Main Theories of Peace

Updated: Nov 3, 2019

Replacing the Sword with the Word

BY NADER SAIEDI

Handwriting of Bahá’u’lláh on display at the British Museum

READ > From Word Order to World Order


With the outbreak of World War I, most social theorists took the side of their own country in the conflict and, in some cases, glorified war. Georg Simmel identifies war as an absolute situation in which ordinary, selfish preoccupations of individuals living in an impersonal economy are placed in an ultimate life-and-death situation. Thus, he concludes, war liberates the moral impulse from the boredom of routine life and makes individuals willing to sacrifice their lives for the good of society. On the other side, Durkheim and Mead both take strong positions against Germany. Discussing Treitschke’s worship of war and German superiority, Durkheim writes of a German mentality which led to the militaristic politics of that country. A similar analysis is found in the writings of Mead, who contrasts German militaristic politics with Allied liberal constitutions. In a distorted and inaccurate presentation of Kant’s distinction between the realm of appearances and the things in themselves, Mead argues that in Kantian theory, the substantive determination of practical life is left in the hands of military elites. Such a state could by definition only rest upon force. Militarism became the necessary form of its life. However, modern social scientific literature in general and peace studies in particular offer various theories in regard to war and peace, four of which are particularly significant: realism, democratic peace theory, Marxist theory, and social constructivism and cultural theory.

1. Realism


Realism, the dominant theory in the field of international relations, is rooted in a Machiavellian and Hobbesian conception of human beings. According to this model, states are the main actors in international relations. However, the main determinant of a state’s decision to engage in war or peace is the international political and military structure. This structure, however, is none other than international anarchy; the Hobbesian state of nature is the dominant reality at the level of international relations, since there is no binding global law or authority in the world. In this situation, states are left in a situation necessitating self-help, with each regarding all others as potential or actual threats to its security. Thus, arms races and militarism are rational strategies for safeguarding national security. States must act in rational and pragmatic ways and must not be bound by either internal politics or moral principles in determining their policies. In this situation, war is a normal result of the structure of international relations. According to some advocates of this theory, the existence of nuclear weapons and a bi-polar military structure (as seen in the Cold War) are, paradoxically, conducive to peace.


2. Democratic Peace Theory


One of the most well-known theories in relation to war and peace is a liberal theory according to which democracies rarely—if ever—engage in war with each other. This doctrine was first advanced in 1875 by Immanuel Kant in his historic work Perpetual Peace. In contrast to realism, democratic peace theory sees the root cause of war or peace in the internal political structure of societies. Empirical tests have confirmed the existence of a significant positive correlation between democracy and peace, with two sets of explanations offered. Institutional explanations emphasize the existence of systematic restraining forces in democracies. The vote of the people matters in democracies, and therefore war is less likely to occur because it is the people rather than the rulers who will pay the ultimate price of war. Cultural explanations argue that democracies respect other democracies and are therefore more willing to engage in the peaceful resolution of conflicts. The internal habit of the democratic resolution of conflicts is said to be extended to the realm of foreign relations.


3. Marxist Theory


Marxist theory can be discussed in terms of three issues: the relation of capitalism to war or peace, the role of violence in transition from capitalism to communism, and the impact of colonialism on the development of colonized societies. The dominant Marxist views on these issues are usually at odds with Marx’s own positions.


Marx did not address the issue of war and peace extensively. He shared the 19th century’s optimism about the outdated character of interstate wars. In fact, he mostly believed that capitalism benefits from peace and considered Napoleon’s wars a product of that ruler’s obsession with fame and glory. As Mann argues, Marx saw capitalism as a transnational system and therefore regarded it as a cause of peace rather than war. He believed that violence is mostly necessary for revolution but affirmed the possibility of peaceful transition to socialism in the most developed capitalist societies. Furthermore, Marx saw the colonization of non-European societies as mostly beneficial for the development of non-European stagnant societies, which in turn would lead to socialist revolutions. In the midst of World War I, Lenin (1870–1924) radically changed the Marxist theory of war and peace, arguing that imperialism or the competition for colonial conquest necessarily causes wars among Western capitalist states. According to Lenin, these wars would destroy capitalism and lead to the triumph of socialism. In his view, violence was the only possible way of attaining socialism.


Marxist theory has inspired many sociological theories of war and peace, from C. Wright Mills’s thesis of the military-industrial complex to Wallerstein’s theory of the world capitalist system. However, in general, most socialist theories see the root cause of war in the extremes of social inequality. Socialism, therefore, is perceived to be the economic order conducive to peace.


4. Social Constructivism and Cultural Theory


A sociological perspective that has influenced the field of international relations is the theory of social constructivism, which systematically criticizes the realist perspective. Emphasizing the symbolic and interpretive character of social relations and practices, this model, which is influenced by symbolic interactionism, states that war is a product of our socially constructed interpretations of ourselves and others. Mead’s emphasis on the social and interactive construction of self is compatible with a host of philosophical and sociological theories that have emphasized the significance of language in defining human reality. Unlike utilitarian and rationalist theories that perceive humans as selfish and competitive, the linguistic turn emphasizes the social and cooperative nature of human beings. Since being with others is the very constitutive element of human consciousness and self, the realization of peace requires a new social interpretive construction of reality.


Cultural theories emphasize the causal significance of the culture of violence or peace as the main determinant of war or peace. John Mueller argues that prior to the 20th century, war was perceived as a natural, moral, and rational phenomenon. However, through the First and Second World Wars, this culture changed. According to Mueller, the Western world is moving increasingly in this direction, with the non-Western world lagging behind, although the future is bright since we are moving towards a culture of peace.

One of Baha’u’llah’s works, The Hidden Words

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