23 July 2006

Solitudinem faciunt...

It's too late to do anything much to stop the current wars or to avoid the imminent ones, but we can at least set in place mechanisms to prevent those violent political conflicts that are not yet inevitable. I've blogged before on the need to inject incentives into peace building. An equally fundamental question though, is what constitutes peace? This is not just an abstract point. A Social Policy Bond regime targeting peace would differ radically from the conventional, and not always successful, approaches. Most markedly it would not directly try to address war's alleged causes; or rather, it would not prejudge what those causes are.

Such an approach has (in my view) great merit. War is so complex that it is not always obvious, even after a long conflict has ended, what its ‘root causes’ were, and perhaps the very notion of a ‘root cause’ needs questioning. It implies that factors such as ‘poverty’ or ‘ethnicity’ can be removed from their social context, and somehow dealt with, and that then a desired result will follow. But human societies are complex. Poverty can feed grievance, but grievance can be a result of poverty. No single formula, no single set of parameters will always lead to conflict, and guarantee freedom from conflict. Indeed, even the notion of ‘causation’ in this context is questionable. Perhaps Tolstoy summed it up best:
The deeper we delve in search of these causes the more of them we discover, and each single cause or series of causes appears to us equally valid in itself, and equally false by its insignificance compared to the magnitude of the event.
If we were going to issue Social Policy Bonds that target the elimination of violent conflict, how exactly would we define our goals? Peace - the absence of open war, the minimising of numerical casualties - would probably not suffice. Regimes can pile up armaments and blackmail neighbouring countries into making concessions or suffer the consequences. Under such circumstances, the open outbreak of military conflict would be unlikely, but it's hardly the sort of peace that we'd like to target.

I have no definitive answers, but I think that apart from the numbers of soldiers and civilians killed in armed conflicts, we could include elements such as the expenditure on armaments, numbers of full-time equivalents in the military, and mass media indicators of impending conflict. This last is interesting: there appears to be strong evidence that the underlying intentions of governments can be accurately gauged by a systematic analysis of opinion-leading articles in the mass media, regardless of the relative openness of the media in question. (See Getting to war: predicting international conflict with mass media indicators, W. Ben Hunt, University of Michigan Press, 1997.) Such analysis allows the prediction of both the likelihood of conflict and what form of conflict - military, diplomatic or economic - will occur. This sort of indicator could be useful as a target where military conflict has not begun, but appears possible, and where other data are scarce.

Once we have a set of indicators for peace, we could set about issuing Conflict Reduction Bonds, with national, regional or global objectives. We'd most probably have to refine the indicators over time, but the important point is that we'd be building a strong and highly motivated coaltion for peace - in contrast to the current mess, under which the most dedicated individuals and groups seeking peace are the least rewarded, and the most highly rewarded are those who sell weapons of war.

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