Negative, Positive and Universal Peace

Essay, 2017

5 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Negative, Positive and Universal Peace

What is the essence of international peace and how can it be achieved? Innumerable attempts have been made in the past to seek out the answer to that pivotal question.[1] Countless efforts have gone into supranational endeavours designed to promote a less conflict-ridden international order. Over the centuries historians, IR theorists, strategists, peace researchers, economists and public servants have developed many explanatory models and practical measures which, so it was hoped, would offer world society a more effective approach to the age-old problem of finding an applicable solution to the creation and preservation of international peace. Yet the word "peace" is evidently an ambiguous and multi-faceted concept with very distinctive meanings and connotations to individual peoples in different countries and at different times throughout history—and thus with likewise very unique ideas and perspectives on how to realize it. In view of this, the academic field of Peace and Conflict studies generally distinguishes between 'negative' and 'positive' peace.[2] While the former type basically conceives of peace as but the absence of tension and violence, the latter also presupposes the concurrent presence of justice and equality as a necessary and integral part of a genuine peace.[3] However, this duality may not always be reflected by the many singular manifestations of peace that contain either, both or part of the aforementioned negative or positive attributes following inter-state peace agreements; tribal, communal or ethno-racial peace accords; domestic peace settlements in response to cultural, religious or socio-economic rivalries; intra-state conventions to resolve sectarian conflicts over material resources or political representation; or systemic peace on a continental or even global basis.[4]

Thus it is possible that none of these scenarios might ultimately be characterized by an equal development of negative and positive peace elements in their strictest sense. Many historical peace agreements after all can hardly be said of having attached as much importance to universal justice as they did to the restoration of security and stability in the wake of political turmoil and hostilities. Quite to the contrary, a decidedly punitive approach to international accords often figured prominently in states' return to the ways of peace, not seldom resulting in situations largely deprived of any real sense of commensurate justice for all parties involved. In consequence, the creation of a negative peace was frequently the final outcome of such enterprises, with the result that its lack of justice may to some extent even have contributed to the breakdown of such an inherently brittle peace in later years.[5]

However, peace can also occur in a form which basically does not even share the defining criterion of a negative peace (i.e. the absence of tension) to begin with—or at least only does so on the surface. The Cold War, alternatively known as the "Long Peace",[6] is arguably the most striking example in this respect. Although during that conflict the bipolar world ultimately escaped an open and direct confrontation, thereby indeed avoiding a complete disintegration of world peace, such a 'long peace' certainly does not qualify as a 'negative peace' per se. Specifically, political tensions always remained a palpable feature of that highly militarized system which, although superficially appearing stable on account of mutually assured nuclear destruction, was nonetheless extremely vulnerable to human errors springing from misperceptions and irrational actions in an incredibly tense high-stakes environment.[7]

This leads to a pertinent observation, namely that it is possible to have negative peace not only without the presence of justice, but also without the absence of tension.[8] A delicate balance of power may indeed succeed to temporarily maintain such a volatile kind of peace, but will never be able to allay security fears for good. Negative peace conditions devoid of a sufficiently developed degree of commonly acceptable justice and structural harmony ordinarily endure in an exceedingly unstable state of affairs that is nearly constantly in danger of being overturned by a sudden or incremental flaring-up of tensions over any number of grievances.[9] Accordingly the question is not whether an international system founded upon fundamental human freedoms and equal opportunities can survive independent of a negative peace, but rather whether its constituent units are capable of strengthening and enhancing the longevity of negative peace settlements in the first place. In other words, it is at core a matter of appreciating the reciprocal nature of these two categories of peace, and this essentially in both directions.[10] In particular it is to recognize that the absence of tension (negative peace) is not merely a prerequisite for instilling a greater sense of justice into the international system, but that honest attempts to foster the gradual development of a positive quality peace will ultimately be conducive to the geographical expansion and temporal extension of the foregoing negative peace as well.[11]

The correlative dimensions of such a dyadic conception of peace are thus crucial to increasing the resilience of international peace structures erected upon negative or positive peace initiatives. These two twin pillars of peace each address in their own distinctive way some of the most critical concerns of states, with a negative peace primarily seeking to attenuate existential fears and registered threats to their political independence or national identity, and a positive peace foremost aspiring to rectify systemic imbalances in regard to material prosperity and a fairer distribution of national power capabilities.

A combined negative and positive peace will, however, not be enough to secure the structural integrity of the global order on its own merits for as long as it still lacks one quintessential ingredient: universal application and validity.[12] World peace therefore does not denote a state where the positive peace enjoyed by only some actors or prevailing in only certain areas while not in others manages to maintain the overall degree of global safety and stability for but a temporary period of time. Universal world peace goes much further than this: it prescribes not the forceful imposition of peace upon the world at any cost in order to gain temporary respite from inter-state conflict and aggression, but rather the generation of such beneficial conditions in a much more methodical and principled fashion by ceaselessly endeavouring to make the reciprocal interplay of negative and positive peace components an intrinsic part of the international architecture its pursuers have set out to defend and improve.


[1] See, for instance, Herbert C. Kelman, "Reflections on the History and Status of Peace Research", Conflict Management and Peace Science, Vol. 5:2 (Spring 1981), pp. 95-110; Rainer Santi , 100 Years of Peace Making: A History of the International Peace Bureau and other International Peace Movement Organizations and Networks (Geneva: International Peace Bureau, 1991); Elise Boulding, Cultures of Peace. The Hidden Side of History (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2000); Roy Weatherford, World Peace and the Human Family (London: Routledge, 1993); Peter N. Stearns, Peace in World History (London: Routledge, 2014), David P. Barash and Charles P. Webel, Peace and Conflict Studies, 3rd edition (London: SAGE, 2014); Bertrand G. Ramacharan, International Peace Conferences (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill Nijhoff, 2015); Gary Goertz, Paul F. Diehl and Alexandru Balas, The Puzzle of Peace: The Evolution of Peace in the International System (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).

[2] Johan Galtung, one of the founders of modern Peace and Conflict Studies, was influential in popularizing the distinction in the 1960s. See Johan Galtung, "An Editorial", Journal of Peace Research, Vol. 1:1 (March 1964), pp. 1-4; Johan Galtung, Theories of Peace: A Synthetic Approach to Peace Thinking (Oslo: International Peace Research Institute, 1967).

[3] Barash and Webel, Peace and Conflict Studies, pp. 6-9; Temesgen Tilahun, "Johan Galtung's Concept of Positive and Negative Peace in the Contemporary Ethiopia: An Appraisal", International Journal of Political Science and Development, Vol. 3:6 (June 2015), pp. 251-252; Martin Luther King Jr., "Letter from Birmingham Jail", 16 April 1953, published Martin Luther King Jr., Why We Can't Wait (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1963), pp. 77-100. Available online: [accessed 2 November 2016]; Martin Luther King Jr., "Address to annual meeting of Fellowship of the Concerned", 16 November 1961, reprinted in James M. Washington (ed.), A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. (San Francisco, CA: Harper, 1986), pp. 50-51; David C. Woolman,, "Education and Peace in the Thought of Johan Galtung", Currents: Issues in Education and Human Development Education and Peace, Vol. 3:2 (Spring 1985), pp. 7-20; Jacqueline Heassly, "Promoting a Culture of Peace", in Ada Aharoni (ed.), Peace, Literature and Art, Volume I (Oxford: Eolss Publishers, 2009), pp. 292-296.

[4] On the typology of armed conflict see Dietrich Schindler, The Different Types of Armed Conflicts According to the Geneva Conventions and Protocols (Leiden, Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff, 1979).

[5] Brian Bond, The Pursuit of Victory. From Napoleon to Saddam Hussein (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998); Kalevi J. Holsti , Peace and War: Armed Conflicts and International Order, 1948-1989 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), pp. 348-353; Randall Lesaffer (ed.), Peace Treaties and International Law in European History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004); Virginia Page Fortna, Peace Time: Cease-Fire Agreements and the Durability of Peace (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004), pp. 88-90; Colin S. Gray, War, Peace and International Relations: An Introduction to Strategic History ( London: Routledge, 2007), pp. 99-106; George F. Kennan, At a Century's Ending: Reflections 1982-1995 (New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 1996), pp. 17-29. Regarding the Versailles Treaty of 1919, many historians, however, remain divided as to the long-term negative effects of that peace settlement. See, for instance, Manfred F. Boemeke, Gerald D. Feldman, The Treaty of Versailles: A Reassessment after 75 Years (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p.3.

[6] John L. Gaddis, The Long Peace: Inquiries Into the History of the Cold War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989).

[7] Jack Donnelly, Realism and International Relations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), pp. 110-111. Robert Jervis, Perception and Misperception in International Politics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976); Keith B. Payne, The Fallacies of Cold War Deterrence and a New Direction (Lexington, KY: Kentucky University Press, 2001).Peter G. Tsouras, Cold War Hot, Alternative Decisions of the Cold War (London: Greenhill Books, 2003).

[8] Contemporary examples notably include the strained Iranian-Israeli and North Korean-South Korean relationships. See Paul F. Diehl, "Exploring Peace: Looking Beyond War and Negative Peace", International Studies Quarterly, Vol. 60:1 (March 2016), p. 2.

[9] Ibid, p. 9; Paul F. Diehl, "Thinking about Peace. Negative Terms Versus Positive Outcomes", Strategic Studies Quarterly, Vol. 10:1 (Spring 2016), pp. 3-9.

[10] Johan Galtung, "Violence, Peace, and Peace Research", Journal of Peace Research, Vol. 6:3 (September 1969), pp. 167-91; Mark Vorobej, "Structural Violence", The Canadian Journal of Peace and Conflict Studies, Vol. 40:2 (2008), pp. 84-98.

[11] On the theme of global justice and sustainable peace-building, see in particular Simon Caney, Justice Beyond Borders (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005); Thomas Nagel, "The Problem of Global Justice", Philosophy and Public Affairs, Vol. 33: 2 (March 2005), pp. 113-147; Nayef R-F. Al-Rodhan , Sustainable History and the Dignity of Man: A Philosophy of History and Civilisational Triumph (Berlin: LIT, 2009); Peter Wallenstein, Peace-building, Victory & World Order (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).

[12] See in particular Tuba Turan, Positive Peace in Theory and Practice. Strengthening the United Nation's Pre-Conflict Prevention Role (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill Nijhoff, 2016), pp. 46, 207.

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Negative, Positive and Universal Peace
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