Peace and Peacefulness: Reaching for the Stars


Richard Falk | The Transnational - TRANSCEND Media Service

29 Dec 2020 – Unlike most of my interviews, this one is not directly about current political concerns. It rather explores ‘peace’ in its manifold identity. The interview was conducted by Miguel Mendoça a couple of months ago for a book project consisting of such interviews from a variety of persons whose life and work touches on the theme of peace.

Miguel has since abandoned the project in favour of producing his own poems. Whether such abstract ideas as peace can be usefully explored independent of concrete circumstances haunts this text. I accept most of the blame. The interaction made me realize how little thought I have given to peacefulness as a personal trait and peace as the core of benevolent political arrangements, whether local or planetary and how their interaction may be understood.

I recall being rather bemused more than 25 years ago when a meditation practice was premised on the confidence that if enough people meditated for a few minutes each day on the reality of a peaceful world it would bend the arc of history toward peace. I know that spiritual attentiveness has wider implications but I find no evidence that links connect my meditation with the policies and actions of performers in ongoing world dramas.

What have been some of your most peaceful moments?

Over a long life I find such recollections somewhat arbitrary, with responses likely to change from day to day, and certainly from year to year. What comes to me most immediately on this particular day as a response are recollections of when I’ve had strong feelings of being in love. I associate love with peacefulness, as well as with turmoil and self-doubt.

These positive feelings of peace are usually in relation to the loved one, and less frequently as experiences of cosmic awe, or of encounters with the wonders of nature, or the beauty of art, and even by way of meditating on an emancipatory collective destiny for the human species. I associate peacefulness with lovingness, to a great extent, but not exclusively.

In this regard, I’ve more and more academically rejected the common polarity of war and peace, which goes back to Tolstoy’s justly celebrated novel, and is very much ingrained in our Western civilizational political consciousness. I have written to the effect that for most of the peoples of the world the opposite of war is not peace but justice. Because such a large proportion of humanity lives under some form of oppression, and not only political repression, but more commonly under the stresses of poverty, disease, and ecological deterioration, or through enduring some kind of personal trauma.

In all these instances, what counts for peace is something that will liberate the experience of a person from those feelings of injustice and suffering, and a form of closure, whether by the removal of the cause, its transcendence, or its Stoical acceptance as a condition of life that was my reality.

Another type of association with peace is learning to nurture the experience of living in the present, neither yearning for the future, or being overly nostalgic for the past. Lao Tzu put it well long ago: “If you are depressed you are living in the past, if you are anxious you are living in the future, if you are at peace, you are living in the present.”

Such a celebration of the present embodies the preciousness of lived experience. The American meditative thinker Ram Dass called it ‘the everlasting now.’ In 1971 he published his book Be Here Now. I think D. H. Lawrence, the novelist and poet, had a similar way of formulating this affirmation of the present. This outlook was always resonant for me as a way of not escaping from the experiential vitality of the present, but somehow doing my best to be present, being here now, in Ram Dass’s terms.

This is a more interior way of thinking about peace. It complements the other idea of peacefulness among individuals and groups but is quite different in its existential impact on the unfolding of our lives. When we seek peace, we need to do no more than be alive to what is now present. This sounds easy but to achieve such a presence requires discipline and continuous vigilance. Otherwise we retreat to ponder the past or await the future, while acting and reacting mindlessly in the present.

What does peace feel like?

This touches very much on my responses to the first question. I hadn’t thought about how I might respond in advance, but love spontaneously came to mind when you posed the question on this particular day. Peace is the feeling of being in love, without specifying the object of that love. It could be a person, or nature, or the cosmos, or it could be myself I suppose. Or any kind of live or inanimate object. It could be an animal, a work of art, a piece of music. The potential of love is as limitless as the universe itself.

And I think that’s the deepest meaning for me, of what peace, or an experiential immersion in peace, signifies. And it has a stronger resonance for me than, for instance, a formal meditation experience. Or being in a sacred place, which I’ve done quite a bit at different stages of my life, and have enjoyed and found satisfying.

These calculated acquisitions of peace are not as integral and authentic as are spontaneous responses that are less structured, less framed to induce what might be described as ‘peacefulness.

Do you actively cultivate inner peace?

From time to time I have, but not consistently, or as an enduring self-conscious aspect of my daily existence. I’ve thought about this a little bit, and I don’t feel either drawn to or the need for setting aside some time or special setting in which to meditate or take deliberate steps to induce a sense of inner peace, be that a breathing exercise, or some kind of reflective quiet.

I don’t dislike such methods, or disapprove of them. And when I’m exposed to such an atmosphere, as I have been on many occasions, I appreciate, even cherish the experience. I was a member for many years of the Lindisfarne Association. It was a group of out-of-the-box-thinkers put together by the spiritually inclined cultural historian William Irwin Thompson for the depiction and realization of a new planetary culture.

We used to meet annually for a few days at the Zen Center at Green Gulch in Marin County just outside of San Francisco. The weekend meetings set aside enclaves of time and hallowed spaces that facilitated achieving a meditative focus. Lindisfarne was mainly a dialogic community that brought together post-Enlightenment and post-modernity perspectives, but the discipline of meditative centering was part of the experience.

And I’ve had other experiences, including in India, where I spent time in spiritually self-conscious surroundings that were meant to induce, and then explore various kinds of inner peace. I was always felt contented through participation in these spiritually charged settings, but I regarded these occasions as discrete experiences, and never made any effort to integrate them into permanent features of my daily life.

How do you pursue peace in your personal and professional relationships?

I don’t self-consciously pursue peace in my relationships, whether professional or personal. It would be more in keeping with my temperament I suppose, to say that I seek harmony, or mutual respect and social compatibility. This creates an atmosphere in which trust can develop, and learning can take place. And I think it influences the way I try to be an effective teacher, for instance. I would never have thought of the word ‘peace’ to describe it, but I try to create a classroom atmosphere of interactive harmony, mutual respect, friendliness, enjoyment, and reciprocity that encourages listening as much as talking.

I tried my best to convey to students the understanding that learning should be fun and should not be hierarchically organized even in formal educational contexts, but that learning should always be experienced horizontally rather than vertically.

A good teacher also learns from the student, and this should be acknowledged, and even discussed. I’m more comfortable thinking of teaching and learning along these lines, but there’s no reason to withhold the word peace from this kind of understanding of both professional interaction and the kind of classroom atmosphere I’ve tried to create and explore over many satisfying years of teaching.

Peace is treated as subordinate to war in our culture except in some strictly religious or anti-war circles. In modern societies, we generally find a much greater emphasis, academically and intellectually, on war studies – or what sometimes is called security studies – rather than on peace studies.

The University of Bradford in England has a department of Peace Studies and International Development. They have both undergraduate and postgraduate courses on these topics, including a master’s degree in Advanced Practice in Peacebuilding and Conflict Resolution. As far as I know, there are no programs of study explicitly devoted to peace in the US, although there are individual courses here and there. Lots of the most prestigious universities devote a lot of attention to security, which is often used as a euphemism for a national strategy and the international projection of military force, and ideas related to intervention and policing.

Going back to your question, one of the reasons I would hesitate to use the word peace in a teaching environment, is that in this common understanding, a peaceful classroom atmosphere seems to me something that should be taken for granted.

I want our aspirations to aim higher than peace and for me, harmony is that something more. Because peace is mostly connected in the popular mind with the absence of war, an end of killing through a silencing of guns, but that’s not enough to create the kind of trust needed for sustainable and satisfying communities. I think that what is desirable in many interactive experiences is what I am identifying here as trust, reciprocity and harmony. ‘Peace,’ because of its multiple cultural, political, and psychological meanings, becomes vague and indefinite with regard to its generalized relevance.

The imbalance between studying war and peace in educational settings is an important issue and question, that I can only hazard a response to at the moment. I think it reflects the broader priorities and preoccupations of the culture and the civilization. Particularly in the West, and especially in the contemporary United States, there is a sense that identity, global status, and self-pride are connected with the outcomes of wars, and victories in war.

As is sometimes claimed ‘history is written by the winners in wars.’ By contrast, peace is seen as a kind of sentimental affirmation by those who can’t live fruitfully in what is posited cynically as the ‘real world’. The emphasis on war studies and security studies goes together with the academic orientation toward what is called ‘political realism’. Which is to say that in relations between your country and other countries, what counts is the hard power of militarism, not the soft power of morality, law, and cooperative action. And certainly, spirituality has no place in politically prevailing views of ‘reality.’

These intangibles are considered irrelevant, or worse, diversionary. The leading thinkers of my generation, including Henry Kissinger, George F. Kennan, Hans Morgenthau, and Reinhold Niebuhr, whose influence shaped the practice of international relations, were very contemptuous of normative ideas that they felt confused clear analysis of real challenges, which was to figure out how to prudently and effectively use national military, diplomatic, and economic capabilities for the benefit of your particular nation-state.

This way of thinking and acting is deeply ingrained in our political culture, including the pernicious idea that war can be a benevolent instrument for prosperity and provide occasions for replenishing national pride, and has sometimes historically functioned as the key to cultural flourishing, societal happiness, and even civilizational preeminence. And in that sense, one has to deconstruct this primacy of war and violence, and other related realities in order to gain an understanding of mainstream orbits of opinion.

If you closely watch, for instance, mainstream media’s treatment of policy debates, you will notice that networks in the West rely almost exclusively on military/ist experts, either retired intelligence officials or generals, or sometimes diplomats and think tank professionals. Persons who are self-consciously peace-oriented are almost never invited to present their views to the general public. It’s not considered ‘responsible commentary’ on the public issues of the day to question the militarist consensus that dominates the thinking of most political elites and politicians. You will, therefore, almost never find a Daniel Ellsberg, Noam Chomsky, or Naomi Klein invited to comment on controversial foreign policy issues by a mainstream media outlet.

I’m not sure it was ever true to say that peace was valued in and of itself, but I think there were two reasons why the peace discourse was seen as more relevant in the period after 1945. The first is the fear of a new war, and in particular, a war fought with nuclear weapons. And that made even self-styled ‘realists’ think about what can be done prudently to avoid war as the outcome of national policy. To this degree, there was some temporary sense that a favourable turn toward peace thinking was taking place, and sometimes even rather utopian thinking was not scorned as previously.

After Hiroshima and before the Cold War there were realists who advocated world government, or a much stronger UN conception, as the only alternatives to future catastrophe. However, these shadows cast by the ending of World War II and the terrible devastation which that war caused were soon swept away by the geopolitical winds of renewed international conflict, and by the self-interest of bureaucrats and the arms industry.

The outbreak of a new conflict configuration involving the Soviet Union, communism, the Cold War and so on fueled new fears and perceived threats, especially in the public, but the logic of conflict was given precedence. Even though the crises that were associated with the early period up through the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 were scary, the energies of government were concentrated on winning the Cold War, or at least not losing, and the risks of war were put to one side by leaders in Washington and Moscow.

In this period, there remained a fear-driven interest in peace among sectors of the public, but it was no match for warmongering patriotic ideologically tainted discourse deployed by political leaders.

Secondly, coincident with this conflictual relationship with the Soviet Union and the Cold War, there was an understanding that many of these conflicts could only be acceptably settled by compromise. The risks of resolving international conflict in the traditional way, by separating winners from losers, had become too high. As a result, we find that the main conflicts after World War II, like the Korean War, ended in a stalemate. And the divisions of these countries, like Vietnam, Germany and Korea, all reflected that sense that this was a world where it had become necessary, wherever possible, to reach accommodations even with enemies, and it became widely accepted to regard such arrangements as ‘making peace.’

The alternative was to risk the unacceptable dangers of escalation that could easily lead to major wars, which almost none of the political leaders and intellectuals wanted at that point. A few so-called hyper-rational ‘war thinkers’ did believe that it was possible to win even a nuclear war at an acceptable cost, but by and large, there was a sense that the avoidance of major wars was a prime objective of policy second only to holding the line of containment in relation to international adversaries.

After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1992, there was no longer an obvious brake on pushing advantages by the West toward a global-scale geopolitical victory. The interest in peace or compromise in these conflicts diminished, and the phenomenon of ‘forever wars’ emerged. To the extent that, for instance Barack Obama early in his presidency sought regional and global accommodations, hoping for a more peaceful world, his efforts were pushed aside by the militarized government bureaucracy.

The Trumpist sequel represents more accurately a disturbing trend in world politics toward militarist, autocratic, chauvinistic, political arrangements. I would be careful about supposing that peace was a valued concept and goal in the past. I think it was more instrumental, because of fear and the need to compromise to avoid highly dangerous risks, although the early American experience was intent on avoiding the wasteful and costly wars that seemed to beset Europe so frequently.

How do you contribute to world peace?

I can claim a number of contributions, but all have an uncertain and often frustrating character on the unfolding of world history. Put in perspective, my ‘contributions’ can be most accurately seen as well-intentioned failures rather than policy successes. I’ve worked over the years to oppose the militarist premises of American foreign policy, both as an intellectual and activist/advocate.

This started for me with the Vietnam War in the mid-60s, lasting until the mid-70s, and persisted as a central concern long after Vietnam. I continued opposing military interventions around the world, especially by the United States. For some years I concentrated all my efforts on opposing external intervention by the U.S., pushed by Israel and later Saudi Arabia, to reverse the 1979 outcome of the Iran revolution.

I testified before congressional committees and in many other public events, to explain the grounds of my opposition to militarist approaches to the foreign policy being pursued by my own country, the US., seeking governmental support for my views, which was rarely forthcoming.

These concerns were evident in my writing, scholarship and in transnational intellectual projects, such as the World Order Models Project, and collaborative scholarly work supported by the UN University in Tokyo. I worked for many years on developing models of global governance that would minimize violence and maximize social justice, economic wellbeing and ecological sustainability.

I tried to identify the elements of what might not qualify as perfect peace but produced conditions that seemed capable of producing a more peaceful, less militarized world. And I published work in this spirit, including two books in the 1970s, one called A Study of Future Worlds, and the other called This Endangered Planet: Prospects and Proposals for Human Survival.

I have continued my anti-nuclear activity, both writing and advocacy, including collaborative undertakings with David Krieger, the longtime president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. I suppose my two most persistent academic themes with immediate policy relevance have been anti-nuclearism and anti-interventionism. My scholarly activity has been characterized by a pro-human rights and anti-oppression slant.

I’ve been quite active in anti-apartheid political engagements, especially with respect to South Africa and Israel. I’ve recently finished a political memoir, and in the course of this effort have been rethinking the role and value of advocacy scholarship with respect to some of these issues.

Just to clarify my own perspective, I’ve been consistently an opponent of world government and of world citizenship, with which my quite different views are often confused. I am critical of any current advocacy of world government as it tends to be a disguised, and perhaps naïve and innocent, scenario for Western hegemony, given the various disparities in diplomatic, economic, and military capabilities that exist.

Given the world as it is, world government in any form seems a premature proposal without prospects of gaining political traction among either the public or leaders.

Similarly, with citizenship, which to be meaningful, presupposes participation within a global community of shared values and overlapping interests. Since a world community in terms of shared values and identities does not exist, the assertion of ‘world citizenship’ is sentimental and apolitical.

I do endorse the goal of becoming ‘citizen pilgrims,’ persons that seek to establish a world community in the future and works toward this end. The UN can stake some claims to prefigure a world community, but after 75 years the UN remains primarily a vehicle for the pursuit of national interests of Member states and an arena for geopolitical manipulation, although its mainly off-camera contributions to health, culture, human rights, environment, development, and norm creation have improved many facets of life throughout the world.

The general receptivity to ideas of global federalism has become both more and less. Issues like climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic have made it clearer to a much greater degree that ‘we are all in this together,’ than what was described earlier as fear-induced peace idealism associated especially with anxiety about a major war fought with nuclear weapons.

It’s partly this emergence of ‘global realism,’ but it also partly the recognition that we’re living in a time where the scale of problems cannot be addressed successfully at the level of the nation-state, even by those, such as the United States, with a geopolitical global reach. This means that we need a sense of both human identity and of global interests in order to handle the bio-ecological challenges that are being generated that will transform the way we live on this crowded planet if we are to survive as a flourishing species.

This revolutionary situation is partly a reflection of emerging technology and of the earlier unanticipated dangerous effects of greenhouse gas emissions on global climate. This underlying sense of overwhelming challenge and impotent response was given a charismatic formulation by the Swedish girl, Greta Thunberg, whose message to diplomats when she talked at the UN, “You will die from old age, I will die from climate change.”

This simple accusatory assertion is a metaphor for the understanding of a negative globalist inter-generation mentality, which must surely be overcome if problem-solving in the 21st century is to be successful. And this kind of confrontation between worldviews and generations will hopefully increase the comprehension of the urgencies facing humanity.

However, less receptivity than might otherwise occur currently exists, because in almost every important country now, you have autocratic leaders whose outlook is shaped by variations of a toxic ideology that I characterize as ‘ultranationalism.’ These leaders are temperamentally and ideologically opposed to global cooperation, and disregard the functional imperative that make such cooperation necessary.

Again, Trump is the most blatant example of this disastrous response pattern whose worldview is not interested in any horizon longer than their own life expectancy. Even when the destruction of the Brazilian rainforest was imperilling biodiversity on the global scale, Trump opposed, on principle, any challenge to Brazilian sovereign rights. There was no recognition of a global interest in ecological sustainability, that goes beyond sovereignty or present conditions.

Humanity faces this terrible paradox: At the very moment when we most need globalist thinking and long-range problem-solving, the leading governments are almost uniformly governed in this ultranationalist spirit, and that paradox really bedevils anyone who really thinks that the future can be successfully negotiated in some simple way. It seems plausible that dialectical ways of thinking and reasoning are more responsive to this complexity that we find associated with the contradictions that exist in the present global setting.

By ‘dialectical thinking’ I am calling attention to contradictions that are so historically present at the current stage of social, cultural, and political evolution, but should not be viewed as having the character of finality. Such contradictions are unfolding, and may be receptive to reconciliation through synthesis, a transcendence of contradiction that is better understood and far more evolved in Eastern thought than in the West.

What do you think world peace would feel like?

It is first necessary to define what you mean by world peace. If you just mean the absence of war or even the absence of conflict that threatens to become a war, I think there would be a very strong popular support for that even among the strongest states as measured by military capabilities, including the United States.

If you mean a renunciation of the quest for security based on military capabilities and superiority, and celebration of the military role in political society, I think there would be an ambivalent response from national citizenries. And there would be a lot of resistance from a variety of patriotic perspectives, but also from the private sector and militarized parts of government bureaucracies.

The war industry is a very powerful force in many leading countries, and it exerts a strong warmongering influence. Sustaining a large military budget has depended on war or its imminence. The threat of war has become a necessity for the permanently militarized state that the United State has become. Washington thrives on exaggerated security requirements and embraces ambitious security missions. By ‘ambitious’ is here meant the adoption of foreign policy goals that entail gratuitous global projections of force for questionable security objectives. These considerations make it obvious that the transition to a peaceful world involves a revolutionary transformation of the inner dynamics of society, as well as the elimination of war as the defining feature of international life. In the U.S. this would almost certainly be coupled with substantial domestic demilitarization, presupposing a frontal challenge to ‘gun culture’ and the ethos and legal interpretation of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

What is the relationship between inner peace and world peace?

I think that those who have inner peace are more endowed and more disposed to producing outer peace, and therefore if the qualification of political leadership involved some kind of established credentials of inner peace, we’d have a more peaceful world, in my view.

And for this reason, your question quite naturally brings up feminism. I think that women are more disposed to achieving inner peace, perhaps biologically endowed through childbearing and child-rearing, and possibly by being traditionally excluded from the more militarist spheres of human activity. In my experience women are more genetically and culturally inclined to appreciate the virtues of peace more deeply and naturally than do men.

I am not referring to the women who have so far succeeded in becoming leaders in a man’s world, who in order to qualify have had to demonstrate that they are more militarist than the men, like Hillary Clinton, Margaret Thatcher, Golda Meir, or Indira Gandhi. I’m talking more generally of the more profound identity of women as nurturing.

The gatekeepers of the citadels of power are wary of this kind of nurturing feminine sensibility when encountering in women, and even in men. I would be more optimistic about the future if these kinds of nurturing tendencies that women have to a greater extent than men, were to become the criterion for candidacy for elective office, somewhat replacing the role that credentials of being a churchgoer have in the United States.

It is time we replaced the gatekeepers! Or at least changed the nature of their role.

What is the relationship between peace and love?

As I indicated at the beginning of our conversation, my first response was that real peace is indistinguishable from real love. You can’t have real love without real peace, although the terrain of love can induce turmoil if the love is not shared or is somehow resisted, or a misunderstanding of reality arouses feelings of distrust and jealousy. When you have real love, you almost necessarily have real peace. And so, to some extent, there is a twinning, so to speak, of peace and love, that needs to be understood unsentimentally.

It’s not a matter of a kind of sentimental or highly romanticized sense of love, but a deep affirmation of otherness and selfhood that implies a willingness or even a desire to share that reality with others, and in some fuller sense to share it with all others, including building organic mutual connections with nonhuman others, with nature and the cosmos. I’m thinking of inspirational mystics, where monks or poets, are the great teachers of love, and for this reason the great teachers of peace.

I think that most political leaders of today are the products of the denial of love and peace, as far as I can tell. They will use the language of peace, even love, instrumentally when it serves their purposes, but I would contend that they lack compassion, even empathy. And without compassion you cannot have genuine love or peace. You certainly can’t have those qualities embodied in your political persona.

Maybe in some cases, there is what my friend Robert Jay Lifton, a pioneering psycho-historian, calls ‘doubling’. This psychological phenomenon described his interpretation of interviewees who served as Nazi doctors by day, and at night after going home were untroubled, generally behaving as devoted husbands and fathers. This kind of sociopathic bipolarity is undoubtedly present in every society and is a perverse way of reconciling inner and outer experiences that would seem to be in tension.

We lament the social tragedy that is produced by leaders who lack access to either inner or outer peace. The example of Trump is exemplary. For someone like Trump to overcome his multiple manifestations of sociopathic and narcissistic behaviour, traceable to his childhood, is unimaginable unless he experiences major traumatic jolts.

I would point out that many people experience a cruel and loveless childhood, but most take responsibility for what they become and do in their life. And so, despite his abusive childhood Trump should be held fully accountable for the choices he has made throughout his life. He made choices that have harmed many people, and are exploitative, domineering.

More than most persons, Trump has been given many chances for redemptive behaviour. He had the resources, the admiration, the opportunities to withdraw from the conditioning derivative from childhood. His father seems to have been monstrous to Trump when he was a child, and that probably explains these character traits that psychiatrists and even close relatives have written and talked about in incriminating detail.

On a small scale I experienced some psychological abuse in my own past, so I have some understanding of both sides of the experience. It exerts influences, but it doesn’t relieve a person from taking responsibility for the kind of life that someone chooses to lead. All of this horrible behavior by Trump and many others in history, including Hitler, can be traced by back to deformities that are inflicted at a very early age. It is partly societal failures that we don’t have constructive maturing experiences that includes teaching us that with the gift of freedom comes the burden of responsibility.

That includes getting professional help if you need it to overcome dysfunctional behavioural patterns that are hurtful to self and to those who are closely engaged and in relation to the social dimensions of our lives. An ethics of responsibility seems to me to be complementary to an ethics of empathy and a politics of freedom, and without both responsibility and empathy there will be no hope, individually for either inner or outer peace.

Even in repressive societies, freedom and responsibility are never banished from private realms of existence, and we encounter kind and cruel persons, extreme narcissists in every kind of society.

Miguel Mendonça – Here is Miguel’s Wikipedia page that demonstrates his amazing, diverse literary production and here his homepage. We at TFF are really grateful that Miguel gave us permission to publish the interviews he did with Richard Falk and Jan Oberg.  I warmly recommend that you take a closer look at his publications. Their profile is quite unique and urgently important in these times.  — The Editor

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