By Gijsbert van Iterson Scholten / Reading Time: 5 Minutes
I study peace. Which is quite unusual. In political science, but even in peace and conflict studies. Many people say they study peace, but really what they study is war. Or ‘armed conflict’, which is war on a smaller scale. These people argue that peace is the absence of war. Hence, if we understand what causes war to either erupt or end, we will also know something about how to keep or achieve peace. Which makes some sense. But problems arise as soon as you are talking about peace-building in post-conflict situations, in frozen low-intensity conflicts or as a preventative measure. You cannot judge the success of these activities solely in terms of how much armed violence they have prevented. Both because it is very difficult to measure violence that did not happen, and because peace is much more than the absence of war.
To explain this to readers unfamiliar with peace and conflict studies, I will introduce a metaphor. I am not sure whether the metaphor works, but it might be illuminating, so let’s give it a try. Let’s say that war is like darkness, and peace is like light. This carries some beautiful religious overtones, and is thus very useful for Christmas dinner conversations or other midwinter nights. In a situation of total and utter darkness, you will want some light. That makes sense. Just as, in really desperate cases of war, you want peace. Any peace. This light can come from many sources: candles, classical light bulbs, low-energy light bulbs (CFLs), oil lamps, led-lights, a fire, a pocket torchlight. Even a match will do when you’re really afraid of the dark. Likewise, peace can come from many sources: armed intervention (or winning the war), promoting non-violence, statebuilding, democracy, improved standards of living, trade, meditation or peace education.
It is an empirical question which of these mechanisms does ‘better’ in terms of preventing or ending armed conflict, just as it is an empirical question how much light stadium lights provide compared to matches. On a quantitative approach to peace, this is as far as you can get. But more interesting than the amount of light (peace) a certain intervention brings, is the question what kind of light is needed for this situation. Especially when it is not totally dark.
Then you might not want to risk burning your fingers on a match, especially not if the match will not add much to the already shadowy illumination. And when you are feeling sleepy, lighting a candle to drive away the darkness might not be the best solution (as your local fire brigade will no doubt be glad to tell you). Making love (instead of war) is best done by soft candlelight, whereas rebuilding calls for construction lights. Comparable advantages and disadvantages can be found for all other forms of illumination, but the point is clear.
In a situation of total darkness you might want any kind of light, but as soon as there is some light to go by, you have to start thinking about the pros and cons of different forms of lighting.
It is the same with peace. In a situation of total war, like the Syrian conflict, it is extremely useful to think of different strategies to stop this war and try any of them. But fortunately, in most other conflicts the situation is not as dark as it is there. Which means that you have to think carefully about the kind of light (the kind of peace) you are bringing to those situations.
You can’t do this solely by studying the darkness and measuring its depth. You have to study the varieties of peace, as phenomena in and of themselves. Because different (post-) conflict situations call for different forms of peace. Sometimes you will need reconciliation, sometimes accountability. Sometimes you will have to work on people’s mindset, sometimes on institutional constraints. Sometimes you will want a candle, sometimes construction lights. What you probably don’t want is to set the world on fire, even though in a situation of total darkness this will provide some light.
But, unless you study peace as a positive phenomenon, you will have no idea what the candle, the construction lights and the fire are metaphors for. I am open to suggestions.
Gijsbert van Iterson Scholten is a PhD candidate at the department of Political Science and Public Administration. His research focuses on how different peacebuilding professionals define peace.