World Peace Day: A time to reflect on where we are heading

Martin Farrell

As we approach World Peace Day on Nov. 17, it would be easy to be discouraged by the wanton and brutal violence being perpetrated in so many parts of the world today. However, it is important to recognize that, as Steven Pinker has recently pointed out, instances of organized violence and warfare have actually declined quite dramatically in recent times, especially since the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s. Admittedly, that fact can only be cold comfort to those suffering the tragic effects of devastating fighting in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Congo or wherever else it is taking place.

If I had a magic wand that I could wave to make all violence and brutality go away, believe me, I would use it. However, since magic wands exist only in fantasies, we must apply a more realistic and hard–headed approach to peace promotion in today’s world.

One school of thought contends that democracy promotion is one of the most effective ways to achieve a more peaceful world. After carefully reviewing the voluminous research and debate devoted to this question in recent years, I am convinced that democratic systems generally are conducive to less violent, more prosperous, freer, happier and less warlike societies than the real world, as opposed to utopian alternatives.

Hence, it seems that as individuals, as Americans, and as global citizens we should generally be in the business of democracy promotion. Let me hasten to add, however, that democracy promotion must always begin at home, for even in well–established and long–lived democracies, forces will always be active which seek to distort or manipulate democratic processes for personal, partisan, ideological, or some other self–centered gains. Combating these manipulative forces, which seek self–aggrandizement without the slightest regard for the violation of democratic principles, must always be the first duty of democratic citizenship.

Moreover, as we pursue democracy promotion abroad, we must keep in mind the nearly unanimous conclusion of scholars, writing from a wide variety of points of view, that if liberal democracy is the least bad system of government, by far the worst is a failed state. Although there is evidence that this has always been the case (i.e., that some kind of central control and effective governance of territory has always been a prerequisite of a life worth living), this fact may have been obscured from our vision by the experience of the 20th century in which total war, genocide, vicious oppression and mass starvation seemed to stem mainly from too–strong states ruled by madmen or fanatics of one sort or another.

Still today, some of the violence and disorder we are experiencing stems from this sort of cause: for example, Russia’s recent aggression against Ukraine. Even in this case, however, the door to Russian aggression was opened by the failure of Ukraine’s Orange Revolution of 2004–05 to establish an effective, properly functioning liberal democratic regime in that state within the window of opportunity provided by that Revolution.

To me, it is very significant that so many scholars from a broad range of disciplines and political viewpoints have come to agree that the lack of a central government willing and able actually to govern its territory with at least some minimal level of effectiveness is at the root of the world’s most serious problems, from poverty and AIDS to drug trafficking, human trafficking and, of course, terrorism. In the words of Ashraf Ghani and Clare Lockhart, “The tens of millions of lives lost and the millions of refugees (generated in recent years) are a sad testimony to both the failure of public authority and the state’s weak institutional structures.” Moreover, it seems evident that such weak institutional structures will also have little to no chance of being able to sustain genuine liberal–democratic policies.

Therefore, while democracy promotion still seems to be a worthwhile goal, it must be pursued not in a fanatical, crusading and moralistic fashion that quixotically seeks to rid the world of evil, but, rather, in a thoughtful, pragmatic and patient manner that shows an accurate understanding of what it actually takes to create a decent and humane social and political order. Simply overthrowing a dictator is not nearly enough!

We also need to understand that the post–Cold War world is a complex, multipolar one. Hence, we must not overstate the ability of the United States or any other power, or even any combination of powers, to completely control events in today’s far–flung, multi–polar international system encompassing hundreds of state and non–state actors. At the same time, as citizens of what is still the world’s richest and most militarily powerful nation, I believe that we do have a responsibility to provide constructive, responsible and effective leadership. And, at times, in my judgment, that may require the use of force.

However, I believe that in today’s world, our primary efforts should be directed toward cooperating with individuals and groups committed to working together across ethnic, religious and cultural boundaries to create viable, effective and transparent institutions of governance actually capable of governing territory and people. It may be that for now we will need to give governing capacity precedence over full and immediate democratization.

One of the very most important aspects of this institutional capacity is the establishment of the rule of law. This, too, as we know all too well, is never perfect. However, to the extent that the rule of law takes hold in a society, it creates a virtuous circle of stability, trust and ever–widening empowerment that at least leads in the direction of democratization. It is also important to note that fostering the rule of law and improving governing capacity in general requires being attentive to and honest about what is going on, with our allies as well as with our enemies, rather than looking the other way or passively accepting the inevitability of corrupt or incompetent leadership.

How many times have we been guilty of doing just that: looking the other way or passively accepting the inevitability of corrupt or incompetent leadership, while failing to take proactive measures to improve governing capacity and strengthen the rule of law? Russia in the 1990s? Ukraine between 2004 and 2014? Egypt in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s? Iraq and Afghanistan 2003 to the present? Unfortunately, the tragic results speak for themselves.

By all means, therefore, let us strive for the Democratic Peace of Thomas Paine and Immanuel Kant (kind of an odd couple, perhaps). If we could have a fully liberal and fully democratic world, there is little doubt in my mind that it would be a better and more peaceful world. In pursuing that noble goal, however, let us proceed with some humility and caution rather than bombast and hubris. And let us also keep in mind that in most real–world cases, more practical and readily obtainable goals such as the construction of adequate governing capacity and the rule of law may be necessary and highly desirable first steps toward the ultimate goal of the Democratic Peace.

Martin Farrell
Professor of politics and government/coordinator of the Global Studies Program
He received the 2014-15 Dick Ringler Distinguished Peace Educator Award from the Wisconsin Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies