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Rep. Barbara Lee’s naive quest for peace

Rep. Barbara Lee’s naive quest for peace

Rep. Barbara Lee and her allies have proposed a new department of peace-building, complete with a new cabinet secretary and a mission to build peace and stop violence form the schoolyards of the United States to war-torn lands around the globe. This idea is born of the naiveté and nonsensical bent of some on the left to try to wish away realities they find unpleasant. Congress-watchers rightly might wonder how serious she and her allies are or how they find enough staff to help craft such ideas. 

But more interesting is to ponder how people who make it to Congress and into academia can be so confused about fundamental issues like human nature, historical reality, and common sense as they relate to the international system. (Since I can’t begin to imagine what Lee’s Democrats have in mind for pacifying the entire domestic scene by means of her new initiative, I’ll focus mainly on the global context.) I think they make two mistakes: One, they don’t understand human nature, and two, they misdiagnose what peace is.

Generally speaking, people divide into two camps regarding the question of why human beings suffer conflict. On one side, some ground their understanding of the nature of conflict in either the Augustinian doctrine of original sin or a Hobbesian theory of scarcity. These folks tend to be pessimists when it comes to human nature and society. We (I’m in this camp) don’t think you can eliminate conflict or make peace the norm, but you can work to protect the law-abiding from the law-breaker and punish the latter when he succeeds. On the other side, a view grounded in French enlightenment thinking, some believe that with the right amount of education and wise government effort, you can eliminate the impulse for violence and make violence and conflict the exception rather than the rule. So you have the age-old dichotomy between the realist and the idealist. 

Suffice to say history has born out whose theory is the more valid, and the public in almost any country and over time generally adopts the more pessimistic view and elects leaders accordingly. 

But the other confusion perpetuated by Rep. Lee and her friends is how they misunderstand what peace is. Peace is not the absence of conflict. There was considerable peace behind the Iron Curtain, and there is now considerable peace in North Korea and Cuba, but only the most cynical would refer to that circumstance as a desirable peace equal to the peace of a constitutional democracy or a peace shared by a group of states bound by a treaty like NATO. There is "peace" in North Korea and Cuba and there was peace behind the Iron Curtain because a brutal communist dictatorship has or had its boot on the neck of the populace. I don’t think that is what the congresswoman is after. 

Peace between nation-states goes beyond the absence of conflict because peace is about agreement over shared principles and norms. When people in a community, a state, or the world find themselves at peace, it is because they have built peace on the foundation of values they mutually believe to be good and right and worth adhering to. Culture is key, and while a shared democratic culture is not absolutely necessary to establish peace, it is arguably the surest means and most stable foundation for it. The Concert of Europe ultimately failed for several reasons, but one reason was the danger of the ever-present risk of foolish or evil autocrats fouling up the mutual understanding and goals. Democratic culture works better if for no other reason than that there are usually more pressures to remain at peace so that the commerce, comforts, and progress of the daily lives of the sovereign voters can continue. 

And when the peace of a community of democracies like NATO or a sovereign democratic state is threatened by those who demonstrate – unchecked — the proclivity to do violence that is rooted in human nature, the democracies look to their departments of state and defense and other agencies to protect, prevent, and punish.

Rep. Lee’s proposal is unwieldy, unworkable and unnecessary. We have numerous "departments of peace-building" already: We have families, religious institutions, and voluntary associations that teach peace; we have institutions of law and order and justice to aid that teaching but also to do the protecting and preventing and punishing domestically; and we have cabinet officers with departments to deal with the disturbers globally. Let’s not spin out new laws and bureaucracies when we have what we need in place already. And let’s not seek utopia and thereby make the perfect the enemy of the good.