On Conflict and Peace – Not Religion, but Self-confidence*

*. Presentation to the Norwegian Chaplains Corps 50th Anniversary Conference on Conflict and Peace – Religion, the Missing Link?, Oslo Oct. 25, 2003


Confidence in general can be considered as a key psychological element in all conflict relations. However, to build confidence it is necessary to demonstrate courage in the sense that one are willing to take risks; demonstrate willingness to find just solutions, insight in the adversary’s interests and how to harmonize them with ones own, and finally showing moderation as an expression of understanding the difficult psychological mechanisms. In such a context we are not only talking about confidence between the adversaries, we are as much talking about self-confidence.

In the case of most modern conflicts, confidence is linked to fear, the classical complex in the relations between a majority and a minority of the population. This has become the paradox within the complicated ‘violation of human rights’ where the victim became the offender and vice versa, a tragic catch 22 where both parties find themselves caught in their own trap.

This ‘trap’ is also called ‘hate and mistrust’. As long as the adversaries live, they will never forget or forgive. Confidence building therefore, has become more an expression of self-confidence and technical rules for how to live together and how to seek a more prosperous future together.

Consequently, in my discussion, I will concentrate on narrow moral aspects in possible interrelations between conflict resolution and religious peace mechanisms.

My general impression is that the current discussions about conflicts, to a too large extent, still are locked to security interests alone, influenced by the Clausewitzian worldview. It rests on the concept of the Trinitarian war, assuming that war is made predominantly by governments, and supported by the armed forces and the people. These basic ideas constitute the core of the dictum that ‘war is the continuation of politics through other means’. The wider context must also be understood, which was provided by the late European enlightenment and the age of reason. I believe it is important to isolate this concept of war policy, mainly because of its axiomatic methods.

In modern military thinking our fundamental views are built on a completely different dictum: ‘Politics must continue; war cannot’, as John Keegen concludes in his History of Warfare. Behind this view we can dimly perceive moral undertones.

This particular maxim can be coupled to another fundamental idea, which we have got from Hannah Arendt. My opinion is that she showed she was wiser than Clausewitz and Kissinger when she said that “violence is the breakdown of politics,not its ‘continuation by other means’”.

My conclusion in more military terms will therefore be as follows: What prevents or limits war is pragmatic realism expressed in a flexible political grand strategy with its roots in moral thinking and values.

Therefore, politics have to be robust, robust in the sense that it follows a stringent moral codex and is carried out by a firm will.

This is built on the experience that firm leadership comes first and foremost in all work with conflict prevention and conflict resolution.

Already in AD 383, the Roman general Themistius wrote that the strength of Rome lay ‘not in breastplates and shields, not in countless masses of men, but in Reason.’

In my opinion the soldiers’ main challenge in modern times, is to handle war, or war-like situations, in such a way that room is made for the politicians to return to the dialog as the main tool to restore normalcy and find methods for a conflict resolution. The alternative is the grand strategy, ‘War for peace’ that is based on the military strategy, ‘Fight and win’

To obtain restored normalcy, I believe, it takes self-confidence that builds upon logical moral qualifications. In my professional perspective these ‘logical moral qualifications’ are the practical expression of every day’s moral rules. This is where I can see religion is playing a role. Being the source of energy to maintaining self-confidence: courage, understanding, just thinking and moderation in all things.

The Americans’ problems in Iraq can probably be retraced to their self-image as the victorious part, their self-centered politics that is based on blind belief in the so-called ‘Realpolitik’, the grand strategy that belongs to it, and an extensive use of ‘appropriate technology’. These unfortunate combinations led them directly to a confrontation with self-inflicted problems, which derived from a war in transformation, a war they initiated themselves. The Americans became themselves a multidimensional part of the problem.

This happened partly because of defects in the leadership’s understanding of modern military realism, and partly because the current realism makes it difficult to act according to the moral standards we are used to.

The medieval thinking that we experienced led to the Presidential announcement that ‘the war is over’, and revealed the dangerous lack of pragmatic realism that further on was transformed into political naivism maintaining the terminology from the old-fashioned Clausewitzian ‘Realpolitik’.

By presenting such a declaration, the President actually initiated the transformation of the war. Technically, we are therefore observing a violent cease-fire dominated by subversive-, undercover- and unconventional military actions.

The conventional war fighting is over, however, what we experience now is the asymmetric unconventional continuation of it.

The series of setbacks that mainly the American troops are suffering in Iraq are not due to tactical or operational mistakes, but rather structural defects in the war policy, the higher strategic methods of handling conflicts and war of our time.

‘Realpolitik’ has changed dramatically as a concept, and is now an expression of understanding the interaction and the complicated interrelations between harmonization and balancing national interests in an international community.

My assertion is that pragmatic realism is the only thing that brings results. The moral backbone makes the results acceptable.

Social justice, not religion

Referring to what has been experienced in e.g. Sri Lanka, the adversaries are justifying their cause quite differently. On one side the Government of Sri Lanka (the GoSL) is referring to illegal- and criminal acts committed by the Tamils. While on the other hand the Tigers are referring to what they have been exposed to in the past. They are referring to violation of some of the Tamil’s human rights, i.e. violations of their national-, ethnic- and social rights.

Studies of the belligerents’ points of view are of great importance to understand their logic. Questions about the human rights, the constitution and more form for the time being perhaps the most significant legal questions in the cease-fire process. The importance of these difficult questions, and their extremely complex background, is linked to the core of this conflict. Consequently, it will probably have a complex solution based on difficult negotiations. The difficulties are mainly hidden behind the interpretation of ‘equality and justice for all’. This may sound like a highly philosophical expression, but it certainly has a gory history in this country. It is quite obvious however, that there is a fragile connection between the individual’s social relations, feeling of security, and understanding of national belonging. From this we derive our understanding of ‘national integrity’ in this particular ‘ethnic conflict’. In this case ethnicity, contains both a legal principle (the human rights), and a practical territorial question (a justification of Eelam).

However, the nation’s integrity also has an international dimension, which counts equally with the national one. It is the responsibilities it has in the international relations and -networks.

All negotiations, mediations and political constructions during the cease-fire process are supposed to reflect all these considerations. The period under the cease-fire also forms the space where all legal preparations will have to take place.

All social and legal aspects in this period will consequently count in the respect that they support the general credibility, and that they reflect human values.

Violent cease-fire, a transformation of war

Further on, I will comment on one of the most difficult and complex conflicts today, the Sri Lanka conflict.

As we have watched an exposure in the peace negotiations, I strongly feel the necessity for a clarification of what are facts and what are fictions in such a process in general, and perhaps in this situation in particular.

Are we actually experiencing violence utilized as political means? Or, to what extent do our own psychology and political perception color our ‘understanding’ of the belligerents’ actions and reactions? How do we separate naivety from pragmatic reality?

The answers to all these questions, and more, contribute to our understanding of the complexity of the process itself, and not only of the spectacular events in the current situation.

My interpretation of the situation is based on the view that this war has constituted its own particular rules and regulations, which must not be mixed up with general principles of justice and morality. Consequently, it is folly to criticize the use of unconventional means as long as these are kept within ‘the rules and customs of this war’, all taken into consideration the general situation of asymmetries, and that the belligerents still claim their legal rights unconditionally.

When the mutual confidence is gone, as it is between belligerents, the naked self-interest prevails. In such situations some call ‘moral wisdom’ what others consider as ‘fear’, and some call ‘brutality’ what others call ‘just punishment’. The moral way of talking and thinking is consequently most suspicious and misleading during war.

However, the problematic issue here is how the handling of a rather common international moral misunderstanding can be formalized. The confusion is best characterized through its vocabulary where ‘unconventional’ warfare is generalized as synonymous with criminal acts, and vis-à-versa, that criminal acts are sometimes characterized as acts of war (terrorism). In the case of Sri Lanka, the analysis will have to be carried out within the framework of asymmetric, unconventional total warfare.

At this point we are touching a very delicate and difficult issue: The transformation of war.

I will maintain the assertion that sub actors, who are not directly involved in the negotiations, exercise violence in plain political self-interest. These factions’ activities make us realize that Sri Lanka still is at war. We realize that the peace talks are taking place under a state of violent cease-fire, and that mutual confidence has not been restored.

In such a situation the moral- and political vocabulary runs idle and are reduced to plain semantics.

Consequently, I will separate this particular discussion in the following two issues:

  • The paradoxical logic of the violent cease-fire, and
  • The grand strategy’s limitations

The paradoxical logic of the violent cease-fire

The current situation in Sri Lanka represents in many ways a window towards a most realistic future.

First, considering the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (the LTTE)-regime, it does not represent a real Tamil ‘government’, and Sri Lanka, under the existing conditions, is not per definition1Forming a nation-state, which is able to create both the infrastructure necessary for the effective administration, that is constitutionally disciplined, and that can guarantee also the freedom for individual and collective legal acts. a nation-state in complete function. These assertions are based on analyses of several conflicts of our time.

Secondly, once the legal monopoly of armed forces, which for a long time has been claimed by the state, is wrested out of its hands, the distinction between war and crime gradually will be broken down.

This is not something we can observe only in Sri Lanka; this has also taken place in El Salvador, Peru and in the conflict in Colombia, just to mention some.

If crime and war become indistinguishable, then ‘armed protection’ in the future may be viewed as a local concept.

The next main issue, which also can be viewed as a dimension in change, is what the international humanitarian organizations refer to as ‘moral obligations’.

However, when we are talking about ‘moral obligations’; what society are we then actually talking about? Is it the ‘humanity-as-a-whole dimension’? Or, do these obligations only apply vis-à-vis countrymen, fellow citizens who belong to the same state, or perhaps only in this particular case of war?

A moral philosophy that does not emphasize these distinctions will not be able to grasp the objective reality in this particular conflict.

The Parties, consequently, lay down as a general principle, the respect for the neighbor’s life and property. However, what does this mutual respect means? To answer this question we need to realize what has happened in Sri Lanka during the twenty years of war. Murder and plunder, corruption, fraud, trickery, and lies have followed in the wake of the terrible war.

We have witnessed that criminal acts have transformed into new elements in a low-intensity armed conflict on the bases of racial, religious, social and political antagonism.

What the witches cried out in Macbeth has now been echoed in this conflict: ‘Fair is foul, and foul is fair’.

During the negotiations we have seen that this psychology has created a strategy of antagonistic political positioning on both sides, and that this positioning is what makes the situation difficult and paradoxical complicated to follow.

These, and other observations, have to be studied as background and basis for the formulation of new and alternative constitutional ideas about the future of the nation-state. Regardless organizational structure, most independent, mutual dependent nation-states in our century are creating a power balance figuration, which again is built around another paradox: a normative codex that is distinguished by its doubleness.

First, there is established a moral codex based on an egalitarian category. This is based on the principle that the human individual represents the highest value. Secondly, we have a nationalistic codex based on a non-egalitarian category, which highest value is the community, the state, and the nation that the subjects belong to.2The former descend from the French revolution (tiers ètat), the other from Machiavelli’s The Prince.

Both Parties demonstrate ambitions and aspirations as political and legal representatives in the current situation, and both aim at a constitutional solution based on this paradoxical doubleness, an egalitarian and a non-egalitarian codex. However, both principles form intricate legal elements of the conflict. First, the same elements form the bases for the Parties rationale for exercising violation during the cease-fire, while it at the same time explain why they fail to exercise legal authority in the territories that they claim to control.

Secondly, the political grand strategy reveals limitations, which can be traced back to the important distinction between balancing- and harmonization of interests.

The grand strategy’s limitations

When discussions about security take place, the expression ‘balance of power’ is frequently used (by all parties involved) as if asymmetry did not exist.

First of all, it reveals that there is made no practical distinction between ‘balancing’ and ‘harmonization’ of power. However, in a political context, and in practice, there is an enormous difference. It is the difference between coerciveness and the dialog. We can easily point at moral elements in the assessments by analyzing and compare the consequences.

Secondly, the absence of a political argument available for one of the adversaries brings them in the unfortunate situation to talk politics on the bases of their power argumentation only.

Thirdly, as it obviously takes time to establish a political workable argument, the negotiations can easily develop into a stale mate, and cement the situation.

The factors mentioned above constitute the major limitations in the work to find realistic political strategies. Many of the unfortunate events that we have observed lately are definitely not deliberate actions, but results of plain uncertainty. The fact that the time factor also is out of control, together with the uncertainty described, results in miscalculations and misunderstandings.

In this particular context I have in mind the political strategies, or the grand strategy, of both Parties. These are mainly built upon the Parties warring interests: the territorial interests, the economic necessities, and the security, in other words; how peace will look like.

It is within the interaction between the parties themselves, and within the framework of their relations with sponsors that we can see additional limitations, or more precisely, limitations based on unforeseen consequences for the peace and the future caused by the same relations.

These difficulties are linked to differences in motives, time factor and justice, as national induced factors on one side and, motives, time factor and strategic global control as international induced factors on the other.

The uncertainties attached to internationalization are therefore not a problem per se. The problems occur as a result of the uncontrolled differences in the load-carrying factors in the process (territory, economy and security), from both a national and an international point of view.

The harmonization of these factors will logically derive from: First, that the parties’ partnership will be made jointly and severally responsible. Secondly, that the parties have to develop a common understanding of the importance of the creation of a political argument for both sides in the dispute. Thirdly, the political argument will form the necessary possibilities to move their argumentation into a more constructive field, without removing their possibilities to apply pressure to the other party. Fourthly, that the time factor is working in two tempi. Rapid moves and quick reactions must continue to be the hallmark within the regime of the political argument. A much slower pace is needed to overcome the tasks derived from the power argument. (Not to be confused with quick reaction during incidents). At this point it is necessary to underscore the differences between the Major Powers’ and the Parties’ views on the time factor as load-carrying factor in the process. Fifthly, the harmonizing of military power will have to take into consideration the asymmetry, but also the dangerous possibility to transform hostilities into an unconventional operational concept.

The overall picture leaves behind the impression that although we are talking about a cease-fire, hostilities still exist.

Some reflections around moral considerations and conflicts

It is very difficult to handle the obvious deceptive effects of the Major Power’s official humanitarian intervention in conflicts while they at the same time do not reveal their own national interests in the same conflict theater. One can raise serious moral questions to this behavior without being naïve. The danger lies in being accused for hostility. This unfortunate fact adds to the general uncertainty, and is an important part of the background for the transformation of the war and reveals also uncertainty about moral standards.

To withstand such political and moral behavior I believe that the solution both in the Middle East and in South Asia is the composition of monitoring missions, as part of a cease-fire agreement.

In Sri Lanka it consists of persons only from the five Nordic countries. These are countries with about the same historic background, same religion, same culture, same social background and political points of view, and same moral values. The fundamental upbringing and professional training systems in these countries include, as an essential and integral part, the very understanding of human rights and how to exercise altruism. In Norway we talk about the Nansen tradition.

In such a situation international humanitarian organizations only tailored for handling one-dimensional international conflict elements are confronted with fundamental and serious problems; security, communication with illegal and criminal organizations, dependence of umbrella organizations and their general policies etc. The Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs) are definitely not designed to cope with the multi-dimensional problems as a result of civil wars, and situations where the handling of the interactive mechanisms in the war zone is the key to success. It is within this picture we can find the moral illusion that use of force (i.e. coercive means in its widest sense) is a new form of the so-called ‘new military humanism’.3The Balkan wars: German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer “became an advocate of what Ulrich Beck, a German intellectual, called ‘NATOs new military humanism’ – the notion, defended by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, that the defense of human rights is a form of military mission”. In stead this thinking reflects only old-fashioned ‘Realpolitik’ confused with modern realistic reasoning.

As you have noticed, my discussions are completely dictated by modern military realism. This particular realism implies an idea of amorality. Both traditional common morality and reflexive morality belong to normal life, and the usual trot.

However, war constitutes such a crucial breach of all normalcies that every day’s moral categories do not function any longer. Consequently, acts of war ought not to be attributed any moral predicate. Therefore, we should not argue or assess any acts in war on the bases of a morale vocabulary.

Based on this argument the war takes place beyond good and evil, even outside any moral existence. In other words, an act of war is neither evil nor good, neither unjust nor just, neither unethical nor ethical. It can only be wise or unwise, suitable for the purpose or counterproductive.

However, within the idea of amorality, ethical considerations and arguments are well suited as vicarious argumentation.

Whenever we discuss the understanding of ‘ethic in war’, whether it is meaningful or only a misleading illusion, it is, at the same time, important to take into consideration all the nuances that are revealed down through history. What I have in mind is the differences between jus ad bellum, jus in bellum and jus ante bellum.

My warning is linked to the tactical argumentation, which show sign of mixing legal elements with political. This is sly tactics that is built upon intentional ignorance. When this kind of rhetoric is used one might as well consult Habla Dabla who summed up in his masterful epistemology: ‘When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean’.

Conclusive remarks

I am afraid that our general view of today’s world is oversimplified and naïve, although we know that the international society lost its innocence long ago.

I strongly feel the presence of forces, which we are not able to control. This represents the pessimistic element in my views.

On one hand, we have created scientific forces that first of all are active in a remote perspective. On the other hand, we have forces, which belong in the short perspective, though, with unforeseen consequences in the remote perspective.

In my opinion there are five main categories of social and psychological power factors.

First, we can observe our physical power. With physical power we can control nature, human life and death, and even exercise power to control human life itself through scientific self-manipulation. This fact has obviously contributed to our views on human values, human rights and conflict handling. Secondly, political activism has made us more conscious and more sensitive to mass mobilization than earlier. We all expect to take part in decision-making, – but without being accountable for the consequences. Thirdly, there are our individual- and collective expectations as a driving factor. Our expectations represent the fuel needed to most of our activities that we wish to consider as progress. However, every day we can observe that we want more, and the poor want what the rich already have. Fourthly, the pace in the social changes is out of control. I have studied my own generation and compared it with the generation of my parents and our two sons. I have compared our culture, life-style and social infrastructure. The life of every generation tends to be increasingly different from the predecessor’s. Finally, we have the psychological impact of the internationalization process. The changes in our perspectives, the individual loneliness more than a feeling of well being, have done something to what we consider as our basic needs, our feeling of security and what we consider as just, but above all our obvious individual right to choose.

As I see it, these are the most obvious causes of conflict, both in the micro perspective among persons, but also in the macro perspective among nations. Hidden behind these mechanisms we will find the roots to the causes of modern conflicts: interests, injustice and fear. With reference to injustice, powers are interfering with the intention to serve own interests, an old phenomenon that we can find in the latest conflicts as military, economic or humanitarian interference. Some nations, or group of nations, are referring to a highly abstract prerogative to act on behalf of an undefined justice. Internationally this is a very dangerous development.

Maximilien Robespierre warned against the desire to make people happy against their will. Rephrasing him, I suggest that by the same token, the most powerful governments, first of all need to be warned against making nations democratic against their own will. It is always difficult, some times impossible, to distinguish sincere consideration and love for the best of others from national interests. In our eager to moralize all our military operations we have to consider some additional psychological mechanisms, which can spark new serious problems.

Fotnoter   [ + ]

1. Forming a nation-state, which is able to create both the infrastructure necessary for the effective administration, that is constitutionally disciplined, and that can guarantee also the freedom for individual and collective legal acts.
2. The former descend from the French revolution (tiers ètat), the other from Machiavelli’s The Prince.
3. The Balkan wars: German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer “became an advocate of what Ulrich Beck, a German intellectual, called ‘NATOs new military humanism’ – the notion, defended by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, that the defense of human rights is a form of military mission”.

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