was no international movement for human rights and thus 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, but watchdog advocates such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch don’t let them hide it and can bring global pressure to bear. The protection of human rights is now a norm and the abusers are the deviants.
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 ready for the reading. Related to this is the development of entirely new techniques of negotiation, eschewing compromise for something better — namely, 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 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 and learn from this history.
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, and the rapid spread of democracy in the last 110 years, to name a few. It is well known that democracies generally do not attack one another. And further, 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. Britain owned the world. No more. And most surprising to some, spreading religious peace movements including Pax Christi, the Muslim Peace Fellowship, the Jewish Peace Fellowship, and Buddhists like the Dalai Lama. Also, I note the growth of measures in 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.
In short, 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. Oh no. It’s the old story. But it’s no longer the only story. Still, there was a time around 1785 when there was another old story — slavery: in place for centuries, sanctioned in law and religion, and embedded in the economy. A century later, none of that was true. Look forward: we may be on the brink of such a change as well.
Kent Shifferd is the founder of Wisconsin’s first Peace and Conflict Studies program and is an emeritus professor at Northland College. His most recent book is From War to Peace: A Guide to the Next Hundred Years (McFarland, 2011). This article was supplied by PeaceVoice.