Book review: A Strategy for Peace

Note: I cross-posted this at my other blog, Books and Other Miscellany.

I chose to read A Strategy for Peace: Human Values and the Threat of War, by Sissela Bok, because I was looking for a book that would offer an alternative to the perspective of just war theory. I specifically wanted a book that addressed the topics of war and peace in the same philosophical vein as Arguing About War, including a focus on morality. This book seemed like a promising choice: the author has a Ph.D. in philosophy from Harvard University and the title and book jacket description emphasize moral values. As it turned out, the perspective that Bok offers is not necessarily contradictory with just war theory, but, unlike just war theory, it does focus on the goal of one day eliminating war. Overall, I found the book more dense and less accessible than Arguing About War. It took significant attention to take in what I was reading, and I found myself reading entire pages and realizing that I hadn’t quite registered what I had just read. This perhaps contributed to the fact that I did not get as much out of the book as I hoped I would.

Bok’s premise in A Strategy for Peace is that we must make a directed effort towards peace in order to avoid destroying ourselves in a nuclear war. To do this, she proposes a practical strategy that can and should be followed by both nations and individuals. She draws on two seemingly opposite philosophers to develop her strategy for peace: Kant and Clausewitz. She proposes that in order to take steps towards peace, we need both a moral framework to guide us and a clear strategy to follow. From Kant, she gets her moral framework, drawing in particular on his work “Perpetual Peace.” Kant lays out four moral constraints that must be adhered to in order to reach peace, and all of which are fairly universal across cultures and religions, to at least some degree: constraints on violence, deceit, betrayal, and excessive secrecy (which correspond the the positive moral principles of nonviolence, veracity, fidelity, and publicity). From Clausewitz, who wrote On War, Bok takes a sharp strategic sense. She suggests that the work towards peace should be approached as a “war” on war; that is, instead of nations warring against each other, they are together waging a war against a common adversary. When looked at in this light, it becomes clear that many of the stragies used during war apply equally to the fight for peace, as Bok explains:

A strategy of peace directed against such a threat [of world-wide nuclear war] is no longer opposed to the wisest military strategy, including that of Clausewitz. It requires the same long-range planning and coordination of efforts as the most intricate military campaign. And it calls for the same coolheaded skepticism about the rhetoric of trust, harmony, and peace that Clausewitz evinced about that of glory, honor, and invulnerability.

An important overarching theme in A Strategy for Peace is that of trust. Bok emphasizes that distrust between nations contributes to an atmosphere ripe for war. At the same time, she reassures the reader that “healthy” distrust is necessary to avoid being taken advantage of:

The second distinction is that between rational and irrational distrust. Everyone needs a measure of distrust to be able to discern and evaluate dangers and to guard against them while there is still time to do so. It is when such distrust veers toward paranoia or invites excessive, damaging distrust from others that it becomes unreasonable and, in the end, self-distructive.

She also points out that it is possible to have rational distrust without increasing your adversary’s distrust:

…there need be no automatic link between exercising rational distrust and behaving in such a way as to intensify distrust on the part of one’s adversary. It is when the two are seen as linked and stimulate one another that partisanship is most likely to reach the point of pathology and to encourage a spiral of escalation.

I think this is a very important point; so often it seems that a nation claims it is only “defending” itself, but it is doing so in such a way as to appear offensive and thus threatening to other nations.

A Strategy for Peace offered a new perspective to me. Although the question of trust is one that I have thought about before, Bok draws out its nuances quite clearly. The idea of laying out a firm moral framework that governments and individuals should adhere to was mostly new to me, and Bok has persuaded me of its importance. I do not like the language of approaching peace as a “war” against war, but I agree for the most part with the content of this approach: that we need a strategy for peace, and much of this strategy is in fact not so different from military strategy. However, although I find Bok’s arguments persuasive, I did not come away from the book feeling especially inspired or hopeful. Instead, I find myself harboring doubts. Is it really possible for governments to adhere to a moral framework? Is it really possible to move from our current atmosphere of immense distrust between nations to a more trusting one? I do not feel after reading this book that I have a clear sense of how exactly we can go about making changes for the better, even though she seems to be proposing a definite strategy. I have a sense that something more is needed that what Bok proposes – that everything she discusses is necessary, but it is not enough. I have not, however, clarified in my mind what that something more might be.

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