Truces versus Permanent Peace

January 11, 2013 Topic: DefensePeacekeepingPost-ConflictSecurity

Truces versus Permanent Peace

The West tends to regard truces as mere interruptions in war, but taking them seriously could yield a more peaceful planet.

A Jordanian soldier and two Israeli policemen in Jerusalem, 1950.The recent truce between Israel and Hamas has held so far. Nevertheless, many Israelis are skeptical of the arrangement, viewing it as little more than a lull allowing Hamas to rest and rearm. Few of them were moved when it became public that a leading cleric in Gaza issued a religious edict making it a sin to violate the agreement. These doubts are representative of a broader rejection of truces in the west.

When we think about truces at all, we consider them mere stepping stones in the transition beyond themselves, to something better and more durable—a stable and permanent peace that settles all outstanding questions. Anything else, we tend to believe, is a short respite before the next war.

Three years after the outbreak of World War I, Pope Benedict XV published a plea calling on the combatants to hold their fire, reduce the amount of weapons at their disposal and agree to arbitration. His call went unheeded. The Wilson administration went out of its way to clarify why it could not accept the pope’s plan. Writing on behalf of the president, Secretary of State Lansing explained that "it [was] not a mere cessation of arms” that the pope and the United States were interested in. Rather, it was "a stable and enduring peace.” The same position was articulated by former president Taft who, in a statement to the New York Times, reiterated that "the enormous sacrifices the Allies had made must not be wasted by a patched-up compromise peace”:

Such a peace would be a mere truce to be ended when the [Germans] think it wise. . . . Our goal is permanent peace, and that is impossible until by force of arms we have established international morality and the sacred character of every nation's obligations as a basis for international law.

A peace that deserves the name must be "stable and enduring.” It must be permanent. We should not be tempted to stop fighting for less. The sacrifices we have made cannot be justified for less. We do not want "a mere cessation of arms”; we do not want "a mere truce”; we do not want "a patched-up compromise.” Peace must be final. It means the reliable and comprehensive eradication of war. It means the replacement of killing by a just international legal order.


In a fireside chat broadcast over the radio in December of 1943, soon after his return from the Teheran and Cairo Conferences, President Roosevelt expressed a similar view: "The overwhelming majority of all the people in the world want peace,” he asserted. "Most of them are fighting for the attainment of peace—not just a truce, not just an armistice—but peace that is as strongly enforced and as durable as mortal man can make it.” War ends with a stable peace. Real peace, "not just a truce.” It should be "as lasting as men can make it.” Nothing else is worth dying for.

Our thinking about how wars end has been shaped by an idea of peace articulated most forcefully in the end of the eighteenth century by the philosopher Immanuel Kant. It involves the final resolution of all outstanding disputes, mutual recognition and the replacement of fighting with stable, broadly democratic legal arrangements.


"No treaty of peace shall be held valid in which there is tacitly reserved matter for a future war,” Kant wrote. "Otherwise a treaty would be only a truce, a suspension of hostilities but not peace, which means the end of all hostilities.” A truce, he added sardonically, echoing the religious prejudices of his age, is an "artifice worthy of the casuistry of a Jesuit.”

It is no great surprise, then, that Israelis don't take truces seriously. Given the Kantian way in which we think about war’s end, as long as Hamas rejects the prospect of a final and irreversible peace with the Jewish state, any ceasefire arrangement must be viewed with extreme suspicion.

While the current Hamas leadership may or may not take its truce with Israel seriously, it is a grave mistake for Western governments to dismiss the very idea of truces in winding down wars with Islamic actors.

Islamic Jurisprudence takes truces very seriously. The first truce in the Islamic tradition can be traced back to the Treaty of Hudaybiyah signed in 628 AD between the Prophet Mohammad and the people of the tribe of Quraysh who controlled the city of Mecca. Mohammad and his followers wanted to perform a pilgrimage to Mecca, but the local inhabitants did not welcome them. In order to avert a bloody confrontation, the parties reached a ten-year armistice regulating future pilgrimages. This agreement is the source of legitimacy of truces in Islam.

An Islamic truce or hudna consists in the suspension of the duty of Jihad against non-believers. It is permissible for Muslims to enter into such an agreement under a variety of circumstances ranging from the perceived military weakness of the Muslim army through the remoteness of the battlefield to the scarcity of resources necessary for fighting. Muslim thinkers allow for a wide range of hudnas, some lasting only a few days, intended primarily for rest and rearmament, others enduring six or, as in the case of Hudaybiyah, ten years. Furthermore, most Sunni scholars accept the idea of unlimited hudnas when it is clear that the Muslim army cannot defeat its enemy.

The historical record provides numerous examples of truces between Muslims and infidels. Saladin and the Crusaders signed eight such agreements in the twelfth century (four initiated by the Crusaders, four prompted by Saladin). Only one of these was broken. The French and their Algerian foes under the command of Abd Al-Qadir signed two hudnas in the 1830s, and the Spanish and the Moroccans signed a hudna in 1860 that eventually developed into a full-blown peace agreement.

Hudna is not the only term in Islamic jurisprudence denoting a temporary cessation of hostilities. The related notion of tahadiya shares the identical Arabic root h-d-n, denoting quiet or calm. While a tahadiya is usually a short, informal, often unilateral ceasefire, hudnas are formal, binding agreements between two parties and it is rare for them to be broken, as their stability and endurance are tied with the honor of the signatories: "Hudna,” writes the scholar Gideon Weigert, "denotes something sacred, although it is not a religious notion per se. Once a person has signed or shaken hands on a hudna agreement for a certain period of time, he might not renew it, but he will not resume fighting before the term of the agreement is over.”

Muslims take hudnas seriously. They view such agreements as a way of curtailing, sometimes even permanently ending wars. From Gaza to Afghanistan to Iraq, Western powers have been doing a lot of fighting with Muslims in the last decade. Shouldn't these powers think more carefully about a method of conflict reduction central to the political tradition of their enemies?

If we were to think about truces more seriously, we would have plenty of resources in our own tradition to guide us. There is a rich, if neglected strand in western political thought that is quite sympathetic to this "Muslim” way of thinking about winding down wars. Abraham and Lot decided to simply part ways ("if you take the left hand, then I will go the right; or if you take the right hand, then I will go the left”) as a way of resolving a dispute between their herders; David Hume warned against "imprudent vehemence” in militarily pursuing our principles; George Kennan insisted, in his famous "X Article,” that the ideological intractability of a foe and their refusal to make peace does not have to imply war. These are promising historical and philosophical raw materials for us to use in developing our own concept of truce.

Such a concept would not only provide common ground in negotiating with our Muslim adversaries. It could also, perhaps paradoxically, make us safer. As the historian David Bell reminds us in a recent book about the Napoleonic Wars, our tendency to posit lasting and stable peace as the only acceptable way of ending a war makes wars longer and more brutal than they have to be. What President Wilson called "the war to end all wars” has a good claim on intensity, given the promised benefit. A war that establishes lasting peace can justify, perhaps even consecrate, a lot of suffering and carnage. Lowering the stakes involved in winding down wars can, under some circumstances, also lower the number of people who perish in them.

Nir Eisikovits teaches legal and political philosophy at Suffolk University in Boston. His recent book, published by Brill, is Sympathizing with the Enemy: Reconciliation, Transitional Justice, Negotiation. He is currently writing a book on truces.