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What makes for a good peace?

Treaties may bring a halt to armed conflict, but often fail to end injustice, violence and victimisation. In this piece first published to coincide with the centenary of the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, six experts debate the lessons history can teach us about how to construct a lasting and secure peace

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Published: January 6, 2022 at 10:05 am
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"Versailles negotiations were dominated by the interests of the victorious world powers, not those of young nations"

Daniel Schönpflug is the author of A World on Edge: The End of the Great War and the Dawn of a New Age (Macmillan, 2018)


In the 19th century, the idea prevailed that a good peace treaty must above all establish a balance between the signatories. But in January 1918, US president Woodrow Wilson set international diplomacy on a new course. His ‘14 Points’ speech, delivered to Congress in preparation for the end of the First World War, suggested that a good peace was not possible without democracy. His plan would not only invoke the right of self-determination to the peoples within the multinational states and the colonies of empire, but also set out the idea of a League of Nations, under whose auspices the interests of the world could be balanced in transparent negotiations. Over the course of October 1918, in a series of diplomatic notes to the German government, Wilson added that he was willing to negotiate a peace with the German Reich only if the country could be democratised by reforming its constitution.

But in the negotiations at Versailles beginning on 18 January 1919, Wilson was only partially able to impose his ideas about the link between peace and democracy. The other powers considered his concepts too idealistic. It’s hard to imagine how some of the central questions, such as German reparations, could have been resolved democratically. But one of the structural problems of the Treaty of Versailles was that the negotiations, which were intended to create a new world order, were dominated by the interests of the victorious world powers, not by the needs of the young nations seeking freedom. The new republics in eastern Europe emerging from the rubble of Austria-Hungary and the Russian tsar’s empire did not play a crucial part. Nor did the new states in the Middle East and north Africa created by the collapse of the Ottoman empire, nor the colonies such as India striving for independence.

It would be an oversimplification to see the disregard for Wilson’s ideas as the sole reason for the failure of the post-Versailles peace and the outbreak of the Second World War. But we might consider that more democracy would have made the peace more stable.

"After the Second World War, there was no comprehensive peace: killings, starvation and injustice continued"

Claudia Kemper is a researcher at the Hamburg Institute for Social Research

We know much about past wars and violence from historical sources and oral history, but less about past experiences of good peace. In part, this is because a peaceful state is much more difficult to define than an act of violence, but also because there has always been controversy about what constitutes a good peace.

When the military violence of the Second World War ended in Europe and Asia in 1945, for many people this meant the beginning of peace. But there was no such thing as a comprehensive peaceful experience: killings, starvation, revenge and injustice continued in different ways in many regions. Though Nazi Germany was defeated, many wartime conflicts continued to smoulder in Europe in the postwar period. The beginning of the Cold War, though, ensured these conflicts were largely put on ice, quashed by the generous Marshall Plan or by rigorous anti-communist policies in the west and anti-fascist policies in the Eastern Bloc. Europe was pacified after 1945 because neither side in the Cold War really wanted another military conflict on the continent.

Belgian poster of 1981 declaring "Nuclear weapons? No thanks!"
"Nuclear weapons? No thanks!" Declares a Belgian poster of 1981. Anti-nuclear movements "protested against a highly armed world in which the outbreak of violence was possible at any time", says Claudia Kemper (Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

Was this really a good peace? Compared with countries in south-east Asia, Africa and Latin America, the level of violence in Europe was extremely low, prosperity was high and the nuclear threat was – at least according to a widespread interpretation at the time – rather abstract.

But with the advent of mass protests against nuclear warfare in the early 1980s, it became apparent that the nature of the desire for peaceful coexistence within European societies had changed since 1945. Tellingly, many people in the UK, West Germany and the Netherlands joined the movement to express their dissatisfaction with their respective governments. But these movements also protested against a highly armed world in which the outbreak of violence was possible at any time. And though the nuclear arms race of the Cold War was extraordinary, political power to this day continues to be defined by the facility to use armed force at any time. A good peace, those protesters argued, means not only the absence of violence but also that no one is threatened with violence.

"A good peace – defined as a state of societal harmony or the elimination of violent conflict – is inconceivable today"

Benjamin Ziemann is professor of modern German history at the University of Sheffield, and co-editor of Understanding the Imaginary War: Culture, Thought and Nuclear Conflict, 1945–90 (Manchester University Press, 2016)

The notion of a good peace implies the normative vision of a political order that combines justice and harmony. Such a peace was only ever an ideal, never a reality. Ambrogio Lorenzetti came closest to showing us what it might look like.

In 1339, he painted his Allegory of Good and Bad Government [pictured left] in the town hall in the Republic of Siena in central Italy. Pax, the woman who personifies peace, is seated on a bench together with the central figure of the just ruler and others representing the virtues of good governance. With an olive branch on her head and another in her hand, she reclines on a suit of armour, indicating the ambivalence of a peace that ultimately rests on the potential use of force.

To secure peace, additional figures such as Concordia are needed; she provides a band of unity that passes through the hands of the citizens and connects them. Other murals in the town hall depict the benefits of peace to be enjoyed by the citizens of Siena: thriving crafts, agriculture, a flourishing of the arts.

Ambrogio Lorenzetti's 'Allegory of Good and Bad Government' (1339), depicts Pax reclining on a suit of armour
In Ambrogio Lorenzetti's 'Allegory of Good and Bad Government' (1339), "Pax... reclines on a suit of armour, indicating the ambivalence of a peace that ultimately rests on the potential use of force", says Benjamin Ziemann (DEA / G. DAGLI ORTI / Getty Images)

In Lorenzetti’s painting, good peace depends on the tranquillity and stability of a circumscribed municipal order. Since 1800 – with the transition to modernity, the formation of nation-states and the belligerence that underpinned nationalism across Europe – any substantive normative vision of peace based on a stable order disappeared. After the Franco-German war of 1870–71, the French satirist Honoré Daumier drew a cartoon La Paix, Idylle (Peace, an Idyll), parodying bucolic images of a bygone era. In it, a skeleton representing death tootles on two shawms (medieval woodwind instruments) in a landscape devastated by war.

Modern societies are predicated not on stability but on constant change. They are thus incapable of developing any normative vision of a peace that is more than just the absence of mass violence or major war. A good peace, understood as a state of societal harmony and unity or even as the elimination of violent conflict, is inconceivable in the modern era.

Restraint helps to make a good peace, and the more restraint shown, the better the chances it will endure

Alexandra Churchill is a historian, television researcher and author

The idea of transitioning from war back to peace is a terrifying prospect and a complex problem, as the combatants in the First World War discovered at the end of the hostilities.

During the closing weeks of the war in 1918, King George V was as fraught with worry about the dawn of a new revolutionary world, demobilisation and the massive shift that would take place in Britain’s industry as he was about the ongoing fighting. And with good reason: how do nations even begin to negotiate settlements that not only ensure that arms are officially laid down, but which also secure ongoing peace?

One thorny issue was the fate of the former German Kaiser Wilhelm II, who fled to the Netherlands in November 1918. Two clauses in the Treaty of Versailles, signed in June 1919, allowed for his trial and even execution. British prime minister David Lloyd George, for one, claimed that he had no issue with that course of action, and wanted the trial to be held in London. George V was furious with that suggestion, and Winston Churchill – by then, secretary of state for war – warned that the Allies must be careful not to provoke future antipathy among the defeated Central Powers.

The issue was unresolved until 1920 when the Netherlands, which had granted Wilhelm asylum, definitively refused to hand him over to the Allies. By then, tempers had cooled and the lust for revenge had subsided. (At the dawn of the Second World War in 1939, the British government even decided that Wilhelm might be offered asylum should his safety be compromised by lengthy conflict.) Reason prevailed in this instance, yet the harshness of the Treaty of Versailles and the bitterness it engendered in Germany helped facilitate the rise of fascism and the Second World War.

Clearly, restraint helps to make a good peace, and the more restraint that is shown, the better the chances of peace enduring. Though anger persists following a lengthy conflict, it must be laid to one side in the immediate aftermath in order to broker a lasting settlement that will not threaten the future state of international relations.

"A good peace has to acknowledge past wrongs on all sides, but is mainly forward-looking"

Jenny Benham is lecturer in medieval history at Cardiff University

Any peace should aim to achieve satisfaction and establish ongoing methods for resolving future disputes. Achieving these, however, involves balancing several different – and often competing – strategies. Satisfaction is the most problematic. For instance, compensation for injuries or losses incurred during conflict is one of the oldest principles of peacemaking, but can also lead to dissatisfaction, thereby becoming a conflict driver. And since the methods for resolving future disputes often centre on compensation, creating an expectancy of satisfaction on both sides, a circular problem emerges.

These competing strategies are evident in the Peace of Venice (1177), which ended nearly two decades of strife between Pope Alexander III and the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I. The conflict had begun after the death of Pope Adrian IV in 1159, when two rival popes were elected – Alexander III, supported by Sicily and northern Italian city-states, and antipope Victor IV, supported by Frederick.

In the Peace of Venice, Frederick acknowledged the pope’s sovereignty in Rome, and Alexander acknowledged the emperor’s authority. Those appointed to ecclesiastical positions by the antipope (by that time, Callixtus III) were deposed, and lands or rights confiscated by Frederick from churches supporting Alexander were restored. Clearly, many of Frederick’s supporters would have been disappointed, but compromise helped alleviate these disappointments. Frederick’s key supporters, who had been instrumental in negotiating the treaty, retained their ecclesiastical posts. Callixtus was given an abbacy, and his cardinals were restored to the positions they’d held before the 1159 schism.

Unsurprisingly, the pope’s supporters weren’t pleased. To heal the rift, symbolic reparations (such as ceremonies of apology or forgiveness) accompanied material ones, and the sides fostered friendship through communal celebrations. Frederick also diverted the ire of his supporters towards the Slavs in the east, relieving pressure on his former Italian foes.

A good peace, then, has to acknowledge past wrongs on all sides, but is mainly forward-looking. Developing trust between parties is crucial, but success ultimately lies in a willingness to engage with this process. The effects of non-engagement are evident across the world today.

"The Treaty of Versailles ended the First World War but failed to address the underlying causes of conflict in Europe"

Leonie Murray is lecturer in international politics at Ulster University

It is easy to theorise what makes a good peace, assuming we have already dispensed with the thorny question of what peace actually is, and the subjectivity of good/bad. Yet the historical record demonstrates that few – if any – societies have ever truly achieved the ideal. There are three key themes in this: the nature of peace, its context, and the system enveloping it.

First, we must consider the nature of the peace. If referring strictly to the absence of violent conflict, or ‘negative peace’, then a good peace is a situation in which warring factions have managed to put violence behind them. However, this says nothing about the resulting equity or justice of the post-conflict society. Negative peace may be the absence of direct violence, but it takes a grander ‘positive’ peace to eradicate structural violence, inequity and injustice. For example, in 1919 the Treaty of Versailles ended the First World War, but it failed to address the underlying causes of conflict in Europe, instead adding fuel to the embers of a dying fire.

An evangelist speaks to a British soldier in Derry/Londonderry in 1974, during the trouble in Norther Ireland
An evangelist speaks to a British soldier in Derry/Londonderry in 1974 during the Troubles. The peace that followed the Good Friday Agreement (1998) owed much to the role of the US and relationships within Europe (David Cairns/Getty Images)

Second, the domestic, economic, political and ideological colourings of the groups to which peace is applied will influence whether even the best-planned peace succeeds. The Dayton Peace Agreement of 1995, for example, secured an end to war in the former Yugoslavia but failed to take full stock of ethno-national grievances and territorial disputes, resulting in a renewal of conflict in Kosovo three years later and persistent issues even today.

Lastly, the broader local or global power system in which peace is attempted is critical. Positive peace may still be the ideal, but the kind of peace that can succeed is highly dependent on the wider political environment. The Good Friday Agreement of 1998, for example, was a qualified success in mitigating the Troubles in Northern Ireland, in large part because of the role in the peace process played by the US, as well as the relationships between Ireland, Britain and Northern Ireland within the context of the European Union.

It’s clear, then, that understanding the specific contexts and conditions is important in pursuing a good peace – but also that there is no flawless historical example to learn from.


This article was taken from issue 14 of BBC World Histories magazine


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