Open Democracy, UK
December 2, 2004

By Grahame Thompson


Global peace and security will best be advanced not by the deep institutional changes the United Nations’ high-level panel is likely to advocate, but by modest, incremental - and imaginative - steps, says Grahame Thompson.

Johanna Mendelson Forman and D Austin Hare preview the report of the Kofi Annan-appointed High–Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change, to be published on 2 December 2004, as a “potential roadmap for action to repair a fractured world”. The sentiment is laudable, and the ambitions they outline for deep institutional change to help ensure the global governance of peace and security are interesting and worthwhile. But they are unlikely to gain a currency when there remains a strong perception of threat amongst the main parties in the global security arena.

So while the report of the high-level panel is welcome, I wish to suggest four more modest principles and practices that might better provide the conditions for global security and peaceful toleration: peacekeeping, truce-seeking, appeasement, and separation.

Arms and the money

First, any international system intended to promote mutual toleration in regions of conflict and between major powers will be expensive. The current state of disorder in the international system is related to the gross inequalities that continue to exist, both within countries (including the advanced industrial ones) and between rich and poor economies. Without a radical redistribution of income the prospects for long-term peaceful coexistence look bleak.

A greater chance of progress might follow from several more immediate, practical initiatives - for example, military involvement in peacekeeping and intelligence-gathering activities. Peacekeeping is both very costly and a global growth industry. Some armed forces have a comparative advantage in peacekeeping over war-making; for example, the British army knows that greater emphasis on peacekeeping is necessary to continue to attract funds and not lose business to rival, “private” peacekeeping initiatives or intelligence-gathering organisations.

It is not surprising, then, that some of the most ardently dovish, even “peacenik” voices in Britain and even the United States are to be heard in the military.

If armed forces took “training for peace” seriously, they would emphasise software far more than hardware. Strategic decisions taken by the New Labour government in Britain have been in the opposite direction: buying two new aircraft carriers, supporting the Eurofighter, and pursuing a weaker version of the “revolution in military affairs” (RMA). These high-tech choices are counterproductive for situations where “boots-on-the-ground”, with skills more like an armed constabulary, or even those associated with an Oxfam field officer are needed for peacekeeping activities.

Truths and truces

Second, “truth and reconciliation” may not be as compatible as is often hoped for. So a way to revive the lost virtue of toleration in situations where organisations like the United Nations or other international actors may intervene would be to emphasise the principle of “truce-seeking” above that of “truth-seeking”.

Truce situations are more interesting than truth situations for the fostering of toleration. Truces are positions, often temporary, in which no party is fully satisfied or has secured all its objectives. As situations neither of continued conflict nor outright victory or resolution, they lack celebratory gloating or humiliating defeat. Being “in-between” they are uncomfortable. But they offer periods for reflection and trust-building. They can be an opportunity to seek compromise and consensus, build cooperation and reconciliation, to turn détente into entente. In this way truce seeking behaviours and mechanisms represent an important way of defusing potential and actual antagonistic conflicts.

Yet if the conditions for truces cannot be found it might be possible to develop the mentality appropriate to sieges – or perhaps “stalemates”. Like truces, sieges (or stalemates) are intermediate conditions that provide the most frequent method in history of ending wars “peacefully”. The (re)activation of a “siege/stalemate mentality” amongst present-day political combatants would provide another opportunity for the “temporary” interruption of conflicts. If such sieges/stalemates could be turned into semi-permanent states of affairs, the equivalent of “toleration” would, in effect, be established.

Tools of toleration

Third, and perhaps more controversially, there remains something to be said for resurrecting the discredited concept of “appeasement” as a principle to strengthen toleration. Appeasement is a tougher category than a truce or a siege/stalemate because it requires the stronger party to forego its advantage - to be magnanimous, to suppress its own interest in the name of a wider, common good. This is a “dangerous” process entailing risk, but such risks are a necessary feature of any system that has as its ultimate objective the consolidation of peace overall.

Fourth, there is need to face afresh the fact that agreement on “integrated” toleration is seldom achievable by forces under a United Nations or other international banner. The conventional liberal wisdom is that integration and multiculturalism are the ultimate virtues for a tolerant society. In practice, however, separation tends to result from cases of extreme antagonistic pluralism; now may be the time to embrace this more formally.

A properly-organised and supervised policy of separation, rather than the pretence of integration and multiculturalism, might actually enhance toleration rather than undermine it. It is not necessarily a “failure” of toleration to recognise the desire of particular communities to live apart if they cannot live together.

These four principles and practices may not appear in the report of the high-level panel. But a consideration of them might help advance human betterment in the 21st century as much as anything it contains.

Also in openDemocracy on the UN’s search for a new global role, see Johanna Mendelson Forman & D Austin Hare, “A 21st century mission: the UN high-level panel report” (November 2004)


Copyright ©Grahame Thompson 2004. Published by openDemocracy Ltd

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