That wise writer of humorous tales, Jerome K Jerome, recalls in his autobiography an early memory of "myself, seated on a shiny chair from which I had difficulty not slipping, listening to my father and mother and a large, smiling gentleman talking about peace. There were to be no more wars. It had all been settled at a place called Paree..." The hopeful view, thus planted in infancy, that the wars of the 1860s were to be the world's last serious conflicts was not completely undermined in him until the first world war, in which Jerome served with the French ambulance corps.
Jerome never abandoned his affection for human beings but he and WT Stead did once conclude after a depressing discussion that "the chief motive power governing human affairs ... was hate: hatred of nation for nation, religious hatred, race hatred, political hatred. Just then, the suffragette movement was in full swing, and sex hatred had been added to the list."
Michael Howard called his elegant recent essay The Invention of Peace, in order to emphasise that the idea of peace is no more than a couple of centuries old. Before that, there could be peaces in the plural - truces between states and groups, some long-lasting and even harmonious - but peace in the singular, envisaged as a stable universal order in which armed conflict was either extinct or very rare, and swiftly suppressed when it did occur, was not seen as a possibility. Immanuel Kant's well known contribution was to argue that a peace of that kind would gradually and painfully be achieved as modern history worked itself out. But "peace", Howard writes, "is not an order natural to mankind: it is artificial, intricate and highly volatile. All kinds of preconditions are necessary ... where these ... do not exist, or where they are decayed, there may well be no community of interest in creating, or capacity for sustaining, a peaceful international, or indeed domestic, order. Armed conflict becomes highly probable."
William Shawcross describes the scene earlier this month when, on the border between Eritrea and Ethiopia, Kofi Annan was greeted by villagers holding banners proclaiming: "We want perpetual peace". Yet how does such an aspiration fit with a two-year war, admittedly now finally over, that killed perhaps 100,000 people for reasons which remain mysterious even to those who fought? President Abdurrahman Wahid is touring the disturbed province of Aceh this week calling for peace, but opposition leaders have refused to meet him.
Israeli and Palestinian negotiators are meeting near Washington, but in an atmosphere saturated with pessimism. A war over, but not understood; a war waiting to happen; a peace moving out of reach even if the negotiators now make offers that would have been acceptable only a few months ago. No wonder, as one shrewd scholar puts it, that stocks in peace are low.
Peace today is everywhere, its pursuit so active that when the phrase "peace process", originally used in just a few cases, is pronounced, it has to be qualified with a national or geographical description so that the listener will know which of the literally dozens of such "processes" is meant. Often it seems they resemble so many patients in a hospital ward: some are getting better, some "improving", some serious, some sinking fast. The question that is hardest to answer is whether there has been a real advance in the science of peace, in the understanding of those intricate conditions to which Howard refers and in how to create those conditions, or whether we are riding toward yet another disappointment of the kind which Jerome's and later generations experienced.
It is now sadly obvious that many of the peace settlements of the 90s did not wholly deserve that name. Carl Bildt, analysing what has gone wrong in Bosnia, says of the local leaders: "For most of them peace was just the continuation of war by other means." In his view, Bosnia is heading for an economic and social crisis because international tutelage has encouraged rather than discouraged such attitudes. Bosnia was a forced settlement, imposed by outsiders, but a tendency similar to that which Bildt sees there can be found in situations where the parties came to an independent recognition of the need for agreement, as they did in Ireland or in Israel and Palestine. There has been perhaps too much concentration on skilful ways of moving conflict from a violent phase to a non-violent phase and on military intervention to suppress the violence and not enough on tackling fundamental differences. Sometimes these ways have been not so much skilful as fraudulent, as in Sierra Leone, where the international community tried to buy a peace by handing over half of the country and most of its assets to brutal and criminalised rebels.
The peace process between Israelis and Palestinians seems in retrospect a case in which deception and self-deception paved the way for failure. Many Israelis believed they were acting generously, when in fact the course they were following was bound to end in an explosion, either before or after a Palestinian state came into being. Helpful outsiders, meanwhile, repeatedly assured themselves that the Oslo process was functioning in the way it was intended to function. The sociologist Stanley Cohen, who spent many years in Israel before continuing his academic work in Britain, offers one key to why wars happen, why peace settlements do not take, and why terrible conflicts are ignored or dealt with ineffectively. His new book stresses how central denial is in conflict, indeed in all human life. He paints a picture of a world in which denial - the refusal to see, know, or accept unpleasant or uncomfortable facts - is ubiquitous. The concept is well known, but Cohen's careful building up of the detail of denial in its many forms is truly illuminating. He leads the reader to the conclusion that it is denial that is "normal" and an ability to see the truth and act accordingly which is rare, whether in individuals or in governments.
He gives an imaginary example of two tour buses on the West Bank, one filled with American Jewish tourists and one with Arab visitors and their western friends. They travel through the same landscape but what they see from the windows is completely different. It has been customary to argue that once the sides are engaged in negotiations for peace, these differences begin to fall away. But their capacity to persist has been underestimated. When that persistence is combined with the self-deception of those who intervene and mediate, or who on occasion choose not to, the odds shift dangerously against true peace.
The Invention of Peace by Michael Howard (Profile Books); States of Denial by Stanley Cohen (Polity Press).
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