President Bush frequently emphasizes the notion that a free election equals democracy equals peacefulness. A search on the President’s website www.whitehouse.gov for “peaceful societies” returns nearly 4,000 results, and when they are sorted by date, the top 100 in terms of relevance are important public addresses in which he has used that phrase—nearly once a week so far this year. But is he right?
Early in May he told a crowd in Tbilisi, Georgia, “free societies are peaceful societies,” and a few days before he said the same thing in an Estonian television interview. The theme goes back into previous years of his administration. In April 2004, for instance, speaking about the American armed forces in Iraq, he said, “our commanders on the ground have got the authorities necessary to take action to help the Iraqi people realize a free and peaceful society.” It is clear from his speeches that he believes military actions, such as the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, produce peaceful societies.
Last week he articulated his vision once again in an address to the International Republican Institute (IRI). Some of his comments, of course, made great sense. “Democracy takes different forms in different cultures,” he said. Some of his other statements are just as reasonable, though they border on platitudes, such as his idea that freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, a free economy, and an independent judiciary are essential for democracy.
His statement to the IRI that “respect for the beliefs of others is the only way to build a society where compassion and tolerance prevail” would resonate with most of the people in the peaceful societies. Were his speech writers aware of the well-known Benito Juárez quote used as an epigraph on this website?
While criticisms of the President’s policies and actions are generally outside the scope of this website, his understanding of what constitutes a “peaceful society” certainly provokes our interest. The reason is simple. The President’s thinking would be alien in those societies where people have already achieved a healthy measure of peacefulness. Mr. Bush believes that peacefulness sometimes must be achieved through violence—international peace must be won on the battlefield. The experiences of the peaceful societies suggest that he is quite wrong.
The literature on societies that have successfully developed largely nonviolent social conditions reveals a very different perspective on peacefulness. The 25 societies portrayed in this website foster harmonious, positive relationships with outsiders through helpfulness and sharing when appropriate, avoiding conflict situations as much as possible, and, when necessary, through cautious maneuvering. They would not attack other societies that might possibly be a threat to them at some point in the future, as America did in 2003. And perhaps most critically, they would not celebrate triumph in warfare as a path to peace. Peacefulness, harmony, and nonviolence are values that they cherish, nurture, and teach their children. The people in many of those societies define themselves as peaceful—it is the basis of their worldviews.
It is indeed a tragedy that Mr. Bush views peacefulness so negatively. His many references to a free society being a peaceful society are, of course, apologetics for his invasion of Iraq. The simplification of his circular argument—that a free society equals a peaceful society—unfortunately fosters the attitude that peace can be won through force and violence. In fact, the literature of many of the peaceful peoples shows that these societies develop harmonious external relations largely because they think that peace should be a central tenet of their beliefs. Peaceful peoples carry that belief out in the practices of their societies: their social rules, psychological structures, educational approaches, and cultural patterns foster and support that central ideal.
These nonviolent peoples, who are in a far better position to define a “peaceful society” than Mr. Bush is, would focus on many other things than just freedom when they think of their nonviolence. They would include harmony, effective conflict avoidance, and the quick, effective resolution of disputes. Many of them cherish harmony-building, cooperative activities rather than competition and individualism. Many of them prefer peaceful ostracism of people who violate their social standards rather than punishment. And, very critically, many of them try constantly to foster good relations with outsiders.
The social practices of many of them tend to be inclusive and integrating rather than exclusive and separating. For many of them, respect for others is an important belief that carries over into their everyday lives. People in the peaceful societies usually tend to respect rather than bully their critics, a contrast to the international situation in 2003 during the run-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
In sum, while none of the peaceful societies are utopias, they generally avoid violence and promote peacefulness successfully. They would not attack other societies, as the United States has done so many times over the past 60 years. They try to avoid social conditions that result in murders, rapes, child abuse, and the other horrors that afflict many of the world’s societies. They are not perfect, but they are far more successful in building peacefulness than much of the rest of humanity.
Freedom may contribute to peacefulness—as far as that goes, Mr. Bush may be right. But while his own country may have reasonably fair elections most of the time, that does not make the U.S. a peaceful society. Peacefulness is much more complex than the President’s simplistic equation implies. Avoiding violence and renouncing warfare would certainly be a major first step on a path leading toward a more peaceful society in America. More would be necessary, of course, before the U.S. could become a highly peaceful society too, but renouncing aggressive warfare would be an important beginning.