It’s time to bury Peace Studies

Johan Galtung’s anti-Semitic comments were despicable, but the paternalism of his academic brainchild is worse.

Johan Galtung may have been hailed as the ‘father of conflict resolution’, but the professor’s recent conspiratorial and anti-Semitic remarks, exposed by the Norwegian Humanist magazine, have shown that Galtung is no peacenik. With a bit of luck, this scandal will not only bury Galtung’s reputation but will also put his cherished baby, Peace Studies, to bed.

Some of Galtung’s comments would make even professional conspiracy theorists blush. During a lecture in his native Norway, he claimed that Mossad, Israel’s Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations, could have been behind last summer’s massacre in Utoya, in which gunman Anders Behring Breivik murdered participants in a political summer camp. He noted that it happened on the anniversary of the 1946 bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem by the underground Jewish movement the Irgun. He has also told Norwegian press that Jews control world media, ensuring a pro-Israel bias. He has defended the notorious anti-Semitic tract, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and has suggested that although Auschwitz was ‘terrible’, it had ‘two sides’, as one of the causes of anti-Semitic sentiment at the time was the fact that Jews held influential positions in Germany.

Although Galtung’s age-old anti-Semitic theories are insidious and condemnable, they are still not as harmful as the misleading ideas that he has developed and disseminated with great success during his long career. In 1959, at the tender age of 29, he founded the Peace Research Institute in Oslo (PRIO). Twenty-eight years later, in 1987, he was awarded the alternative Nobel Peace Prize. He is widely recognised as the founder of Peace and Conflict Studies.

There are two key aspects to Galtung’s approach to conflicts that are particularly troubling. The first is his idea that conflicts are essentially quite easy to solve. For almost every case he examines, he offers a two-word prescription: federation and Gandhi. Whether it’s Sudan, Israel, Iraq, Kosovo or Syria, Galtung’s solution is to set up a ‘federation’, Swiss style. And what if some people in these countries reject the idea? Go Gandhi on them with nonviolent resistance. So simple, so ingenious. Why, then, do these conflicts last so long? Perhaps it has something to do with the Mossad, the CIA and MI6?

The second troubling aspect of Galtung’s approach is his belief that outsiders always have a better understanding of conflicts than those who are born into them, live in them, and may be killed by them. In his own words: ‘Each time you listen to a new conflict party, the conflict changes colours and you see it from a new angle, and a new angle, and once again a new angle. And since they often don’t talk with each other, the mediator gets a much better overview than they have themselves.’

Yup. And then, once you feel that you understand the conflict better than parties involved in it do, you simply gather them all in one room and say: ‘Hey everyone, how about a federation!’

Now, I don’t know how many conflicts Galtung has helped solve (he keeps referring to just one success, the resolution of the fighting between Peru and Ecuador), but the proposition that outsiders have a better understanding of violent conflicts than the locals is completely baseless. Today, while violence is increasingly visible worldwide, the features and dynamics of local political outlooks and mindsets – of ideologies, anxieties, aspirations and prejudices – remain mostly opaque to outsiders. This growing gap between visibility and incomprehension is what so often leaves us perplexed about events we see happening in other countries, even those we think we know well.

It is puzzling how Galtung and his academic compatriots pose as ‘anti-Western’ ideologues while at the same time acting like apostles of Western paternalism. After all, there is never any role reversal in conflict resolution, with suggestions that non-Western actors should come over to the developed world to offer tips on how to conduct political affairs. Would ‘experts’ like Galtung ever have suggested bringing a Chinese professor to Northern Ireland to act as a mediator since he or she would have a ‘better overview’ of the Troubles than the Catholics and Protestants living in Ireland? How would they react to an Angolan human-rights organisation calling on the IMF to hold back a loan to European states with poor records of financial governance and transparency? What if an Indonesian sociologist went around the world lecturing that the federations of Belgium and Canada must not be allowed to break up, and that Spain, France and Italy should become federations to protect the rights of their minorities? Would anyone even have noticed?

So here’s why the current controversy surrounding Galtung is potentially good news. Much like the criticism evoked recently by the KONY2012 campaign, which was accused of presenting a simplistic and factually lazy view of the complex conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Galtung’s fall into disrepute could draw closer the end of the era in which this asymmetry seemed so natural to so many people.

Perhaps historians will one day discuss why so many young and talented Europeans walked away from the burning issues and great challenges in their own countries to go out and solve problems in more exotic locales. Perhaps they will conclude that they did it not only because it seemed more fun and adventurous, but also because people like Galtung told them they could, and gave them cool triangular models and group-dialogue techniques to use as tools in ‘the field’. The idea is that conflicts can be solved easily by establishing stable federations, combining peace with justice, confronting the past with a view to the future, and engaging only in nonviolent resistance. In short, through all the things that never happened in Europe.

Those of us who live in conflict-ridden societies would benefit the most from an end to this era of Galtungian conflict resolution. We rarely gained anything from those distant university courses in conflict resolution and peace building. Perhaps we will at last be free of Galtung’s theories, which only nurture false notions of peace as a harmonious, justice-dripping Nirvana, of federalism as a magic solution for every problem, and of nonviolent resistance as a substitute for the political art of negotiation and compromise.

External mediators are not obsolete, but those who wish to take on this role must display exceptional degrees of honesty, neutrality and humility. Three qualities that are neither embodied by Galtung nor discernible in Peace Studies.

Yoni Eshpar is director of the public department at Gisha, an Israeli human-rights organisation. The views expressed above are his own and do not represent Gisha in any way.

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