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I Conflict resolution in a period of social crisis

1 Big peace

Big peace: an agenda for peace and conflict studies after the coronavirus catastrophe

Solon Simmons

Exposing deep structural problems in the global institutional order, the disruptions of the coronavirus plague demand that we rethink the concept of peace and subject key institutions to question. Much like the recent turn to "the local,” "the everyday,” and the celebration of little p peace by sociologically inspired peace theorists, the concept of a Big Peace raises questions of radical inclusion that were once unthinkable, and challenges identity in ways that could push us closer to justice or toward the abyss. In the wake of the current series of crises, a revival of interest in the concepts of big peace is predictable.

It seems clear that this moment of global crisis will touch on every aspect of peace and conflict studies, from the boundaries and duties of the nation and state to the scope of human rights and the reach of rule of law, and from systems of business and economic distribution to definitions of personhood and the dynamics of identity formation. To match the matter of the moment will require us to think big, beyond the no longer adequate technocratic approaches to peace and conflict resolution that have become typical of the field for more than a generation.

In this essay, I introduce an agenda for peace and conflict studies that I call "big peace,” a concept that is, at once, more historical and more ambitious than has been typical of the field as it has developed in the wake of the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union. This big peace agenda is not meant to displace or limit the good work already going on in the field, and its major features should already be really quite familiar, but it has long been clear that the concept of peace has been narrowing and specializing, thereby losing the weight of the older questions of a big peace agenda of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Although this narrowing of the concept of peace is nothing new, the global pandemic has accelerated the processes that call for its expansion.

To get a sense of what is missing from our current peace agenda and why I think it is so important to expand it in this moment of global crisis, consider two exhibits from the history of international affairs. The first is excerpted from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s public prayer of June 6, 1944, on the D-Day invasion:1

With Thy blessing, we shall prevail over the unholy forces of our enemy.

Help us to conquer the apostles of greed and racial arrogancies. Lead us to the saving of our country, and with our sister Nations into a world unity that will spell a sure peace a peace invulnerable to the schemings of unworthy men. And a peace that will let all of men live in freedom, reaping the just rewards of their honest toil.

When Roosevelt delivered that prayer, the United States had not yet been formally part of an international organization designed to secure the peace of the world. After famously inventing the idea of the League of Nations, the United States refused to join it, only being drawn into a similar enterprise in consultation with the British as a second world war was imminent in 1941, coining the phrase United Nations as part of a "fight for freedom” around the world.

Let’s pause for a moment to note that the United Nations itself is, in a very concrete sense, a result of the peace movement, a peace movement with big plans for world peace that grew out of collective attempts to limit the uses of war in pursuit of conquest and, as Alfred Nobel put it in his will, to promote "fraternity among nations.” These were the ambitions of the field of peace and conflict studies, such as it was, in the early middle of the twentieth century. What is hard to remember after the development of the powerfill peace organizations that we now enjoy is that they once had to be invented at all, and that their inventors were the peace scholars, both theorists and practitioners, of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The second excerpt is also associated with the United Nations, but this time from the Sustainable Development Goals of the organization that were set in 2015. Way down at the bottom of the list of 17 goals is SDG 16,2 which is the box into which the representative organization for the world places today's peace and conflict work. Here is the text describing the goal of that work: "Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.”

These are noble objectives, but they are not nearly as lyrical as the words of Alfred Nobel’s will.3 To get a sense of what this more limited sense of peace and conflict work might mean, we can look to the specific targets and indicators of SDG 16, which range from reducing homicide, human trafficking, and illicit financial transactions to promoting participatory decision-making and public access to information. Again, all worthy goals, but when we define peace in this very limited way and compare it to what it meant to those who formulated the Kellogg-Briand Peace Pact in 1928, when the great powers conspired to outlaw the very notion of war,4 or in 1945 when it provided the inspirational framework for an organization designed to prevent global catastrophe by inventing the United Nations, or again in 1948, when this new world peace organization set out to define a universal definition of human rights that would apply around the world, we see how much the peace agenda has narrowed during the past century.

To plan what will come after the liberal peace will require that those of us in the field of peace and conflict resolution begin again to think in terms as broad and ambitious as previous generations once did. We need to think broadly about what peace is, how it is related to the major institutional forms of violence and their likely presentations, and how these forms of violence can be constrained in a world in which the West will no longer be able to impose its whims on the rest of the world. In short, we need a big peace agenda in some ways like the one that engendered the Nobel Peace Prize, the League of Nations and the UN, the very notion of international cooperation, and universal human rights, but this time touching on domestic issues as well in a way that includes the nearly eight billion of us.

A science of leftovers?

One of the distinctive features of the field of peace and conflict studies, especially in those forms that have fallen under the label peacebuilding, is that they can be thought of as a kind of science of leftovers.5 No doubt, Boutros Boutros-Ghali's acclaimed Agenda for Peace was a visionary document for its time,6 and the subject matter of peacebuilding is in no way unimportant. Still, rather than providing a broad structure within which to situate the range of rival domestic political projects of contending nations, peace in this formulation has tended to develop as a kind of narrow specialization within the broader fields of comparative political science and international relations, albeit one that borrows heavily from sociology and anthropology. Peace as peacebuilding is important work, but it tends to leave the big questions like global stability, the mode of production, forms of government, and rule of law unanswered, borrowing frameworks from presumably more rigorous fields. Peacebuilding therefore tends to become an ideologically narrow frame of reference, while the concept of peace, itself, like justice, is as broad as we should ever want it to be.

In contrast, the big peace agenda demands that we place those major institutional dynamics at the heart of our study, just as in the period prior to the so-called first great debate in international relations peace which was imagined so broadly.7 Although they didn’t use contemporary terms like structural and cultural violence to describe their interests, economists like Norman Angell, journalists like Alfred Fried, lawyers like William Randall Cremer, novelists like Bertha von Suttner, theologians like Nathan Sbderb-lom, social workers like Jane Addams, and diplomats like Elihu Root considered the full range of human instimtions in their concepts of peace. These were big peace theorists who imagined a new domain of global human experience that could be characterized either as peaceful or not. It was a project for imagining the future of a truly global and inclusive civilization. They demanded that new institutions be created that addressed the various forms of violence that placed the world at risk of deadly conflict. Their efforts spanned the entire range of sustainable development goals, and the peacemakers of yesterday would have found the tight specialization of our conception of the field to be disastrously narrow, missing the main fault lines of what we now call radical disagreement and deep-rooted conflict.8

After all, what should demand more of our scholarly attention and technical expertise than the broad goal of world peace? Should the pursuit of such a thing be consigned to those things that the economists, the humanitarians, the doctors, the political scientists, the other established professionals cannot do or find uninteresting? Should the scholarship of peace remain a science of leftovers when the consensus of the world, such as it ever was, may be falling apart?

Assuming the answers to these questions are no, what sort of imagination would we require to build this bigger peace agenda? At a minimum, we need a way of speaking about peace in relation to the various forms of violence, and with this a clear sense of how the concept of peace is related to the concept of injustice and to the various forms of politics. After all, who among us doesn't believe our own era's popular slogan, "No justice, no peace”? It is far too easy to caricature peace theorists as appeasers and accommodationists, but peace work is often highly conflictual. Justice and peace are highly complementary concepts.9 The tough talk of those who celebrate self-interest and selfishness actually lets those thinkers off the hook; they rarely have to consider what comes after the violence or the victory -what it means to sit in power as yourself a perpetrator of perceived injustice, and how the violence necessarily employed in pursuit of a clear version of justice might turn the page of the book of complex future escalations and principled reprisals.

Security is not a right-wing issue. A big peace agenda would necessarily address the problems of nuclear weapons, standing armies, failed states, and terrorist bands, and much of big peace scholarship would focus as much on the global north as it does the global south. Big peace researchers and practitioners would need to develop win-win orientations, strategies, and tactics for the major security challenges facing the world, and they would need to bring those security concerns into domestic agendas as well, as these touch on issues of racism, bigotry, and economic inequality. They would need to reimagine security much as those who advocate to "defund the police” demand in the United States - as a challenge to the moral imagination as much as to fiscal calculation. These concerns that I have elsewhere labeled “securitarian” deserve close attention from the field’s leading lights, just as they received in previous eras of big peace thinking.

Democracy matters, too. Where it was once commonplace for lawyers and democratic theorists to play leading roles in thinking about peace, today, it is far less common to pose basic questions about form of government, rule of law, and the meaning of human rights in relation to the future of peace. It should be obvious, but democratic elections and peaceful transitions of power are among the greatest conflict resolution devices ever invented, and the same could be said for courts of law and their careful procedures to protect and ensure due process - in other words individual human rights. These are "liberal” institutions of peace worth preserving (even when they are often based on adversarial methods of dispute resolution and power politics), and their role in building the institutions of the coming peace should sit at the center of our discipline. This aspect of liberalism in relation to peace should remain central, even as the more properly labeled “neo-liberal peace” loses its hegemony

Bring back class analysis. Peace studies grew up in the aftermath of the Cold War, and the last thing its founding practitioners wanted to do was go back to the bad old days of ideological struggle and the shadow of mutually assured destruction. These concerns led to vagueness and evasion when it came to the big economic questions.10 This is a problem because structural violence, although a valuable idea as were many big ideas developed in the ideological shadow of the Cold War,11 tends to appear in our analyses in a way as to obscure our view of the stakes of the struggle over economic power, political economy, and economic institutions. Where are our analyses of public goods and the welfare state in relation to peace? Thomas Piketty raised the alarm about the 1% and its use of real estate as a weapon in the coming struggles to dominate the world economy, but what do we as peace theorists have to say about that instrument of injustice?12 Health disparities are cruel demonstrations of racial conflict and colonial history, but are they anchored in more prosaic rules through which we manage scarcity. We need also to reach back to an earlier era, prior to the Pax Americana and the Cold War, to ask basic questions about the future of peace whose answers include data-driven questions about economics, power, property. and business. These are not the sorts of things that serious peace scholars of our generation can dodge as many of those before us did.

Finally, we need to think anew about the symbolic boundaries of human experience and human dignity. A big peace perspective’s native soil concerns diversity, inclusion, equity, and respect for all people, their heritage and their identity, and these concerns relate to abuses and violence in their own right, not just as forms of cultural violence (read ideology) that support some other objective structure that we mark off as structural violence.13 As Nancy Fraser implies,14 a big peace agenda would recognize disrespect, hatred, and status structures as distinctive forms of abusive, systemic power, while simultaneously asking questions about how the symbolic group boundaries we rely upon break us into factional prisoners of the crimes of our ancestors. In a sociological spirit, it would interrogate the distinctions we draw to define gender and sexuality and those between ethnic and racial categories, allowing us to recognize the horrors of all forms of bigotry around the world as we have slowly come to do in the global north.

Conflict is global in the same sense it was in the late nineteenth century but more thoroughly so. The big peace scholars of that earlier era who fashioned institutions for disarmament, humanitarian aid, refugee policy, universal rights, and a kind world parliament in the United Nations must be our guides. Our moral imaginations must touch on concerns broad enough to speak to security in the face of our power to do physical harm, liberty in the face of the power of government coercion, equality in the face of the powers of economic exploitation, and dignity in the face of the powers of abuses of status systems and social privilege. Peace is a concept too big to be left to a narrow academic specialization. Our thoughts about peace must be as large as the social forces that threaten it, newly emboldened by the global pandemic. This is why the time for big peace has returned.


  • 1 Roosevelt, “D-Day Prayer.”
  • 2 United Nations, “About the Sustainable Development Goals.”
  • 3 Nobel, “The Will.”
  • 4 Hathaway and Shapiro, The Internationalists.
  • 5 Commentary Magazine, “A Science of Leftovers.”
  • 6 Boutros-Ghali, “An Agenda for Peace.”
  • 7 Ashworth, “Did the Realist-Idealist Great Debate Really Happen?”; Quirk and Vigneswaran, “The Construction of an Edifice”; Schmidt, International Relations and the First Great Debate.
  • 8 Lederach, “Sustainable Reconciliation in Divided Societies”; Ramsbotham, Transforming Violent Conflict', Ramsbotham, “Is There a Theory of Radical Disagreement”; Simmons. Root Narrative Theory and Conflict Resolution.
  • 9 Lederach, The Moral Imagination.
  • 10 Rubenstein. Resolving Structural Conflicts.
  • 11 Gaining. “Violence, Peace, and Peace Research”; Burton. Conflict; Boulding. Three Faces of Power.
  • 12 Piketty, “Capital in the 21st Century.”
  • 13 Galtung. “Cultural Violence.”
  • 14 Fraser, “Rethinking Recognition”; Fraser, Scales of Justice.


Ashworth, Lucian M. "Did the Realist-Idealist Great Debate Really Happen? A Revisionist History of International Relations.” International Relations 16, no. 1 (2002): 33-51.

Boulding, Kenneth E. Three Faces of Power. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.


Boutros-Ghali, Boutros. “An Agenda for Peace: Preventive Diplomacy, Peacemaking and Peace-Keeping.” International Relations 11, no. 3 (1992): 201-18.

Burton, John W. Conflict: Human Needs Theory. London: Palgrave Macmillan,


Commentary Magazine. “A Science of Leftovers.” June 1, 1947.

Fraser, Nancy. “Rethinking Recognition.” New Left Review 3 (May-June 2000).

-------. Scales of Justice: Reimagining Political Space in a Globalizing World. Vol. 31. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009.

Galtung, Johan. “Cultural Violence.” Journal of Peace Research 27, no. 3 (1990): 291-305.

-------. “Violence, Peace, and Peace Research.” Journal of Peace Research 6, no. 3 (1969): 167-91.

Hathaway, Oona A., and Scott J. Shapiro. The Internationalists: How a Radical Plan to Outlaw War Remade the World. New York: Simon and Schuster. 2017.

Lederach, John Paul. Sustainable Reconciliation in Divided Societies. Washington, DC: USIP. 1997.

-------. The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace. Reprint. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Mac Ginty, Roger. “Indigenous Peace-Making Versus the Liberal Peace.” Cooperation and Conflict 43, no. 2 (2008): 139-63.

Nobel, Alfred. “The Will.” Alfred Nobel’s Will, November 27, 1895. alfred_nobel/will/.

Piketty, Thomas. Capital in the 21st Century. Cambridge: Éditions du Seuil, Harvard University Press, 2014.

Quirk, Joel, and Darshan Vigneswaran. “The Construction of an Edifice: The Story of a First Great Debate.” Review of International Studies (2005): 89-107.

Ramsbotham, Oliver. Transforming Violent Conflict: Radical Disagreement, Dialogue and Survival. London: Routledge, 2010.

-------. “Is There a Theory of Radical Disagreement.” IJCER: International Journal of Computational Engineering Research 1 (2013): 56.

Richmond, Oliver. A Post-Liberal Peace. London: Routledge, 2012.

Roosevelt, Franklin Delano. “D-Day Prayer.” Franklin D. Roosevelt, Master Speech File, 1898-1945 | Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library & Museum, June 6,1944. p=collections'findingaid&id=582&q=d-day+prayer.

Rubenstein, Richard E. Resolving Structural Conflicts: How Violent Systems Can Be Transformed.

Schmidt, Brian. International Relations and the First Great Debate. London: Routledge, 2013.

Simmons, Solon. Root Narrative Theory- and Conflict Resolution: Power, Justice and Values. London: Routledge, 2020. doi:10.4324/9780367822712.

United Nations. “About the Sustainable Development Goals.” United Nations Sustainable Development (blog), 2015. sustainable-development-goals/.

2 Lessons from disaster

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