Paul Pillar

The Proprietary View of Peace

An article this weekend by Colman McCarthy illustrates why self-styled peace activists have consigned themselves to near irrelevance. The subject of his article is the United States Institute of Peace, a federally chartered and funded organization that combines research and education with direct facilitation of conflict resolution and peace-building. McCarthy expresses admiration for the work of people at the institute but reacts to the House Republicans’ cut in its budget last month by arguing that the government appropriation ought to be eliminated entirely. USIP, says McCarthy, has submitted to the will of Congress and the executive by being docile and noncontroversial. McCarthy wants an activist institute, an organization that would agitate for the same sorts of positions for which he would agitate. If it is not going to be that, he says, then the word peace in the institute’s name is a sham and it is better not to have any governmental involvement at all. His is an all-or-nothing, my way or the highway approach. It also is completely ineffective and unrealistic.

The larger attitude that underlies this strange recommendation about USIP is a very constrained view of peace and an even narrower view of who has a right to claim to be acting on behalf of peace. Basically, it is only people like McCarthy himself: those who wear peace on their sleeves and agitate in the name of peace, unsullied by any involvement with the complexities and realities of policy and conflict. Peace is a cause that such people seem to believe that they own. This is similar to neoconservatives believing that they own the cause of expanding freedom overseas. McCarthy criticizes USIP’s board of directors as consisting of people with “little hands-on experience in peace education or peace training, much less sweaty antiwar activism.” This view treats peace as a separate commodity, not enmeshed in unavoidable conflicts of interest and competing policy priorities.

But peace is enmeshed in those things. Because it is, more has probably been accomplished through the years in the interest of peace by people who have devoted their energies to sweaty tasks other than carrying signs in Lafayette Park. Many of these people are in government, including diplomats, politicians, and even military officers. Most of what they have done is less visible than the sign-carriers. But we can get some inkling of this from near misses, such as the newest resort to military force against Libya. The people who through their arguments and efforts probably came closest to making that decision go the other way were not sweaty antiwar activists but instead the secretary of defense and joint chiefs of staff.

The pure pacifist pays no heed to the conflicts of interest and other policy priorities. But even if the pacifist is comfortable in shutting out of his mind all these other considerations, he encounters a contradiction in the single-minded devotion to peace itself: that sometimes an immediate rejection of military methods may lead to less, rather than more, peace later. It is true that this sort of argument has sometimes been used falsely and abusively to justify military endeavors, such as talk about how “we have to fight the terrorists over there so they won’t attack us at home.” But at other times such an argument is valid. The world is a complex place in which connections and implications do not always work the same way every time and everywhere. One has to think carefully about exactly how they work in each instance. But McCarthy doesn’t want to do that sort of thinking. He criticizes USIP for supposedly following a Congressional instruction of “don’t agitate, just cogitate.”

If people like McCarthy cogitated more before they agitated, they might come to realize that they are interested less in actually maximizing peace in the world than in acquiring a warm feeling in their guts from being advocates for it.

Image by Rrenner