Draft, for comment

February 26, 2000


Rethinking Peace

by Gail Stewart



A friend noted recently that some doctrines have become so deeply imbedded they are not recognized as doctrines. I have suddenly begun to suspect this may be true about the content of the concept, "peace." Having enjoyed doctrinal status for hundreds of years it may be in need of rethinking.

Re-thinking and perhaps reconstituting or refreshing our concept of peace can easily be justified. We are currently re-examining our doctrine of war: why not also our doctrine of peace? In the same way that war is being re-thought and integrated security strategies proposed, the concept of peace might need to be examined and new doctrine developed.

The prevailing doctrine of peace is now becoming visible, in part because of changes in the political environment and the development of new technologies. Changes in the human capacity to communicate over social and geographical distances, for example, are eroding the authority of hierarchical structures, while changes in world trading relationships and corporate power are altering the roles of nations.

The prevailing concept of peace is sometimes ironically referred to as "the interval between wars." There are many other aspects of peace, from conflict resolution to public order, human security, tranquillity, restfulness, stillness, death. And there are a range of activities closely associated with peace: conflict resolution, "alternative" dispute resolution, peace-making, "keeping" the peace, peace-keeping, peace-building, learning to "be" at peace through calmness, meditation, silence. Peace as primarily related to release from conflict and constituted of a reduction or cessation of activity is the customary content of the concept of peace.

It is this content that I want to highlight, question, and perhaps replace. Are these ideas, I find myself suddenly asking, defective not so much in themselves or in their methodology but by the character of the peace that they seek to realize, at least at this stage in the human story? They speak to the remnants of an earlier age, of authoritarianism, of religiosity, of the supposed existence of objective and "neutral" third parties, of a time before we were all "outed" as all of us having worldviews, personal histories, cultural inheritances, genders, ages, race, sexual preferences, unique balances among our senses, distinctive learning styles -- as being, in short, each different and each ineffable.

A listing of the characteristics of prevailing doctrine about peace suggest that peace is presented, or presents itself, as

The world that is emerging differs from the world in which this familiar concept of peace was developed. Increasingly, today’s world needs a concept of peace that involves

My emerging view is that our familiar concept of peace is a chimerical concept and its pursuit self-defeating. Further, I think that this concept of peace may be one of the reasons the world experiences continued violence: peace conceived in relation to conflict may beget conflict. It may itself be part of a terrible symbolism inherited over thousands of years. It may be leading us to seek a "victory" over war and terrorism and violence generally in never-ending cycles of retribution for violations of "peace," of "silence." We are not to blame for having embraced the present content of the concept of peace but we may need to re-examine it.


I of course do not quarrel with our hopes for peace as bringing an end to violence: it is the content of our common goal of "peace" that I think may be misguided and unrealizable. So too then, in consequence, will have been our efforts historically, up to and including "human security," the most recent expression of the content of the concept of peace. It is not inconceivable that in seeking victory for peace we have been sowing the seeds for subsequent violence. Complex systems are often counter-intuitive. Let me see if I can explain what I mean and lay out a course of action to remedy what I now perceive as perhaps a defect in our thinking about peace.

Stumbling upon this possibility with respect to "peace" a few days ago, I now see the analysis as somewhat analogous to the sudden shift, some years ago, in my perception of the environmental problem. In that situation I came to perceive that the great mass of environmental activism was generating counter-intuitive effects. In conceiving the environment to be external to us rather than ourselves as internal to it, a concept of the environment basically at odds with our situation was being reinforced. The nature of the peace we have been pursuing lo these many years is, I suddenly suspect, perhaps equally in error, although in a different way. It may be strengthening those impulses in us that tend toward death and silence and violence rather than life and music and non-violence.

So what might we need to look for as prevailing content of the concept of peace if we became serious about accomplishing sustainable peace? Would it require

So, where to look? Where has such a change in the content of a concept been accomplished or is in process? Why, health! Within a generation, we have moved from a concept of health that is

What did we do to change this image and our policy for dealing with health (which we did in the mid-70's but is still working itself out)? We invented the idea of "participaction." Our healthiness became our own responsibility -- even when injured or ill we are responsible for self-managing our own health, with the health system acting as a resource. It is the quality and growing non-accessibility of the health system that is now shaping our discussions, not the fact that the health profession no longer bears the major responsibility for health (as diplomats continue to bear the major responsibility for "peace.")

The new concept of health is


So, "participaction" as a model for peace action. "Paxaction." "Paxing:" an enlivening, applicable-in-all-circumstances, fully participatory, domestic-extending-to-global, human activity. That is where I think this approach may be going, under many names but with a common theme: sustainable, pleasurable, challenging, self-assessing, convivial, "peacing" -- an activity, not a mere "condition."


Some questions then:

In Health Canada, in the seventies, the new approach to health emerged, I believe, in a Ministerial statement. Might the drafting an imaginary Ministerial statement by the Foreign Minister or Secretary of State of an imaginary nation, and then inviting its discussion, be amusing and useful? And appending to it a proposal for Sustainable Peace as an operational process?

The Sustainable Peace concept already contains many of the elements of "participaction:"

Re-thinking the concept of peace thus does not abrogate interest in Sustainable Peace as a practical operational process. Investing the concept of peace with its own image and activity, independent of and subsuming conflict, could I think put the whole enterprise of achieving sustainable peace and of Sustainable Peace processes, on firmer ground.

I hope it will be possible to get an entire framework of thought laid out for discussion among interested people:

The basic proposition would be "our current concept of peace needs to be up-dated." Under this rubric I would judge all these issues could be readily raised and pursued, the concept of peace refreshed (and bespoke to fit diverse cultural contexts), and an already widespread human activity (paxing) given new legitimacy and nurtured. The effect would be to shift the content of the concept of peace from a wished-for passivity to an engaging form of action.


Thanks. I'll hope to hear from you. 


Gail Stewart
(Gail is an economist and
policy consultant who lives in Ottawa)