War or Peace? Achieving Peace Among States

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The immense bloodshed of the twentieth century, continuing unabated into the twenty-first, combined with the increasing capabilities of developing and launching nuclear bombs, raises an urgent and important question. What steps should be taken to achieve greater peace among states? What must the world’s peoples demand of their states in order that the latter move toward greater peace?

At present, policy analysts assume that the way to peace is via states negotiating among themselves. This has been the premise, for example, in the multi-decade efforts to seek a durable peace between Israel and Palestinians. Various states conducted negotiations. These met with partial success. Israel established relations with some nearby countries. But the worst of the conflict still continues with no end in view. The terrible conflicts of the past century often broke out despite negotiations among various states.

If states make wars, it seems logical that negotiations among states are the natural pathway to peace among states. Talking and settling matters seems the opposite of warring over them, and besides, what else is there? But since war merely carries policy and political conflicts into another realm, negotiations and war are not opposites. They are not substitutes. As Clausewitz realized, they lie along the same continuum; and that continuum has to do with states trying to gain influence, advantages, and domination over one another. Negotiations, therefore, are not natural steps toward peace. As long as states are doing the negotiating and their incentives and dynamics remain the same, a significant fraction of negotiations will end up in warfare and data bear this out.

We need to look elsewhere than to states negotiating with one another to find pathways to peace. We need to get outside the continuum of domination. We need to get outside the box of states.

A straightforward theory

Because states are political organizations that aim at holding and expanding power, they inherently are not agents of peace but agents of domination and its extension. This is why negotiations and war lie along the same continuum. They are means to the same end. One state is attempting to dominate or gain from another state. States, being political by nature, are inherently susceptible to warfare as a means to extend their power.

Since states can mobilize and concentrate the resources of an entire nation or nations, they can project far more intense and devastating warfare than smaller political units are capable of. States can also mobilize the population’s fear and distrust of external enemies. If peace is the aim of the world’s peoples, then mankind by organizing itself into states has taken a very bad turn. It has created organizations whose incentives are to maintain and gain further power. In a certain number of instances, where particular conditions prevail, this system of states invariably leads to large-scale war; war being merely a step beyond negotiations and other warlike threats and actions.

If the world remains organized into states for the foreseeable future, then the logical way to achieve greater peace is to reduce the state-like qualities of all states. The way to peace is to dismantle state institutions and restrict state powers. If their powers are scaled back, states become less able to project themselves upon other states and less inclined to attempt to dominate them. If the powers of states are scaled back, then they become less able to project large-scale war.

Leaving states intact is not an ideal solution, the ideal being no states at all, but weakening them is a step in the right direction. This can only be done if a state’s people make it happen. They need to understand that they are better off with a weaker, not a stronger state. This is counter-intuitive knowledge at present, but some day it will become common knowledge.


To illustrate these points which I have made quite tersely, I will focus on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. At present, the U.S. is involved as it has been for a long time; and the U.N., which is a coalition of states, is involved. Other states are involved as well.

The U.S. seeks an equilibrium between the opposing parties. It has the idea that if a Palestinian state is established that recognizes Israel, then some sort of stability will result. The U.S. thinks in terms of its current relations with Canada and Mexico. It forgets that those relations were not always easy and that there have been military incursions on both sides. It forgets the Mexican-American War. It forgets that even today there are Mexicans who seek hegemony in the Southwest.

More importantly, the U.S. does not fully grasp the difficulties on the ground, on the streets. The U.S. thinks in terms of an equilibrium in which Palestinians will be happy once they have a state they can call their own. But what will such a state do for the aspirations of the everyday Palestinian? They need to travel and work, to and in Israel perhaps. They want respect. Some demand justice for grievances dating back to Israel’s formation. Perhaps the U.S. thinks in terms of buying off some of these concerns with aid. The basic U.S. idea is this: You Palestinians will have a state, and you will recognize Israel as a state and maybe we will grease the plate and you will all live happily ever after.

The problem and its solution

What is the U.S. up to? For its own reasons, it is up to Palestinian state-building designed to achieve regional stability. This is akin to state-building in Iraq. The theory is that states that the U.S. builds or tries to, of a certain type that holds elections, democratic states shall we say, will somehow channel the aspirations of the people such that instability, war, political and religious frictions, poverty, and barriers will decline. People will pursue happiness and peace will prevail. This is the theory.

But this theory is all wrong. States do not do any of those things. States merely fasten upon society and exacerbate problems and rivalries. They attack property and rights. They transfer wealth. They have power, and they set off and encourage competition for power. Even the quest for a Palestinian state is producing blood in the streets right now, just as it has in Iraq.

Israel, already being a state, produces the same results. If the region had no states, the odds of peace breaking out would immediately rise. As it stands, the path to peace for the peoples in the region lies in scaling back the states therein. In this example, this points (1) to Israel, and (2) not trying to create a Palestinian state. The goal should be all the people in the region being able to move and associate freely and work and trade freely.

Israel should not be building walls, pushing new settlements, and attacking with its heavy arms. It should reduce its restrictions and enhance movement and mobility of Palestinians. In so many words, I am advocating the diminishment and eventual dismantlement of Israel as a state. The fact that it is a Jewish or Zionist state is not the issue here. The fact that it is a state at all is key. I advocate the same type of solutions for other regions in which there is conflict like this. Sri Lanka should weaken itself and let the Tamils go. Russia should let Chechnya go. China should let Nepal and Tibet go. India should let its rebelling and breakaway regions go. The U.S. should have let its South go.

Objections and counter-arguments

The general idea is that states exacerbate inter-state and infra-state conflict, and the road to greater peace lies in scaling them back. This is up to the peoples of the states. They are the only ones who can, if they will only recognize both the justice and the benefits of scaling back their states.

Will a people suffer more attacks from foreign or hostile elements if it cuts back its state’s power? This will be the standard fear-mongering argument. Fear is a powerful motivation for a state. Will this be called appeasement? Undoubtedly it will be labeled appeasement. Old and mistaken ideas held by the well-intentioned will not change overnight. Furthermore, warmongers and power-seekers will fan the flames of fear and enmity whenever they can. Mankind does not learn the ways of peace easily.

But reducing the state to encourage peace is not as counter-intuitive as it sounds. Every such reduction is an act of greater peace itself. Peace is made by making more peace. Reducing a trade barrier is an act of peace; the trade barrier is the hostile act. Reducing the power of the Congress to fund the CIA and the World Bank are acts of peace; their meddlings in overseas countries are hostile acts. Reducing travel and communication restrictions are acts of peace; it is the restrictions that are hostile. Keeping one’s armed forces on a tight domestic leash is an act of peace; planting them in foreign countries is hostile to those threatened.

Fear, mistrust, and enmity are great enemies of peace. Opposed to them is the fact that people know and understand in their hearts what justice means. This too is in our nature. We may be suspicious of strangers, but we also know at a deep level that they are the same as we are. If a state makes a concession or power reduction that is a just one, that is peaceful in and of itself, then the recipient side will be reluctant to bite the hand that has been extended to it. Suspicion and a history of hostility naturally can interfere as well as scheming to take advantage. The road to peace is not easy when everyone has been accustomed to warfare and the machinations of states. But if these reductions in state powers and threats are accompanied by discussions so that peoples on both sides come to understand what is happening, the chance of concessions leading to attacks is reduced. Peace can be attained when the hearts and minds of people are engaged in seeking peace as an explicit goal and they understand that one must work at it like anything else.

What is the alternative? In Israel, what have its strong-arm methods got its people? Have attacks on Israel declined? Have Israelis obtained peace? If they suppress one form of attack, they change form. If grievances against Israel persist and if they are enhanced by its restrictions, the attacks against Israel will not diminish. They haven’t yet. Israel’s enemies have waxed, not waned.

Why negotiations fail

Israel made political progress with its neighbors between 1991 and 1996. This came to a halt. It was not the multilateral faade of the time that removed the US from the picture that solved problems. The introduction of Japanese or European states can solve nothing if the basic assumptions remain the same that states are trying to solve these problems.

In this case, two men, two politicians, Benjamin Netanyahu and Yasser Arafat, help us understand why states have so much trouble bringing peace. According to Robert H. Pelletreau who was the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs and an Ambassador to several states, Netanyahu, perhaps partly for political reasons, wavered between a hard and softer line. He catered to his right and not to majority opinion. More generally, a leader of a state is beholden to his party and the party activists. This makes him less able to act on behalf of the general population.

Arafat, according to Pelletreau, was not different. "Unfortunately, in this time of stagnation Arafat is surrendering to his worst instincts, trampling on Palestinian human rights, stifling the press, allowing police excesses, and condoning corruption among his associates…"

We have to ask: What are leaders actually after? Preservation and enhancement of their powers is one thing. They are men in the middle, but they can’t operate without power and that is their custom. Their own agenda is important. Somewhere down the list are their own people’s interests, or what they personally conceive this to be. The problems arise because the peoples of the opposing nations are not themselves making peace. Instead, they are choosing powerful representatives who are caught in political processes of power and who cannot personally reconcile the many politically-motivated interests surrounding them. We need a better way, and the better way is the market. The way out of these political boxes is to break them. Reduce the power of the state and thereby enhance market forces.

Think about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the U.S. point of view. How can one state, like the U.S., influence seriously the internal politics of another independent state, like Israel? It can, but this takes the sustained attention, resources, cleverness, adeptness, and knowledge of key men. It also takes luck. This is the game being played. It depends very highly, too highly, on the skills of a few men. It relies heavily on their understanding the attitudes on the street and among secondary players, like legislators. But they cannot routinely comprehend the whole and create by political means the human equilibrium they seek. Success may come on occasion, but the process itself is an obstacle.

In many cases, only the top officials of a state have the power to negotiate. The lower officials cannot make headway because no one is sure what their bosses really will settle for. This fact imposes even more limits on the abilities of states to achieve peace. A top leader has limited time, brains, skills, experience, and knowledge. He cannot attend to too many such negotiations and can’t handle them all well. What does he really know? Negotiation is a chess game among rivals for power to see who can beat whom and outwit whom. How many simultaneous chess games can a top leader play? What qualifies him to play these games skillfully? The law of unintended consequences will always come into play and these consequences will be relatively large because of over-reliance on what one man knows and can accomplish.

Elections interfere with negotiations. The rise of competing office-holders is often a factor. The tools of the power trade are limited and involve power, not peace. For example, Arafat sought to have the major powers use trade as a weapon to pressure Israel. This is how men of power think. They will turn to and use tools of power that involve pressures and threats and inherently are anti-peace. Is it any wonder that they often do not create peace but instead set off opposing forces and resentments?

Negotiations by states often do not settle matters once and for all, and they often do not settle matters by just methods. Moving toward a supposed equilibrium through unjust methods must ultimately fail. The failure of Versailles is a case in point. The U.S. and Iraq never settled their differences after their first war. Look where we are today. The U.N. helped cause and has not settled the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in 60 years.

States can’t keep the peace

When it comes to keeping the peace among disputing states, what have states come up with? Nothing but malfunctioning political mechanisms and machines. Beyond the usual negotiations, alliances, pressures, mobilizations, and threats, they have come up with the U.N. The number and severity of wars among states has increased since the U.N.’s inception. Cuellar’s study of collective security tells us that (1) "violent crises have continued occurring at a rate somewhat higher than before World War II," (2) "violence (involving either protracted conflict or multiple incidents of violent confrontation) continues to grow as the predominant crisis management technique for a substantial fraction of crises, going from slightly over fifty percent in the period immediately following World War II to around seventy percent in the post-Cold War period," (3) "u2018Nonmilitary pressure’ and legal arbitration approaches to the resolution of international crises constitute the primary conflict resolution mechanism in just a fraction of the crises, showing almost no increase over time. Use of mediation as the dominant conflict resolution strategy was similarly infrequent," and (4) "But the cumulative frequency of nonviolent means of managing conflict remains far lower than the frequency of violent means of resolution. Indeed, the lowest cumulative frequency is associated with adjudication, the highest with the use of multiple incidents of violence."

In other words, there are more conflicts than ever among states, and they are using violence more than ever as their primary means of settling these conflicts.

We the people are forced to rely upon but also demand and accept the pitiful methods of peace, tranquillity, and brotherhood brought to us courtesy of states. We are lucky that constraining factors are at work that bring us what peace we have. Many, many areas of the world are not lucky.

The twentieth century is the bloody opposite of an endorsement for the state system of making and keeping peace. As each state interferes with another, we get domino effects that broaden conflicts. Civil wars far worse than inter-state wars pepper the globe. The mean number of civil conflicts globally has risen from about 20 a year between 1812 and 1850 to 100 a year between 1951 and 1992. Furthermore, their intensity and duration have grown. This epidemic of wars traces directly to the malign system of states that the world has adopted. External wars are the health of the state. Civil wars are the offspring of the state.

The best way to lessen the severity and incidence of inter-state wars is to lessen the state’s power. This also will lessen the severity and incidence of civil wars. But the ultimate solution is no state at all.

The market solutions to human conflicts go much deeper than the supposed state solutions, whose defects have been pointed out above. Market interactions are limited in scope. The incentives all work toward peaceful dispute resolution. Disputes are far more recognizable, negotiable, and manageable. Markets change the realities on the ground. Markets are more flexible. They give broad masses of people countless chances to move ahead peaceably and with justice.

Summary and Conclusions

Historical processes of war and peace are complex when looked at in detail. We need simplifying yet accurate theory if we are to make headway toward peace. The theory presented above has two main premises. One, other things equal, states are organizations geared to war-making. This premise itself follows from another theorem of political dynamics, namely, that states are political organizations of power that seek to maintain and augment their power. Second, other things equal, states enhance the destructiveness of conflicts when they choose to make war. This follows from the fact that states have taxing and other powers that permit them to amass the resources of entire societies. The theory predicts that states demand enlargement of power, or that they are constantly engaged in attempts at aggrandizement. This can occur internally or externally, showing itself in complex maneuvers, threats, negotiations, and alliances that end up sometimes in wars, both civil and foreign.

We do not observe constant warfare because the state’s attempts to gain power face constraints. Some states are small and face geopolitical and resource obstacles. Who their neighbors are and how they behave matter. All states face the control of their peoples who bear the costs of war and limit the state’s powers and intrusions; but the degrees and types of such control vary across states. Furthermore, the benefits of war accrue to some groups within a society and not others, adding more complexity. Basically, there is a demand for war and a supply of war. War and peace looked at in detail are obviously highly complex subjects to understand fully in given cases because of the many factors influencing the demand and supply.

Yet even a rudimentary theory can enlighten us and help us reach some conclusions. The state itself is an impediment to peace and an encouragement to more and larger warfare, other things equal. Negotiations are instruments of states to achieve aims that primarily involve power support and extension of the states involved. Only secondarily do they involve the welfare of the peoples controlled by the states, and this arises through the indirect control of those peoples over what their states do. Therefore, other things equal, the path to achieving greater peace among states (and within states) is to reduce the state’s powers and its access to war-making resources. This, in turn, hinges on the people within a state. In order to enhance their security, they need to reduce their demand for state power. Making the state more powerful actually reduces their security. They need to secure themselves by alternative institutions than handing great monopoly powers of taxation and war making over to a few chosen people. Giving in to fear and mistrust of other peoples and to the state’s misinformation and propaganda campaigns is a recipe for greater war and less peace.

At best, these are rough guidelines to peace. They suggest reducing the state’s powers. They resemble a recommendation to change directions and move back toward a classical liberal political order. But that is not the ultimate goal I’m recommending. That order of freedom stopped at the boundaries of the monopoly state and permitted it to exist and then augment itself. Reducing the state’s powers (and thus reducing the chances of and severity of warfare) can occur in several ways. One way is to reverse the state’s augmentations of the past while leaving the central state intact: reduce powers to tax, to borrow, to control money, to hamper trade, to make war, to control commerce, to regulate, and to install welfare programs. These actions amount to breaking the state down. But they lead to breaking the state up and/or eliminating the central state altogether in favor of smaller political units. If the latter can be accomplished directly, then the political maneuvers needed to attain reductions can be avoided.

The problem of reducing and breaking up a state is challenging. The state is controlled and supported by organized segments of the population who benefit from it. They are maintaining the equilibrium. Those under the state’s control are disorganized, confused, dependent, fearful of change, subject to constant propaganda, and apathetic. There is much work to be done if we are to create a society and a world with institutions that encourage peace and not war.

Michael S. Rozeff [send him mail] is a retired Professor of Finance living in East Amherst, New York.

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