What Next? And Why?

These last few weeks, I’ve been preoccupied by two questions:

  1. What Next?
  2. Why?

Number one is the predictable consequence of having, to all intents and purposes, finished my PhD. I suspect that number two is a consequence of having emerged from four years of full time research (with a very clear goal that helped to filter out a lot of what was going on elsewhere) to find that the world at large is an extremely inhospitable place for idealists.

Just to be clear, the question I’m asking is not “Why Violence?” One thing that Peace Studies does well is to explain the origins of violence – direct, structural and cultural – and to demonstrate that in the long term, violence begets more violence.[1] So while I am saddened by the atrocities in the world (I keep coming back to the seventy Yazidi women whose remains were discovered in a mass grave in Sinjar a fortnight ago, and their daughters and granddaughters who remain alive), I cannot profess myself to be shocked or confused by what I read in the news.

No, the question I am asking is, “Why Peace?” It seems like a frivolous concept. An outlandish idea. Something very old-fashioned, totally impractical in today’s world. An unattainable relic from a bygone era, and of course, very much associated with some uncomfortable (for me) discourses on religion and spirituality. Why should I continue to identify as a peace researcher, when it would be so much more in tune with the times to reinvent myself as an expert in conflict, in security, even in terrorism? Why not abandon principles and side with the pragmatists? What difference does it make?

Reading the statements produced by various pacifist and peacebuilding organisations over the last two weeks, unequivocally denouncing all violence and militarisation on a global scale, has only heightened this inclination. Not because I think they are wrong, but because I think they seem to be talking past all the warmongers, or perhaps shouting down a deep, dark well. Of course, someone has to say all these things. I just don’t think I’m cut out to be one of those people. Maybe it’s the feminist in me, but I prefer to inhabit those blurry spaces – precisely the ones where principles and pragmatism come into conflict – and to understand the mechanics by which we learn to cope with our unending disappointment in the world. Maybe that explains why I stubbornly cling to the identity of peace researcher, in spite of my abundant cynicism.

The Strategic Peacebuilding Wheel

As I grapple with these questions of What Next? and Why?, I am reminded of a useful tool which has helped me in similar situations in the past (usually during some kind of fieldwork crisis). It’s a visual tool, and I find that studying it makes me feel much calmer than repeating a mantra or a physical exercise. It’s called the Strategic Peacebuilding Wheel, and it can be downloaded as a PDF from the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at http://kroc.nd.edu/strategic-peacebuilding-pathways.

strategic peacebuilding wheel

Strategic Peacebuilding Wheel, by John Paul Lederach and Katie Mansfield.

Looking at the Wheel comforts me for three reasons:

  1. The image is a reminder of the effort that goes into peacebuilding, every single day, across multiple contexts. It is a reminder that all these areas of social and political action – from Transitional Justice to Development, and from Humanitarian Action to Dialogue – are interconnected. When we concentrate all our energy in a single area (which we often do), we don’t always see what is going on in the other sections. It seems so easy to point out the links between violence around the world, from Paris to Baghdad, Beirut to Bamako. It is much harder sometimes to spot the connections between different kinds of peace activism. Yet the connections are there. A systematic approach to peace is not only possible, it is imperative.
  2. The image helps me to identify my own position within the whole. For several years, I’ve consistently identified with the orange segment, Dialogue/Conflict Resolution Strategies, with a strong side interest in both Education and Non-Violent Social Change. Acknowledging that this is where both my strengths and my interests lie makes it easier to figure out my identity as a researcher and activist, and to limit the amount of energy I spend getting involved in other areas – physically, intellectually, emotionally. (It also explains why I am often irritated when people suggest that I apply for jobs in policy-making, or when they assume that I must spend a lot of my time working with survivors of sexual violence. These are important areas – but they’re not what I do.)
  3. The image is clear evidence that peacebuilding is not (just) about taking a principled, pacifist stance. The idea of strategic peacebuilding calls for a mixture of principles and pragmatism – as becomes obvious to me when I think about what little I know of other areas, such as restorative justice. My own fieldwork demonstrated that women’s peace activism in Armenia and Azerbaijan is grounded in pragmatic efforts to maintain/develop cross-border dialogue and cooperation, rather than advocating for peace in an abstract sense.

Feminist Curiosity

Thinking about all this, I am reminded of one of the major feminist contributions to international relations, which is Cynthia Enloe’s work on war and militarism. As a curious feminist, Enloe teaches us that:

“Decisions involve power. Many observers of nationalism, by ignoring women’s experiences and by trivialising relationships between men and women, have underestimated the number of decisions it has taken to construct nationalism. Those who have underestimated the number of decisions it has actually taken to develop ethnic consciousness, to politicise it, to transform it into nationalism, and – on occasion – to turn it into a violent force, in turn, have vastly underestimated the flows of power.”[2]

A similar framework can be applied in peace studies. As a feminist peace researcher, I am concerned with the flows of power in the arenas of peacebuilding and peacemaking, and with the power relations, many of them gendered, that lead to strategic decision-making on the part of diplomats and mediators, peacebuilders and activists.

As a research agenda, I find this both critical and potentially transformative. One thing it does not do – offer a panacea for the devastating violence taking place around the world. But then again, why on earth should anyone expect it to?

[1] The distinction between direct, structural and cultural violence was made by Johan Galtung, one of the founders of peace research in the 1960s. A huge volume of his research is available to download here: https://www.galtung-institut.de/en/home/johan-galtung/. For a useful summary of his theory of violence, see: http://ahmedafzaal.com/2012/02/20/the-violence-triangle/.

[2] Cynthia Enloe, The Curious Feminist: Searching for Women in a New Age of Empire (University of California Press: Berkeley, 2004), 103. ISBN: 9780520243811. For a list of her other publications, see http://www.clarku.edu/faculty/facultybio.cfm?id=343.

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