Peter Stearns

An Explicit Commitment To Peace

Peter Stearns is University Professor at George Mason University, where he also served as provost from 2000 to June 2015. His areas of research and teaching include world history, social history, globalization, and the history of emotions. Dr. Stearns has served since 1967 as editor-in-chief of the Journal of Social History and has published widely in his areas of expertise. This interview covers themes related to his 2014 title, Peace in World History. Provost Stearns spoke with Ikeda Center publications associate Mitch Bogen on September 16, 2015.

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You’ve had a long and distinguished career as an historian. Why peace? Why now?

There are two related answers to that. First of all, I lived through the Cold War, and as the Cold War eased, I began to realize that some of the things I had assumed during the conflict were inaccurate. I had simply accepted the notion that the United States needed a very large military to repel aggression, and initially I felt that the Vietnam War was justified. I now do not think it was justified. So part of my answer is that in my own life I learned that I had not grown up with a proper appreciation for peace and the values of peace and the need to cut through some of the common arguments for military activities and wars. That’s one answer.

The second answer, quite honestly, is my experience with the Ikeda Center and the writings of Dr. Ikeda, and particularly his statement that each of us as a global citizen should figure out what we can do to promote peace. That had a profound impact on me. And, obviously, as an historian, one thing I can do is to try to use history to clarify conditions for peace. So: a reaction to my own experience, particularly with the Cold War, the inspiration of Dr. Ikeda, and the notion that we need to think much more explicitly about peace. That’s what drew me to try to do this book and offer some courses in the history of peace.

How did it happen that you came to see your earlier beliefs about war and militarism as wrong? Was this an awareness that built slowly over time?

The situation was more complex than the good-versus-evil rhetoric.Yes. You learn that the Cold War was not just the result of Russian activities, but also American activities and Allied activities. You learn that the Russian move to surround itself with buffer states after World War II, while I think it was wrong, was not entirely unexplainable and did not mean that the Russians were bent on world conquest. We learned that the situation was more complex than the sort of good-versus-evil rhetoric that informed so much of the Cold War. And the Vietnam War, as it wore on, made it clear that we were allowing the Cold War to draw us into military activities that were unnecessary and cruel, and that we needed to be able to rethink those approaches.

As you researched the book, was there anything that surprised you?

Yes, frankly. I’m a little embarrassed to say because some of the things that surprised me I should have known already! I did not realize, for example, how deeply pacifist early Christianity was. Now, it later changed, but I found it very interesting to explore the deep-seated commitment to peace that prevailed among early Christians. I had not realized the flowering of peace movements and peace ideas after 1815 in the Western world. These things simply had not been part of my historical background previously, and those and some other points really helped me understand that there was real substance to an exploration of peace in world history, that it wasn’t just a matter of working around the edges of war.

Peter Stearns

Have any of your colleagues reacted to your peace research by suspecting that maybe you’ve gone a bit soft? I ask only half jokingly, because sometimes I almost feel apologetic when I introduce my peace-related work to people, as if someone’s going to think it’s naïve, or something like that.

I sympathize with that, and I think, frankly [laughs], the reaction I get to the notion that I’m working on the history of peace, is that it must be a very short subject! It’s not so much a sense that it’s a soft subject, but there is the sense somehow that war is the more normal human approach and that, as I mentioned, peace just works in around the edges. You know, most of my historian colleagues are fairly liberal and fairly skeptical about some aspects of American military policy, so, while I don’t think they are terribly interested in the history of peace, they don’t see it as a soft or silly subject.

Making Peace the Norm

This reminds me of a notion put forward by peace scholars such as the late Elise Boulding that peace is actually more fundamental to our lives than violence.

Absolutely. Yes. That’s a point I try to make particularly in my teaching. And I agree with you entirely. War is a failure. Early Chinese writing about war, Sun Tzu and so forth, made it clear that war represents a failure of policy, and peace is the more normal, as well as the more desirable approach.

I’ve also heard it said that war is a failure of imagination. I can’t recall who said it, but it certainly sounds true. *

And this goes back a bit to your interesting point about a slightly apologetic tone. It’s also important to establish that peace in many cases requires more courage than war does.

What is it in particular about Daisaku Ikeda’s work and thought that inspires you?

Well, the depth of the commitment, and the careful way he frames not only the quest for peace but the qualities that accompany that — his definition, for example, of global citizenship. ** In other words, he’s not just advocating peace; he’s taking a thoughtful approach to the conditions, the kind of knowledge, the frames of mind, that are essential to promote peace. So: depth of commitment; the recommendation, the plea, that each global citizen accept a responsibility for peace; and the intelligent and flexible way he lays out the sub-conditions for peace — all of these strike me as extremely persuasive, very impressive.

What is it going to take for this kind of careful thinking about peace, along with a deep commitment to it, to become predominant, to become our default setting?

Well, that’s a great question, and I wish I had a clear answer. I think the current conditions in the United States make this approach very difficult. We’ve been involved in war so frequently that I think that many Americans really believe, not necessarily happily, that war is the normal state. We feel that we’re assailed by enemies from abroad, we have a deep commitment to military response, and we have figured out how to make war without too much interference with normal civilian activity back home. That’s a very powerful combination. I don’t quite know how to break into this mindset, but I think that open discussions of peace and efforts to intervene in political debates and make peace a clearer criterion for political candidates are vital. I was impressed, or rather depressed by the last presidential campaign, by the extent to which peace was almost never mentioned. Security is often mentioned, but it’s not the same as peace.

So, I think: open discussion; trying to figure out new formats in which peace can be discussed; and trying as I’m trying, to urge that history courses pay a bit more attention to peace, rather than focus simply on war as a highlight of the human experience. I think we need to proceed in these ways, and frankly, I think the results at best will be gradual. It’s going to be hard to convert the mindset.

What are the most important habits of mind that people can develop to further peace?

Peace has to represent an explicit commitment.In addition to the overall qualities of global citizenship, and here I reference Dr. Ikeda — the importance of understanding other cultures, the importance of understanding global interconnectedness, the importance of empathy — I think we need to urge people to think about peace, again, as a more explicit goal. I think many Americans, because of the way we’ve experienced recent conditions, and because of the way we’ve learned history, many Americans are likely to assume peace is simply a temporary expression of weariness and it’s not an explicit commitment. So we need to make clear that peace has to represent an explicit commitment. It’s a goal.

We should be spending as much time talking about the causes of peace as the causes of war, rather than assuming that peace is somehow a minor interlude between conflicts. We need to look at historical conditions and conditions in other regions where peace has been more clearly valued and clearly achieved. The American experience in this regard — although we have a really important peace tradition in the United States — the American experience in this regard is not entirely typical. We had after all a substantial commitment to militarism in the westward expansion and then our belated imperialist program. Isolationism was a significant episode but based more on avoidance than on a pursuit of peace. Most obviously, the experience since 1940, and particularly the emergence as “world’s only superpower,” provide a distinctive combination, different even from Western Europe which has moved toward a different set of priorities.

Elise Boulding also suggested that we should explicitly visualize what a peaceful society or world would look like. How would you visualize it?

I’m not sure I have a complete statement here, but this explicit commitment to peace as a primary value is part of the response. And, referring back to the appreciation of cultural differences, I would identify the importance of tolerance, the realization that we do not need to envisage a world in which every society accepts our particular approach to things and our value system — a recognition of diversity and the recognition that societies can be quite successful that are rather different then our own. These are crucial components of imagining a more peaceful world.

Questions of Leadership

Does the US need to be the world leader? Many people insist that a Pax Americana is our best bet.

This has to be something that’s debated. The clearest point is that having the United States in our current military situation is an unnatural historical phenomenon, and probably an unhealthy one. It makes us arrogant. It makes us careless. It makes us assume that we can order the world around to a degree that actually is impossible and undesirable. So, although the Cold War was scary, and led to a number of really mistaken policies, the Cold War in some ways was healthier, because neither side could claim that they were somehow the conscience of humanity.

It seems like we don’t even analyze the impact of our military actions. I believe that if we look closely at Viet Nam, as you did, it should make us question or reconsider the efficacy of military violence. And the same seems true of Iraq.

I think the Iraq thing is really interesting. Apparently now we have a national consensus that the invasion of Iraq was a mistake. And that’s very interesting, because we didn’t agree on that until recently. But relatively few people are going the next step and saying, okay, if it was a mistake, then how on Earth did we make the mistake? Why did two-thirds of the American people approve of the war? We need to reconsider our approach more fundamentally and not simply say, “Yes it was a mistake, but by the way we don’t necessarily need to learn much from it.”

There is also the disturbing notion that so-called preventive military action is OK. That it’s just another tool in your international toolbox.

Right. In that respect we probably need among other things, and this would be part of a historical approach to peace, we need to go back to some of the fundamental discussions of just war that occurred earlier in the world’s history. The just war idea was not a pacifist idea; it has its own limitations. But it’s at least superior to the notion of preemptive strikes and the rule of force.

One current situation that I struggle with as a proponent of nonviolence is the threat of ISIS. I’m doubtful that peaceful means such as dialogue would be effective with them.

I find it difficult also. I do not know what the appropriate short-term approach is to this issue. It’s tempting to say that at the very least we need to make some contacts with ISIS to see if discussions could be broached that might limit further conflict, but it’s a little hard to imagine.

Challenges and Opportunities

This brings us to the topic of religion, which your book of necessity deals with, not least because for much of world history religion and government have been fused. Lately, we’ve been hearing from people, for instance those known as the New Atheists, that simply getting rid of religion would make the world a more peaceful place.

Well, as I say in the book, religion taken as a whole, religion has very contradictory implications for peace. All of the major religions harbor deep impulses for peace. They are expressed in somewhat different ways, and they have somewhat different priorities, but as you well know, religion can be a really powerful force for peace, sometime providing the motivation for the type of courage that peace requires. So I would not accept that New Atheist dismissal of religion.

On the other hand, it’s equally obvious that many religions, probably most, can also promote violence, particularly when you approach a particular religion as the sole source of real truth. So the balance around religion is a very complicated one. We need to encourage those aspects of religion that motivate the peace effort. Again: the promotion of tolerance, promotion of understanding of different faiths, is an essential modification to any sort of claim to a single monopoly on divine truth.

In your view, what are the strongest criticisms of peace studies and peace work?

In terms of my understanding, and I don’t feel that I’m an authority on this subject, because I’m constantly learning a little more, but I think the weakest links with peace studies are, first, and this goes to the point you raised early on, that peace studies can sometimes seem a little apologetic, its advocates fearful of being considered a little naïve. I don’t think the naiveté charge is accurate, but we need to be able to counter that objection.

Issues of realism and issues of focus are crucial.The other challenge, and I do think it’s a challenge, and it comes up even in Dr. Ikeda’s work, is the extent to which the approach to peace involves so many other issues — for example concern about the environment, concern about human rights, concern about poverty. And I do agree that ultimately there is a larger package. But it is a challenge to peace studies when the agenda seems simply so large and so full of idealism that skeptics might find the whole approach unduly ambitious and frankly impractical, a do-good effort that has no contact with reality. I think that issues of realism and issues of focus are crucial, and they’re difficult.

I appreciate that. Does economic globalization contribute to or detract from the cause of global peace?

Obviously, we don’t know for sure. I have a student right now who has chosen a topic for her paper this semester on the extent to which US–Chinese economic relations will make war impossible. And I think that is a plausible approach. In other words, it’s plausible to argue that economic relationships will be so complex and important that major societies will hesitate before facing military confrontation. On the other hand, intricate economic links did not prevent World War I or World War II, so I find myself uncertain.

Like your student, I suspect that economic interdependence among states could contribute to global peace. But I’m concerned that the processes of economic globalization might also contribute to the creation of a permanent underclass whose legitimate grievances could prove destabilizing.

That is certainly possible. I think there are two questions, and I don’t have a full answer to either one. Are we creating a permanent underclass? That’s certainly a current problem. And will that underclass, and the disruptions they are suffering, gain enough significance that they jeopardize peace? Because you could have an underclass that is just so marginal that it doesn’t impact basic decisions about peace. Both of these things are serious issues. I agree.

And of course from a comprehensive peace perspective the presence of intractable poverty is unacceptable, with peace being the more general state of wellbeing and not just the absence of violence.

Yes. And that’s where you get back into how many other reforms are necessary for a focus on peace. I think there can be some discussion there.

I really enjoyed the seminar you co-hosted with us at George Mason a couple years ago, and very much appreciated that the discussion was framed around the topic, “Challenging Assumptions About Peace and the Military.” What do peace people, generally speaking, misunderstand about the military?

It's important to understand the military is not a monolith.Again, I don’t feel I’m an expert on this, but the session you referred to was really revealing. The first effort here has to be to appreciate that there is no single military mentality, that military people can be deeply devoted to the cause of peace. They may not approach it exactly as some of us would wish, but they are not necessarily war hawks, they don’t necessarily thirst for violence. Many of them deeply believe that appropriate military policies actually promote peace. And some of them, obviously — and this is not a new theme — some of them emerge from the experience of war with an extraordinary commitment to peace.

So: it’s important to understand that the military is not a monolith, to understand that the military frequently will be an inhibitor to actual military engagement. The military was much more skeptical, for example, about the Vietnamese War than the civilian policymakers were. So we need to appreciate that the military experience is not monolithic and it can lead to some interesting approaches to peace.

Thank you. It seems to me that those coming from the peace perspective and those coming from the military perspective should assume the good will and good intentions of the other.

Yes, I think that’s fair. I happen to be teaching at an institution where there are a lot of former military people, because of the region we’re in [the Washington DC area]. Appreciating their intelligence, their commitment, and again the variety of viewpoints they represent, has been very informative for me. I had not had that experience before.

I really felt that when I attended the seminar. To return to current events: We touched on ISIS earlier, for which there are no easy answers . . .

This is to me the one that poses the greatest conundrum, yes.

What about the current refugee crisis?

Absolutely appalling. And it relates of course to ISIS. My wife and I were just discussing this last night, and I don’t know what a responsible policy can be at this juncture. I really don’t know. It is tempting to urge that we need to swallow some pride and undertake a wider set of negotiations about the Syrian situation that would include, for example, serious representation of the Russian point of view as well as some of the other Middle Eastern nations, including Iran. I don’t think we’re politically capable of that but I think it would be desirable. We simply have to find a way to settle that conflict even if it involves some unpalatable compromises. I don’t think the refugee crisis can be resolved without ending the conflict in Syria.

Does the US have an obligation to take refugees?

Well, short term . . . look: I think the notion that we take only 10,000 is ridiculous. We should make a larger commitment. I really believe that. But even the ten-times-that commitment that MoveOn wants is just a drop in the bucket. *** That’s not the way to solve the problem. None of us can solve the problem just by taking more refugees, because the ultimate numbers surpass any society’s ability to assimilate.

Dignity and History

Could you share a quick preview of what you will be discussing at our upcoming Ikeda Forum, “The Practice of Dignity”?

Sure, and I’ll use some history in the presentation, and it will relate to Dr. Ikeda’s approach, which I will mention. But I was deeply impressed by a statement, now maybe a decade ago, by Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former Secretary of State, that probably the people of the world seek dignity more than they seek freedom. And I think Americans, and probably Westerners more generally, have a difficult time appreciating, among other things, the legacy of imperialism — the extent to which people in many regions continue to worry that the West is dismissive of their values and that the West assumes a level of superiority that is challenging, annoying, and unacceptable. I think more attention to dignity needs and understanding where different societies are coming from in their quest for dignity is something that we really need to add to our policy arsenal to a greater extent than we have so far.

Well said. Is there anything else that occurred to you during our talk that you didn’t get a chance to address?

I very much appreciate the opportunity to talk with you. I guess the only thing I would add, as an historian, is that when we are trying to talk about the role of historical thinking in peace efforts, we’re trying to juggle two interesting elements. On the one hand we are hoping we can encourage conditions where people can go beyond the historical experience that we’ve had so far; we want something better than humankind has obtained thus far. On the other hand, we can use aspects of history. If we look at history from the standpoint of what kinds of commitments and conditions have promoted peace for long periods of time in a number of key regions in the world, we can learn some things from the past that will help our effort to transcend our history and establish a more peaceful approach.


* The source of this statement is unclear, but this version of the quote is often attributed to poet Adrienne Rich: “War is an absolute failure of imagination, scientific and political. That a war can be represented as helping a people to 'feel good' about themselves, or their country, is a measure of that failure.”

** In his 1996 address at Teachers College, Columbia University, Ikeda outlined the three core qualities of a global citizen: 1) the wisdom to perceive the interconnectedness of all life and living; 2) the courage not to fear or deny difference, but to respect and strive to understand people of different cultures, and to grow from encounters with them; 3) the compassion to maintain an imaginative empathy that reaches beyond one’s immediate surroundings and extends to those suffering in distant places.

*** On September 20, 2015, just a few days after this interview, US Secretary of State John Kerry announced that the US will take in 100,000 refugees over the next three years.

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