The Future of Peace

02/26/2015 12:30 pm ET | Updated Apr 27, 2015

Are we too resigned to war?

It's a question plaguing many of us, with so many violent conflicts raging, and fear of a third world war looming.

Resignation was not always the case. As old-fashioned as it sounds, the Cold War peace movement was relatively unyielding. It was also focused, with a clear agenda and ordering principles. There was a common understanding of the synergy among its parts -- which ranged from dispelling xenophobia and reducing the nuclear threat to a sustained push to end U.S.-Soviet proxy wars and shift guns to butter.

But now we face a much more complex conflict landscape, and the global constituency for peace is fragmented and/or fatigued. Despite thousands of efforts aimed at peace, the targets and approaches are quite varied, spanning domestic violence, spirituality, education, government reform, diplomacy, protests, military intervention and restorative justice. This diversity makes sense: over the last decades, agents of change have demonstrated the efficacy of addressing every kind of issue on a specific, tailored and (often) local level. With technology, new philanthropy and social enterprise, it's been easier to work around the less nimble, state-based system. At the same time, peace competes with other urgencies -- such as employment, education, climate change and health -- for most people's attention. Working for peace can seem like a luxury. "Peace" itself has become relatively obsolete and even trite compared with "conflict management" -- which itself seems like a stretch in 2015.

To be anything other than a realist is considered naïve. Even among the many graduate students of international relations (who dig much deeper than the headlines) whom I've met in the past decade, almost none see evidence of interdependence or global ethics or human development trumping war. More broadly, it is now understood that state consolidation has always involved war, and thus always will. At the same time, research shows a steady, relative decline in the global body count from violent conflict since the end of the Cold War. Thus the acceptance that some amount of war is inevitable is eased by the reassurance that things are actually improving at the macro level. All the more reason to keep working around -- programmatically and geographically -- the problem of war.

Of course realism received a huge boost from the re-framing of "imminent threat" -- most starkly influential in the U.S. context with the preventive war in Iraq being mislabeled "pre-emptive." In that instance and others, when power does not exercise restraint, a damage control approach to war becomes more pragmatic. This reframing was also exemplified in the U.S. at a micro level in the Trayvon Martin case, in which the perception of threat (from the view of a self appointed vigilante) became the justification for ignoring institutional checks that were activated to counter impulsive action. When citizens perceive that individuals and states cannot be compelled to accountability, realism wins out.

And yet there has been considerable and consequential push-back against both the Iraq war and the Martin verdict, and citizens everywhere keep showing their strength in numbers and determination via revolution and protest movements -- at times with specific demands, and aided by technology in achieving very targeted and effective campaigns. Could this immense power be channeled into a singularly focused initiative aimed at preventing a single, additional, emerging conflict from escalating to mass violence?

Such a proposition could be tested by surveying those groups and networks currently working for peace, regardless of their angle. After all, community development uses visioning to map the future. Militaries and companies do it through scenario planning. Organizations use strategic plans. Futures studies emphasize trends, risks and wild cards when forecasting. A whole lot of effort goes into mapping in general, and mapping the future of war specifically, but very little effort goes into mapping the future of peace. The future of war-peace may be two sides of the same coin, but framing matters in terms of mindset and proactiveness.

A large-scale mapping exercise based on engaging peace oriented groups could lead to a consensus on, and momentum for, a focused and consolidated effort to de-escalate an emerging conflict. One area ripe for experimentation is an early arms supply cut off to a community, region or state. Conventional wisdom says the global arms market makes this beyond impossible. ISIS, for example, procured weapons from over 20 countries, including China, Russia, the U.S. and Sudan. Between these state-market forces, and the spoils of poorly disbanded armies, even non-militants have tanks parked in their front yards in some places.

Yet the narrative regarding Syria was that an early arms supply cut off -- when the threat of war did in fact appear imminent -- was that it was against the interests of every arms supplying state, and those interests could not be broached and reconciled. After almost four years of carnage, an arms supply cut off (and, ostensibly, enforcement) became an option for Iran, Russia, Turkey, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. Political unfeasibility does not equal impossibility. Citizens have been filling a soldier gap by fighting as mercenaries in that conflict. There is no reason to believe that citizens, more generally, cannot compel governments to act earlier and in concert to avert war. But this requires exerting an unprecedented, united, highly focused and sustained effort.

There are countless other areas in which civil society could exercise its collective muscle besides arms supply cuts. We may be currently at a loss for what such an effort would look like. Only through collective imagination can that take shape. And it is civil society's energy, capacity and pragmatism that holds so much potential for achieving results. Prevention has not yet been supported and demanded by a sufficient number of people in a targeted way to conclude that it is unachievable. If we do not at least try channeling our attention and resources, we miss the opportunity the test our hypothesis that we are powerless.

Such initiative carries the burden of the realism paradigm, and the media's role in this shifting this paradigm is critical. If peace efforts receive a fraction of the media attention that war does, so the argument goes, a change in the public perception of those efforts' viability may also occur. As scientists at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute determined (2011), 10 percent of any given population can significantly influence a society; this is the tipping point where minority views can quickly become majority views.

A damage control orientation to war is understandable. Indeed, it currently appears to be our only option. But the idea that the world has reached a breaking point in regards to tolerating violent conflict has suddenly been popularized in the media. In that idea exists the possibility for at least one success.