The congressional debate over potential intervention in Syria begs the question: is world peace possible?
Peace seems to be a commodity in short supply in recent times. In Washington, the president is arguing that conducting a military strike — which will inflict widespread damage and harm in Syria — is fitting “punishment and deterrent” against a dictator for inflicting widespread damage and harm on his nation.
The action, which Congress is currently seeking restrictions on — including the exclusion of American ground forces and the recognition that the removal of the Assad regime is not a priority — is being seen by many as potentially exacerbating the problem in Syria, instead of resolving it.
Such seeming contradictions have rattled the legislatures in Washington, London and Paris, and have forced the world to take on the question of international intervention against another Middle East strongman — ten years after the controversial decision to intervene in Iraq.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has responded that this show of bravado from the West may trigger regional war in the Middle East. “The Middle East is a powder keg, and today the flame is coming very near. We cannot talk merely about the Syrian response, but about what might take place after the first strike. But nobody knows what will happen. Everyone will lose control of the situation when the powder keg explodes. Chaos and extremism will spread. There is a risk of regional war,” Assad told the French newspaper Le Figaro Monday.
The fine reality in all of this may be that the White House is not so interested in punishing Syria as it is in showing its strength to Iran. The fear is that if the United States does not maintain and enforce its “red line” on chemical weapons use in Syria, it will embolden Iran to push forward with its alleged nuclear weapons program. With Syria an essential ally to both Iran and Russia, and a critical link to Hezbollah — who has promised retaliation against Israel if the U.S. attacks Syria — the civil war in Syria has the potential to explode into a world war.
This is the “perfect storm” of international conflict — not to mention the continuing drug cartel wars in Latin America along with America’s continuing drone strikes in Afghanistan, Yemen and throughout Africa. With all of this going on, one has to ask about the notion of international peace. During the centennial celebration of the Peace Palace at the Hague on Aug. 28, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for peace in Syria.
“We must pursue all avenues to get the parties to the negotiating table,” Ban said in his remarks. “Here in the Peace Palace, let us say: Give peace a chance. Give diplomacy a chance. Stop fighting and start talking.”
“Red in tooth and claw”
Since the end of World War II, the world has never known a period of absolute peace. In some place, in some way, one group of people has been always fighting another group of people for some reason. It has been argued that at a basic level, humanity reflects the natural world in being “red in tooth and claw” — naturally aggressive as a form of social evolution.
What this suggests is that a group will always fight to promote its interests. Alfred Russel Wallace, who co-introduced the discipline of evolution alongside Charles Darwin, argued that “the popular idea of the struggle for existence entailing misery and pain in the animal world is the very reverse of the truth. What it really brings about is the maximum of life and of enjoyment of life with the minimum of suffering.”
The notion of a peaceful nation is counterintuitive to the nature of humanity and is in itself an oxymoron. Nationcraft entails the mutual welfare, common defense and perpetual identification of those within the nation; a truly peaceful nation, which will not engage in warfare regardless of the situation, cannot and does not exist.
An example of this can be found in World War II. Prior to the war, Spain, Switzerland, Sweden, Portugal, Ireland and Turkey declared their neutrality. Spain had just emerged from under the Spanish Civil War and — under the leadership of Francisco Franco — was sympathetic to Nazi Germany, but did not want to warrant the attentions of the Allies to the war-crumpled nation. Portugal and Sweden both unofficially offered support to England in part to maintain its alliances. Turkey joined the Allied forces months prior to the close of the war, which led to American investment in the country during the opening years of the Cold War. Ireland was in a state of open hostilities with England, but couldn’t afford to fight the country in open war.
Switzerland maintained its so-called “neutrality” by becoming Nazi Germany’s unofficial banker. The Nazis were able to funnel and launder plundered Jewish assets through Switzerland’s network of privacy-ensured banks, displacing billions in gold, currency and treasures. The extent of Switzerland’s role in the Nazi era is still not known, but revelations in the 1990s — including the World Jewish Congress’ class action suit against the Swiss banks — showed that the Swiss and the Nazis had a long, uneasy history together.
The nature of peace and situation
This is due, in part, to the geopolitics in Switzerland. In World War II, Switzerland was surrounded on all sides by the Nazi regime. Plans to invade Switzerland were openly discussed, Swiss territories were bombed in Allied bombing runs and refuges from both sides sought cover in Switzerland — making the nation ripe for prisoner swaps and foreign intrusion. From Switzerland’s point of view, true neutrality was a luxury it could not afford.
This clarifies an important fact about the nature of peace — it is heavily dependent on a nation’s situation. Iceland, for example, is universally deemed a peaceful nation. However, Iceland is also geographically isolated, has a nearly homogeneous population and sits in NATO-protected waters. In other words, Iceland’s situation affords the nation its peace.
Similarly, New Zealand, another “peaceful” country, is a sparsely populated, geographically isolated nation with strong military backing from the British Commonwealth and the United States. Canada — despite being the second-largest nation geographically — is the 37th largest by population, with a population of 34,568,211. This makes the country slightly less populated than the state of California. This nation can afford not to have a standing military — it has defense forces, instead — by being both a part of NATO and the British Commonwealth and by having the nation with the world’s largest military as its sole neighbor.
National peace is generally determined by two factors: the internal conflicts of the national population and the external pressures forced upon it — particularly, American pressure. For example, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron is still seeking permission to enter his country into the fighting in Syria, despite the House of Commons’ sound rejection. While it can be argued that Cameron is seeking to intercede in response to a growing humanitarian problem, it is more likely that Cameron is seeking to protect the British-American friendship by supporting the White House. Similarly, French President Francois Hollande is caught in a tug-of-war with the White House and the growing non-intervention movement in France.
So, in making a pointed observation and saying, for example, that Canada, the Scandinavian nations, Iceland, Ireland, Germany, Japan, and the Oceanic nations are the “most peaceful” nations on the Earth, per the 2013 Vision of Humanity’s Global Peace Index, this does not take in consideration that peace is a dynamic thing, influenced as much by circumstance as by volition.
But it is in the situations where peace can be achieved by active volition that humanity is defined. These situations are rare, but when they occur, they can represent either humanity’s best nature or darkest shadow.
Si vis pacem, para bellum
The Reagan administration famously and controversially argued that lasting peace can only come from strength, and history has shown some evidence of this. The crisis in Europe and the Pacific Rim that came from the Nazis and their allies was only ended through the largest show of force in human history. The Soviet system collapsed not so much from diplomacy — although, the Reagan-Gorbachev talks did help — but because the USSR could not afford to match the U.S. in the ever-escalating arms race and still have the resources to feed its people.
But as it has been said before, “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” A continuous posture of strength only breeds intimidation and resentment.
In the third canto of his “Inferno” part of the epic poem “The Divine Comedy,” Dante Alighieri wrote, “Maestro, che è quel ch’i’ odo? / e che gent’è che par nel duol sì vinta?” / Ed elli a me: ‘Questo misero modo / tegnon l’anime triste di coloro / che visser sanza ‘nfamia e sanza lodo. / Mischiate sono a quel cattivo coro / de li angeli che non furon ribelli / né fur fedeli a Dio, ma per sé fuoro.’”
(Translation: “Master, what is it that I hear? Who are / those people so defeated by their pain?” / And he to me: ‘This miserable way / is taken by the sorry souls of those / who lived without disgrace and without praise. / They now commingle with the coward angels, / the company of those who were not rebels / nor faithful to their God, but stood apart.’”)
Ultimately, there will be a time when everyone will be called to fight for the common good — to fight for something beyond and bigger for themselves. The question lies in knowing when to fight, which cuts to the heart of human philosophy, theology and perspectives on morality and ethics.
Humanity, at its core, can be defined as the stance a person chooses to take against the ills of the world. Fighting is inherent to the human spirit; the question is not so much how to stop the fighting, but how to direct that intensity of emotion toward the well-being of humankind.