Give Peace a Chance

(And why none of the current presidential candidates want to talk about it.)


The long march to November 2016 is now well underway. Over the next 13 months, we’re going to hear plenty of gaseous rhetoric about leadership, opportunity, equality, the economy, the American dream, terrorism, God, abortion, immigration, education, etc., and all the other themes that come up whenever the United States chooses a new president. I don’t know about you, but I’m already exhausted.

But there’s one important concept about which we won’t hear very much: peace.

Oh sure, it will get mentioned to justify additional military spending or even preventive military action — as in the phrase “peace through strength” — and Republican candidates will try to argue that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton endangered world peace from the moment they took office. But I don’t expect to hear any of the candidates say very much about peace itself or explain why they see it as a central objective in and of itself. There isn’t going to be a serious “peace candidate” in this election. Not even Bernie Sanders, whose website tries to reassure us that he’s no sandal-wearing Vermont peacenik.

The candidates’ aversion to talking explicitly about peace is puzzling because the United States has a powerful interest in peace and stands to benefit greatly if it becomes more widespread.

To be ruthlessly hardhearted for a moment, one could argue that the United States benefited from war in the past. Expansion across North America involved considerable violence against the indigenous population and against Mexico, as well as some serious coercive diplomacy toward Spain and Great Britain. I’m not defending the morality of this activity, mind you, — just saying it produced some obvious strategic benefits.

One could also argue that the United States benefited indirectly from the various wars that repeatedly swept across Europe, especially the two world wars that fatally weakened the European great powers and left the United States at the pinnacle of power. And many believe the Soviet-Afghan war in the 1980s was a boon to the United States, by helping to hasten the collapse of the Soviet Union (though it eventually led to the formation of al Qaeda as well). That is not to say that any of these wars were a good thing or to ignore their frightful toll in human lives and suffering; it is simply to recognize that the United States ended up in a better strategic position when these wars came to an end.

But that was then and this is now. Today, the United States is in remarkably good shape compared with other major powers, especially when it comes to basic national security. No other major power is as strong, as far removed from potential enemies, as immune to political upheaval, or as insulated from other forms of trouble. The United States does have legitimate security concerns, but it faces no existential threats and has enormous latitude in addressing the challenges it does face. Its position is not perfect, of course, but it would be hard to ask for much more.

When a country is on top of the pyramid, the last thing it should want is anything that might dislodge it. Instead of an exciting, thrill-a-minute roller-coaster ride, where danger lurks around every turn, it should want a predictable, boring, uneventful life, and it should be eager to prevent any sort of potentially momentous upheaval. If at all possible, war should be avoided because “rolling the iron dice” is inherently unpredictable, disruptive, and rife with unintended consequences. The United States doesn’t have much more to gain from going to war, but it does have a lot to lose. And as we learned to our sorrow in Iraq, what looks like a smashing success at first can easily turn into a costly quagmire. For this reason alone, Americans should be in favor of peace.

Second, peace is good business. Lockheed Martin and some other defense contractors may have a certain interest in international conflict (or at least in having people feeling insecure so that they buy more weapons), but these firms are a small and declining fraction of America’s $17 trillion economy. More importantly, peace encourages economic interdependence and thus global growth and welfare. When peace prevails and security concerns are low, states worry less about being intertwined with potential rivals, and corporations don’t worry about building factories abroad or sending capital off to distant economies. By contrast, when rivals abound and the danger of war is lurking, both states and private investors worry more about foreign exposure and are less inclined to put their wealth at risk. If you think globalization is a good thing, in short, promoting peace should be a key part of your agenda.

Third, peace privileges people who are good at promoting human welfare, whether in the form of cool new products, better health care, improved government services, inspiring books, art, and music, and all the other things that bring us joy. War, by contrast, elevates people who are good at using violence and who profit from collective hatred: rebel leaders, warlords, terrorists, revolutionaries, xenophobes, etc. To be sure, many people who take up arms are patriots motivated by a larger sense of duty, but some of them will be those who have a genuine taste for violence and an interest in their own glory and gain. If you’d like to disempower the violent and put the premium on leaders who are better at building up than tearing down, enduring peace is what you should be seeking.

Last but not least, peace is morally preferable. There’s an enormous amount of human suffering in any war, and our basic moral instincts tell us that the alleviation of that suffering is intrinsically desirable. Again, this is not to say that force must never be used and that all wars are evil — though there are those who make such claims — but other things being equal, an active commitment to peace isn’t something anyone should be ashamed of.

From a purely selfish, rational, flag-waving American perspective, therefore, peace is a goal to proclaim, to pursue, and to prize. Yet one is hard-pressed to find a leading presidential candidate who will talk openly about his or her passion for peace, commitment to pursuing it once in office, or the specific strategies he or she intends to follow to further this goal.


I suspect it is because we mistakenly confuse a desire for peace with weakness and we assume anyone who exhibits a passionate commitment to peace is some sort of “Kumbaya”-singing idealist who just doesn’t understand how the world works and is therefore not tough enough for the Big Job. As Leslie Gelb, the former president of the Council on Foreign Relations and an experienced national security professional, admitted a few years ago that preserving one’s credibility in the foreign-policy establishment requires a certain enthusiasm for the use of military power. Even Obama felt compelled to give a rather hawkish speech when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize (!), lest anyone infer he wasn’t tough enough to be the Leader of the Free World.

The current veneration of all things military reinforces this problem, to the point that hardly any politicians or ordinary citizens will utter a critical word about “the troops” or their commanders. The United States has become better at starting wars than at winning or finishing them, yet it still treats unsuccessful generals with enormous deference and punctuates sporting contests with aerial flybys and other displays of martial fervor. I’m all for thanking veterans for their service and respecting their sacrifices, but I’d rather show it by providing better medical treatment for veterans afterward than by giving the Pentagon a free pass.

To be fair, recent U.S. governments have not been wholly uninterested in peace. Bill Clinton’s administration mediated the Kargil crisis between India and Pakistan and helped broker the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland, and George W. Bush’s administration devoted a lot of effort to pursuing a peace deal in Sudan. Clinton, Bush, and Obama all devoted countless hours to trying to advance the cause of peace in the Middle East, though all three came up well short. In the past, other U.S. presidents — most notably Jimmy Carter — were outspoken and successful promoters of peace while in office and afterward.

This makes it all the more disappointing that today’s candidates approach the subject with such timidity. Look: A good realist like me neither expects nor wants a Bertrand Russell-style pacifist in the White House, because we still live in a world where bad things can happen and where states must protect themselves. But given that the United States has a profound interest in peace, it would be nice if the candidates told us more about their views on the subject. How would Donald Trump handle a distant civil war, if he couldn’t tell a warlord, “You’re fired!” How could Carly Fiorina advance the cause of peace when she couldn’t get HP and Compaq to play together nicely? Does Ted Cruz even know what peace looks like, given his fondness for escalating disputes and his talent for angering his fellow Republicans? Has Hillary Clinton ever opposed a military operation or led a successful peace campaign?

So I’m hoping that the press does its job for the rest of the campaign and starts asking the candidates to give us their views on peace. Do they think it is an important U.S. interest, and if so, why? What conflicts do they regard as most dangerous, which are most ripe for resolution, and what specific policies will they follow to create a more peaceful world? And no: “Keeping America strong” is not a sufficient answer.

Photo credit: Mario Tama/Getty Images

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

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