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PCDN interview with John Gittings, author of The Glorious Art of Peace

Home Forums PCDN Interviews with Key Practitioners and Scholars PCDN interview with John Gittings, author of The Glorious Art of Peace

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    On 6 September 2012, PCDN spoke to John Gittings as part of its ongoing interview series with leading practitioners and scholars in the field.

    In addition to a variety of research and teaching postings at universities around the world, John has worked for two decades as an editor and correspondent with the Guardian. The major foci of his research and writing have been international affairs, particularly in relation to Asia. Recently, John has begun to consider issues of peace. He was Associate Editor of the Oxford International Encyclopaedia of Peace, published by Oxford University Press in 2010, and has recently published his own book entitled The Glorious Art of Peace: From the Iliad to Iraq.

    The book traces the philosophy of peace thought throughout the centuries, highlighting the fact that scholars and thinkers have since the times of classical Greece and China presented their leaders with cases for peace and against war. In underscoring the human propensity for peace, John makes the compelling argument that, despite our tendency to conceive of history as dominated by war, peace has actually been the norm. In bringing this fact to light, John’s book constitutes an important effort to encourage people to think in terms of peace rather than war. On 28 August 2012, John published an articleon the Oxford Research Group website outlining the arguments he concisely and effectively puts forward in his book.

    Interview:
    Can you give us a brief biography about yourself and how you transitioned into the field of peace from your long-term role as China and East Asia correspondent at the Guardian?

    I began life as a Classicist studying Latin and Greek then I moved into Oriental Studies studying Chinese and spent most of my adult life working on China. From the start, I was always concerned with China’s position in the world in relation to the Cold War. The first book I wrote was about the Chinese armyback in the 1960s when conventional wisdom in the west was that China was inherently expansionist and wanted to take over South-East Asia. I was concerned to show that China had a defensive foreign policy. I was also active in the late ’50 and ’60s in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament on peace issues so this was always a strong element in my political outlook. When I came to retire from the Guardian, which I did nearly ten years ago, I wanted to return to my Classical past and work on a comparative study of Ancient China and Ancient Greece because this is, in terms of our two great cultures and civilisations of the world, where we come from. I very soon came to realise that you can’t begin to look meaningfully at any culture or civilisation without asking the big questions about war and peace. So that was my point of entry into the subject.

    What ethics guide your work?

    One has to approach history from an ethical standpoint, and my ethical standpoint is a belief in humanity and in the power of human individuals to transform their surroundings. In relation to peace, this is a very strong element which I think I have done justice to in several sections of the book because quite apart from talking about how to achieve peace in terms of international diplomacy and arbitration and this and that mechanism, beyond and above that one should reckon with and recognise the popular desire for peace, which I have tried to chart over the ages. It tends not to be recorded in the history books, for example I always begin my story in Ancient China, where we are fortunate that in a text called The Book of Songs, we have preserved for us -almost accidentally – a whole set of what might be called ‘anti-war songs’ by ordinary people of the states of the Western Zhou Dynasty who were lamenting the way the men were enlisted to go and fight on the frontiers and the women and children were left at home. It’s all through history if you look hard enough: if you look you will find what I call this inherent desire for peace. […] If you essentially believe that human beings are prone to peace, then that will inform your work. Just think about it: humanity would not have survived or progressed without what I call long periods of productive peace. Most people have lived in peace and died in peace, and most people have never killed anyone else – so the argument is on the side of peace against war. I think this is an ethical position.

    What gaps do you think need to be addressed in the peacebuilding and development fields?

    I would say, first of all, that the peacekeeping and development fields need to be brought closer together. One of the curious things about peace advocacy in the last century and a half is that until relatively recent times, there was a much more holistic approach to peace. Peace was seen as part of a whole package of human demands and aspirations and in the early twentieth century the spirit of the League of Nations and then the United Nations tried to create the conditions for peace in the fullest sense; in other words, one has to secure the wellbeing of all people if one is to have the conditions in which peace can flourish. What has happened in the last few decades since the Cold War – and I would say, because of the Cold War – peace has become in a way to some extent compartmentalised. This is not 100% true and many people have tried to overcome the division. We have at the moment a powerful movement for peace and a powerful movement or movements for development to tackle global poverty and inequality and so on, and we need somehow to bring these two together.

    Secondly, following the great efforts that have been made in the field of peace education, certainly at least in my country, history continues to be written in terms of war rather than peace and this is largely the fault of the media. Peace research and Peace Studies – which have flourished in the last 30-40 years – have done so against some academic opposition and against political opposition as well. In England, the pioneering Department of Peace Studiesat the University of Bradford found itself attacked by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who sought to have it closed down. And even today, peace historians get much less hearing than historians of war.

    Do you collaborate with other organisations/scholars that are working on similar studies?

    I should acknowledge first of all the huge benefit I have gained from working with peace scholars on the Oxford International Encyclopaedia of Peace. I was very fortunate and privileged to be invited by the Editor-in-Chief Nigel Young to join this fantastic project at a fairly late stage and I was very gratified by my small role in it. I might add that when I told people I was working on an encyclopaedia of peace, the common reaction to this – which indicates something of the problem we have in relation to peace – “That’s going to be a very small encyclopaedia!” In fact, it turned out to be four massive volumes with I think 2800 pages, 800 entries and in our editorial meetings, we spent a lot of time discussing what to leave out. We are hoping we might one day produce an extra volume.

    Secondly, when I left the Guardian, I became involved with the Oxford Research Group which is an organisation which has been working over the years to try and promote dialogue between the various interests involved, particularly in nuclear weapons and nuclear diplomacy. For example, I went to Beijing with them six years ago in an effort to try and promote dialogue with the Chinese on nuclear issues although recently the Oxford Research Group has gone on to address more broadly the question of how to create an environment in which terrorism and threats like inequality and poverty can all be tackled in a dignified way. They have coined the term ‘sustainable security’ which applies to this approach to counter the very negative view of security as consisting entirely of identifying would-be terrorists.

    I should also mention the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament with which I have been associated over many decades which is sometimes thought of as being a little bit old-fashioned as if we don’t really need to campaign for nuclear disarmament. But we certainly still do – the fact that the Cold War is over hasn’t at all diminished the threat of nuclear weapons.

    What book(s) is a must-read for people interested in this field?

    By the way, the Select Bibliography at the end of my book contains a list of books which all serious central libraries should stock. Some of the best-known works in this field include Peter Brock’s work on pacifism which is absolutely central, I mention in particular his book Pacifism in Europe to 1914 [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972]. I would also mention the work on non-violence by British colleagues April Carter, Howard Clark and Michael Randle [People power and protest since 1945: A bibliography of nonviolent action, London: Housmans, 2006]. I probably don’t give enough attention to non-violence in my book, although there is half a chapter on it. It’s a complex subject and in a way it has been oversimplified by people thinking that non-violence is simply refraining from violence whereas it is actually a much more active policy than that, as Gandhi himself made very clear.

    In Anthropology, I think the work of Douglas Fry, particularly Beyond war: The human potential for peace [New York: Oxford University Press, 2007] is absolutely critical because the field of Anthropology has been dominated/was dominated towards the end of the Cold War by a super realistic view of human nature going back to primitive man as being intent on the destruction of others. There is a big argument in the Anthropological field which I think Douglas Fry gives a very good introduction to.

    One of the neglected subjects since the end of the Cold War has been United Nations reform, or lack thereof. Immediately after the Cold War ended, in a mood of optimism people believed they could solve the Middle East crisis, create a peace dividend, produce far fewer weapons and reform the organisations. And none of these things have happened. A book by the American scholar Paul Kennedy called The Parliament of Man: United Nations and the quest for world government [London: Allen Lane, 2006] is one of the few which opens up the subject as it should be opened up. I should also mention the work of Linda Melvern on the United Nations, too [The ultimate crime: Who betrayed the UN and why, London: Allison and Busby, 1995]. The massive study by Lawrence Wittner – three volumes plus a shorter volume – under the general title The struggle against the bomb [Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993-2003] charting the development of the anti-nuclear movement across the world, not just in the United States, Britain, Germany and France, is a superb work of scholarship and identifies and illuminates a very important fact that tends to be neglected: that popular activism has made a difference.
    I would say in conclusion that there are 30 or 40 books which I list in the Select Bibliography, all of which are very relevant in this field.


    As someone who has spent many years researching China, could you talk a bit about how you see China’s role in contemporary peace efforts?

    China in a way, although it has become much more active on the international scene since it was, so to say, ‘allowed’ to re-enter the family of nations having been isolated for so long, China still punches below its weight. I think for example that China as a nuclear power would be in a position, together with Britain – and I have argued this idea in Beijing as well as in London – to make an effort to promote much more drastic reductions in nuclear weaponry by the major nuclear powers with that ultimate goal of complete nuclear disarmament. I continue to believe as I always have that China is essentially a country which is not intent upon expansion. It is interesting by the way that the Chinese foreign ministry refers back to Confucian views on the need for harmony to justify and explain China’s advocacy of what they call a policy of harmonious international relations. I don’t have illusions about China – there are many things about China which I could criticise – but all I can say is that Chinese policy has not been expansionist and has not been imperialist. I recall asking someone in the Chinese foreign ministry if China wanted to be a superpower and his response was probably not: “We don’t want to overtake the United States as some people suggest we do – we recognise it is better being number two than number one.” Which I think is quite an astute way of putting it.

    Undoubtedly China has not made use of its relatively newly acquired weight in the international field to press for peaceful solutions in the way that it should, which is disappointing. I think one of the reasons for this is the arthritic nature of the Chinese political system which simply has not modernised in the way that it should. It’s still very creaky, as we see at the moment in the contortions and upheavals going on in Chinese politics. And if you have that sort of irrational and perverse political superstructure, it makes it very difficult for those in China who advocate a much more intelligent foreign policy to be heard, and they are wary of doing so. China needs to do more. Another problem is that China continues to be demonised.

    Questions related to The Glorious Art of Peace

    You mention in your book that Peace Studies as an academic discipline has continued to grow over the past decades, yet you also note that the strength of the international peace movement has waxed and waned according to global situation. How do you explain the difference in these trends?

    Well I think there is insufficient connection between the Peace Studies field and active campaigns, which is natural in a way but I would like to see closer links. Of course, academic Peace Studies have to be careful not to be identified or misidentified as having a political agenda, so it is perhaps not surprising. We have to try to popularise the very considerable work produced in the Peace Studies field and make it more accessible to the campaigners.

    Do you believe that a book on the ‘art of peace’ could have been attempted earlier or is your book a product of our particular time (and attitudes to peace)?

    On the contrary, I try to show that the concern by peace thinkers for what I call the ‘art of peace’ is part of a narrative or discourse which can be traced back at least to the Renaissance. From the time of Erasmus and fellow humanists to the present day, a continuous thread of argument of the subject of the art of peace has existed. Erasmus himself in his essay Education of a Christian Prince included a section of the art of peace which I quote. I don’t think that it is only now that we can raise a subject which has been raised in different forms and by different people over centuries. The issue more is that we tend to forget what they have said.

    Since writing this book, for example, I have become very interested in what Victor Hugo had to say on the subject of peace. Of course, many people know that he delivered the opening speech at the international Paris Peace Congress in 1849 but this is often regarded, as one of his biographers suggests, that he just said what needed to be said, like a matter of etiquette. But if you go into Victor Hugo’s writings you realise he said and wrote a lot more on peace including some very powerful poems which are hardly known today and actually haven’t been translated into English. I translate one of them in part in a collection of poems on my Facebookpage. That’s a digression but the peace dialogue is there; it has been calculated that Erasmus’ writings on peace amount to some 400 pages. There is amazing and creative writing on peace in prose, poetry, philosophical argument and in imaginative literature if we care to go and look for it.

    The idea of a ‘Thirty Years War’ from 1914 to 1945 has been advocated by such people as Charles de Gaulle, yet you demonstrate that peace aspirations – and indeed, peace – were very strong in the interwar period. Can you talk about the link between the First and Second World Wars in terms of war and peace?

    In two years’ time, we will come to the hundredth anniversary of the First World War so we are going to find ourselves where we will be or where we should be trying to sum up the last one hundred years of world history and the relationship between the First World War and the Second World War is very important in this regard. People often say and I say it myself that while they may be opposed to most wars and that most wars are avoidable, the Second World War probably wasn’t avoidable. But that in a way is to bypass the question because if the Second World War is regarded as a continuation in a sense or an inevitable product of the First World War, then that throws you back to the earlier question: was the First World War inevitable? Which in my view, it was not. So you have to address again more rigorously that whole question of the conditions which brought about the First World War. So I think what you’re raising is a very large question which we need to really need to get our teeth into, particularly because of the anniversary approaching.


    Do you believe that governments today continue to misappropriate the terminology of ‘peace’ as they often did during the Cold War?

    I think it’s done less blatantly now, partly because peace campaigners no longer present a challenge to conventional political wisdom in the way they did when nuclear weapons were much more of a prominent issue. I think there is rather more subtle manipulation of the terminology of ‘peace’. If we look at the Iraq War and the more recent intervention in Libya, we see that western powers and particularly the United States and Britain and in the case of Libya, France, spoke in terms of maintaining peace while promoting war. I think the misuse of the UN Resolution on Libyahas had disastrous consequences: the way in which Britain, the United States and France went beyond that Resolution to provide covert support to the opposition rather than simply protecting civilians – which is the purpose of that Resolution, set a very bad example and has made it much harder to secure effective international consensus on Syria. Of course there’s a long history of distorting the meaning of UN Resolutions in order to make war. So in that sense, these terms continue to be misappropriated and misapplied.


    You stress throughout the book the importance of the weight of public opinion in making governments reconsider going to war (e.g. pp. 211-212), as well as the importance of publishing pro-peace material (p. 237) – what role do you think pro-peace foundations and networks such as the PCDN have to play in this sphere?

    First of all, the fact that organised networks like the PCDN are working with different media and social media is very important because it means they are mounting a challenge to make the field more open to critical and heterodox views than the established media. So this is very positive. There’s no easy answer as to how to raise the profile of what you might call the peace agenda – if there were, we would have done it already. I think we are dealing with the intellectual superstructure of the west which still bears the marks of the Cold War where opinions were polarised and where those who spoke of peace actually stuck their heads out and took a risk while doing so, particularly professionally – so much so in fact that some peace scholars preferred to avoid the work altogether because they knew it would have negative consequences professionally. (The reaction I found when I was writing this book, even among academic friends, was slight puzzlement that this subject has enough substance to merit dense and serious extensive work reflects this view). Organisations such as the PCDN have a great opportunity to redress the balance, but it still going to be uphill work.

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