Principles of building peace

As we’ve seen in the discussion of the Iraq War, actual solutions to conflict are hard to come by. “Stay the course” or “Bring’em home” may make great slogans, but they don’t solve anything. The roots of a conflict (on both sides ) go much deeper than what either side says the shooting is about. And without recognizing the actual causes, no solutions can be implemented.

To complicate matters, applying the conventional paradigm when applied to post-modern war results in the conclusion that combatants do not act rationally: why do they keep using tactics that do not achieve victory? If the combatants do not act rationally, peace is virtually impossible.

The paradigm I have developed, on the other hand, suggests that the combatants do act rationally: that if the tactics they use do not achieve victory, they must serve some other goal. If the combatants act rationally, then under certain circumstances they can be convinced to act differently, and peace is at least possible.  But it’s still not easy.

Let’s suppose we accept that the combatants act rationally, and we explore and discover the roots of the conflict. There is no magic solution that will cause people to stop killing each other. A quick read through John Paul Lederach’s “The Moral Imagination suggests that solutions are almost as diverse as conflicts.  But solutions exist.

There are some basic principles to building peace that maximize the likelyhood of success. They’ve been stated in several ways in several cultures. I’ve chosen for this post a selection from the official guidelines for peacemaking of the Mennonnite Church, which is well written and simple to understand. (I have taken the liberty of removing the biblical references; see the link for the original, officially-adopted version):

Go directly to those with whom we disagree; avoid behind-the-back criticism.
Go in gentleness, patience and humility. Place the problem between us at neither doorstep and own our part in the conflict instead of pointing out the others’.
Listen carefully, summarize and check out what is heard before responding. Seek as much to understand as to be understood.
Suspend judgments, avoid labeling, end name calling, discard threats, and act in a nondefensive, nonreactive way.
Work through the disagreements constructively.
*  Identify issues, interests, and needs of both (rather than take positions).
*  Generate a variety of options for meeting both parties’ needs (rather than defending one’s own way).
*  Evaluate options by how they meet the needs and satisfy the interests of all sides (not one side’s values).
*  Collaborate in working out a joint solution (so both sides gain, both grow and win).
*  Cooperate with the emerging agreement (accept the possible, not demand your ideal).
*  Reward each other for each step forward, toward agreement (celebrate mutuality).
Be firm in our commitment to seek a mutual solution…

As I said, these are only one possible statement of the principles, though from a well-respected church with a centuries-old commitment to peace. In our work, we used similar principles as articulated by Sharif Abdullah, one of our team members, based on his own experience of conflict reolution here in the States.

One of our fundamental premises is that we cannot end conflict by creating more conflict– an adversarial approach to peace is doomed to fail. This doesn’t mean we never propose controversial ideas. But when we do, and indeed with everything we do, it must be done in a spirit of inclusivity, inviting all parties to participate. Only then can we transcend the conflict process, in which every party tries to grab power for itself, and address the needs to the whole from which the conflict stems.


  1. Let’s suppose we accept that the combatants act rationally, and we explore and discover the roots of the conflict.

    Nothing wrong with that. But what’s wrong with the premise is the unproven (and invalid) assumption that, when two parties act rationally, that a peaceful solution can be found. Silly example: there’s a boat that will hold one person, two people on an island about to drown. The only “rational” solution is that they fight it out to see who gets to take the boat to safety. The “compromise” “negotiated” solution is to saw the boat in half and give each one half. Then they both drown.

    Likewise in a labor action. Sometimes, negotiation and compromise can produce a “rational” solution. But when the boss wants to lay off half the workers, or cut their wages in half, and the workers can’t accept that, sometimes they have to go to “war” (strike) and “fight it out.”

    Simple fact.

  2. While I’m a big believer in rationality, one factor that I never see taken into account is the pscyhological factor of coming up from years of oppression.

    Apparently the Bushies did not expect the Shi’a to do the arithmetic and realize that they had a crushing majority in Iraq and were neither about to return to Sunni dominance (and their oppression of the Shi’a) nor to avoid the pleasures of retribution against the oppressors. Nor, as far as I can tell, did anybody think about Sunni fear of the Shi’a once the Sunnis were stripped of power.

    It would be difficult under the best of circumstances to effectuate such a resolution, and virtually impossible if the pressures were simply removed and the feelings of oppression and fear allowed to seek new and unpredictable levels. The Argentines and Chileans are still stumbling along after their experiences with the modern terror state; the Iraqis were under even more severe oppression for a lot longer.

    I don’t have any solution to guarantee a pleasant outcome from such situations, but the rage and fear when oppression is lifted need to be factored into any rational political solution or the rationality will simply be swept away in a flood of revenge and recrimination.

  3. I have a personal aversion to labor analogies. When my union went on strike to demand higher wages, the end result was the workers spent six weeks earning nothing, and came away with a nickel less what they had before. As to the analogy of the boat, sawing it in half is only the logical solution in an adversarial conflict. A better solution is for both parties to make the best of what’s available and both hang on to the boat as a floatation device from outside. And that’s the key: the idea that there are limited resources and THEY are getting more than THEIR share– kills people.

    Joe, I think what your referring to is a mob effect. I’ve seen it. certainly the JVP rebellion of 1987-1989 (60,000 killed) was an example. I’ve also seen it when a bus hit some pedestrians by accoident, and the onlookers went nuts, lynched the driver, burned the bus, and blocked the highway. It is a real risk. But from what I’ve seen, in the political context, it’s usually instigated by leaders for their own benefit. It may never be eliminated, but it can be minimized by face-to-face contact and dialogue, which leads to seeing the “other” as human.

Comments are closed.