Moralism and Instrumentalism in Peace Scholarship

By Stephen Gowans

Peace scholars are concerned with the question of how to achieve victory, which is to say peace on the terms of whatever side they support, without using violence. They come in two sizes: moralists and instrumentalists. The moralists abhor violence on moral grounds, while the instrumentalists see both violence and non-violence as tools but believe there are circumstances where non-violence has greater instrumental value, that is, is more likely to bring about victory at lower cost.

For example, it’s not always possible to take political power by invading another country. And where it is possible, the expense in blood and treasure may be undesirably large. It may be cheaper and more effective to train, organize and support foreign activists to use “a panoply of forceful sanctions—strikes, boycotts, civil disobedience, disrupting the functions of government, even nonviolent sabotage—in accordance with a strategy for undermining” the target government’s “pillars of support.” That’s the way the instrumentalist peace scholars at the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict put it.

The ICNC is the phony left-wing outfit founded by Wall Street-Washington insider Peter Ackerman. The organization is largely concerned with the destabilization scenarios the CIA has a history of engineering in countries it is too costly and militarily unfeasible to invade. These days the ICNC dresses up destabilization with the high-sounding phrase “non-violent pro-democracy activism” to sell it to the gullible. Sounds good, but what it really means is fomenting conflicts in countries, which while accused of being undemocratic and hostile to human rights, have earned Washington’s enmity for rejecting free trade and unconditional foreign investment and failing to enshrine private property rights. The conflicts are resolved on Washington’s terms, when a new “democratic” free-market government takes power and opens the country to US military bases and unconditional integration into the US economy on terms that favor US investors and corporations, that is, the people Peter Ackerman hangs out with. It is, you see, a class thing.

Many, if not all, of the peace scholars on the ICNC’s academic advisory board lead modest lives far removed from Ackerman’s rarefied circles, though at least one of them has met with the CIA and RAND Corporation (more the company Ackerman keeps.) Apparently, Washington’s spooks, despite their fondness for predator drones, assassinations, and paramilitary activities, are keenly interested in peace scholarship. But then, they’re instrumentalists.

Still, some of the ICNC’s peace scholars are, one suspects, moralists lured by who knows what (appeals to their vanity? research grants?) into the service of the instrumentalists. We’re not bad guys, really, they must say. After all, we’re against war (of the violent kind, anyway), and systems of domination, and we’re for democracy and opportunities for people to control their lives collectively.

Trouble is, their track record is lousy. What people power nonviolent revolution has undermined systems of domination and created space for people to control their lives collectively? In Serbia, Georgia and the Philippines – paragons of people power, according to the ICNC PR shop — the very opposite happened. A system of domination controlled by the United States was imposed and people were locked into a low-level form of 60-seconds-in-the-ballot-box-every-four-years democracy, casting ballots for whoever raises enough money to have a fighting chance in the marketing campaigns that pass for modern elections. (Those with connections to wealth have an advantage here.)

But, then, is it any wonder that the peace scholars’ track record in bringing about what they claim to believe in, is so horribly wrong? Ackerman, the ICNC’s founding chair, is an admitted instrumentalist whose background and connections leave no doubt as to his orientation to peace scholarship: great, if it can be used to sweep away governments whose tariffs, subsidies and other protections diminish the profit-making goals of people, like himself, with bags of money to invest. This is what people power revolutions are really all about if you look at the economic policies of the governments targeted by these kinds of exercises. Otherwise, one suspects Ackerman views peace scholarship as a Sunday school for dreamers with their heads in the clouds.

One thought on “Moralism and Instrumentalism in Peace Scholarship

  1. The problem with the Toppling Saddam plan outlined in the Ackerman/DuVal article referred to in your response to Brian Martin in the Scholars or Bamboozlers thread is that it is more an exercise in inspirational myopia than a genuine plan.
    Ackerman & DuVal claim to be interested in helping citizens to non-violently replace a tyrannical regime with freedom and democracy by making their country ungovernable at considerable personal risk. However, the “vision” focuses entirely on inspiring disruption. There’s not a word about creating order out of the ensuing chaos. In light of what actually happened in Iraq, it’s tempting to speculate on who the article’s target audience was and whether the post-invasion SNAFU was mere coincidence, or something more sinister – remembering the avalanche of pre-invasion lies.

    A possible answer can be found in a quote from a White House aide in a magazine article in 2004. There’s a consensus of suspicion that the aide referred to is Karl Rove.

    The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore.” He continued “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

    Ron Suskind, Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush.
    The New York Times Magazine (2004-10-17).

    The philosophy expressed by the aide in Suskind’s article still thrives in the current US Administration. Sojourners magazine seems a peculiar place from which to convey optimistic advice to Iraqis. However, it’s probably as good a place as any to publish a couple of tunnel vision talking points designed to cast Iraqis as people under such extreme duress that killing them to save them could be depicted as an act of salvation for which they would be duly grateful.

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