Peace and World History: A Historiographic Review
Author: Ross Ryan
Translated into Spanish by Silvana Gordillo González
- Adolf, Antony. Peace: A World History. Hoboken: Polity Press, 2009.
- Cortright, David. Peace: A History of Movements and Ideas. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.
- Gregor, Thomas. A Natural History of Peace. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1997.
- Stearns, Peter N. Peace in World History. New York: Routledge, 2014.
Most world history books are really histories of collective violence, especially war. There are many reasons for this, including the undisputable transformative power of violence to create and destroy social and political systems, and to forge coherent and meaningful collective identities. The vast majority of modern nation states, for example, have origin stories rooted in violent struggle, and “world history” typically accounts for their emergence in the broader context of the equally violent rise and fall of empires.
Very few historians have taken the opposing view – that human history has been an essentially peaceful story – or have even just emphasized the peaceful elements within it. The books reviewed in this article are among these rare exceptions.
As such, each of these works attempt the difficult task of defining “peace” and putting it to use as a coherent unit of historical analysis on a global scale. In doing so, they each raise valid theoretical insights and bring methodological innovations into both the study of war and peace, and the study of human history.
They also broadly share the perspectives (and references) of English-speaking academia at the dawn of the twenty-first century, and therefore share a systematic bias that shapes the selection of events and historical processes included in their analyses, resulting in a noticeable amount of repetition and complementarity among them, as well as a common difficulty in accounting for processes in regions outside of Europe and North America, such as in Latin America.
Despite their similarities, however, these works differ on important theoretical and definitional matters, and therefore demonstrate the extraordinary difficulty inherent to the task of historicizing a concept that has been (and continues to be) interpreted in wildly contrasting and even paradoxical ways (Dietrich, 2012).
Different authors make different decisions, for example, on whether or not “peace” includes the maintenance of public order and security through the threat of force, or the active and potentially violent resistance to oppression and injustice, and any number of other human efforts which can be interpreted as peaceable or not. There are also different basic assumptions among the authors regarding the nature of the human condition and the limits of what is actually possible: Stearns and Cortright highlight the naivete and utopianism of peace advocates, while Adolf and the authors in Gregor’s collection are somewhat more open to the idea of a human nature flexible enough to live in peace.
Much of the variation among authors comes from the interdisciplinary nature of the topic and the adaptation of different terms, methods, and assumptions from anthropology, sociology, political science, and philosophy, among others. In order to clarify the points of agreement and disagreement, let us now turn to a more detailed discussion of each work.
The earliest book reviewed here, Thomas Gregor’s A Natural History of Peace, is an edited collection of papers presented at a conference in the mid-1990s that brought together a group of social scientists (primarily anthropologists) to discuss several themes related to cultural practices of peace. The work begins with introductory article by Gregor that gives shape and purpose to the overall collection, and ends with one of the last articles ever written by the economist and founding peace scholar Kenneth Boulding, who reflects optimistically on how the past may shape our collective future. Boulding suggests, for example, that human history may be viewed as a learning process rather than a dialectic of struggle (1997, p. 310).
There are a great many strengths in this work, both as a whole and in the individual insights of its authors, but for the purpose of this review, I will focus on two: the sophisticated approach to the concept of peace developed in Donald Tuzin’s chapter and subsequently explored in the rest of the book, and the collection’s acknowledgment of and attempt to address the relative lack of empirical studies of peaceful human societies.
Tuzin’s article “The Spectre of Peace in Unlikely Places” is remarkable for its theoretical subtlety and rightfully influences the great majority of the contributions to this book. Put simply, Tuzin’s idea is that “peace” is an inherently unstable category of analysis “buried inside” its opposites. Like “health” or “truth”, “peace”, according to this view, cannot be used to understand or refer to itself, but is rather experienced or pursued in response to processes of sickness, falsehood, or war. Such “spectral” visions function as “regulative principles”, to use Karl Popper’s phrase, and can therefore be found in the most “unlikely places”, and must, in fact, be understood as intrinsic to them (1997, p. 3-36).
No absolute distinction between peace and war (or other forms of violence) is therefore possible, since, as Gregor writes in the introduction, no society has either achieved “absolute peace” or functions in a state of absolute violence. Rather, the ideas exist within one another, as in the warlike societies who care for and defend their own, and the peaceful societies who continue to practice forms of oppression and injustice; peace and its opposites must, therefore, be understood as integral parts of a larger social phenomena.
Tuzin, Gregor, and others in the collection make excellent use of this concept, once it has been established, in order to better understand what may appear to be warlike traditions and cultures, and to identify within them values and practices of peacemaking. This approach offers welcome relief from the restrictions imposed by the standard formulation of positive and negative peace, or the related idea of peace, traditionally credited to Johan Galtung, as an absence of different forms of violence (Galtung, 1969) and resonates well with Kenneth Boulding’s early rebuttal of the distinction between positive and negative peace as coherent categories (1977).
Unfortunately, however, the concept of peace as a spectre is never applied to historical analysis, either in this book or any of the others reviewed in this paper. I am aware of works that come close to applying this approach, including Elise Boulding’s Hidden Side of History (2000), Barbara Ehrenreich’s Blood Rites (1998), and Nick Megoran’s “War and Peace?” (2011), however, a full realization of its potential to both broaden and deepen historical analysis remains, to my knowledge, unfulfilled.
Another valuable contribution of A Natural History of Peace is its strong defence of an empirical approach to theorizing about peace. Most contributing authors identify their articles as responding directly to the conference’s theme of documenting peace as a social achievement, and the overall goal of the conference to counter a lack of empirical studies of relatively peaceful societies, the existence of which has been demonstrated by previous researchers. To this effect, the book offers multiple, solidly researched case studies of relatively peaceful cultures, including the Semia, Mehinaku, Waorani, and others.
In each case, the authors take the position that theories of peace must be grounded in and held accountable to empirical reality – in other words, that social theory must be built from observations of lived reality, rather than conceived of idealistically and then used to judge or engineer existing societies. Describing this approach overall, Gregor writes: “we should be cautious about prescribing for society [and] even if we feel that our research urges us in that direction, categories of thought should not be merged with moral judgements” (1997, p. xviii).
David Cortright’s Peace: A History of Movements and Ideas (2008) is the next book chronologically, and is by far the most classically “historical” in its methods. The first half of the text recounts a narrative history of peace societies and anti-war movements that is grounded in references to primary documents and interviews along with a wealth of secondary literature, while the second half switches to a thematic mode, exploring and commenting on ideas like “religion”, “democracy”, and “pacifism”, and reflecting on their relationship to the broader idea of peace.
The strength of this work is the level of detail offered in the first half, which attempts to draw together various narrative strands offered by different nineteenth century European and North American peace societies and to demonstrate their development and impact upon the rest of the world. The eventual result in the story of how liberal internationalism brought human rights and international law together in the ideals and structures League of Nations and United Nations, and later, in the anti-war and disarmament movements of the late twentieth-century.
Perhaps its most important contribution is to demonstrate compelling evidence that European pacifists and peace societies were not responsible, as some have claimed, for the “appeasement” of European Fascists that allowed them to rise in the 1930s, but rather, were directly opposed to the conditions that facilitated Fascist development, such as the Treaty of Versailles, and had called for a strong moral condemnation of Fascist regimes from the beginning (2008, p. 67-81).
There are, however, at least two weaknesses in Cortright’s historical narrative. First, it is so detailed and tightly focused on the European and North American peace societies and movements that its claim to be somehow representative of world history, or the global experience of peace, is very difficult to accept. Consider, for example, that “Latin American and African traditions” are considered together and for a combined three paragraphs, which also mentions “Asian traditions”, the justification for which seems to be that these three “traditions” share communal cultures that value “economic and social justice”, suggesting an unfortunately simplistic (and untenable) division between an individualist “west” and a collectivist “rest” (2008, p. 14).
Secondly, as tightly focused as it is, the narrative is ultimately unconvincing in its effort to align the trajectories of what are fundamentally very different peace (and anti-war) movements into one, liberal and internationalist synthesis that also includes the North American countercultures of the 1960s (anti-Vietnam War) and 1980s (anti-nuclear). In fact, the individual sources referenced by Cortright suggest that there has been a much higher level of disagreement in regards to the pursuit of peace than the structure of his overall narrative allows, with European and North American peace advocates differing sharply on questions of nationalism vs internationalism, liberalism vs socialism, and many other issues.
Anthony Adolf and Peter Stearns books are very similar in style and structure, and indeed, Stearn references Adolf’s earlier work at several points, most significantly in the opening chapter which gives an overview of the impulse towards peace as a consistent and recurring theme in world history. Both books are explicitly thematic, and follow similar three-part definitions of peace: for Adolf there are individual, social, and collective dimensions to peace (2009, p. 15); while for Stearns there are interpersonal/intergroup and social approaches to peace, and a third aspect related to the avoidance of war (2014, p. 2).
Both authors then follow these ideas through a very similar periodization scheme, beginning with prehistory (Adolf includes speculation about pre-human primate societies), ancient and classical civilizations (Stearns focuses on Rome and China, while Adolf also includes Egypt, Greece, India, and Japan), religious traditions (Stearns focuses more on Buddhism, while Adolf focuses more on the Abrahamic faiths), the era of empires, industrialization, and the foundations of modern nation states, the first and second world wars, and “contemporary” world history after the establishment of the United Nations and through the Cold War. Adolf ends with a consideration “the presents of peace” and reflects on the challenges and opportunities of advanced information and communications technologies, while Stearns considers regional and comparative analyses of disarmament and demilitarization. Overall, Adolf’s work is slightly more detailed and inclusive than Stearns’, but both are incredibly broad and sweeping.
Historiographically, both of these works are explicitly concerned with the long view of social processes, and can be compared with the efforts of some Annales School historians to highlight deep, structural changes that take place under the surface, which both Adolf and Stearns associate with peace, as opposed to the short, flashy, and fleeting events, like wars, that may attract our attention but are ultimately only surface phenomena.
As Adolf puts it, focusing on war and violence is “an inaccurate reduction of history”, the vast majority of which is shaped by social processes of collaboration and cooperation (2009, p. 102). This is a central insight, and resonates with works like Elise Boulding’s Hidden Side of History, as well as Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution (1902) in pointing out that the central tendency of human history, and perhaps even of our evolutionary success, is our ability to work together for mutual benefit.
Stearns, on the other hand, offers a “glass-half-full” metaphor, suggesting that the impulses towards peace and war are closer to 50/50, rather than being overwhelmingly peaceful, and concedes rather modestly that while peace “advocacy can seem naive”, it has been an important factor in history.
The main criticism I have of both of these works is that they are so broad that they simply cannot do justice to any particular aspect of human history, often reducing enormously complex processes to single phrases. Latin American history is a good example, as it is barely mentioned in either book, except for a line or two about colonialism and Indigenous resistance.
To be fair, Stearns does address Costa Rica’s disarmament for three pages in the chapter on “regional approaches to demilitarization,” which is impressive, given that Classical China is only four pages and the entire history of Judaism is two, but even still, it is so brief that it is necessarily insufficient.
For example, Calderón Guardia and Manuel Mora’s achievements in social reform, the details of the Costa Rican Civil War itself, and the subsequent conflict with Nicaragua and OAS involvement are not adequately described at all, nor is the nature of José Figueres’ disbandment of the Army of National Liberation, the transition of the National Army to a Civil Guard, or the complexity of Costa Rica’s resulting foreign policy during the Cold War (2014, p. 165-168). If these details are incorrect or overlooked, I can only imagine how much more is lost in the even briefer discussions of much longer and more complex periods of history.
By way of conclusion, it is worth repeating each work’s most valuable contributions: Gregor’s collection of articles contain the most sophisticated conceptual framework and makes excellent use of ethnographic case study methods, Cortright’s historical narrative makes the best use of archival and documentary evidence, and Adolf and Stearns draw our attention most successfully to the long, steady undercurrent of conflict resolution and social cooperation that flows through the entire duration of human history.
Perhaps the best result for peace history would be if future generations of scholarship could build on these combined strengths, while pursuing a much more inclusive world view that simultaneously engages as accurately as possible in the complex detail of human experience.
 Gregor’s edited collection of anthropological works is a special case, as it quite explicitly focuses on tribal cultures in non-European contexts, however, the general critique of the authors’ perspectives being shaped by the bias inherent to their academic backgrounds continues to hold, as does the peripheral treatment of Latin America.
 From the introduction to the book: Wiberg (1981) found only 1 of 400 articles over a 17 year period published in the Journal of Peace Research met this criteria, while Ferguson (1988) found only 4 citations to studies of peace in 361 pages of bibliographic references compiled from different published studies on the topic of peace and war.
List of References
Ameringer, Charles D. Don Pepe: A Political Biography of José Figueres of Costa Rica. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1978.
Boulding, Elise. Cultures of Peace: The Hidden Side of History. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2000.
Boulding, Kenneth. “Twelve Friendly Quarrels With Johan Galtung” Journal of Peace Research 14 no.1 (1977): 75-86.
Dietrich, Wolfgang. Interpretations of Peace in History and Culture. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.
Ehrenreich, Barbara. Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War. New York: Henry Holt, 1998.
Galtung, Johan. “Violence, Peace, and Peace Research” Journal of Peace Research 6 no.3 (1969):167-191.
Kropotkin, Peter. Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution, 1902.
Megoran, Nick. “War and Peace? An Agenda for Peace Research and Practice in Geography” Political Geography 30 (2011): 178-189.
Author’s Short Bio
Ross Ryan is a visiting professor at the University for Peace and a doctoral candidate researching the history of war and peace at McMaster University, Canada, where he is also affiliated with the Centre for Human Rights and Restorative Justice. His research is supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC).