Talking Peacebuilding and Democracy with Ashok Panikkar and Guy and Heidi Burgess



Newsletter 213 — February 27, 2024


Guy Burgess and I (Heidi Burgess) talked with Ashok Panikkar in a "Live Video Conversation" on February 11, 2024. Ashok was a communication, culture and conflict resolution consultant for many years, and now runs something he calls the Village Idiot Studio through which he hopes to "help intelligent and conscientious citizens look beyond commonplace understandings of democracy, human rights, diversity, and party politics. The Village Idiot, through all its projects, hopes to engage with the genuinely curious on the vital issues of our time," which, I noted, was exactly what we were trying to do with this conversation.  Here we talked about threats to democracy and what peacebuilding can and cannot do to address those threats. We also discussed what other options are available when peacebuilding isn't working. This newsletter has some of the highlights from that conversation. The entire video and transcript are posted here.

What is Peace?

We started out talking about the concept of peace. Ashok observed that

The whole idea of "peace" is something that I have struggled to understand in the last 10 to 15 years. Prior to that, I was very clear about it. Like many people in my generation who grew up in the aftermath, or in the days of, the U.S. civil rights movement, growing up on John Lennon and the anti-Vietnam War movement, I thought I knew what "peace" was. And peace was anything that didn't, one, lead to violence. And two, that wasn't oppressive. And I had enormous clarity. This was part of the reason I got into conflict resolution in the first place, almost 30 years ago.


But a few things changed. One, of course, is the world. We are now finding ourselves in a world in which peace is becoming very difficult for anyone to actually manage. ...So when I look at "peace" now, I don't have any answers. I don't know anymore how to create peace.


[But I do know that] peace entails enormous compromises. The idea of a "just peace" or an "egalitarian peace" doesn't work. ...And this for me is a very difficult thing to come to terms with, because like many other people, I have grown up with the idea that I can have it all, maybe not wealth, maybe not material goods, but I can have as much justice,  fairness, egalitarianism, compassion, and peace as I want. But I'm starting to realize that there are huge trade-offs, that democracy itself is a series of huge trade-offs.

Guy added to that idea by saying that he (together with Heidi) have been working for 30 years to try to figure out how people can fight more constructively.  Because they will fight. Conflict is inevitable.  But destructive conflict is not. So democracy should provide limits on how people fight. We wrote in a paper a couple of years ago that democracy is, essentially a "conflict handling system," a way to allow people with very different ideas to live together "in peace."  

The real test of a democracy is not whether the good guys (or at least the guys who think of themselves as good) come out ahead when the election rolls around. It's how the people who lose the election feel. If there is a place where the losers can feel, "Well, yeah, things will still be all right, I can try to straighten these guys out next time," then democracy works. If the losers feel like democracy is gone forever and they are disempowered and will be forever, then you're in real trouble. And sadly, that's where we are in the United States at the moment. And in far too many other parts of the world, it's this power-over thinking.


So what we've been trying to think through is two visions of democracy. There is a power-with vision, in which we try to find a way to make coexistence and tolerance and letting people live together despite their differences really work. Or we can have a power-over world in which the "good guys" try to somehow prevail over the "bad guys." And then you have the kind of hyper-polarization that we have now in the U.S., and we're in real trouble.

Heidi noted that everyone in a democracy sees themselves as "the good guys," and sadly, they tend to think of the others as "the bad guys." But how we treat those "other guys" is very important. She observed that

We're [Heidi and Guy ] actually greedier than Ashok. We don't want just peace or "just peace." We're interested in reconciliation, which is a concept that lots of people have written about, but I really like the formulation of John Paul Lederach, who says that reconciliation is "the meeting place" of peace, justice, truth, and mercy. So it's a meshing of those four things. Can we get there? The answer is no, we probably won't. But the journey is extremely important.

And it's extremely important to realize that we have to balance our goals for peace, which you could define very simply as lack of violence. It's much more than that, of course. We make a distinction between positive peace and negative peace. But let's just be simple, and say, for the moment, that it is the lack of violence. But you also need justice, which is fairness, and you also need truth, and you also need mercy. So you have to be willing to forgive, accept apologize, move on. And you have to find a way to balance all of those things.

So, Heidi agreed with Ashok, but went further, saying peace, reconciliation, and democracy all involve compromises. You have to compromise some aspects of peace, justice, truth, and mercy, in order to get a good enough portion of each of them to allow for reconciliation and what we call "power-with democracy," in which people gain power by working with "the others," instead of trying to overpower them.

Heidi also talked about the former South African Ambassador to the U.S.,  Ebrahim Rasool, who pointed out that a key to South African reconciliation was the recognition that "the other" (in this case Blacks and Whites) were there to stay — neither was going to leave South Africa. So, Rasool said, "they began with the end," with the recognition that "South Africa belonged to all who lived there." Ignoring the issue of immigration for a moment, how powerful would it be, Heidi wondered, if most Democrats and Republicans would agree that America belongs to all who live here (in other words progressives and conservatives and everything in between)? Then we could set about trying to figure out how to live together effectively, instead of focusing on how to wipe out or chase away or permanently disempower the other side.

Ashok countered that while he "loved the thought that 'we are all here to stay' so we need to figure out 'how to get along," when power is unevenly distributed, which it is in almost every conflict, he observed, this "ideal vision is, itself, dangerous."

If we take today's demographic in any conflict, if we look at that and say, "we have to coexist," that sounds good until one of the parties, the strongest party says, only on my terms.  In other words, we can coexist, but on my terms. And when I look at Ukraine, when I look at Israel, Gaza, when I look at India and the state of the fate of Muslims and other minorities in India, this has been [what is going on].  It's almost like a journey into an illiberal and authoritarian place.


One of the things that I'm realizing ... is that during the last 30 or 40 years, we have started seeing power as a negative because it has the potential for oppressing those who don't have it. And I realized that most of the things that I value in life: freedom, justice, reasonable amount of prosperity, equality was only possible because the US was an 800-pound gorilla that had the power to enforce the liberal world order. And the US didn't do it gently. The US overstepped its bounds in so many countries. ...but it kept the world relatively free and open for about 50 to 60 years. And with the US undecided as to whether it wants that role anymore—the Republicans definitely don't want that role. And in any case, threatened by China, Russia, the Arab states, Islamist states, I think we need a different formula for peace.

Ashok observed that he doesn't have the answer — he doesn't know what the formula for peace is, but he suggested at several occasions that it needs to be based on power. There needs to be a hegemon, he said "who is able to take leadership and to, if necessary, tell squabbling children to shut up and get in line."

What is the Role of Power When it Comes to Peace?

Heidi took the discussion of power in a somewhat different direction, focusing on Kenneth Boulding and Paul Wehr's notion of the "power strategy mix." Boulding and Wehr, Heidi explained, pointed out that power isn't just force or coercion.

Most people think in terms of power as just force. But power actually comes in three different forms. One is integrative power. We gain power by working together. We gain power by cooperating and by networking. The second form of power is exchange power. If I can give you something and you give me something in exchange, that makes us both better off. That raises our power. And the third kind of power is coercive power, where I'm going to force somebody else to do something against their will.


And what Kenneth [Boulding] and Paul [Wehr] argued is that the optimal power strategy mix is different for different circumstances. But most often, you have a situation where people will be reasonable. And if you reach out to them and try to persuade them that working together will bring benefit to everybody, oftentimes it will, and you will be able to use mostly integrative power. Maybe you need to throw in a little bit of exchange power to grease the rails, say, "Okay, look, I'll give you that if you give me this and then we can work together."


Paul and Kenneth both argued, and we do too, that it's relatively rare that you run into a bad-faith actor, as we call them, where they're not going to play those integrative and exchange games. They're just going to try to use force to overpower you, to kill you, whatever. And then you have to use coercive power to get them under control.


But we tend to try to look first to see whether there is a way to use integrative power, or is there a way to use exchange power [to get what we want or need]? Very often, the answer is yes. Sometimes the answer is no. And the answer is no when you're dealing with an adversary that is hell-bent on destroying you, is not interested in exchange, is not interested in collaboration. They just want to destroy you. Then you don't have any choice. At that point, you have to play, unfortunately, their destructive game.

Avoiding Catastrophe

Guy brought up another Kenneth Boulding idea, which is his "peaks and mesa theory."

You can think about the problem of finding what the future should be or what your goal for society should be in terms of a peak. So you're trying to find the penultimate best— where you finally have equality in power and everything else. Or you can think of the humanity's choices more as a mesa, where there's a top, and it'd be nice to get to the top of it. But what you really don't want to do is to fall off the cliffs at the edge. So the focus is on avoiding catastrophes, rather than trying to find this optimal distribution of justice [or power]. ...  So I think that trying to focus on things that could go really bad is important. And right now, we're very near the cliff.

One of the things that we've been writing and talking about is "the failure of the imagination." That was the line that was used after 9/11, where nobody had imagined something like that could happen. Right now, we're not imagining what could go wrong with the current political catastrophe with anywhere near the realism that I think is required. And if we had a better sense of how bad things could get, maybe, as I say, we'd quit worrying about microaggressions and start worrying about macroaggressions, where you have outright wars and terrible, terrible inhumanity. 

Guy also raised the idea that our search for "peace" involves a contest between what we call "good-faith actors" and "bad-faith actors." 

I also tend to think of society as kind of a contest where most people are good-faith actors, who would like to find a way to make the system work for everyone. But there are enormous incentives in the system for people who can figure out how to drive people apart and profit from doing that. On the one hand, you have foreign powers who like to destabilize geopolitical rivals. And there's a lot going on in that respect. On the other hand, you have authoritarian wannabes that want to follow the time-tested route to dictatorial power — divide and conquer politics. They try to divide societies, demonize the other side, get their side so committed to them that they'll vote for them and support them no matter what.

And you also have media companies who have figured out conflict sells. And they build giant lucrative audiences by telling people how terrible the other side is and how good they are.  And all of these things exploit psychological vulnerabilities that we pay more attention to things we should be afraid of than things we should be hopeful about. That has deep evolutionary roots. And that's the kind of thing that can be exploited.

We all hate to think about the possibility that we might be wrong, so we don't. And there are a whole series of group dynamics. It's very hard to challenge your group orthodoxy. You'll get ostracized, and that's very, very painful. So we tend to lapse into group think. And all of these things are being exploited by these bad-faith actors.

In a sense, the real contest is to figure out how the good-faith actors can bind together in a kind of collective security partnership that recognizes  that we've got to combat these bad-faith actors, both internal and external.

Ashok observed that only Americans are trying to get to "the peak,"  and that was a primary difference between Americans and the rest of the world.

In the rest of the world, we grew up with the idea that catastrophe is just around the corner.  The idea of avoiding catastrophes in our DNA. ... we are so terrified that terrible things will happen and can happen anytime, we design our lives based on avoiding catastrophes. ... When we are looking at peace, we need to come at it from an avoiding catastrophe perspective, rather than a perspective where we can get as much of all the good stuff as we can. So those peaks, I think those peaks are extremely seductive and very dangerous. And I speak as someone who has always focused on peaks.

Ashok also addressed Guy's suggestion that good-faith actors needed to come together to battle the "bad-faith actors." He observed, as Heidi did earlier, that everyone considers themselves to be a "good-faith actor." So he predicts that we may be entering a world that is split between two good-faith actors. One is the West, and the other, he said, is the collectivists, traditional, authoritarian East and South.

It's not going to be a Cold War, because I think we are going to continue to have skirmishes. The equivalent of Korea or Vietnam, from the post-war era to now — terrible wars that don't disturb general equilibrium of the planet. I think we are going to see many of those. But even trading, even globalization is dead.

But I think both sides will consider themselves good-faith actors. ... And that may provide the basis for some kind of tenuous, but good enough, peace. So I see peace itself as coming out of a split world.  I think the biggest mistake we made, and by "we," I mean, the people in power over the last 70 to 80 years, was to presume that you could have a globalized world, the global village where we could trade and collaborate and cooperate and eat each other's cuisines and basically live in peace and harmony. It's not possible.

This brings me to the civilizational aspect of it. There is nothing that the East, broadly speaking, the authoritarian traditional East, has in common with the West. The only reason why the East has followed the West so far and aped it and aspired for Western values and standards is because the US has been extraordinarily successful and was that 800 pound gorilla.  

But today, when I talk to my friends in the East or even in the US who are from the East or the South, they are fairly contemptuous of America. I cannot even tell you how demeaningly they talk of this society and this culture. ... They look at the West, but mostly America, as doing everything wrong in order to do everything right to destroy its own society. So there is no breaching of this. In the interest of peace, we have to divorce. The world needs a divorce. And then we need to figure out a way to avoid catastrophe.

I found this, as well as Ashok's other assertions very thought-provoking, and hope some of Guy's and my contributions were as well.  This is just a sampling of our conversation, so if you find this interesting, please check out the full conversation here.  In coming issues we plan to devote more attention to the very difficult and critically important issues raised in this discussion. There is, unfortunately, good reason to believe that we are entering an era of "super-intractable intractability" characterized by the splintering of the existing world order, the continuing decline of democratic societies, and the terrifying threat of even more large-scale violence.

See the Full Video and Transcript


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