Dec 7th, 2019, 01:35 PM

What Does Peace Mean To You?

By Bileh Dougsiyeh
President Obama with the Nobel Peace Prize. Image credit: White House/ Samantha Appleton
Reflecting on peace ten years after President Obama accepted the Nobel Prize

Where were you on December 10, 2009? I was one month into my 17th year of physical existence, living in McDonough, Georgia. President Barack Obama was in Norway at the Oslo City Hall accepting the Nobel Peace Prize. He had been on the world stage for hardly eight months and had no major accomplishments when he accepted the award. As the United States' Commander-in-Chief, he was engaged in two wars in the Middle East with no apparent end in sight. This decision by the Norwegian Nobel Committee was met with extensive criticism that has persisted to this day.

Only nine days before taking the stage in Oslo, Obama ordered 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan. Not for the first time the Committee's decision was fraught with criticism. Former U.S. Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, accepted the award in 1973 for brokering “peace” and concluding the Vietnam War, which ended in 1975: this followed Kissinger's execution of a four-year carpet bombing campaign over Cambodia. But the purpose of this article is not to discredit the Nobel Peace Prize, which rightfully rewarded some of history’s most inspiring global citizens, such as the highly esteemed Malala Yousafzai. Instead, I want to talk about the word “peace," a term used quite liberally and loosely. Ten years after President Obama accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, securing his place in history as an icon of peace, it is high time to think deeply about what peace really means to us. 


What is peace? 

“Peace” is a peculiar concept that does not fit in one neat universal definition. To most, it is simply defined as the absence of conflict. Let’s say that is true. Can peace be found in the sullen silence of a well-run authoritarian regime? I guess it would depend on whom you ask. The Cold War principle of mutually assured destruction ushered in another form of peace that underpins current military defense strategy. This deterrence mechanism assumes that a nuclear attack from either side of a conflict would ultimately end in the annihilation of both the attacker and the defender. Therefore, it is in the interest of both sides the attacker and defender’s interest not to carry out a nuclear attack. 

As a result, this principle would prevent any full-scale conflict between major global powers. Unfortunately, we have a widely accepted and oxymoronic term for this precarious condition: nuclear peace. Kenneth Waltz, an architect of rational deterrence theory disturbingly purported, “nuclear weapons have been the second force working for peace in the post-war world.” In response to Waltz I would like to make two things very clear: mutually assured destruction is void of any semblance of peace; and people, not states, must be the units of analysis when discussing peace. In order to get to a universalized definition, we must ask ourselves what combination of structural and societal conditions brings peace to individuals.  

2009 political poll from USA Today and Gallup. Image credit: Gallup News

Maybe peace is the absence of any form of violence that negatively impacts human agency, our ability to live and pursue a good life. Let’s unpack this notion. If this is true, then any notion of peace must fulfill two requirements: first, there cannot be active violence; this is called negative peace. Secondly, there must be a demonstrated presence of political freedom, cultural fulfillment, economic well-being, and psychological satisfaction. This is called positive peace. By this logic, the definition of violence must extend beyond interstate conflict and include any means by which suffering is imposed on human beings through word, action, or institution.

Discrimination on the basis of race, gender, and ethnicity is an example of how institutions can perpetrate violence. Consider apartheid in South Africa or segregation in the United States. These cases demonstrate how institutions such as those can violently, often physically, threaten our ability to pursue a good life. Violence engraved in social, economic, or political relationships, such as racism and gender inequality, leads to poverty, poor access to healthcare, gender pay gaps, and so on. I will use the term structural violence to describe this phenomenon – a term coined by Johan Galtung, Norweigian sociologist widely proclaimed as the father of peace studies.

Gender-just peace: an expression of the need to address structural violence

While focusing on positive peace is a step in the right direction, we need to address some apparent gaps in the discourse on sustainable and inclusive peace. Scholars of peace, just war, and various realms of political science have dropped the ball on incorporating a gender prescription in the notion of peace. We know that women are disproportionately impacted by war and that the impact of structural violence is different on women and men. We also know that in order to mitigate structural violence, women must be involved in positions of power to effectuate such relief.


"A peace meaningful to women i.e. a gender-just peace would require not just the absence of armed and gendered conflict locally and globally, but also the absence of poverty and the conditions which recreate it." Annika Björkdahl

Peace is different for different people with different experiences. There is a demonstrated need for a gender-just peace; a vision of peace that specifically addresses the structural challenges women face.

Infographic from the 2019 Positive Peace Report by the Institute for Economics and Peace. Image Credit: IEP

I want my intention to be clear: my goal is to spark a discussion on what peace means to us as individuals with different needs and different histories. There is no universalized definition of peace. People stem from widely varying experiences, conditions, cultures, and privilege, which all factor into their perception of the world. Peace is a complex condition that requires the necessary social, economic and political structures to sustain a person’s well-being and protect them from violence.

That is why the previously stated concept of negative peace is insufficient to end violence and does not contribute any meaningful insight to peace theory discourse. I do not believe we can ever describe peace as simply the absence of violence. Instead, I propose that we focus on the notion of positive peace moving forward, because it requires the removal of structural causes of violence which, I believe, would be conducive to achieving sustainable peace.

Resilience in a time of uncertainty

“For peace is not merely the absence of visible conflict. Only a just peace based on the inherent rights and dignity of every individual can truly be lasting.” These were the words of President Barack Obama on that stage ten years ago today during his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize. Despite the controversy surrounding the Committee’s decision, Obama is absolutely right: we must move past the war-peace binary and acknowledge that conflict is not where violence begins. Structural violence is deeply rooted in our institutions and permeates our everyday life. Addressing racism, sexism, and xenophobia is a necessary condition for peace.

With the rise and spread of authoritarian populism, particularly in the west, we must remain vigilant and resilient as structural violence becomes more and more overt and even celebrated. Let's begin by knowing our rights, both as a citizen of a country and as a human being. Let us be clear about our needs: we want peace from structural violence and demand institutional change to protect our agency, welfare, and dignity.