Stephen M. Walt

Peace piece: What’s so funny ’bout peace, love, and understanding?

Christmas is traditionally thought of as a season of peace. Warring nations sometimes declare a Christmas ceasefire, the Pope’s Christmas message is ordinarily a call for peace, and around the world churchgoers will hear sermons and offer prayers for an end to violence. Even as we watch the continuing struggles in Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Colombia, Somalia, ...

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images
Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

Christmas is traditionally thought of as a season of peace. Warring nations sometimes declare a Christmas ceasefire, the Pope’s Christmas message is ordinarily a call for peace, and around the world churchgoers will hear sermons and offer prayers for an end to violence. Even as we watch the continuing struggles in Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Colombia, Somalia, and elsewhere, and even as the world’s nations continue to devote more than one-and-a-half trillion dollars each year to preparations for war, billions of people remain united in the hope that such tragic waste will one day end.

This will be my last post before Christmas Day, and though I’m not a believer, today I’m thinking about peace. Realists are often portrayed as grim and gloomy hawks who believe that human beings can never fully overcome the insecurities of the state of nature, but that’s a misleading caricature at best. True, realists are mindful of human frailties, convinced that the lack of a central authority in world affairs creates powerful incentives for states to compete, and aware that sometimes this competition leads to the use of force. But realists take no joy in this situation — as John Mearsheimer emphasizes, this feature of power politics is a tragedy — and realists are therefore deeply concerned with finding ways to keep these dangerous and destructive tendencies in check. Because realists appreciate the evils that war brings, it is hardly surprising that they have been at the forefront of opposition to foolish wars such as Vietnam or Iraq.

Given all we know about the costs and risks of war — a lesson that the past decade should have seared into our collective consciousness — what I find both striking and depressing is the enthusiasm that so many commentators still have for more of the same. We still have a chorus of pundits eager for war with Iran, for example, and there’s another well-populated choir convinced that the answers to contemporary global problems are more drone strikes, more energetic use of special forces and covert action, and greater secrecy here at home.

And what is equally striking is that the goal of peace plays a miniscule role in contemporary political discourse. As my colleague Nicholas Burns points out in a must-read column in today’s Boston Globe, with the exception of libertarian Ron Paul, none of the current presidential contenders have made peace a central theme in their campaign. It was not always this way: our first president, George Washington, once said that "My first wish is to see this plague of mankind, war, banished from the earth," and Abraham Lincoln understood that "war at the best is terrible." Woodrow Wilson may have lent his name to the sometimes overweening U.S. effort to spread democratic ideals around the globe, but he also warned his countrymen to exercise the "self-restraint of a truly great nation, which realizes its own power and scorns to misuse it."  And let us not forget that Dwight D. Eisenhower, who knew as much about war as any American, once remarked that "America’s leadership and prestige depend, not merely upon our unmatched material progress, riches and military strength, but on how we use our power in the interests of world peace and human betterment."

Yet such sentiments seem notably absent in the hearts of those who now seek to be commander-in-chief, including the present incumbent. As Burns observes, even Obama’s speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize was mostly a defense of the necessity of force. And today, most of the presidential aspirants seem more interested in convincing voters that they know how to channel their inner Rambo and that they will not hesitate to use force wherever and whenever they deem it necessary. Frankly, I’d be happier thinking that they would hesitate, and think twice — or even thrice — before sending the nation to another war.

Part of the problem, as the former president of the Council on Foreign Relations, Leslie Gelb, admitted a couple of years ago, is that a reputation for tough-minded hawkishness has become a prerequisite for advancement and credibility in the foreign-policy establishment. Think about it: even though the United States is probably the most secure great power in history, an ambitious up-and-coming policy wonk in D.C. is more likely to advance rapidly if he or she is a vocal proponent of using American power than if he or she is seen as skeptical or even somewhat averse to flexing U.S. military might at every occasion. And God forbid that someone who aspires to rise in Washington gets a reputation for being seriously interested in peace. That might get you a job at AID or at some left-wing think tank, but you aren’t going to make a lot of short lists for State, Defense, or the NSC.

This tendency to reward bellicosity pervades our politics, and not in a good way. Look at the venom that pollutes talk radio, and the scorched-earth partisanship (mostly flowing from the GOP) that has paralyzed the legislative branch on a host of vital issues. Read the talk-backs on virtually any political website — including this one — and observe how brave commenters, safely cloaked in internet anonymity, devote hours to flinging vile insults at each other. Or consider the ease with which prominent figures here and abroad will condemn whole categories of people — gays, Muslims, Jews, foreigners — without having met a single one or taking any time to consider how the world might look from someone else’s perspective.  When one looks at political discourse — even in America, this most secure and fortunate of countries — it requires no great imagination to see why it is so hard to keep humans from fighting.

It is a discouraging picture, to be sure, but this is not the season for despair. For this week, at least, I choose to see the glass as half-full. This Christmas, I will reflect on the possibility that Steve Pinker, John Mueller, and others are right, and that humankind, for all its continued woes, is nonetheless moving away from its very violent past. I shall look for hopeful signs amid the tumult. I shall bask in the comforting embrace of family and friends, and think hard about what I can do better in the months and years ahead. I hope all of you do too. And whether you’re someone who tends to nod in agreement when you read this blog, or someone who thinks I’ve yet to get anything right, may this season and the year to come bring you love, hope … and peace.

And here, for your enjoyment, are two musical bonuses to accompany the title of this post:

Christmas is traditionally thought of as a season of peace. Warring nations sometimes declare a Christmas ceasefire, the Pope’s Christmas message is ordinarily a call for peace, and around the world churchgoers will hear sermons and offer prayers for an end to violence. Even as we watch the continuing struggles in Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Colombia, Somalia, and elsewhere, and even as the world’s nations continue to devote more than one-and-a-half trillion dollars each year to preparations for war, billions of people remain united in the hope that such tragic waste will one day end.

This will be my last post before Christmas Day, and though I’m not a believer, today I’m thinking about peace. Realists are often portrayed as grim and gloomy hawks who believe that human beings can never fully overcome the insecurities of the state of nature, but that’s a misleading caricature at best. True, realists are mindful of human frailties, convinced that the lack of a central authority in world affairs creates powerful incentives for states to compete, and aware that sometimes this competition leads to the use of force. But realists take no joy in this situation — as John Mearsheimer emphasizes, this feature of power politics is a tragedy — and realists are therefore deeply concerned with finding ways to keep these dangerous and destructive tendencies in check. Because realists appreciate the evils that war brings, it is hardly surprising that they have been at the forefront of opposition to foolish wars such as Vietnam or Iraq.

Given all we know about the costs and risks of war — a lesson that the past decade should have seared into our collective consciousness — what I find both striking and depressing is the enthusiasm that so many commentators still have for more of the same. We still have a chorus of pundits eager for war with Iran, for example, and there’s another well-populated choir convinced that the answers to contemporary global problems are more drone strikes, more energetic use of special forces and covert action, and greater secrecy here at home.

And what is equally striking is that the goal of peace plays a miniscule role in contemporary political discourse. As my colleague Nicholas Burns points out in a must-read column in today’s Boston Globe, with the exception of libertarian Ron Paul, none of the current presidential contenders have made peace a central theme in their campaign. It was not always this way: our first president, George Washington, once said that "My first wish is to see this plague of mankind, war, banished from the earth," and Abraham Lincoln understood that "war at the best is terrible." Woodrow Wilson may have lent his name to the sometimes overweening U.S. effort to spread democratic ideals around the globe, but he also warned his countrymen to exercise the "self-restraint of a truly great nation, which realizes its own power and scorns to misuse it."  And let us not forget that Dwight D. Eisenhower, who knew as much about war as any American, once remarked that "America’s leadership and prestige depend, not merely upon our unmatched material progress, riches and military strength, but on how we use our power in the interests of world peace and human betterment."

Yet such sentiments seem notably absent in the hearts of those who now seek to be commander-in-chief, including the present incumbent. As Burns observes, even Obama’s speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize was mostly a defense of the necessity of force. And today, most of the presidential aspirants seem more interested in convincing voters that they know how to channel their inner Rambo and that they will not hesitate to use force wherever and whenever they deem it necessary. Frankly, I’d be happier thinking that they would hesitate, and think twice — or even thrice — before sending the nation to another war.

Part of the problem, as the former president of the Council on Foreign Relations, Leslie Gelb, admitted a couple of years ago, is that a reputation for tough-minded hawkishness has become a prerequisite for advancement and credibility in the foreign-policy establishment. Think about it: even though the United States is probably the most secure great power in history, an ambitious up-and-coming policy wonk in D.C. is more likely to advance rapidly if he or she is a vocal proponent of using American power than if he or she is seen as skeptical or even somewhat averse to flexing U.S. military might at every occasion. And God forbid that someone who aspires to rise in Washington gets a reputation for being seriously interested in peace. That might get you a job at AID or at some left-wing think tank, but you aren’t going to make a lot of short lists for State, Defense, or the NSC.

This tendency to reward bellicosity pervades our politics, and not in a good way. Look at the venom that pollutes talk radio, and the scorched-earth partisanship (mostly flowing from the GOP) that has paralyzed the legislative branch on a host of vital issues. Read the talk-backs on virtually any political website — including this one — and observe how brave commenters, safely cloaked in internet anonymity, devote hours to flinging vile insults at each other. Or consider the ease with which prominent figures here and abroad will condemn whole categories of people — gays, Muslims, Jews, foreigners — without having met a single one or taking any time to consider how the world might look from someone else’s perspective.  When one looks at political discourse — even in America, this most secure and fortunate of countries — it requires no great imagination to see why it is so hard to keep humans from fighting.

It is a discouraging picture, to be sure, but this is not the season for despair. For this week, at least, I choose to see the glass as half-full. This Christmas, I will reflect on the possibility that Steve Pinker, John Mueller, and others are right, and that humankind, for all its continued woes, is nonetheless moving away from its very violent past. I shall look for hopeful signs amid the tumult. I shall bask in the comforting embrace of family and friends, and think hard about what I can do better in the months and years ahead. I hope all of you do too. And whether you’re someone who tends to nod in agreement when you read this blog, or someone who thinks I’ve yet to get anything right, may this season and the year to come bring you love, hope … and peace.

And here, for your enjoyment, are two musical bonuses to accompany the title of this post:

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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