Why Aren’t We Investing in Peace?


On this day, one of the great activists of non-violence, Mohandas K. Gandhi was born. In honour of his memory and contribution towards global peace, today has been designated as the International Day of Non-Violence.

Unfortunately, many equate the term non-violence with passivity, or even weakness, but this represents a fundamental misperception of what non-violence entails. It also overlooks the promise and possibility of non-violent solutions to conflict.

So much of the misunderstanding surrounding the concept of non-violence stems from our general acceptance of war. The fact is that on a societal level, we invest quite heavily in the provision of defence. We recruit and sustain militaries, procure defensive weaponry and make contingency plans in the event of conflict. This reveals the extent to which we are comfortable with investing in war.

But why aren’t we investing in and building any of the necessary infrastructure for peace? We are perfectly content to watch as our taxes go towards preparing for war, but we don’t bother demanding an equal investment in the provision of peace. Perhaps this is because the prospect of peace seems too unrealistic to entertain, and so our political leaders continue to pay lip service to the ideals of peace while they simultaneously prepare for war, as the old Latin adage says si vi pacem, para bellum, which translates to ‘if you want peace, prepare for war.’

The truth is that if we continue to prepare for and invest in war to the exclusion of peace, that is precisely what we will get. So it’s time that we replace our outdated adage with another – si vi pacem, para pacem – ‘If you want peace, prepare for peace.’

I believe if we did start to invest in the provision of peace, it would enable a different and much richer approach towards non-violence. Perhaps this could then set the stage for a broader panoply of non-violent tools and approaches and therein demonstrate, for once and for all, the futility of equating non-violence with passivity.

So on this day of non-violence, let’s imagine what it might look like to develop the infrastructure for peace, and to begin to invest in instruments of non-violence in an equal – if not greater – measure than our prevailing investment in war.

Cultivating Moments of Peace in the Midst of War


September 21st is International Peace Day, a day dedicated to ‘strengthening the ideals of peace within and among all nations and peoples.’ International Peace Day was initiated in the early 1980s by the UN General Assembly, the largest deliberative body of the United Nations.

As we mark International Peace Day this year, I appreciate there may be some reluctance to celebrate the occasion. Instead of strengthening the ideal of peace, the day may appear a grim reminder of how elusive the goal of global peace is. Every day we bear witness to increasing levels of barbarity and violence around the globe. So I can certainly sympathise with those who feel that global peace may be too grandiose to even talk about.

But rather than abandoning the ideals of this day altogether, perhaps we can reframe our perceptions of the path to peace. By this, I mean instead of aiming for world peace, maybe we should start smaller and take more manageable steps towards peace. We can, for instance, focus on cultivating moments of peace. The concept of a moment of peace feels a lot easier to grasp, especially when we consider how plentiful these moments have been throughout history.

Even in the midst of war, it is possible to identify moments of peace. They have come to be known as ‘ceasefires’ – a term which literally means to hold fire. Whenever ceasefires are put in place, warring parties agree to temporarily stop or suspend active hostilities. The concept of a ceasefire seems to be as old as the history of warfare itself and we continue to see evidence of it being practiced today, including the most recent ceasefire in Syria.

There are a number of reasons why the practice of observing ceasefires developed. In some instances, ceasefires were put in place to allow for fighting to pause on days of religious or spiritual significance. Humanitarianism has also been another important rationale behind the emergence of ceasefires, as the cessation of fighting provides an opportunity to assist the wounded in war and offer relief to civilians. In other situations, ceasefires have been used as a critical step in building longer-term peace – for instance, as the first stage in a negotiated settlement or peace process.

The most well-known example of a ceasefire took place in the trenches of the First World War in 1914. The Christmas Truce, as it has come to be known, involved soldiers laying down their arms and crossing enemy lines on Christmas Day to play football, sing hymns, share food and exchange stories with their alleged enemies. It was a brief moment of comradery and connection in the midst of one of the deadliest wars in human history. The war poet Curtis Bennett captures this moment in a section of his well-known poem, ‘The Christmas Truce’:

On Christmas Eve through frozen sky,
Across the void where dead men lie,
Men’s voices sang the holy hymn,
Of peace on earth, good will to men.
And Christmas magic filled the night

And in that fading, winter light,
Men lay down arms and stopped the fight.
They rose from trenches deep in mud
And walked the fields of dead and blood,
To greet the other, man to man.

 As men, not soldiers, offered hands
To others born in foreign lands,
Where for the first time they could see,
The young men called the enemy…

How can we explain this temporary reprieve from fighting during such a brutal war – a war which witnessed the atrocious use of chemical weapons, destroyed an entire generation and led to the demise of empires? We now know from historical records that it was a completely unplanned moment of peace. It was not directed by army commanders or policy makers. It was not part of a grand plan to boost morale or a window for humanitarian assistance. Nor was it intended as a step towards ending the war, as the fighting raged on for several more years after this event. Instead, it was a spontaneous coming together of individual soldiers, a moment of humanity amidst inhumanity. But how can this impulse among soldiers coming together be explained?

The reason why these soldiers were able to lay down their arms and commune with their sworn enemies is because, in that moment, they realized a fundamental truth – they were not actually enemies. The things they had in common were greater than the things that divided them, and as Bennett’s poem suggests, they were able to recognise themselves in one another.

While this event is often treated as a historical anomaly, what it did was demonstrate the absurdity of the four years of warfare that engulfed the planet between 1914 and 1918. The fighting was the real anomaly; the moment of peace that emerged that evening was a genuine reflection of the human spirit.

The world may have changed a lot since the First World War, but the fundamental truth that was uncovered in the trenches on that evening remains just as true today. We are all deeply connected and have much more in common than we tend to acknowledge. And while we may disagree, fight and even kill each other, our common humanity binds us – even to those we choose to call our enemies.

So if world peace feels too grand an idea to discuss on International Peace Day, particularly given the prevalence of conflict around the world, let’s draw on and be inspired by the concept of a moment of peace. If it was possible in the trenches of one of the most bitter and devastating conflicts the world has ever seen, it is certainly still possible today.

Our Common Humanity

Although I don’t remember very much from the years I spent in high school, something I will never forget is learning about the Holocaust. I was fifteen years old at the time and recall being brought to tears during a history lesson as I learned about the slaughter of six million Jews during World War II.

I felt so deeply connected to the events that unfolded in Europe between the years of 1939 and 1945. It was almost as though I was living through this period while simultaneously learning about it for the first time. And even though I knew how things had turned out, I still continued to hope for a different ending to this gruesome chapter in human history. It was a strange sensation. A desperation to stop something that had already happened. Nothing before or since that time has ever haunted me in quite the same way. The thing that distressed me most about the genocide was how the world just stood by and did nothing to stop it. How on earth could people let this happen?


My classmates didn’t appear to be moved as I was and neither was my teacher. For them the Holocaust was a historical fact. But this was much more than a historical fact. It was the gravest display of humanity’s inhumanity, and it would be repeated the year after my history lesson in the small sub-Saharan country of Rwanda.

While the reality that this was still going on in my lifetime troubled me deeply, it also inspired me to do something about it. I knew I couldn’t change the past, but I was determined to find a way to prevent conflicts and atrocities in the future. Three years later I started university and decided to major in International Relations with a focus on diplomacy, security and peace studies. I then went on to obtain a doctorate in International Relations.

Over two decades have passed and the world looks as it did when I first started out on this path. Armed conflicts have persisted around the world and hundreds of thousands of lives have been lost in countless countries, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Central African Republic and the Congo, to name just a few.

Although the world has not changed, the fact is that I’ve changed, to the point that my fifteen-year-old self would hardly recognise the person I’ve become. This reality became painfully evident to me quite recently when one of my students asked me what my views were on the current situation in Syria. In response to this student, I heard myself giving a purely academic account of how the conflict developed, the factors that made it difficult to resolve, followed by a grim prognosis on the unlikelihood of achieving peace.

What stands out in my response was the complete lack of emotion. There was no sense of indignation and most of all, no glimmer of hope towards changing the situation or positively impacting the conflict in any way. The passion of my younger self had been dimmed to the point of resignation about this situation. When reflecting on this conversation I wondered, what happened to me? Where did my fifteen-year-old self go? And what had happened to my enthusiasm and drive to create change in the world?

Some would say that the shift I’ve observed in myself over the years is completely normal. It could be a result of getting older and becoming more cynical about the state of the world and how difficult it is to foster change. But I sense there is more to it than this and it may have something to do with the way my education and training has shaped my understanding of the world.

Peace vs. War

Within the discipline of International Relations (IR), the dominant theory is known as Realism. This approach is based on the assumption that states operate in a self-help system with the sole objective of maximizing their power interests. According to Realists, competition and conflict between states is inevitable, and cooperation is viewed as an aberration. Realism continues to remain the most influential discourse within IR and it is no wonder: how can anyone meaningfully counter a perspective that purports to provide a ‘realistic’ account of the world?

One doesn’t need to be a student of International Relations to be influenced by the assumptions of Realism. Most people learn about global events through the filter of 24-hour news networks. The fact that most networks seem to dedicate 99% of their content to broadcasting, not just news, but bad news, paints a particular perception of the world, one which is by no means accurate. Those who make a point of watching the news subject themselves to a daily dose of fear – which is the predominant emotion of most broadcasts. Add to this the fact that, despite how negative the story might be, broadcasters deliver the news in an eerily calm and detached manner. The message to the viewer is clear: this is the way the world is. Accept it.

It seems apparent to me that on a global level, the ethos of Realism has locked us into a state of contrast, perpetuating that which we do not want. What we focus on and give our attention to continues to grow. So the more we dwell on the seeming intractability of conflict, violence, and terrorism, the more it persists.

It’s time to recall and reconnect with a fundamental truth that I seem to have temporarily lost sight of along my path, and that truth is our community humanity. It was this truth that inspired me to study International Relations in the first place and after years of study, I can continue to see evidence of it. How else can we explain soldiers from opposing sides in the trenches of World War I, coming together on Christmas day to celebrate with one another, or the fact that British civilians who experienced the horrors of strategic bombing during the Second World War were the strongest opponents of taking retaliatory measures against German civilians?

Even in the gravest situations, I can see proof of this fundamental truth. It is, for instance, no accident that the commission of mass atrocities is almost always preceded by efforts to deny our common humanity, such that perpetrators will consciously disassociate from victims through processes of ‘dehumanization’ and ‘othering.’ These practices have been a consistent feature of every genocide in human history. Why would such processes be so essential for carrying out atrocities unless there is truth to the proposition that we are deeply connected?

Rather than dwelling on and finding explanations for the prevalence of conflict in the world, which is what my education and training has taught me to do, what if we, instead, found ways to collectively shift our focus towards our common humanity? This doesn’t mean denying or glossing over troubling events in the world – indignation can serve us well as long as we don’t reside in it for too long.  The key is to allow the indignation to inspire us to move towards greater clarity. And not to simply look for clarity, but to actively cultivate it, even in the darkest of moments and in the most unlikely places.

Globe Hand

I am convinced that if more of us were willing to do this, we could consciously manifest change in the world and truly know, for the first time, what it means to be at peace.