Contemporary Peace Research and Practice By Oliver Richmond  |  04 October, 2021

Why Peace and Conflict Studies Remain Essential Part II

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Part II: Some Thoughts on Preparations for After the Transition in Peace and Conflict Studies

So what next for Peace and Conflict Studies (PCS) after the systemic transition we currently appear to be undergoing? PCS, despite the positives noted in Part 1, failed to see much of this recent phase coming (with some honourable exceptions) when in the past it had been a lone voice in the desert in the run up to new wars. This is partly because it has become policy-led or too narrow once again and has been distracted from deeper knowledge political-historical processes, failed to notice the propaganda driven revival of social Darwinism, and has only recently engaged with everyday and non-western experiences. To imagine that UN peacekeeping was still a viable response to anti-colonial claims, or that liberal peacebuilding still offers a response to frozen conflicts that emerged from the collapse of Soviet Union, is myopic, and shows a lack of depth, a distant understanding of context, and a self-centred concern with northern interests.

This is akin to a position that the global north is only interested in a peace studies that supported its global ambitions (such dynamics were present during much of the Cold War, when peace was seen as subversive and treacherous in parts of the West and the East), rather than one that acted as a platform to reconcile a wide range of voices. This has to be in the context of scientific findings and a much more substantial political ethic engendered by cross-boundary understandings of legitimacy, justice and sustainability after conflict. The latter, pluriversal and normative engagement has been the case for some scholarship, and the former, power-based, institutional and state level framework that researchers ignore at a price. PCS has had its limitations as a platform, but they are also being addressed (as with work on hybrid political orders, everyday peace, feminist and decolonial revisions, and power, as well as growing interdisciplinarity and the development of multi-method approaches, the growing contributing academies from outside of the global north, and much more).

On balance, despite the risk of regression in some areas of our subdiscipline into excessively empiricist and apolitical work that suggests a politico-ethical deficit in methodology, there exists the potential for new work that mirrors that of Kant of the 17th Century (300 years ahead of his time), but on a much more pluriversal methodological basis. The next breakthroughs and world-changing scholarship on the theories of peace will probably come from the Global South, given the scale of war and violence that remains unaddressed in such contexts by current approaches; the scholarship of the north has had its day, but has failed to address violence from little more than its own perspectives. 

Addressing the problems of the current era in terms of ever-evolving understandings of violence, and matching peace, justice, and sustainability responses, now need to be built into the overall international peace architecture (IPA), before there is another collapse in the international system. Limited steps have so far been taken. Let’s just make sure that next time, this act is not a last resort (as with previous attempts to stop imperial, total, and nuclear wars in the 19th and 20th Century).  PCS has very substantial intellectual resources to offer for a new phase in the IPA, which improving on the UN’s Sustaining Peace agenda, has to go much further on issues of race, class, and gender inequality, connect the debates to sustainability and what John Dryden (2019) calls planetary justice (which relates peace more clearly to justice: social, distributive, historical, and environmental). It needs to be decentred from the failed rationalities of the territorial-state and quasi-empire, western, and northern interests, and their multiple ‘enclosures’ which now threaten to reverse the Enlightenment (contra Pinker). Peace with global justice for the next historical phase means historical justice and redistributive systems need to be in place across the international system (a lesson that Keynes learned from the total wars of the 20th Century, but was tragically rebuffed by their victors). PCS can make a much better job of connecting all of this research together.

In this new era, PCS is in a good position, now central to several disciplines, accepted by more policymakers, and more pluralist than ever before. It should balance working on policy-led agendas, with focus on civil society agendas, making sure that they are transversal and transnational. It should connect with networks of regional and global actors, formal and informal, multilateral, where another ‘international’ is shimmering into being, beyond the formal states-system, but should never be tempted to shift away from academic independence, which is being damaged by the very states and institutions in which we all work (though I personally refuse to comply with much of it, probably at some cost to myself). The long-term credibility of peace knowledge depends on its veracity and ethical intent, in a world where power is extractive and has established states, empires, and class systems, disguised them successfully through evolving modes of propaganda, and dragooned populations into their unsustainable and restricted rationalities: the opposition seems impossibly strong, both over time, the concept and praxis of peace has been here many times and won tragic victories. Methodological habits of working uncritically on policy agendas, or focussing on micro-issues, collecting data which is divorced from ethico-political rationalities, can no longer be afforded in my view.

We have constructed a much better understanding of a lot of PCS agendas when compared with the work done in the past, covering international and civil wars, disarmament, nuclear weapons, peacemaking tools, rights issues, and now on new modes of violence (urban conflict, digital dynamics, among others) and this work needs to be connected to the global peace architecture that has emerged. We need to be less timid about putting our findings into a broader context and make sure they cannot be ignored, mis-represented (or cherry-picked) by institutions, organisations, and states, or indeed digitally.

Oliver Richmond is a leading scholar in the field of IR, Peace and Conflict Studies. He has worked with international actors, especially the UN, and civil society organisations in several conflict-affected areas around the world, and has also conducted fieldwork on local, state, and international problems of peacebuilding in Timor Leste, Sri Lanka, Cyprus, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Colombia.