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Political Philosophy

The Causes of Peace

Dan Corjescu looks briefly but hopefully at possible causes of peace.

Until Putin’s tanks rolled into Ukraine, it was often claimed without irony that the world had become generally more peaceful than in most previous eras. Leading intellectuals even developed competing theories to explain this happy state of affairs. Let’s look at three of them.

The first is Francis Fukuyama. In his celebrated debut book The End of History and The Last Man (1992), Fukuyama argued that Hegel’s nineteenth century insights into human history were relevant to understanding the political nature of our own times. Influenced by the Russian-French Hegel interpreter Alexander Kojève, Fukuyama argued that history’s trajectory was towards societies that facilitate individual freedom and recognition. In this story, the rise of modern science and technology are not enough to explain the historic spread of democratic governments and the belief in human rights. Science can produce a vibrant consumer society; but only the strong human desire for the recognition of one’s self-worth in the eyes of others can explain the demand for political liberty and rights.

Michael Doyle’s work on ‘democratic peace theory’ is partly based on the philosophical works of Immanuel Kant and Thomas Paine. Doyle, among others, noticed in the 1970s that ‘a separate peace’ between democracies seemed to have been practically achieved. This appeared to him to support Kant’s and Paine’s eighteenth century beliefs that for a peaceful world to be secured states would have to become republics (or in modern terms, democracies), which would then combine to form a federation of pacifist states, which would effectively abolish war. The fact that, according to the democratic peace theorists, no war had broken out between democracies for a hundred years (1815-1914), verified these Enlightenment thinkers’ conjectures in their eyes.

However, before celebrating the triumph of Hegelian desires for recognition or Kantian republics in contributing to world peace we should, says Azar Gat, be aware of the peace-making power of modernization itself. Prof. Gat, a noted Israeli historian of both war and peace, believes that neither the human desire for freedom and recognition nor the spread of democratic governance were responsible for the long spell of peace between the great democratic powers. He cites as evidence the mutually belligerent nature of ancient democracies – the case of democratic Athens vs democratic Syracuse is of particular interest – as well as the war of 1812 and the US Civil War, all involving democracies. Also relevant is the fact that both democracies and non-democracies have had an increasing tendency to refrain from warfare over the past two hundred years. For Gat, the main variable explaining the recent long state of peace is the transformation of the world though the industrial revolution, leading to the creation of a consumerist-technological society and culture. Significantly, this peace predated the advent of the atomic bomb, although that event also contributed to world stability, according to Gat in War in Human Civilization, (2006).

Modernization has meant many things. It has meant an exponential growth in wealth and comfort to those it benefits. It has increased the possibilities for the enjoyment of life through urbanization, the sexual revolution, consumerism, the political integration of women, and demographic changes which have meant there are comparatively fewer young men – historically the major practitioners of war, if not the instigators. In the pre-modern world, war was a potentially lucrative, if risky, endeavour, and it did not much matter against whom it was waged as long as there was a good chance of winning. However with the rise of the industrial-technological society, the payoff matrix has changed. Increasingly, it has made (and still makes) more sense to avoid conflict and not to put at risk the considerable benefits of peace, including health, wealth and comfort.

Where I take issue with Gat is around the question of how much wealth and comfort is necessary to persuade nations to peace. A degree of modernisation and the trappings of democracy haven’t persuaded Putin’s Russia to peacefulness. And certainly, the Great European Powers of 1914 were considerably more wealthy than they were in 1814. Trade among them was booming – in particular between Germany and Britain. Yet, their increasing wealth and comfort did not prevent the outbreak of WWI, which, among many other losses, meant the loss of massive reserves of national wealth. Thus, I find the outbreaks of the two World Wars as well as modern conflicts, not sufficiently explicable through Gat’s modernization theory. Indeed, I think ideological motives and cultural beliefs play a determining part in conflicts. In the case of the ascendancy of fascism, for instance, pre-modern notions of honor and masculinity, the rise of social Darwinism welded to belligerent nationalism, and even the philosophies of Nietzsche and Sorel, played an outsized role in creating the conditions for World War II. Modernization, while perhaps important for explaining the relative peace between the European powers from 1815-1914, is not sufficient, I think, to account for the violence of the first half of the twentieth century and after.

Ultimately, if Gat is right and despite recent appearances the world is reaching a qualitative threshold of peace-making prosperity, then one could argue that it is not so important for countries to be democratic as it is for them to be wealthy. Wealth often softens the warlike spirit. This has been known to philosophers for thousands of years. But the way to modern wealth is through trade, technology, and overall scientific development and education. So we may for example find some not inconsiderable solace and hope in the recent economic rise of China, a country presently very focused on the increase of national wealth and well-being. Maybe material development will be enough to avoid further great power conflict in the future. Even now, this is a test of much more than mere academic theories of peace.

© Dr Dan Corjescu 2022

Dan Corjescu teaches Cooperation and Conflict, among other courses, at the University of Tübingen.

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