Blinded by the light: protesting in Central Park, New York City, 1967 (Getty Images / Fred W. McDarrah)
Every aspiring beauty-pageant queen knows what to say when asked what she wants most: "World peace." World peace is at least nominally what we all want most. But evidently, we are not very good at making it. The modern peace movement is almost 200 years old; its origins can be traced to the period that followed the devastating wars of the Napoleonic era in Europe. In those two centuries, peace movements have had little discernible impact on world events, and what effect they have had has often been bad: the European peace and disarmament movement of the 1930s, for example, greatly facilitated Hitler's plans for a war of revenge. For all the good they have done, those well-intentioned souls who have sought to achieve world peace through the organization of committees, the signing of petitions, the holding of rallies, and the promotion of international treaties might just as well have stayed home.
Jay Nordlinger's Peace, They Say, an eminently readable history of the Nobel Peace Prize, reveals the embarrassing lack of a detectable connection between the work of peace activists and actual peace. Nordlinger, an editor at the conservative National Review, gleefully mocks generations of Norwegian susceptibility to the once admired but now ludicrous ideas that inspired the world's peace movements: the fad for arbitration that figures such as William Jennings Bryan advocated in the decades before World War I; the argument of the economist and British parliamentarian Sir Norman Angell that war's economic irrationality would prevent twentieth-century wars; the naive hope vested in the League of Nations; the childish confidence that the Kellogg-Briand Pact, that noble 1928 treaty to outlaw war, would actually change things; the belief in "moral equivalence," which held that the best way to end the Cold War was to somehow split the difference between the East and the West; and the push for a "nuclear freeze" in the 1980s, whose proponents claimed that unless U.S. President Ronald Reagan's missile defense plans were stopped, the world would be doomed to a ruinous war. Nordlinger portrays the advocates of these positions at the height of their fleeting glory, as the Nobel Prize committee, in full accordance with what was then thought to be wisdom, gave solemn benediction to their ideas.
Nordlinger is generally no crueler than the facts force him to be. There are times when he twists the knife a bit, lingering over the allegations of fabrication that tarnished the post-prize reputation of Rigoberta Menchú Tum, the Guatemalan indigenous rights activist, and dwelling on Nelson Mandela's sad refusal to denounce the human rights abuses of dictators in Cuba and Libya. Nordlinger also notes an important instance of overkill. Three of former U.S. President George W. Bush's most bitter foes-Jimmy Carter, Al Gore, and Barack Obama-all received Nobel Peace Prizes during or shortly after Bush's tenure, and it is hard to avoid the conclusion that a major motive of the committee was to express its disapproval of Bush. Perhaps one anti-Bush award would have been enough; almost certainly, the committee could have stopped at two.
Ultimately, however, the most serious way to critique the Nobel Peace Prize is not to complain about the Nobel committee's biases but to note the historical insignificance of so many of the prize's winners. So many laureates, so many good intentions, so many theories and ideas about how peace can be made -- and yet so little peace. As Nordlinger points out, Alfred Nobel's will offered the committee the opportunity to abstain from awarding prizes in years in which no suitable recipients could be found. But the committee has rarely exercised that right. Perhaps in awarding peace prizes, less would be more.
Nordlinger also makes plain that although those who seek to end war once and for all always fail and often end up looking ridiculous, the cause of peace is sometimes genuinely aided by those who try to end particular wars. He praises Theodore Roosevelt, who received the Peace Prize in 1906 for helping negotiate the treaty to end the war between Japan and Russia, and Mairead Corrigan Maguire and Betty Williams, peace activists who helped bring the conflict in Northern Ireland to an end. The awards that have held up best over time are those that have gone to people who either ended specific wars or alleviated the suffering wars cause. Perhaps the lesson is that although war cannot be ended, wars can.
Nordlinger's account points to a curious mixture of vanity and charity common among the ultra-elites of the contemporary West, who seem driven by a deep need to believe that they are achieving something important. Significance, after all, is the ultimate luxury good. No rock star, Hollywood celebrity, foundation bigwig, public intellectual, retired corporate titan, or trustafarian do-gooder likes to think that he or she is floating idly and purposelessly across the surface of history. But that is precisely what almost all of them do, despite the reassuring buzz of sympathetic media. And since many of the causes that most appeal to this class of "activist" don't lend themselves to solutions of any kind, much less quick and easy ones, the feeling of purpose can be hard to maintain. Would-be world savers and their acolytes must constantly fend off a suspicion that they do not know what they are doing and that their efforts will be forgotten as quickly as those that have gone before. This season's earnest conversations on Sunday talk shows and high-minded panels hosted by the Aspen Institute will be irrelevant in months. Even the most compelling ideas about fostering peace, democracy, and development will soon look foolish and hopelessly out of style.
One way to assuage this fear is to subscribe to a grand narrative of social and intellectual progress. Whatever our ideological orientation -- left, right, or center -- all of us who care about world affairs like to believe that we are not just cycling through disposable ideas about how to achieve peace and cure poverty; rather, we are moving purposefully toward the truth. We like to think that social knowledge is cumulative, like scientific knowledge, and so each year, each decade, we learn and we grow. That way, each time we discard an old, failed idea, we are not admitting defeat or saying we have made a mistake. We have not wasted time, money, and the hopes of the world chasing chimeras. Rather, we have tested another hypothesis and found it wanting. In the long march toward truth, even our errors represent progress toward a better world. We are not wandering aimlessly on a darkling plain: we advance with a purpose.
But as the litter of failed hypotheses grows ever deeper beneath our feet, it becomes harder and harder to trace any logical path through the rubble. Think, for example, of all the competing models for eliminating poverty in Africa that have been fashionable during the past six decades: free markets or closed economies; globalization or capital controls; fixed rates or floating rates; strong central governments or states that allow for regional autonomy; import substitution or export-oriented growth; education as the key, or women as the key, or health care as the key; tribalism or anti-tribalism; subsistence agriculture or large commercial farms; and so on. The pendulum swings, but poverty persists.
World peace, the conquest of poverty, the triumph of human rights: the goals are obviously important and desirable. But despite some heartening progress since the end of World War II, they have remained stubbornly unachievable. This truth is too scandalous to be widely accepted: too many important political movements, powerful institutions, and high-profile people would be undermined by a frank acknowledgment of the limits of human endeavor when it comes to the weightiest problems of all. A great deal of global policy chatter, therefore, centers on an elaborate game of Let's Pretend. We speak, write, and act as if we know what we are doing. Faced with the increasing di⁄culty of fitting the facts to a grand narrative of progress, but not willing to admit just how vacuous most policy discourse has become, we have largely stopped thinking about the history of theories of peace and development. The subject is too embarrassing, the implied critique of today's hopeful nostrums too corrosive, for this kind of history to be welcome.
That was not the case in more confident times. During the Kennedy era, Marxist historians and liberal scholars of progress, such as Walt Rostow, believed that ideas about peace and prosperity followed one another on a verifiable, predictable path of scientific development. Rostow and others considered the intellectual history of theories of poverty and peace a valuable and necessary ingredient in policy discussions, since it provided a context that legitimated and explained new proposals for change. But we have gotten past that; now, progress is something we assume but don't analyze. This is particularly true of liberals and progressives, who, instead of subscribing to theories of change, now place their faith in an agent of change: international civil society, which they believe to be a force that will end war and oppression and usher in a new and just world.
BAPTISTS AND BURQAS
Few ideas today are as fashionable as the belief that nongovernmental organizations, aroused citizens, and supporters of civic awareness and good governance are saving the planet. This is what might be called the cult of civil society: an unreasoning but deeply felt faith in organizations such as the League of Women Voters, Human Rights Watch, and Planned Parenthood, whose adherents cheer the emergence of like-minded groups in other parts of the world. Earlier generations of thinkers on the left were less impressed by such groups: Karl Marx considered them to represent "bourgeois socialism" and had a low opinion of their ability to promote change. But for those in thrall to civil society, the early phase of the Arab Spring -- when secular liberals tweeted about human rights in Tahrir Square --represented a kind of peak moment: in the heart of the Middle East, civil society was on the march against secular tyranny and religious obscurantism alike.
Clifford Bob could have warned them that things were bound to become more complicated. In his new book, The Global Right Wing and the Clash of World Politics, Bob, a political scientist, strips away the myths that have allowed liberals and progressives to believe that the growth of civil society will inevitably aid their cause. It turns out that global civil society isn't just for liberals. The National Rifle Association is as much a part of it as Human Rights Watch, and Bob shows how the NRA has used its political power to block progress on a UN treaty that would regulate the export of small arms. The Roman Catholic Church and the Muslim Brotherhood are also well-established civil-society groups; Bob shows how these and other religious groups have stymied UN efforts to recognize gay rights and promote birth control.
The belief that civil society will always march with the left is not without some foundation. Until fairly recently, Bob argues, liberal groups did enjoy an advantage in the fight to shape the international agenda. Organizations such as Planned Parenthood were better run than their right-wing opponents and were able to write their ideas and values into the structure of international law. But that very success led to a powerful and still growing effort by conservative groups to counter the liberals' advantage. Today, Bob's analysis suggests, well-funded international networks of both religious and secular right-wing groups are pushing back. What Bob terms the "Baptist-burqa network" -- a loose alliance of conservatives and moralists from a whole host of religious and cultural traditions -- has succeeded in fighting liberal and gay rights agendas on a number of occasions, temporarily eliminating the reference to sexual orientation in a UN human rights resolution on extrajudicial killings in November 2010 and pushing for a definition of homosexual rights as "special," rather than "equal," human rights in international law.
A favorite tactic of global right-wing civil-society groups, Bob reports, is attempting to undermine the legitimacy of international institutions from within. Just as some European national political groups, such as the ultraconservative uk Independence Party, use their seats in the European Parliament to embarrass and attack the parliament and the European Union, globally oriented right-wing organizations use the platforms and influence offered by membership in global groups to limit the ability of those groups to act. Working from within the UN to block treaty efforts has been particularly effective; the consensus-oriented UN negotiating process offers enormous influence to a focused minority.
HOPE FOR CHANGE?
Bob's book demonstrates some of the reasons why faith in civil society is likely to go the way of other "lights that failed" in the last 100 years, making so many Nobel Peace Prize awards look dated and foolish. Both books remind readers that intractable problems, such as war, poverty, and injustice, are just that: intractable. Neither author thinks that all political effort is futile, but both are mindful that whatever incremental progress humanity makes will not be enough to solve the great historical problems anytime soon.
Taken together, the books do more than critique naive do-gooders. They offer guidance about the kinds of approaches to intractable problems that might actually offer some hope of limited success. People and organizations that want to make a real difference should avoid grandiose global goals and focus instead on smaller but achievable ones. This takes hard work and usually is not glamorous enough to attract extensive media coverage, but it is often how people make the world a better place. Just as Nordlinger shows that the peacemakers and Nobel laureates whose work holds up best are those who brought specific conflicts to an end, the organizations in Bob's account that get the most done are those that pursue limited goals with cunning and patience.
Both books also remind readers that the work of promoting social change is hard and unforgiving. It is much easier to fail than to succeed, and success is likely to be modest. Humanity does not agree on the best way forward; there are passionate disagreements about the kind of world we want to build and the best way to build it.
Perhaps the most fruitful focus for peacemakers and social campaigners would be to look for regional dragons to slay, rather than global ones. World peace may be out of reach. But within its borders, the EU has come fairly close to the vision of international peace that Nobel hoped to promote. Organizations such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations suggest that regional groupings in other parts of the world might develop into zones of peace and human security.
So we can hope, at least. But if Nordlinger and Bob are even partially right, we must also recognize that there are no panaceas in global politics and that this generation's hopeful peace enthusiasts and civic activists will be lucky to achieve even very limited success.