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On Peace and Conflict

On Peace and Conflict

Aesop  02/01/19


During the eve of the Ethio-Eritrean war 20 years ago, Meles said: “we need each and every peaceful day!”. He was talking about what economists term an opportunity cost, i.e., what one might do other than killing, dying, and destroying. A developmental state employs every day to save lives (health-care), enlighten masses (spread education), and link people (expand infrastructure). A developmental state spares no time for a foolish war.

Even those strategists who revolutionized warfare distasted war. Sun Tsu said the best victory is one achieved without fighting. Von Clausewitz resented the horrible fog of war during friction. Liddell Hart wrote a true victory encompassed economic, social and political dislocation, not military triumph. Game theorists like Axworthy and Schelling concluded cooperation has a greater payoff. Even Machiavelli advised princes to study war in order to keep peace.

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Prominent historians also painted the ugly face of war. The fathers of history (Herodotus and Thucydides-500BC) taught the world how fear, greed and interest destroyed one of the most powerful (Darius/Xerxes’ Persia) and most enlightened (Pericles’ Athens) empires the world has ever seen. Moreover, no matter how many wars one wins, one becomes responsible for stabilization, demobilization, reintegration and reconstruction. Even superpowers capable of launching the Marshall Plan couldn’t shoulder that burden in the Middle East. Peace always trumps war.

But peace is a spectrum. Galtung identified the positive and negative colors of peace. A positive peace is one where parties maintain symbiotic relations. A negative peace is simply the absence of war. Although negative peace is a less preferable spectrum, it is still a peace. The current reality in Ethiopia today is that of a negative peace. The maneuvers, displacements, and destructions remain at large. It nonetheless is a peace that merits care for it has not descended into war. The light (spectrum) is dim but not pitch black. The challenge, therefore, is turning the knob of peace to shine brighter. The parties must, at least, refrain from turning the knob of peace off. They must be careful not to lose the negative peace that remains.

But concern for peace is not tantamount to avoiding conflict. The basic definition of conflict is disagreement. Disagreement doesn’t have to be violent. Nor does it have to be unreasonable. If one disagrees in a peaceful and reasonable manner, one is said to be engaged in a dialogue. It was in this manner Socrates revolutionized Western philosophy. Plato’s works reveal that an orderly exchange of dissent among individuals bears wisdom. Heraclitus, Hegel, and later Marx also stated the interaction between opposites creates a whole. Chinese philosophers like Lao Tsu coined yin and yang as the fundamental forces of nature. Confucius built his ethical framework around the five relations among opposites in the society.

It is the productive interaction between opposing forces insider electromagnetism, the atom, organisms, and information (bits-0&1) that drive our universe. The universe manages the interaction between opposing forces properly through the laws of physics, evolution, and information. We call individuals that synthesize seeming irreconcilable concepts using reason: philosophers. We call a society that harmonizes seemingly contradicting interests among its members using the rule of law: civilized.

So, conflict is not bad per se. A peaceful, thoughtful, and an open-minded disagreement benefits those who engage in the process. It was this philosophical exercise which sparked the scientific revolution 500 years ago. As Thomas Kuhn explained, science advanced dialectically (through revolutions) rather than incrementally. New scientists emerged on the graveyards of older scientists, not over their shoulders. But they bury old paradigms through reason, experience and mathematics, not using grenades, guns, and bullets. Knowledge advances through conflict. Even in politics, America’s founding fathers and heroes did split into the Federalist Party (Hamilton/J.Adams), Republican Party (Jefferson), Democratic Party (Jackson), etc.. In Russia, Lenin and Trotsky did face off behind Bolsheviks and Mensheviks respectively. Revolution (of thought) is different from rebellion (in action).    

The current challenge, therefore, is not ridding Ethiopia of conflict. As explained above, a peaceful conflict is useful for progress. Instead, the current challenge is preventing military conflict in Ethiopia. For this to happen, those monopolizing kinetic force must put their weapons on a safe mode. Flexing muscle too often leads to fatigue and defeat. Similarly, those who never shot a gun on a dummy target (let alone at someone) should curb their enthusiasm for war. As the saying goes: “curiosity killed the cat!”

In short, dialogue is the conduit from a negative peace to a positive peace. We should learn from the Ethio-Eritrean relations. It remained a negative peace for 20 years for lack of dialogue. As soon as dialogue begun, it has improved significantly (if not completely). We must replicate our enthusiasm for peace with Eritrea on our own internal problems. If the two countries thought they’d regret the war 20 years letter, they’d not have engaged in it. Similarly, the current squabbling within the EPRDF will be something its leaders will regret in the future (if not near future). A wise one learns before (proactively) than after (reactively) an event occurs.

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