Growing Strawberries on Coconut Trees: The Nature of Peace and Peacebuilding in a Collectivist and Illiberal World



Newsletter #191 — January 5, 2024

From the BI Israel/Hamas Discussion


Peacebuilders and, especially, peacebuilders based in the West’s largely peaceful and prosperous democracies, tend to be optimists — people who believe that, with the right kind of process (and with sufficient financial support), they can help those living in the world’s deeply divided societies to simultaneously pursue both peace and justice. In this essay, Ashok Panikkar challenges this optimistic view by urging peacebuilders to recognize and to take steps to address two awful truths.

First, he says, there are a great many cases in which one or more parties to a conflict are likely to view the kind of compromise and coexistence-based resolution of the conflict that peacebuilders champion as unacceptable. They would rather fight it out, seeking total victory, not compromise. Hamas is one example of such a party, but they are far from alone. Second, even well-established Western democracies are having great trouble making this compromise and coexistence-based model work within their own, hyper-polarized societies.

Ashok goes on to argue that peacebuilders should focus more attention on efforts to help Western democracies deal more constructively with their internal tensions while also recognizing that, internationally, there are cases where the peacebuilding model is not viable. As Ashok observes, just as you cannot grow strawberries on coconut trees, you cannot build peace if the kind of peace you’re trying to build is ill-suited to the conflict environment or the societies in which you are working. 

Clearly, these are provocative ideas, but Ashok explains his reasoning well.  The assertions he makes, and the questions he raises, are ones all peacebuilders, both within Western democracies and beyond, need to seriously consider as they contemplate both their own values and the best way to obtain “peace.”

As always, we welcome reader responses which provide additional thoughts on these issues. - Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess

Share Your Thoughts

Note: We are including this post in our Israel/Hamas Discussion Topic Area, but it is much broader than that, covering peacebuilding world wide.


by Ashok Panikkar

December 26, 2023

The only reasonable prediction we can make about the 21st century is that we don’t know what’s coming our way — except that it will be bad.   

While triggered by the Israel/Palestine situation, this article is a critical reflection on the role of ‘peacebuilding’ (my umbrella term for all non-adversarial dispute resolution processes) in the 21st century.

To understand why the peacebuilding field has failed to live up to its lofty ambitions, we have to unpack the world we inhabit today. After the heady optimism at the end of the Cold War, the conflicts of the new century have forced Westerners to rethink their short-lived assumptions about abolishing war, making the world safe for democracy and capitalism, and world peace. Hence, I won’t give you a two-point off-ramp for Russia, a five-point plan for the Syrian embroglio, or a seven-point approach for the Israel-Palestine mess. Of course, we should try to make the world safer. However, our attempts should be rooted in hard-nosed realities, not skewered by wishful thinking.

The Israel/Palestine conflict is, even more than Ukraine, a test case for professional peacebuilders, whose projects and salaries are mostly paid for by Western governments or foundations. To be clear, my focus here is the international peacebuilder. I am not talking about community leaders and peacemakers in the developing world who heroically struggle within their own broken communities and tribes. These people venture abroad rarely, and then only when invited to share their experiences.

With its origins being in the prosperous and idealistic Seventies, the peacebuilding field has struggled to appreciate the seamier sides of politics and human nature as well as the geopolitical shifts taking place over the past two decades. Peacebuilders could avoid doing so as long as their patrons funded their work and provided them access tto cnflicted communities — something that is going to be increasingly hard to obtain.

The Unsolvable Middle East

Here are a few ‘problematic’ reasons why the Israel/Palestine conflict is pretty much ‘unsolvable.’

This is not merely a war between Israel and Hamas. This is a civilizational war between global Islam and the secular, liberal world. Just as Ukraine is a civilizational conflict between the illiberal East and the liberal West, the most intractable conflicts are not about resources, but about cultural and civilizational identity. Samuel P. Huntington was right.

Jews and Arabs cannot coexist except as equals. Arabs and Israelis are both irreconcilably embittered. The only Arab nations to establish relationships with Israel are dictatorships (which acted without consultation with their Arab/Muslim populations). Israelis will not accept a one-state solution only to be outnumbered by Arabs/Muslims, and after October 7th, they will no longer agree to a two-state solution given the persistent Muslim calls for Israel’s destruction — a sentiment possibly reciprocated by right-wing Israelis. A two-state solution might work under a tyrannical Israel-friendly Palestinian dictatorship (stifling Iranian influence) — but who needs that?  

Islam is relatively incompatible with secular societies with little space for negotiation. Muslims see Islam as a perfect (totalitarian) system that offers temporal and spiritual answers. Without their version of the Protestant Reformation, Islam doesn’t separate religion from politics. Also, with the Sharia being divinely ordained, believers often find themselves at odds with even the basic values and practices of open and tolerant societies. This makes it almost impossible for them to engage in negotiations that require compromise and trade-offs. This makes for, at best, uneasy coexistence. 

Islam has a powerful and united global community of believers. Despite sectarian conflicts among Muslims, the Umma (ummat al-Islam, the supra-national Islamic community) is united against non-Muslims. Their hyper-sensitivity to criticism and propensity to violence (Khomeini’s Fatwa on Salman Rushdie, 9/11, Charlie Hebdo killings, London bombings), inspires fear and anger among non-Muslims.

There can be no peace alongside American bases in the Middle East. Just as Osama Bin-Laden was motivated by the presence of US soldiers in Saudi Arabia, continued Western presence in the region will inflame Muslims. However, without Western support, internecine wars will destabilize many Arab states. With Arab/ Muslim peacekeeping forces being unlikely, the West will be forced to stay put to prevent meddling by Iran, Russia, China, or non-state actors. Hence, until the emergence of another hegemonic empire to establish regional or world domination, there will be no peace here or elsewhere.

Unpacking the World

In the West, unlike elsewhere, a few decades of security and prosperity helped create a delusion of abundance. Secure in their privilege, the educated young were inspired to create a ‘perfect’ world liberated from poverty, injustice and inequality. Nobody taught them that, just like fascism and communism, all "perfect" systems had to be, by design, totalitarian. In the pursuit of perfectibility, these revolutionaries fought their own families, colleagues, and even strangers — on everything including race, gender, sexuality and the climate. They also became so good at parsing out the complex intersections of power, privilege, oppression, and victimhood that they destroyed societal cohesion and imperiled their own mental health. Polls show that not only are increasing numbers of Westerners now unwilling to fight for their country, but many even believe that the world would be better off if their own societies collapsed.

They just might get their wish. A perfect storm of poor decisions has ruined economies and atrophied democratic institutions, while urbanization, technology, and globalization have had devastating effects on those societies. As the West loses its mojo and will to survive, China, Russia, India, and the Arab nations are blasting away at what’s left of the liberal-world order.

It is now clear that democracy can’t be exported to countries that aren’t ready for it, and liberal values (human rights and freedom of speech) can easily destabilize homogeneous and collectivist societies. As a lifelong liberal who has managed complex inter-cultural conflicts, I now have a much greater appreciation of the dangers of liberalism. Today I even have a grudging sympathy for Muslim and Christian fundamentalists, just as I understand why the Hindutva are hell-bent on destroying my once secular India. In my nightmares I fear that Rudyard Kipling's "East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet," was right.  

The liberal honeymoon is over. The liberal world will henceforth be comprised of mostly Western nations that have undergone the centuries-long upheavals that I call the Transformational Triad: the three movements that forever changed the Western world. These include the Protestant Reformation separating church from the state; the European Renaissances and Enlightenments privileging reason and individual expression over tradition and hierarchy; and the Industrial Revolution uprooting people from villages to cities. Societies that avoided these upheavals, and instead leapfrogged from feudalism to modernity, are right to view liberal societies as an existential threat. Hence, in lieu of the question of world peace, I offer up a more modest question to peacebuilders: How, despite the hostility of illiberal forces, can we hold on to the small islands of freedom and dignity that still exist in the West today?

We live in dangerously unpredictable times. Almost every assumption that we once took for granted in the US-dominated world (that brief interregnum between the end of World War II and 9/11), is being disproven. This is not an exaggeration. Extreme mobility, connectivity, and hyper-individualism have changed how we process information, build knowledge, and create relationships.

Peacebuilders (and their local staff/partners) tend to be idealistic and do their work at great personal risk. Unfortunately, their theories and tools are based on liberal values that do not survive in an illiberal world. Security, prosperity, access to higher education and the rise of a powerful civil society created unrealistic expectations of infinite social progress. This transformed the culture and mindset of Westerners (and that of their elite counterparts in the Global South). The field of peacebuilding itself grew because of American hegemony and European patronage.  In the post World War II period, despite Chile, Vietnam, Iraq, Guantanamo, etc., the USA has proven to be the most humanistic empire in history. If you disagree, wait until you see what follows American collapse or withdrawal.

Much like Siddhartha (the young Buddha) was sheltered from the harshness of reality by the comforts of his father’s palace, mid-20th century Westerners, spoiled with choices in their affluent societies, soon forgot their parent’s world of deprivation and sacrifice. Within this cocoon, they developed myths and fallacies about the nature of reality. This false sense of reality distorted their cognitive framework (the mental maps we use to make sense of the world around us) and made it impossible for these Westerners to even understand the monumental changes taking place today—let alone know how to survive them. Now though, just like Siddhartha stepping out to discover aging, sickness, death, and poverty, the Westerners are is forced to reckon with scarcity, insecurity, and the fear of annihilation.

Below are a few basic realities (or "truths") for the peacebuilder. These are not what I wish for myself. They are "truths" in the way gravity is a truth of physics. Knowledge of physics prevents me from, in a burst of lyrical exuberance, jumping out of my 10th floor balcony to join an eagle that looks like it is having so much fun.

  1. The world is what it is — not what we want it to be. We have personal and collective agency to influence the world—but not to subvert the laws of physics, biology, or chemistry.
  2. Much of the world is now ungovernable — without use of force. Unrealistic expectations about individual autonomy, egalitarianism, and the redress of historic injustices  have warped our understanding of freedom and popular sovereignty, making governing difficult.
  3. Violence and war are the default state of human existence. Today’s Westerners, without a collective memory of existential insecurity, have tended to view violence as stemming from an absence of compassion or from a scarcity mindset.
  4. Open societies are unstable — by design. As complexity increases, energy costs rise and failure to invest in energy required to maintain the system causes its collapse (entropy). Western democracy has survived only because of immense American resources.
  5. Democracy is a political contract. Elites agree to share power to unlock economic value and foster social harmony. The success of the Civil Rights Movement was as much due to a burgeoning national pie (allowing the elite to make concessions) as it was to mass protests. When the pie shrinks and minorities attack a weakening elite, this agreement breaks down.
  6. American hegemony was good for much of the world. This peaceful interregnum allowed many nations to aspire to and transition towards a liberal democracy.
  7. Diversity and democracy don’t create a society — harmonious societies create democracies. The sickness of the West is all pervasive and possibly fatal. When groups view each other as enemies (men/women, white/ black), then there's no longer any society left to protect.
  8. The options for creating a peaceful world are limited — and quickly fading. Just as an obese person dying of a heart attack needs surgery, not dietary advice, democracies can’t be revived by tinkering with the electoral process or through innovations such as citizen assemblies.  
  9. The Global South has no use for liberal democracy. Collectivist societies, having seen the deleterious effects of liberalism, are grateful that their conservatism has protected them so far.   

Unpacking Peace in Our Time

We are now in danger of regressing back to a world governed by raw emotions and brute power, not reason or international law. Without the heavy hand of the US, human rights and peace will no longer be a priority. The question is no longer whether these changes are moral. The question is: What ideas and mass frenzies of the past 50 years have gotten us to this place? Here are a few of the questionable assumptions that have weakened liberal societies and continue to bedevil contemporary peacebuilding:

  • Peace is the default state, disturbed only by bad actors or bad communication.
  • We can expand rights without blowback; increase diversity without increasing complexity; and create peace without violent deterrence.
  • Peace with justice is the only kind that is sustainable.
  • If good people are willing to fight for peace, sustainable peace is achievable.
  • Weaker groups should always be given a seat at peace negotiations.
  • Peace and non-violence are morally superior to war and violence.
  • Peacebuilders already have all the tools needed to solve most conflicts.
  • Democracy and human rights can be fostered in all cultures.
  • It is hypocritical for democratic states to ally with dictatorships.

These assumptions were natural enough given the optimism of the privileged in the Western world. Since 1945, Western imaginations and aspirations soared, and many sought to bring freedom and rights to everyone: incarcerated, undocumented immigrants, and people everywhere including Afghanistan and Somalia. This overreach happened in the name of visionary thinking and idealism that, alas, forgot Barry Commoner’s first law of ecology: (“Everything is connected to everything else. Everything must go somewhere. Nature knows best. There is no such thing as a free lunch.”).

In striving for complete freedom, justice, and equality, we forgot that the best intentions and gifts come with unforeseen costs. To give just one example, urbanization, the democratization of education, and globalization helped expand opportunities and remove hundreds of millions out of poverty. It also moved hundreds of millions from their support structures in villages and small towns to a life of anonymity in cities. This broke the extended family, destroyed all vestiges of community and created the atomized individual, whose desperate search for identity has led inexorably to violence and the destabilization of societies and nations. “There is no such thing as a free lunch.”

So where does this leave peacebuilders and peacebuilding today? Just as an intelligent general knows when to retreat, the wise peacebuilder will turn their energies from imagining world peace to salvaging what they can of our imperfect, but beautiful, liberal experiment. They will work hard to:

  1. Sustain liberty and human rights at home, while abandoning nation building and foreign intervention (as far as possible).
  2. Negotiate the excruciatingly difficult trade-offs necessary for their own citizenry to live with reasonable egalitarianism, freedom, and rights.
  3. Persuade minorities that (a) in return for political rights they will accept liberal norms and laws, even if it requires tolerating the offensive or blasphemous- and that (b) resorting to violence will lose them public sympathy.
  4. Accept that all nations, including those that are “free and open,” have the right and responsibility to protect themselves and their values from enemies who seek to destroy them.
  5. Educate themselves to grasp the complex inter-related factors that are shaping the 21st century. The need of the hour is a broad and deep understanding of the times we live in — as much as peacebuilding techniques and processes.
  6. Recognize (and where possible create) ecosystems where parties can safely negotiate, compromise, and make difficult tradeoffs — even as they temper their own expectations and that of others.  
  7. Recognize that, in the worst cases, war itself will be necessary until one side is vanquished or surrenders unconditionally — before peacebuilding is even conceivable.
  8. Dial down the rhetoric of ‘Peace with Justice’ — a beautiful aspiration, but not a useful strategy. The more conditions there are, the less the incentive to work towards peace.
  9. Dial down the rhetoric of dismantling capitalism, heteropatriarchy or the nuclear family — destroying every potentially ‘oppressive’ system will only expedite total collapse.  

Just as abundance is a fantasy, complete equality among humans is a dangerous myth that disregards the hard-earned wisdom and common sense of our ancestors. The natural world is the jungle where the strong maintain order and the weak would be wise to avoid danger. Humans, even liberals, are not exempt from the laws of nature. This may be counter-intuitive to many of us, but a successful society prioritizes their dominant groups and society at large — even as their liberal norms, laws, and institutions, crucially, provide protection for the weak. A society that seeks to protect the weak by attacking the strong ends up destroying itself — starting with the weak. While external security requires the capacity for brutal violence (or its threat as deterrence), domestic harmony requires civilizing the barbarian within each of us. The former is a job only for the strong. The latter is a project only for the wise, requiring humility and patience.  

Historically, peaceful periods have been celebrated as exceptional. Peacebuilders must decide whether in their search for the ideal they are willing to destroy the reasonable. Peace, justice, and prosperity have always been a privilege. We should hold on to ours.

Lead Graphic Photo Credit: Photo by cegoh from Freerange Stock.


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