The Question of Peace in Modern Political Thought, Toivo Koivukoski and Edward Tabachnick, eds.. Wilfrid Laurier University Press, Waterloo, Ontario, 2015

- by Jamie Arbuckle


At a very early stage in my career as a soldier, I had amassed a very comprehensive collection of classical war literature: Sun Tzu, du Picq, the Brodies, Ropp, Earle, Liddell-Hart, Keegan, Taylor, and more, spanning more than two-and-one-half millenia. I thought I knew what war had been, was now and might  be.  Nearly half a century later, I have them all still on my shelves, and have often referred to several of them in these pages.

I have never read a book about peace, and I don’t actually know much about it. So the arrival of this book for this review was, for me, timely. Perhaps for you as  well?

What is peace? Is it merely the absence of war? Or is it the absence of violent conflict? Was the period between the two World Wars a peace? Is scale involved, that is to say, was the NATO-led action in Serbia and in Bosnia-Hercegovina in 1999 a war (it is commonly called one)? Can we have peace without justice, or must those responsible for unjust wars be pursued beyond the cessation of hostilities?  And is there such a thing as a just war?

I think we need some answers to these questions and more, and I hoped this book would help me to understand peace at least as well as I once thought I understood war.


The book goes straight to the heart of these questions (in the foreword by John Gittings) in its reference to the concept of “positive peace”, as developed by John Galtung:

Peace is not merely the absence of  war, it  must include freedom from hunger and oppression, and have as its goals economic development and social justice.  In the age of economic globalization, peace should also be globalized.

The book consists of fourteen essays, arranged  roughly chronologically over about 500 years from Luther to Habermas. It is most fortunate, especially for those  delving  here almost for the first time, that the editors provide in their excellent introduction  a virtual road map – easy to orient, easy to follow. Notice I said “easy”, I didn’t say “simple” – this terrain is complex, and the map is pretty dense in many places.  You’ll need to pay a lot of attention as you go.

The Roadmap

We begin with a chapter by Jarrett A. Carty which gives us  Luther‘s “two kingdoms”: the earthly and the heavenly realms, and the necessity to maintain a space between them. This led to the modern concept of the separation of church and state, and reminds us that nothing is so productive of conflict as religion.  In the next chapter, by Paul Bagley, Spinoza seems to take us, albeit unwittingly, to the natural limits of what we might call the rational actor model: “… human beings are led more by the imaginative-affective life than by reason …”

In Chapter 3, Laurie Johnson takes up Hobbes, who seems to consider war the normative state of relations among neighbours. Hobbes raises what is for us is the quintessential issue: individuals are governed by laws, states are not. It is still  today possible to argue that “international law” is an oxymoron, that laws that cannot be enforced are not laws.  International relations are largely conducted in an atmosphere of anarchy which would in any state be intolerable.  This is why R2P has been such a disappointment: as we have written elsewhere (see our earlier article,  Peacekeeping in our Time: Past the Age of Consent?, 14 May 2014), misparking in any city we know will usually result in a charge, sentence and punishment; genocide usually will not.

Locke (Chapter 4, by Jeffery Sikkenga) does not exactly inspire confidence that a deterrent to war will be a liberal political culture which inclines the citizens to peaceful coexistence:  “liberal institutions undergirded with liberal human beings.” Recall Margaret Thatcher’s outrage at the founding of a Department of Peace Studies at Bradford University in 1974 (cited by Gittings in the foreword)  and the closure of the United States Army Peacekeeping Institute on orders of the Secretary of Defence in 2003, for just two examples of the fragility of liberal institutions, even in supposedly liberal societies.

Vatel (Chapter 5, by Benjamin Holland) seems to present a more eclectic, and pragmatic approach: peace is “a messy business of compromise, of interests checked”, muddling through, in other words, but not going to war over it. Vatel also does not count justice in the balance; what is paramount is the efficiency and the maintenance of amnesties: as Ben Hoffmann of the Canadian International Institute for Applied Negotiation puts it, the real need is for “fair, wise, efficient and enduring” agreements. Justice, as in war, is not an issue for peace. It is for this  reason that the “truth and reconciliation” phase of peace implementation may be omitted: the two are sometimes seen as antithetical, one preventing the other. Better, says Vatel, “burials in oblivion of claims against the other party.”

Rousseau (Chapter 6, by Rene Paddags) maintained that men could never enjoy total peace because nothing would allow them to ignore their essential vulnerability. Rousseau did believe that democratic institutions and the rule of  law could create and support domestic  peace, and he proposed that a pan-European extension of such a system would tend to curb inter-state conflict. He was thus a very early advocate of the system only now, despite neo-conservative backlash, coming laboriously and painfully into being in Europe –  we hope.

Kant (Chapter 7, by Leah Bradshaw)  is almost the only one of the authorities cited in this  book who did write specifically about  peace, in his famous essay on perpetual peace, written in 1795. Kant also believed in democracy and the rule of law, based on the consent of the governed. However, rather than world government, Kant believed that only the republican state could provide and protect rights which he saw, not as inalienable, but as “political and practicable”.  Our recent experience with several different republics may give us reason to question this.

Habermas (see remarks under Chapter 14) complained that Kant was specifically concerned only with eliminating the limited wars of the post-Westphalian period, and that he could not have foreseen the emergence of total wars in the 20th Century (he died in 1804).  In fact, modern total wars are considered to have their origins in the Napoleonic period: the levee en masse, universal conscription, totality of aims, the subjugation of all politics, of all national life, to the waging of war.  The limited wars of which Kant would have  been thinking, were waged by very small professional armies, and usually did not aim to change either regimes or borders. Napoleonic warfare was quite different, and plunged all Europe into death struggles which lasted an entire generation. And France was at the outset of these wars a republic.

It is difficult to interpret Hegel  (Chapter 8, by Mark Blitz) as an  advocate of peace.  Hegel’s metaphysical maunderings on states and wars do not easily lend themselves to this discussion.

As Blitz says

(he) believed that war is inevitable and, in some ways, desirable; and he believed this because reason demanded it. His ideas, indeed, led some people to hold him partly responsible for the First World War. Hegel was an apologist not just for militarism  in general but for Prussian monarchies in particular.

Bismarck, who instigated three European wars in six years, must have been a great fan.

Hegel was very clear that the independent state was central, and that the independent state was “inseparable from the rationality of war”, whatever in the world that is.

Koivuski tries to use Thoreau  to illustrate his belief that

There is a connection between how people may come to live peacefully with one another,  and how human beings find their relationship with nature … there is in this sense something natural about peace ….

This, insofar as it may be  derived from the life of Thoreau, is romanticism carried just a bit too far for us. Friends of Thoreau may have been slave owners; their fathers more probably were. During his lifetime, the passenger pigeon and the buffalo were hunted almost to extinction. Nineteenth-century man did not live in harmony with nature, nor was it a notably peaceful period.

Of Heidegger (Chapter 10, by David Edward Tabachnick), we can only say that a little of this goes a very long way.  As Tabachnik puts it:

Heidegger seemed to think that a massive perpetration of external violence would in some way recapture  a nearly lost “inner harmony”.

So did Bismarck, so did Rupert Brooke, so did Hitler, so did Slobodan Milosevic.  However, this cannot, for us, be “interpreted as an extension of (Heidegger’s) definition of peace.”

Benjamin (Chapter 11) “sees political institutions and laws less as facilitators of peace than as mere guises for authority. … By destroying the state without any attempt at restoration, the source of legal violence is shattered. …  A peace that can only exist outside of the state takes the form of ‘divine violence.'”  What comes after the state is not specified, but our recent experience with failed and faltering states, as in Iraq, Libya, Syria, and several others, does not inspire us to any confidence in statelessness.

In Chapter 12, Dianne Enns tackles Hannah Arendt  head-on: “At first glance, Hannah Arendt’s political philosophy appears to offer few insights into the meaning of peace”.  However, Arendt never failed to reiterate her central view that “the most likely outcome of violence is more violence”, leaving, eventually, no space at all for politics.  She maintained that “peace is not an armistice or truce; a ‘good peace’ can result only from negotiations, mutual compromise and eventual agreement … ”  All of which the “Peace” of Versailles was not, thus we say Versailles was not the end of the First World War but the start of the Second.  And, since the laws of unintended consequences can no more be denied than they can be predicted, she also said that “the means used to achieve political goals are more often than not of greater relevance to the future world than the intended goals.” If only someone could have said something like that to President George H.W. Bush – but of course several (for just one example, Colin Powell)  did, repeatedly.

Jaques Derrida (Chapter 13) “offers no specific  theory or definition of peace.”  His method is deconstructive, “defining by not defining.” At first glance of little help in our desire to know and to support peace, Derrida does eventually arrive at a concept of an “EU model (which) represents a geopolitics  which  eschews state sovereignty in favour of a pan-state political entity.” Bravo.

Juergen Habermas (Chapter 14, by David Borman) believes that  the world-wide proliferation of democracy makes universal peace for the first time a genuine possibilty, and indeed since World War II the incidence of interstate  wars has declined steadily to nearly nil. However, since the end of the Cold War, the incidence of intra-state war has risen steeply, especially in the wake of declined and/or vanished empires, as abandoned former clients and colonies are unable to establish themselves and  falter or fail, usually  violently.  The question Borman asks is thus crucial: “Is Habermas’s invocation of the concept of peace more realistic, or more utopian?”  (It is no help to us in closing with this question, that much of this chapter is about what Habermas wrote about Kant on the 200th anniversary of Kant’s essay on perpetual peace – we have to pay close attention to know whether we are hearing directly from Habermas, or indirectly from Kant.)

Habermas might fairly be described as enigmatic, to say the least. He  says  that democracies do not attack one another and that, therefore, a world of democracies would be a world at peace. But what of the recent clashes between Russia and Ukraine? Putin and Poroshenko are both popularly elected leaders. Is it fair to say that Putin’s actions in invading and annexing the Crimea are because democracy in Russia is lapsing, and that the quasi-dictatorship he is crafting is a sine qua non  for his recent and current sabre-rattling?

Habermas also maintains that citizens “will not accept their own government attacking another country simply for a raison d’etat.”  But what then of his support for UN Security Council Resolution 688, which authorized  the US-led invasion of Iraq in 1991?   

Finally, Habermas’s support for the World Court and the International Criminal Court (despite his complaints about their weaknesses), his approval of the NATO-led intervention in Kosovo-Serbia in 1999 and the arrest in the U.K. of Augustus Pinochet in 1998, together indicate a willingness to move beyond the “domestic jurisdiction” of states to a system of supernational jurisdiction which would in fact enable the R2P programme to function as it was somehow envisaged that it should.

Internationalism and regionalism vs sovereignty.  Habermas also advocates strengthened regional organizations, a  stand with which we also agree, and as is described in Chapter VIII of the Charter of the UN.  He accepts that this would result in some restrictions on state sovereignty, with which  we also agree, but with which almost no states will ever agree. At the same time, he charges regional organizations as lacking in democratic transparency, which is true but perhaps not in their context important – so do most NGOs and IOs, for that matter.

In summary, Habermas is perhaps a little too pragmatic in adapting his proposals to suit cases – he might be cherry-picking problems, solutions and evidence. It is nearly impossible to tell from this chapter whether in any given case Habermas is being descriptive or prescriptive.


We had hoped that these readings would make us at least as well informed on peace issues as we think we are on war. That wish has not quite been fulfilled, and there seem to be at least three reasons for this.

First, several of the authors cited here were not really writing about peace. As Diane Enns (Chapter 12) has said, “At first glance, Hanah Arendt’s political philosophy appears to offer few insights into the meaning of peace”, and David A. Borman  (Chapter 14) says that “Despite the centrality of the concept of peace to the  tradition of political theory, Juergen Habermas has little to say on the topic directly.”

Second, there are entirely too few links to current events. The decline of inter-state war may be due to the spread of democracy, but today’s nearly constant intra-state and non-state armed conflicts around the globe are as bloody and as dangerous, and possibly far more difficult to manage and to end, as were the traditional state wars. The 21st Century is tending to be at least as violent and dangerous as the 20th, and we need to know why.

Third, we really need a typology of peace: what is peace? how does it differ from war? Is it simply the absence of armed conflict? Is justice a component of peace?  We suggest that something like  The Agenda for Peace, produced by the Secretary General of the UN in 1992, and The Supplement to the Agenda for Peace (1995), which attempted to codify and describe peace operations, is urgently needed.  Perhaps also an anthology of writings by Nobel Peace Prize winners might be illuminating.

I said at the outset that my war library spans over 2000  years of writing and indirect experience. I have learned much from over 50 years of reading and re-reading these books.  One of the most important things I have learned from this is the importance of getting the questions right, otherwise we’ll never get the answers we need. We’ve posed several questions here, but there are surely other and better ones – doubtless you’ve already thought of several.

What we really need is to be formally and carefully instructed on the history and development of peace, especially in our modern age, and we need to know not just what other, third parties have said, but we need to hear from the best minds of our age about peace, at least as expertly and precisely presented as are our readings on war.

This book is a good  beginning. We are glad we read it, and we recommend that you do so as well.  Perhaps one of you  will write the book we really need?

We sincerely hope you do.








One thought on “GIVING PEACE LITERATURE A CHANCE: a book review

  1. Thanks for the review, Jamie. You make valid points; and yes: we have to get the questions right. I sense that this book is still a worth read, filling a niche. I wish to mention my colleague Julia Harfensteller’s book on the concept of peace within the UN system, and how it has evolved over the decades (“The United Nations and Peace”). It does not provide links to current events, but offers highly interesting findings on the concept of peace, drawing from a wealth of disciplines, including linguistic analysis and conceptual history. Another key building block, so to speak, that can help us capture the greater picture and get closer to asking the right questions.

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