Peace: The Invention That Doesn’t Work

Posted on Sun 09/12/2010 by



The eminent historian Sir Michael Howard opened his brilliant essay “The Invention of Peace (Yale University Press, 2001) with a quote from the 19th  century conservative thinker Henry Maine, “War appears to be as old as mankind, but peace is a modern invention.” Maine was well positioned to make this observation. The attempt to substitute peace as the objective of foreign policy rather than the pursuit of national advantage in a perpetually contentious world was the project of classical liberalism. This movement came to maturity in the years after the Napoleonic Wars, though its roots were in the same Enlightenment tradition that set off a quarter century of conflict with the French Revolution.

Howard traces its core concepts to Immanuel Kant, author of the 1795 essay “Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch.” Kant set out the three principles that have been common to all liberal policy since: disarmament, free trade and a world federation, often cited as the inspiration for the United Nations. All are aimed at removing the nation-state from the center of global affairs, and shifting the focus of individual allegiance to something other than national citizenship. People are to become “citizens of the world” or simply “consumers” satiated with material decadence and devoid of any communal identity.

The 215 years since Kant’s essay have not been kind to his ideas despite all the ink that has been used to advance them in philosophical circles. Maine made his observation in 1875, after the wars of German and Italian unification had profoundly impacted the European balance of power, and on the eve of a new series of Balkan wars. These conflicts demonstrated a rising feeling of popular patriotism and collective loyalty.

The first disarmament conference was called by Tsar Nicholas II in 1899 and held at The Hague. Behind the flowery rhetoric, everyone knew that Russia’s objective was to slow an arms race with Germany it could not afford. Nothing was accomplished in 1899 or at the Second Hague Conference in 1907. A third conference set for 1915 had to be cancelled because World War I had broken out in 1914. That “war to end all wars” did not do so. The League of Nations and a bevy of disarmament treaties failed to prevent World War II. The United Nations, formed by the victors, has been paralyzed by disputes among the major powers on the Security Council, which the passing of the Cold War has not ended. National, ethnic and religious sentiments are as strong as ever, fueling armed conflict and trade wars. None of Kant’s three pillars of peace have shown any strength because there is no underlying global harmony of interests.

So what are we to make of the Obama administration’s attempt to promote “peace” in the Middle East? Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Sept. 7, “In the weeks and months ahead, President Obama and I will do everything we can to help advance the cause of a comprehensive peace, not only in the Middle East, but across the world, and inside the hearts and minds of our fellow Americans…..As I said when I welcomed Israeli and Palestinian delegations, peace needs champions on every street corner and around every kitchen table, and not just there, but everywhere.” In the same speech, she mentioned a project called “Partners for a New Beginning” where “influential leaders from the private sector and civil society are to advance opportunities in Muslim communities around the world.” One of the vice chairs is Muhtar Kent of Coca-Cola. What could be a more classical liberal notion than the hope that if people just share the same soft drink, they won’t want to shoot at each other!

President Barack Obama would like to join his Democratic predecessors Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton in achieving some sort of Middle East “peace” agreement. But he does not seem to understand the nature of the agreements signed in the past between Israel and its neighbors or what the central strategic issue is today. He is stuck in the past when as a child the Arab-Israeli wars were making the headlines.

President Carter’s achievement was the 1979 treaty between Egypt and Israel following the1978 Camp David Accords. Egypt recognized Israel and the state of war that had existed since 1948 was ended. The U.S. began economic and military aid to Egypt, making Washington an alliance bridge between the two former adversaries. President Clinton’s achievement was similar; the signing of a treaty between Jordan and Israel in 1994. The two treaties signaled the abandonment of the Palestinians by the two Arab governments. The 1993 Oslo Accords set up a framework for negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, but nothing came of it except to give Jordan cover.

The big strategic change in the region came in 1979 and has become ever more dangerous; the overthrow of the pro-Western Shah of Iran and his replacement by a radical Shiite theocracy that poses a threat to both Israel and the Sunni Arab states.

President George W. Bush understood the current divisions in the regime. He downgraded “peace” talks and worked to build coalitions to counter aggression. Halting Tehran’s regional ambitions became the top priority, not the formation of a Palestinian state. New arms were offered to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, along with coordination of missile defense efforts. When the Hamas terrorist group, backed by Iranian money, weapons and training, took control of Gaza, Egypt and Israel cooperated in blockading the area. And when Israel attacked another Iran-based militia group, Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006, the Arab states gave it the diplomatic room it needed. And no Arab state lifted a finger against Israel during its invasion of Gaza in the weeks just before President Obama’s inaugural.

Israel’s action was prescient. Upon taking office, President Obama immediately activated a time machine and shifted American focus from Iran back to Palestine. The diplomatic relic George Mitchell was sent as special envoy to restart Israeli-Palestinian talks. Meanwhile, President Obama offered an olive branch of direct talks to Iran “without pre-conditions.” Tehran, understanding the change in outlook in Washington, has felt no need to trim its sails in any way. Within days of Secretary Clinton’s August 20 announcement of new Israeli-Palestinian talks, Iran began loading Russian fuel rods into its Bushehr nuclear reactor and unveiled a “drone” bomber with a range of more than 600 miles. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) a “messenger of death” to the regime’s enemies. The American response was minimal.

Perhaps the Obama administration is not as naïve as it seems. Certainly Secretary Clinton has taken a harder line in the past, as a Senator and presidential candidate. She has even issued warnings to Iran from her current office, though the White House has not done much to back her up. The talks in Washington between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (two men well aware of their identities and interests) did not reach an agreement on anything more than to continuing talking. Maybe it was just a “check the box” exercise. Maybe Netanyahu and Abbas even quietly agreed to work against their common foe, Hamas (with backing from Egypt and Jordan).

But why should people who are not fools, make foolish statements about peace? The test will be whether the Obama administration continues to sit passively as Iran advances its nuclear weapons program and gives support to terrorist groups across the region, including in Iraq and Afghanistan where American lives are at risk. Actions speak louder than words. But if there are no actions, then the foolish words have to be taken at face value. Contributing Editor William R. Hawkins is a consultant specializing in international economic and national security issues. He is a former economics professor and Republican Congressional staff member.