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World peace is possible

Only a very few of us today believe that world peace is possible. Indeed, the very mention of the term ‘world peace’ raises incredulity. According to Susan Sontag, not even pacifists believe in it nowadays.[1]



It is not difficult to understand why. The grim persistence of war and the abysses of violence that characterized the twentieth century bequeathed a legacy of deep-seated scepticism towards world peace. It is a scepticism reinforced by the way that war and peace are fed to us.


News channels and websites, the way most of us now access information about the world, feed us a steady stream of stories about human avarice, aggression, insecurity, and conflict whilst tending to downplay the everyday stories of cooperation, altruism, and innovation that have helped improve the overall human condition on virtually every measurable front over the past century. War itself is fed to us and sustained in a way that peace is not. It is warmakers (typically, but not exclusively the successful ones), not peacemakers, who are honoured by national monuments. Even ‘glorious defeats’ tend to receive more accolades than the individuals and groups that stopped, prevented, or opposed wars. History too favours war over peace. We know far more about the disputes that ended in violence than we do about those resolved peacefully. More than 50,000 books have been written about the US Civil War alone; yet there are fewer than three dozen serious treatises on world peace. More than one writer has argued that war is simply more exciting than peace.[2]


Why, in the face of all, do I think nonetheless that world peace is possible? Partly because peace is more common than we tend to think, partly because our contemporary sense of crisis is born out of a Pollyannaish vision of recent history and an overly despondent sense of our present, and partly—and most fundamentally—because of our immense capacity for adaptation and change. Let’s look at each of these in turn.


First, peace is more common than we think. There is immense variety in the human story and numerous examples of societies and civilizations enjoying long periods of peace. Overall, most societies have enjoyed peace most of the time. Those that have not have typically not prospered. Sustained peace has been achieved in many different times and places. Most people alive today have never experienced war and do not live in fear of it. If we stop to think of the generations of people past, in different parts of the world from ancient Crete to Gaul, the Indus Valley and Egypt, who experienced lives of peace, the possibility of its attainment starts to feel vaguely possible.


Second, war and peace are human creations. Neither war nor peace is embedded in our nature. Humanity has the potential for both. Wars happen, ultimately, because some people choose to make them happen. Those that make war can also call a halt.[3] War and peace can be made and unmade. If that is true, then world peace is possible. We know what sorts of states and societies are more – and less – peaceful. We already have rules of coexistence that make peace between states possible, if only we would follow them. We know the costs and the payoffs of war and can choose to tilt the odds one way or the other. If peace is possible in some times and places – as human history shows in abundance that it is -- there is no inherent reason why peace cannot be possible in all places.


Third, we already have many of the rules, institutions, and practices we need. As Ian Morris points out, war may have made the modern state, but the modern state—by and large—made peace. It did so at home first and then internationally.[4] Drawing on different sets of data and examples, a raft of recent books—including John Mueller’s Retreat from Doomsday, Robert Muchembled’s History of Violence, Azar Gat’s War in Human Civilization, Joshua Goldstein’s Winning the War on War, and most famously Steven Pinker’s Better Angels of Our Nature—have shown that the likelihood of our dying violent deaths declined as a result of the rise of modern states and international organization. That is not to say that there are no examples of non-state societies maintaining and sustaining peace—there are, as the Rapa Nui of Easter Island attest—or that the process of statemaking itself was not incredibly violent. But but with emergence of the state came a reduction of our overall chances of dying in war, even if the process of state formation sharply increased the chances of some people dying violent deaths. We have also made significant progress in developing the rules and institutions needed to peacefully manage relations between states.


Peace is neither inevitable nor irreversible, of course—it is something that every generation must strive for because the forces that make war possible are likely to remain with us.[5] Yet greater peacefulness in human relations is revealed through our striving for it.


What may at first appear to be a ridiculously utopian claim—that world peace is possible—rests on the basic fact that human nature and the societies we build are not immutable, that what it means to be human changes in response to social and environmental pressures. Whole societies—including our deepest social structures—change and evolve over time. In 1922, John Dewey wrote in Human Nature and Conduct that it was ‘foolish’ to believe that change was impossible. Dewey argued that history and experience furnish us with all manner of examples of how humanity has changed over time; how practices once considered normal have been eradicated and other practices, once thought impossible or contrary to nature, have become normal. Human nature is adaptable. Societies are not doomed to follow a predestined path characterized by repeated war. How we live and adjust and evolve will be determined by our own choices and actions. Future societies can choose to work towards world peace or they can opt for permanent war. They can also opt for everything in between these two poles.[6]

[1] Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (London: Picador, 2004).


[2] For instance, Nigel Biggar, In Defence of War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), p. 1 and Coker, Can War Be Eliminated? p. 97.


[3] A point made by Van Creveld, More on War, p. 29.


[4] Morris, War: What Is It Good For?, p. 18.


[5] One of the principal messages delivered by Margaret MacMillan in her 2018 series of Reith Lectures, broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Also see Margaret MacMillan, ‘It Would Be Stupid to Think We Have Moved on From War: Look Around’, The Guardian, 24 June 2018.


[6] John Dewey, Human Nature and Conduct: An Introduction to Social Psychology (New York: Cosimo, 2007 [1922]).

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