The Five Percent

Finding solutions to seemingly impossible conflicts

The Beginning of Peace?

If we ever find peace, will we know it when we see it?

Peter T. Coleman and Kyong Mazzaro

November 27, 2013

If we ever find peace, will we know it when we see it?

The interim nuclear deal between Iran and the major powers is a hopeful step in the long ambiguous journey toward peace. However, in the 67 other conflict-prone regions of the world currently monitored by the International Crisis Group there is less reason for hope. In particular, the recent abandonment by Mozambique’s former rebel group RENAMO of the 1992 peace treaty that ended the fifteen year civil war there, and the continued exchange of fire by nuclear-armed India and Pakistan across the Line of Control in Kashmir despite an agreement by the countries’ leaders in September to halt attacks, is cause for great pessimism and concern.

The good news is that the international community has gotten better at making peace. In a period between 1988 and 2003, more wars ended through negotiations than through military victory than had occurred in the previous two centuries. However, over 25% of the wars ending through negotiations relapse into violence within five years, and these failed-peace states can begin an unprecedented phase of downward spiral; states with civil wars in their history are far more likely to experience renewed violence and the longer such conflicts last, the greater the chances of recurrence of war.

The hard truth is that we know very little about sustaining peace. This is because for decades we have studied the pathologies of war, violence, aggression and conflict—and peace in the context of those processes—but few have studied peace directly.

To meet this need, in 2007 the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP) launched its Global Peace Index. Before the GPI, there had been no specific set of metrics developed that focused on the overall level of peacefulness of nations. Envisioned as an instrument to aid governments, investors, and other relevant actors working in the international domain, today the GPI ranks 162 nations around the world according to their relative peacefulness. It has been endorsed by many including the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Despond Tutu, and former President Jimmy Carter, and has become the most widely cited peace index today.

Which is why the conceptual and methodological limits of the GPI must be recognized and addressed. The GPI provides a unique method for identifying, ranking and naming/shaming countries by levels of peacefulness, and also suggests a framework for setting and tracking Sustainable Peace Goals by the international community. This is an initiative that may very well set the conditions for the future of the world’s development and peace discourse. Because the stakes are high, we must get this right.

However, the current version of the GPI has three major flaws: It is missing half the story, economizes peace, and measures peace from a crude top-down perspective.

First, the GPI primarily measures the absence of the negative. The original GPI was focused exclusively on measuring what is termed negative peace, or on assessing the absence of violence or the fear of violence. Recognized as insufficient, in 2012 the GPI introduced a Positive Peace Index (PPI), which was an attempt to measure attitudes, institutions and structures that, when strengthened, can improve a country’s potential for positive peacefulness.

However, on most social dimensions the PPI still measures primarily the absence of problems. We coded the PPI Indices and found 73 percent of its measures to be of negative conditions with only 27 percent assessing positive conditions—almost a 3:1 ratio. For example, the PPI’s approach to measuring “good neighbor relations” and “acceptance of other’s rights” uses indices on reported levels of crime victimisation, feelings of safety and security in one’s neighbourhood, incidence of homicide, and risk reports on the likelihood of physical attack, extortion, or robbery. The PPI’s measure of “intergroup cohesion” collects data on inter-group disparities, perceptions of being discriminated against, feelings of distrust against members of other groups, as well as reported incidents of riots, terrorist acts, assassinations, and kidnappings. When combining the GPI indices with the PPI, this totals a negative to positive ratio of 7:1.

However, decades of research has taught us that the predictors of positive outcomes such as constructive, peaceful relations and those of negative outcomes such as destructive encounters and violence are not opposites—but are in fact fundamentally distinct. For example, for over a decade the noted psychologist John Gottman studied marital conflict and divorce, eventually developing a robust model for predicting divorce in married couples with 97 percent accuracy. The researchers felt satisfied until they realized that their model did not predict happiness in marriage. They had been able to isolate the basic conditions that predicted divorce, but the opposite of these conditions did not predict stable, happy marriages. When they realized this they set out to study marital happiness and stability for 16 years, discovering that the predictors of each, divorce versus happiness, were not opposites, but were in fact qualitatively different conditions.

We have found the same to be true for peace. In a recent set of studies we conducted in Israel and the Palestinian Territories investigating the motives that drive people to support negotiations to end the conflict versus those that motivate them to work actively for improved relations and peace, we found that the reasons Israelis and Palestinians are motivated to end conflict are fundamentally distinct from the reasons they are motivated to make and sustain peace. They are not opposites—the drivers for peace and the drivers to end conflict conflict—but are fundamentally different.

So while the absence of discrimination, injustice, threat and fear are good predictors of non-violent relations, they do not predict enduring peace. On the contrary, what is needed are better measures of incidence of intergroup cooperation, trust, pro-social acts, solidarity and moral inclusion in order to best predict sustainable peace. For instance, in Islands of Agreement: Managing Enduring Armed Rivalries (2007), Gabriella Blum describes the many instances of cooperation operating in the context of long-enduring armed rivalries such as between India and Pakistan, Greece and Turkey, and Israel and Lebanon. These pockets of interethnic cooperation reduce suffering and loss and allow mutually beneficial exchanges to take place. We need to know more about how to identify, measure and bolster these conditions.

In other words, even with the addition of the PPI, the GPI is still missing half the story of peace.

The second major limitation of the GPI is it’s dominant economic lens. One of the key objectives of the IEP, as declared by its director Steve Killelea, is to highlight the important role of businesses in promoting peace. In a 2008 discussion paper on the “Peace Industry” he wrote: “It seems intuitive that peace creates more economic benefits to a society than violence or war. It is also evident that in most circumstances businesses wish to invest in areas where there is minimal violence.” The assumption is that when industries better realize the benefits of peace, they will become a pivotal actor in the pursuit of positive change, hence the GPI’s focus on the correlation between peace and indicators such as economic growth, consumer spending, and a sound business environment.

In the particular case of the PPI, our analysis found that almost 50 percent of the indicators are directly related to the Institute’s idea of a “Peace Industry”. Although there is good evidence supporting the link between commercial liberalism and conflict reduction, findings on the limitations of economic openness or ease of business on peace promotion show that although peace and economic openness are positively correlated, openness does not significantly reduce internal conflict. In fact, there is mounting evidence that horizontal inequalities within societies, particularly when political, social and economic inequalities combine, are a better predictor of civil rebellion than income level. Today scholars argue that there is a growing need to explore both the pacifying effects of economic integration and freedom as well as its potentially negative consequences, the former being much less understood.

But even beyond concerns over the limits of liberal peace, are questions about the GPI’s basic view of peace. All scholarly disciplines operate on a set of basic, often unquestioned assumptions about cause and effect, the nature of human motivation, and what constitutes ideal, positive states. In economics, a prevention-focused (avoiding harmful problems), pro-growth, economically rational form of logic prevails, which has been shown at times to be a poor predictor of much human behavior. The question this raises is should these assumptions dominate and drive the international community’s understanding of peace? Or must we strive for a more nuanced and comprehensive understanding?

Finally, our third concern with the current version of the GPI is methodological. Its current iteration employs metrics from the national level of analysis to assess peacefulness, which is certainly the most feasible and efficient. However, this approach suffers from two opposing challenges. On the one hand, it neglects important differences in conditions that exist at lower-levels of analysis, such as between groups and communities in different regions within nations or even within cities. On the other hand, the current method is also constrained by the reality that many of the nations it measures lack the basic infrastructure to collect accurate data on the indices of interest. Both of these constraints severely impact the validity of the GPI’s findings.

So where do we go from here? We recommend a few fundamental revisions to the GPI.

The first is definitional. Although important differences may exist between assessing different levels of sustainable peace (in homes, communities, regions, nations, and internationally), peace at all levels shares some basic qualities reflecting a relative absence of destructive intergroup tension, conflict, and violence, and a relative presence of constructive conflict, harmony and well-being. Accordingly, we define sustainable peace as existing in a state where the probability of using destructive means or violence to solve problems is so low that it does not enter into any party’s strategy, while the probability of using cooperation and dialogue to promote justice and well-being is so high that it governs social organization and life.

The second is operational. We propose the development of an alternative framework for measuring probabilities for sustainable peace, based on empirical research on a wide-variety of factors associated with peaceful individuals, groups, and societies. It would organize these factors by level (micro, meso, and macro) and by orientation (prevention of destructive conflict or promotion of sustainable peace), and suggest that the measurement of the many conditions associated sustainable peace are best understood in the context of their relative effects on 1) decreasing probabilities of injustice, destructive conflict and violence, and 2) increasing probabilities of fairness, cooperation and lasting peace. As considerable research has shown, when the ratio of positive dynamics to negative dynamics in social systems is high (somewhere between 3:1 and 5:1), the odds of healthier, thriving relations and societies tend to increase markedly. When the positivity/negativity ratio is lower, the relatively stronger effects of negativity will drive the system into either a sustained state of hostilities or lead to its disintegration.

With international dialogue on the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals in high gear, the time is ripe for broadening and enhancing our understanding and measurement of peace. But what we have learned from research on complex systems and path dependency is that the first steps in new initiatives are defining and formative. That means that this stage in the development of the GPI is crucial. Measuring peace is too important to get it half-right.

Peter T. Coleman, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology and education at Columbia University.

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