Promoting Peace at Home and Abroad: A Challenge for Peace Activists

Posted on February 8, 2022 By

by John Whitehead

Among the many challenges facing peace activists is how widely to spread their peacemaking efforts. Should they devote their energies to opposing wars and other hawkish policies pursued by their own countries? Or should they work against hawkish policies pursued by all countries, everywhere? Each approach has its advantages and disadvantages and, as is usually the case, finding a balance between extremes is necessary. I would argue that peace activists should focus on working against their own countries’ wars and preparations for war—but that this focus should be carefully qualified.

Promoting Peace at Home

The main argument for focusing on opposition to one’s own country’s wars is that such opposition is the most practically effective strategy. A country’s citizens generally have far more influence over what their own government does than what other countries’ governments do. While the odds are typically stacked against peace activists’ efforts in any situation, such activists have at least a better chance of stopping or limiting their own governments’ war-making than of having such an impact on other governments. A home-country focus is a better use of one’s energies.

Further, trying to stop other countries’ hawkish policies isn’t only inefficient, it can be dangerous. Pushing for opposition to or confrontation with another country can easily increase international tensions in a way that makes war more likely or can escalate existing wars. This danger is especially great if activists try to exert pressure on other countries through their own governments, which are full of policymakers who don’t share the activists’ own concern for peace.

Promoting Peace Abroad

In contrast, advocates for anti-war efforts with a more global scope could argue that peace activists need to be concerned with war and its victims everywhere, regardless of the countries involved. National boundaries don’t eliminate the larger bonds of humanity, and work to stop war’s violence shouldn’t be limited by such boundaries either.

Further, trying to stop only one’s own country’s hawkish policies isn’t a good long-term response to war in general. Even if activists could end all wars and related policies pursued by their own governments, war would presumably continue in the world, and peace activists would still need to grapple with that. Also, if peace activists’ own country is directly involved in a conflict with another country, that situation might well require activists to identify responses beyond just refraining from waging war. Working to stop another country’s hawkishness might be inevitable in such situations.

Possible Approaches

I see the strengths of both positions. Finding some balance or middle way between them that doesn’t set peace activists against each other is difficult. I will just offer some tentative thoughts on how to address the legitimate concerns of both positions:

  • Peace activists should devote most of their time and energies to opposing the wars and hawkish policies of their own governments. This is the area where peace activists can be most effective (and therefore perhaps have the greatest obligation to act). Peace building at home should be activists’ focus.
  • However, this home-country focus should not become an exclusive focus only on one’s own country’s war-making. Peace activists should sometimes work against other countries’ war-making, even if this isn’t their primary concern.
  • On those unusual occasions when peace activists do work against other countries’ war-making, they should strive to work through channels other than their own government. Working through international institutions such as the United Nations or non-governmental organizations and (perhaps most important) working in collaboration with peace activists in the targeted country is a preferable way of opposing another country’s hawkish policies. Working through one’s own government is a risky approach, as it can all too easily turn opposition to the other country’s war into a cover for one’s own country’s hawkish policies.
  • While peace activists should focus on opposition to war-making by their own countries, they should always remain aware of and informed about war-making by other countries. They should cultivate this global perspective for two reasons:
    • Even if we cannot do anything else, the absolute least we can do for victims of war around the world is to recognize their suffering.
    • A global awareness of war makes peace activists more effective in the struggles within their own countries. Having a broad, cross-cultural understanding of wars and the situations in which they occur makes peace activists better analysts and critics of their own countries’ wars. For example, knowing that countries that are very different (politically, economically, or culturally) from an activist’s own country have nevertheless pursued similarly hawkish policies can give that activist a more sophisticated understanding of why countries pursue such policies.
  • Peace activists should always seek to identify creative new ways of resolving conflicts without resort to violence. This will help both in opposing their own countries’ wars and those of other countries. (This last point is perhaps the most obvious one of the whole list, but it never hurts to emphasize it.)

As I said, these are just tentative ideas. Whether or not these particular suggestions are the best approach, peace activists should give careful thought to the problem of how we can best promote peace at home and abroad.

 

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For more of our posts on the peace movement, see:

Making the Case for Peace to Conservatives

Fifty Years of Protesting for Peace

The Consistent Peace Ethic

An Example of Why the Peace Movement is in Deep Trouble

Inconsistency Sabotages the Peace Movement 

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