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U.S. needs the impetus, leadership, and commitment for positive peace

Positive peace is defined by The Institute for Economics and Peace as true, lasting, and sustainable peace built on justice for all.

People walk past damaged buildings at the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp on the southern outskirts of Damascus, Syria, on December 2, 2020.
People walk past damaged buildings at the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp on the southern outskirts of Damascus, Syria, on December 2, 2020.
REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

I have never been a soldier, never fought in a war, and never witnessed combat, but I have seen the devastation of war in many places.

I have been to the crumbling ruins of concentration camps in Europe, remnants that testify to the efforts of one group to exterminate another. I have visited the museum at Hiroshima, where I saw photographs of the complete obliteration of people, buildings, and the environment. I have walked through trenches in Belgium from which soldiers on opposing sides attacked one another day after day after day in endless, catastrophic, unwinnable battles. I have been to Gettysburg, where the greatest number of Civil War casualties occurred for the armies on both sides.

Historian Margaret MacMillan, in her brilliant new book “War: How Conflict Shaped Us,” explores the integral role that war plays in our daily lives – in our linguistic metaphors, in games children play, in our music, films, books, and paintings, and in our place-names and honorific statuary.

As a nation we are organized for war. The U.S. military budget was $738 billion in 2020, the largest in the world, followed by China’s at $228 billion. The money fuels weapons production, education and training, research into more powerful weapons, and the enormous infrastructure to support several million military and civilian personnel.

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We make huge political and social changes in anticipation and the conduct of war and in its aftermath. These changes include advances in technology, medicine, public health, transportation, education, and even in gender equality, as both men’s and women’s roles often change to meet the needs in warring states.

Why do we fight? War is always portrayed by at least one of the warring factions as being defensible, waged to protect a way of life, an ideology, a religious, ethnic, or national group, or a homeland. But war is also motivated by greed for more land and more resources, for power and glory, and by hatred.

photo of article author
Ellen Kennedy
Warfare has changed over the last century or two. War has become increasingly destructive, with ever more powerful weapons that now include nuclear bombs, drones, and lasers. The result is ever greater devastation of civilian lives, property, and the environment. Combat was once between competing armies on battlefields; not anymore. Today, for example, it includes dropping cluster bombs on hospitals, schools, and homes in Yemen and using poisonous gases on innocent men, women, and children in Syria.

As any society becomes more sophisticated and complex, the rules governing its structures and processes become more clearly defined, and that is true for conducting war as well.

Laws and rules that govern how war can be waged were codified between 1864 and 1977 under the four Geneva Conventions and three additional protocols. This branch of law, known as International Humanitarian Law, applies to two separate areas of war. First, the conventions specify the safe treatment of military personnel who are no longer involved in combat and others who are not actively involved in fighting, such as humanitarian aid workers, prisoners of war, and the injured. The second area limits the means of harming the enemy by outlawing particularly deadly practices such as mines, lasers, and biological and chemical weapons.

There are penalties for countries or individuals who break these laws. The accused can be prosecuted in domestic courts or in a country’s military tribunals. They can also be held to account by international ad hoc courts, such as those established in the 1990s by the United Nations to adjudicate crimes in former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda, or by the permanent International Criminal Court.

Positive and negative peace. These laws and their enforcement provide an incentive for peace and a deterrent to conflict. The absence of war or direct violence was defined by Johan Galtung, Norwegian sociologist and founder of the discipline of peace and conflict studies, as negative peace. An example is the enactment of a ceasefire and the cessation of violence.

Positive peace, on the other hand, is more than the absence of conflict. The Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP) defines positive peace as true, lasting, and sustainable peace built on justice for all. It is associated with other social characteristics that are considered desirable, including stronger economic outcomes, higher resilience, better measures of well-being, higher levels of inclusiveness, and more sustainable environmental performance. “Therefore,” the report notes, “positive peace creates an optimal environment in which human potential can flourish.”

IEP analyzes nations of the world according to the Positive Peace Index, a composite of eight critical and interacting factors shown below (Positive Peace Report 2018, p. 7).

The Institute for Economics and Peace
The Positive Peace Index for the United States has fallen dramatically in the past few years. In the global rating of 163 countries, the U.S. fell from a rank of 18 in the year 2018 to No. 121 out of the 163 countries in 2020. This compares to a rank of 6 for our northerly neighbor, Canada. The events of Jan. 6 in Washington, D.C., will undoubtedly drop the ranking even further. This is no surprise when we look at the factors on which the index is based, such as the free flow of information, the equitable distribution of resources, the acceptance of the rights of others, and a well-functioning government. We can hope that this situation will change, but it is strongly influenced by corruption and political polarization.

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Why positive peace matters. Positive peace factors influence both human development, such as education, nutrition, and health, as well as economic development, defined by GDP. The simultaneous and systemic pursuit of both sets of factors create conditions in which a society can thrive. But as former French prime minister Georges Clemenceau once said, “Making peace is harder than waging war.” We talk war; we don’t talk peace. GI-Joe toys embody war, not peace. Video games and board games re-enact and glorify war.

Years ago, I went to one of the world’s most heart-wrenching sights and sites, the cemetery at Gallipoli, a World War I battlefield in Turkey where several hundred thousand men lost their lives. The gravestones, one after another, lauded the young men for their bravery in fighting for their respective countries. At what cost did they die, in the toll of both human potential and families’ grief?

We have the laws of war. We need the impetus, the leadership, and the commitment for positive peace.


World Without Genocide will host a two-part workshop on International Humanitarian Law, Saturday, Jan. 23, from 10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. CT and Saturday, Jan. 30, from 10 to 11:30 a.m. CT, on Zoom. The program is open to the public. Registration is required. Details: $35 for Minnesota lawyers, 3 standard CLE credits (pending); $10 general public, $5 students and seniors, free to Mitchell Hamline students (diversity credit available). “Clock hours” for teachers, nurses, and social workers.

Ellen J. Kennedy, Ph.D., is the executive director of World Without Genocide at Mitchell Hamline School of Law. 


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