The Future of Peace: No Finishing Line

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Sundeep Waslekar is President of Strategic Foresight Group. He has negotiated with armed militants and heads of governments, crafted new policy concepts, and authored a best-selling book on governance in his native language, Marathi. 4

In his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in 1987, Oscar Arias Sánchez, president of Costa Rica, remarked, “Peace has no finishing line, no final destination. It is like climbing a mountain peak only to realize that there is another one in front of you.”

Sánchez’s words illustrate the journey of peacemaking. The future of peace is not about the outcome of violent conflicts. It is not about extrapolating trends from the past to the present and the present to the future. It is not about a final destination.

The 4-G framework — growth, governance, God, and geopolitics — is useful in considering the future of countries affected by conflict. Developed by Strategic Foresight Group (SFG), an international think tank that has worked with governments and national institutions of more than fifty countries from four continents, the framework’s four factors can be narrowed into ten drivers of either peace or continued conflict:

  • growth of income and employment,
  • inequity from imbalanced growth,
  • climate change,
  • water competition and cooperation,
  • access to the national governance apparatus for the entire population,
  • competitive extremism using religion and sectarianism as instruments,
  • expansion of peacebuilding capacities,
  • geopolitical competition,
  • the downside of technological revolutions, and
  • efficacy of global governance architecture.

It is commonly believed that poverty produces conflicts and mediation makes peace, but instead it is the interplay of the four factors within the 4-G framework and its ten drivers that shape the trajectory of social and political dynamics. Sometimes, this trajectory is the continuation of a current trend, but more often it is the emergence of an unforeseen discontinuity.

By 2040, much of the world may well face the risk of violent conflict capable of destabilizing societies. One seed of conflict is a sense of economic and social deprivation. This deprivation can often be traced to historical factors but, just as often, it is helpful to take the contemporary period into consideration. “Delete the Elite” graffiti seen recently in Ljubljana, Slovenia, is much like the spray-painted expressions on the walls of Athens, Delhi, Phnom Penh, Johannesburg, Cairo, Paris, Milan, Detroit , Rio, and Davos, indicating that this sense of marginalization is increas­ingly widespread.

If those who feel deprived are motivated to publicly express discontent, they are also apt to organize demonstrations and vote in elections. If not, they may resort to violence. History has illustrated that if activists are jailed and insulted, they discover primordial or ideological loyalties to organize themselves against their captors and the power they represent. A conflict is born. And if neighboring countries, foreign powers, or other outside players take sides, the conflict is magnified.

In 2014, this pattern fits circumstances in Syria, Ukraine, the Central African Republic, DR Congo, Egypt, Sudan, South Sudan, Lebanon, Iraq, Palestine, Naxalite districts in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Thailand, and the Philippines.

By 2040, much of the world may well face the risk of violent conflict capable of destabilizing societies. Certainly, as neoliberal economic policies and expensive elections help domineering groups tighten their grip on society, the call to “delete the elite” is likely to deepen. If so, outcomes will come to depend on how democracy is practiced.

By 2040, authoritarian regimes in North Korea, Sudan, Turkmenistan, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe may well have come to an end. In fact, if democracy is narrowly defined as a system of elections to decide on a ruler, then most countries will likely have embraced democracy. The debate about democracy versus dictatorship would then logically be over, and the debate about the meaning and delivery of democracy underway. The question of the meaning of democracy will always be vital. Even today, there are countries where governments are elected and, in that sense they could claim to be democracies, but the practice of governance by these leaders is not accountable to its people.

Several Egyptian leaders, the Castros of Cuba, and the Assads of Syria have all been technically elected, only to impose authoritarian regimes. Moreover, in many other countries, particularly in Asia, elected regimes have not become authoritarian, yet have complete monopoly of power with hardly any space for opposition. Cambodia is the most glaring example, but it is not the only one. Therefore, the meaning of democracy as a system that is genuinely accountable to its people will become increasingly tested as leaders use elections rather than aimed coups as tools to seize power.

The Future of Peace Building Peace Forum Sundeep Waslekar

(Photo Credit: Sundeep Waslekar)

When democracy delivers justice and accountability, creating a space where people can express their views in a non-violent way, peace has a good chance of persevering. When democracy merely provides legitimacy for dominant interests, nations experience conflict. Because China, Russia, and the United States will likely still have influence and interests outside their national borders in the future, they will face the same test. If the countries accept the result of democratic competition in those territories, regardless of the religion and ideology of the winners, they will have peace. If, however, they use military intervention or supply arsenals to chosen parties, they will likely face violent conflict.

In the religious sphere, we are entering an era of competitive extremism, from the Lord’s Resistance Army to al-Qaeda and beyond. Extreme versions of virtually all religions — Pentecostal Christianity, Shi’a as we ll as Sunni Islam, Judaism, even Buddhism and Hinduism — are on the rise. Just as the Crusades of the twelfth century were about competition for power in the name of God, so are those of the twenty-first.

I met Hussain bin Alawi, the Foreign Minister of Oman, soon after Samuel Huntington published his book Clash of Civilizations in 1993. “The term clash of civilizations is a misnomer,” Alawi declared. He asserted that “the civilized do not clash by definition. They make peace.” This notion is relevant now as many societies across the world work to strengthen democracy and governance toward a peaceful future.

Over the next twenty-five years, the United States, China, and Russia are more than likely to remain major powers. Other countries — such as Brazil, Iran, and Turkey — may join them from the sidelines. It is in the nature of states to aggrandize their interests. Economic interdependence does not prevent rivalry from turning deadly, however, as World War I and World War II have proven. When major powers compete in global space, they will look for sides to take and find willing partners in unpredictable places. Who could have imagined, for example, what is now unfolding in Ukraine today, a place whose geography and geopolitics placed it at the epicenter of international conflict?

In the twentieth century, the Cold War was the primary determinant of violent conflict across the globe. In the twenty-first century, imbalances in economic growth, domestic governance, and international power structures are the primary factors.

Certain new developments will also be in play. One of these is the declining avail ­ability of fresh water. Given climate change, the retreat of glaciers, excessive evaporation, increased pollution, population growth, expanding economies, and ever-larger cities, the gap between demand and supply of usable water will only continue to grow. Unless new mechanisms for hydro-diplo­macy are established, neighboring countries seem likely to clash. Even in the next decade, for example, Egypt and Ethiopia could conceivably go to war over dams in Ethiopia and historical claims to water in Egypt. The same is true of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, for the same reasons. A great arch of hydro insecurity from Thailand to Turkey and Egypt to Uganda loom on the horizon.

Another development involves new technologies. Great powers may slide from proxy fights between their partners to a direct military confrontation with advanced technology and the orbit immediately around the earth in outer space will more than likely be the main theater of war. At the same time, genomics and nanotechnology revolutions could easily be misused to develop the next generation of weapons. Some may be used by states and some in asymmetrical warfare by non-state entities.

Will new and old challenges together pose problems too difficult to surmount? Or is it possible to build enduring peace?

Europe, which fought wars for more than two thousand years, illustrates the possibility of peace. It has developed regional institutions of peace and cooperation. Other countries, in North America, Latin America, Western Africa, and Southeast Asia, are following in its footsteps. If this trend continues, wars between neighbors might be averted. Cooperation in shared water will be critical; countries that engage in active water cooperation do not go to war.

At the global level, the critical missing piece is a cohesive architecture of governance. Only specialized agencies for the economy, energy, trade, health, migration, and various other issues are in place. Despite a veneer to this end, the UN Security Council is instead the embodiment of an international class system. The upper class has permanent seats with veto power. The lower class waits its turn and when it gets one, it is with unequal rights. Even as patterns of violence are synchronized through condensation of fault lines in growth, governance, God, and geopolitics, global governance is fragmented. If current trends continue, these fault lines will deepen. A new approach to the architecture of global governance is still possible, however.

One positive development is the move from G8 to G20 groups, which reflects a more inclusive and representative range of countries. The debate on UN Security Council reforms has begun. The progress is inadequate but the direction is right. The peacebuilding community around the world needs to envision a cohesive and functional mechanism that enables world leaders to address emerging violent conflicts and negotiate collaborative solutions to prevent them.

This new architecture of global governance needs to emphasize sustainable solutions based on compromise. If such architecture had existed, the current conflict in Ukraine would likely not have taken place, and the United States and Russia not have needed to agree on a Finland-type neutral status for a united Ukraine. It is now too late to undo the damage in Ukraine. But robust global architecture to define solutions of compromise can prevent such conflicts in the future. The architecture for building peace in an increasingly complex world will need to blend the conventional art of peace and diplomacy with specialized expertise in water, space, and other domains.

Developing ideas for such global architecture from the bottom up is possible. After the Second World War, heads of nations conceived the United Nations and World Bank systems. States monopolized knowledge. Today, think tanks, civil society groups, universities, and legislatures can conceptualize new ideas, exchange them across the world, form networks, and influence state thinking. They can come together on the basis of shared values, rather than conflicting national interests, to make another world possible.

The new peacebuilding endeavor cannot be confined to reshaping the global order, however. It must begin at home. In the end, the most critical building blocks of the future will be our societies and nations. Innovation in social engineering, governance, technology, and economic restructuring must be guided to disrupt monopoly of power within our societies, create an inclusive world, and promote dialogue at all levels. If we take this path, we can create a peaceful civilization and continually renew it since, as Oscar Arias expressed in Oslo in 1987, peace has no finishing line.


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