Resolving Global Conflicts without Violence – Part 2

By Joris Voorhoeve, Professor Emeritus International Organizations, Former Cabinet Minister of The Netherlands


In part 1, we noted the power of peaceful conflict resolution, as exemplified by Mahatma Gandhi. We also noted the instruments and effective approaches. In this article, I want to add an approach which is important but often forgotten: tax reform.

As most people and institutions respond to fiscal incentives to lower their tax bills, fiscal reform is an important tool to improve behaviour or corporations, states and people. Oligarchs, global corporations, the internet companies, airline companies, hedge funds, many banks  and investment schemes profit from the unregulated global economy in the absence of enforceable basic global tax rules. The rich, the cunning and the underworld  invest in secrecy jurisdictions, avoiding  normal taxation and encouraging corruption, which weakens governments, the rule of law, democracy, breeds instability, unemployment, more corruption and suppression. Combined, these forces breed violence. They  should be the targets of corrective action by rule-of-law democracies, our political parties, socially responsible corporations and non-governmental organisations.

As individuals, we seem powerless in the face of this list of needed actions. But we are not. Gandhi has shown that carefully organised, massive campaigns led by those who practice what they preach, who use the power of the media, can work miracles.

Those who do not have the patience or the conviction for peaceful action, I ask: look at what little good violent means achieved recently in the world. Is the Middle East better off after many military interventions and proxy wars by various countries? Are the Iraqis, Syrians, and Libyans better off than before? Are the Russians living better because of the aggression stirred in Ukraine? Are the Turkish people better off due to the violence against the Kurds?  Or the Birmese people from destroying the Rohinga’s?  Much of the trouble to these populations is due to refusing autonomy to various groupings in pluriform countries.

Suppressive violence causes destruction to countless people and breeds new civil wars in the future, because of the anger and bad blood which the next generation growths up with.

The philosopher Blaise Pascal once remarked that much of the trouble in the world stems from the fact that people do not stay at home. That may have a funny ring, but there is truth in it. Military interventions, proxy wars and violent revolutions rarely bring anything good that could not have been achieved better, with less suffering, by painstaking, well-organised, peaceful mass-action for reform. True, non-violence takes more time than violent rebellion and seems not so glorious as winning armed battles. There are few statutes for politicians and diplomats who prevented wars, but many elevated for generals and statesmen who won them.  The dead lie under the ground.

Leaders who do not act in the general interest of their entire population, but seek national power, wealth and prestige may draw a lot of admiration, but ultimately many go down in history as evil men.  Even rule-of-law democracies can be led temporarily by incompetent and populist people, but democracy has the advantage of a peaceful mechanism to remove destructive leaders.

Let me be clear: I am not a pacifist. I do not think that one should not defend against criminal violence, if there is a clear case to block violence effectively, and meet the requirements of the legal doctrine of just war. Doing nothing against armed aggression makes violence prevail over many people. As Edmund Burke remarked in his reflections on the revolution in France: All that is necessary for evil to prevail is that good men do nothing. But military means should always be in the service of the defense of democratic rule of law, nationally and internationally, and used with great caution and self-restraint.

We see in the world in recent years a return of nationalism which undermines international cooperation. There is a saying which originated I guess in the 1930’s that nationalism is the last hope of a scoundrel. Nationalism and claims of ethnic and religious superiority are means used by political leaders to mobilize populations to  support them, at the cost of confrontation and often violence. Such leadership is a much stronger cause of war than ethnic, religious and cultural differences among ordinary people.

Fortunately, there are many promising examples of political leaders who solve grievances in a peaceful fashion: Gandhi and Nehru who led India to independence, Mandela, Martin Luther King, the leaders in Tsjechoslovakia who split the country peacefully,  and many others, some not so famous professional politicians and diplomats. Historical injustices can be resolved peacefully, and that is a lot smarter and less destructive than armed struggle. I once talked to an American general who had fought in six wars. He said: War is a stupid way of doing business.

The basic requirement of the politics of peace is to persuade violent opponents that it is not in their own self-interest to abuse their power. They should be  deterred defensively from abusing military power for aggression. The key tasks of politicians are to curb the abuse of power, and lead their populations to adjust peacefully to the changes which are demanded by the ongoing human quest for justice and freedom.