The Dead Dream of Pacifism

Before World War I, many believed that the end of war was as a “mathematical certainty.” Today, we laugh ruefully at such sentiments. But if peace is not a guarantee, there's a good reason for pacifism to lower its sights.

February 10, 2014

Hazlitt regular contributor Linda Besner's poetry and non-fiction have appeared in The Walrus, Maisonneuve, and The Malahat Review among other...

||Photo by Don McCullin

The nomination period for the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize closed on February 1st. It’s a rather open process—any social science professor or member of parliament is welcome to nominate a candidate—and the committee gets hundreds of names every year. They won’t be disclosing this year’s list until 2064, but a few of the nominators have already made their picks public. Edward Snowden has been nominated. So has Malala Yousafzai (she was nominated last year but didn’t win). Mother Agnes Mariam of the Cross (whose lay name is Fadia Laham) is nominated along with the Mussalaha Reconciliation Initiative; Mother Agnes works with this organization to mediate and negotiate peaceful resolution of conflict in Syria. For taking tricky diplomatic steps in a rapprochement between Kosovo and Serbia, Catherine Ashton, the EU foreign policy chief, has been nominated along with Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic and Hashim Thaci, the prime minister of Kosovo.

Alfred Nobel was a dynamite manufacturer, and some historians suggest that Nobel’s decision to endow the Nobel Peace Prize came out of shame (French newspapers had called him “le marchand de la mort”). In her book The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914, Margaret MacMillan credits Nobel’s largesse to the influence of the peace activist Bertha von Suttner, who was, for a brief time, his private secretary. Von Suttner wrote, “Peace is a condition that the progress of civilization will bring about by necessity ... It is a mathematical certainty that in the course of centuries the warlike spirit will witness a progressive decline.” International peace, she believed, was not only desirable but inevitable.

Ironically, in the decades before World War I, many believed that war was on its way out as a method of settling disputes. “People no more believed in the possibility of barbarian relapses, such as wars between the nations of Europe,” wrote Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig, “than they believed in ghosts and witches.” Journalist Norman Angell argued that war was economically counter-productive. Andrew Carnegie created the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in 1910 with the mandate to “hasten the abolition of international war, the foulest blot upon our civilization.” Once this was taken care of, Carnegie wrote, the money could be used to cure other social ills. (At press time, they’re still working on the ending war part.)

Intellectuals in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century believed there would be an end to war because they believed in the ascendency of rational thought. Humanity was perfectible, they believed, and our most powerful tool was not religious faith alone (as had been the assumption of previous generations) but human reason. Negotiation, mediation, diplomacy—these would be the means of settling international disputes, not the sacrifice of human lives. The First and Second World Wars deeply shook this nascent faith in reason, and we have yet to recover it. The idea that war is on the brink of obsolescence seems to have itself gone obsolete.

In Susan Sontag’s 2003 essay, “Regarding the Pain of Others,” she quotes from Virginia Woolf’s book Three Guineas, written in 1938: “War is an abomination; a barbarity; war must be stopped.” Sontag asks, “Who believes today that war can be abolished?” She answers herself: “No one, not even pacifists.” Stephen Pinker’s rosy 2011 book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, argues that despite the upheaval of the two world wars, the 20th century shows world history trending towards peace; on his website, however, Pinker takes care to say, “As for myself, I’m not predicting that large wars will never happen in the future.”

Barack Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 after only eight and a half months in office (his later position on Syria prompted some to demand that he return it). The Nobel committee praised “his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and co-operation between peoples,” highlighting his work in nuclear nonproliferation as well as his speeches praising Islam. In his acceptance speech he said: “To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism—it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.”

Since September 11, the rhetoric of the war on terror has leaned on the “irrational” behaviour of suicide bombers, and politicians brandish the phrase “We do not negotiate with terrorists” as though refusing to negotiate is in itself a virtue. (The phrase comes from Ferdinand Marcos, former dictator of the Philippines; hardly a paragon of peaceful governance, he was forced to flee his own country in 1986.)

Edward Snowden is currently the most high-profile nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize that we know of. Were he to win, it would in some ways represent, if not a return to the pacifism of the pre-war era, then perhaps a reaffirmation of our faith in reason. “Because, remember,” Snowden told the Washington Post in December of 2013, “I didn’t want to change society. I wanted to give society a chance to determine if it should change itself. All I wanted was for the public to be able to have a say in how they are governed.”

Snowden’s interest is in the protection of democracy, not in the cessation of violence per se. The democratic peace theory, which states that two democratic nations are unlikely to go to war, has its detractors; war has been around a long time, democracy not so much, so it’s hard to determine how they interrelate. The hope, however, is that a truly democratic society is built on the capacity of its citizens for rational thought and behaviour, and that rational people do not choose a violent world.

For the moment, pacifism may have to retrace its steps and lower its sights: it’s hard to picture a world without war, but it feels possible to picture a world in which more people have a say in how their countries are run.

Every week, Linda Besner reads a new book and writes on a tangentially related topic.

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Hazlitt regular contributor Linda Besner's poetry and non-fiction have appeared in The Walrus, Maisonneuve, and The Malahat Review among other journals, and her radio work has aired on CBC’s Definitely Not the Opera, Outfront, and The Next Chapter. Her first book, The Id Kid, was published in 2011 by Véhicule Press, and was named as one of The National Post’s Best Poetry Books of the Year.