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The winner of the Peace Stone Essay Competition is awarded with the Peace Stone Prize (1995), established through the generous donations of the Shuyodan Hoseikai Foundation.
The 2021 essay prompt was “‘Peace cannot be kept by force; it can only be achieved by understanding’ – Albert Einstein. Can world peace be achieved by understanding? Discuss.” .
The winner of the 2021 Peace Stone Essay Competition is Julian Edwards, read his winning essay below.
So often has the concept of attaining world peace been discussed with so few conclusions drawing to the fact of its unobtainability. The reason for being unobtainable is that the international system is structured so that individual states have the autonomy and freedom to make their own decisions (bound by international laws). This autonomy brings forth conflicting desires, actions, morals and beliefs, which inevitably inhibit the ability to achieve world peace by understanding. Therefore, the claim that Einstein makes obfuscates and mistakes understanding with uniformity. States might and often do understand the motives and reasons for actions made by other states, but insofar as there are differences in motives, actions and state autonomy, there is no causal link between mere understanding and perpetual peace. To reach the conclusion that world peace is impossible to achieve, I will first address the scope of the question by arguing why specifically understanding does not and cannot ensure world peace. Then, I will go a step further and argue that the design of the international system means that world peace, in the system’s current structure, can never be achieved because of the epistemological and cognitive autonomy of human nature. Third, I will argue that my thesis is not a pessimistic view of our global potential, but instead an indication that achieving world peace is not the utopia many believe we should be striving for.
I WHY WILL UNDERSTANDING FAIL TO ACHIEVE WORLD PEACE?
Epistemologically, understanding requires that a belief in propositions cohere with other propositions one believes. This means that, in order to understand a particular claim, it has to conceivably fit with other claims one knows to be true. However, understanding can very easily exist without subsequently leading to world peace. The problem lies in the fact that one may understand why someone else acts a certain way, believes a certain thing, or makes a certain claim, without willing to accept or allow it to manifest. For example, the Philippines might understand why China wants to territorially claim the South China Sea – it holds major geostrategic and economic importance by way of carrying over US$3 trillion in trade every year – however, understanding China’s desires, beliefs or actions does not lead to acceptance or respect for their decision. In this instance, understanding would clearly play no role in fostering peace in the South China Sea.
It is important to note here that I am not arguing that understanding is not somewhat important in world peace, only that it is not the mechanism by which world peace can fully be achieved. A lack of understanding has been the cause of violence and tyranny in many places with the most potent being the poor translation of Japanese by Americans to cause the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: “no comment” was understood to mean “not worthy of commenting”. Similarly, a lack of understanding was how the British and other powers justified colonialism, by not understanding the nature of sovereignty. Unfortunately, viewing these scenarios as if understanding is the turning point to achieving world peace seems naïvely optimistic: in many instances of immorality, hegemony or violence, understanding is not the core determinant for action. Rather, it is mostly about preferencing what is best for the individual state in terms of fulfilling their individual needs and desires.
The reason why understanding will not achieve world peace, therefore, is that an international system that is structured so that individual states act in their own best interest means that in most instances, compromise and actions of charity fall short to domestic wealth, health and prosperity. This is proven in the fact that Australia gives 0.21% of our Gross National Income in Foreign Aid – even if there is no moral obligation to help poorer nations (which on a deontological and utilitarian basis is an unfounded claim), it at the very least proves that states in the status quo act according to their own needs. Essentially, this allows for conflict between states to occur (and have occurred) for a plethora of reasons such as economic competition, ideological antagonism, as well as maritime and land disputes. These cannot all be solved merely by understanding the other state or actor, and so instead will always have the potential of causing conflict on the basis of being an individual state with individual desires and motives.
II WHY WILL WORLD PEACE NEVER BE ACHIEVED?
This section of the essay will do two things. First, I will address some of the most popular approaches to achieving world peace and subsequently criticise the soundness of each approach. Second, I will deduce the clearest remedy from my aforementioned analysis on the international system, but similarly explain why world peace in this system would still be unachievable.
The first and rather popular conservative theory, as coined by Ronald Reagan to be “peace through strength”, is possibly the worst attempt at world peace because it rejects the fact that understanding is somewhat important to attaining peace (even though understanding is not capable of perpetual attainment). There are few, if any, instances whereby being authoritatively dictated to act a certain way is responded to peacefully. Moreover, the very fact of striving for peace seems paradoxically undermined if unpeaceful means is used to achieve it.
The second theory – the “democratic peace theory” – which argues that a democracy would never wage war against another democracy and so that is the means to achieving world peace, although this also has a few problems. First, it relies on a very Eurocentric world view that a democracy is the best form of governance, which has fared very problematically in instances in which non-democratic nations have been faced with forceable democratic processes (see the Arab Spring). Second, there is evidence to suggest that democracies have engaged in war: the Yugoslav Wars, the Cenepa War, and the Continuation War to name three. Third, peace seems to indefinitely come before the nations democratise – every “democracy” has no more territorial disputes, for example.
Smaller theories also possess major flaws. Cobdenism or establishing universal free trade is unsound on the basis that states can leave and change these agreements, and any form of trade can cause violent dispute. Mutual assured destruction creates a domestic fear of existential doubt which has inevitably proven to cause violence and a lack of peace within nations. Relying on international law and the United Nations hosts no mechanism by which violence and vehemence can be prevented, only an action in response (which therefore cannot aid in the achievement of world peace).
All of these theories are bound by the fact that individual states have individual desires, motives, leadership, and autonomy to act however they want. Subsequently, there is always the potential for these states to disrupt peace to the extent that the clearest path to peace is reforming the international system to one of unified governance. This reform draws upon the doctrine of Einstein’s words – insofar as competition, mutually exclusive desires and disputes cease to exist, and reforming the international system in such a way is possible, world peace is far more likely to be achieved because states will not only understand each other but actively have motive to help each other. Yet, I will now prove that even in a system whereby understanding, mutual aid and global connectedness are at the forefront of international politics, world peace is still unachievable.
The discussion of world peace seems to be solely focused on state conflict and the minimisation of war on a global scale, without reference to domestic problems and conflict which occur in every state. Economic and wealth disparities, poverty, climate justice, systemic racism, transphobia and misogyny, domestic violence, and ideological antagonism all cause conflict in any and every country, irrespective of how developed or developing, libertarian or authoritarian. This means that in order for world peace to be truly achievable, the international system needs to not only possess the same desires and motivations, but also solve most social and economic issues in the status quo which also play some part in causing violence and conflict. That is to say, a system of universal governance alone is not capable of achieving world peace just because there is unilateral understanding – it needs to also achieve all economic and social objectives which seems highly improbable (as no singular state has ever been able to do so).
Even if it were possible to exist in an absolute utopia whereby universal governance and full economic and social equality occurred, world peace is still not achievable. All states, whether autonomous or universal, govern for and by the people. This is important because all actions which hinder the ability to achieve world peace derive from individual decision making and epistemic autonomy to make that decision. Therefore, world peace really bottles down to an individual communicative and interactive basis, as small acts of individual autonomy can also prevent the ability to achieve world peace. Events like the Lindt Café Seige in 2014 were caused by a single individual and sent shivers to the core of Australia. The difficult realisation, as this essay has continually implied, is that human aggressiveness is likely innate to the human condition, and so world peace will likely never fully be attained.
III WHY IS THE ACHIEVEMENT OF WORLD PEACE UNDESIRABLE?
This essay thus far has delved into many hypotheticals in order to establish that world peace, whether by way of understanding or any way at all, is unachievable. Prima facie, this seems very pessimistic and a saddening reflection on how our world can progress. As I will now explain, the achievement of world peace is not something we should necessarily desire – the mere act of striving towards world peace is in fact morally and socio-economically more promising.
The first thing to say here is that all of the reasons for world peace are desirable and important. It is morally inevitable to desire a world that is pacifist by nature, a world that values equality, a world that respects itself and all whom live in it, and a world that understands each other. These are all things that we ought to continue to strive for, although achieving world peace is not the same thing. As I have established, world peace becoming a reality would need universal governance in order to remove competition and conflict, social and economic equality in order to remove discrimination, frustration and injustice, and some limitations to Darwinian instincts and our epistemological autonomy to prevent relational and interpersonal disputes.
The second is that these three steps are not completely desirable. First, removing competition and international contest would slow the development of technology, resources and healthcare which are incredibly important to targeting social issues like climate change, systemic racism and gender equality. Second and more importantly, we do not want any limitations to our autonomy or agency. Dystopian societies like in 1984 and Brave New World could be argued to possess “world peace”, but by no means are they even slightly favourable. The nature of striving towards equality and peace is more important, thus, than the extreme circumstances that need to exist in order to reach them completely.
When Albert Einstein claimed that “Peace cannot be kept by force; it can only be achieved by understanding”, he misinterpreted what is important and what is achievable. When one strives for world peace, they strive for a world in which amity, equality, respect, tolerance reason and freedom are at the core of our human interactions. The mistake made by both Einstein and broader society is what we want in our international system, and what the world ought to look like if it became a reality. World peace is desirable and important, but desiring a world without any sense of competition, violence or conflict can only be achieved by limiting the potential of human individuality, autonomy, agency and progression, which are collectively more important than mere pacifism.