“Peace in our time” – not entirely silly

Peace is always topical because everyone wants it. But what is it? This blog post introduces a brief framework for understanding peace better. A framework that gives rise to such questions such as: how does one best find/lose peace? Where does peace come from? Is it merely naive optimism to hope for peace all the time, or can a hope for peace be justified?

In 1938, British prime minister Neville Chamberlain had just returned from the Munich Conference where he had signed an agreement that gave the German-speaking parts of Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany. Blissfully unaware of what the future had in store, Chamberlain stood on the steps of number 10 Downing Street and addressed his country:

“My good friends, for the second time in our history, a British Prime Minister has returned from Germany bringing peace with honour. I believe it is peace for our time. We thank you from the bottom of our hearts. Go home and get a nice quiet sleep.”

“I have in my hand…”

Ouch, the historical irony is real. Chamberlain’s words have taken on a certain notoriety, being parodied by Monty Python and used as a one-liner in the latest Avengers movie. Mentions of “peace in our time” are now usually loaded with the suggestion of anything but. I’m sure Chamberlain was a fairly intelligent and astute individual, but his negotiation skills were not up to the task of appeasing the Hitler and the Nazis. Pulling off a diplomatic settlement for that situation would have been hard for anyone, if not impossible. Powerful forces were in motion and in hindsight, there was little that any one person could have done to prevent a war.

This blog post is going to be about conflict. History is full great examples, but given my enthusiasm for historical detail I’m worried about getting bogged down… so let’s move from the historical and geopolitical to a more relatable example of conflict in the 21st Century…

Now most of the time, cyclists and motorists exist side by side happily enough whilst on the roads. But there is an underlying instability or tension, which at times will rear its ugly head as a conflict. For cyclists it might when cars, trucks and buses impatiently and unsafely overtake you, when there is a lack of good cycleways, when you get a faceful of diesel exhaust, or when someone toots at you while you’re cold, wet and tired. For motorists it might be when you get stuck behind an excruciatingly slow rider who just won’t let you past, when a cyclist in another lane veers in front of you without warning, or when a cyclist dings your mirror whilst cheekily dodging and weaving through a slow moving column of traffic.


Whenever a cyclist or motorist is caught in such an incident it is due to a fundamental difficulty – our roads are used by both wobbly and slow muscle-powered vehicles with fragile exposed riders, and by swift motor vehicles with an enclosed cab. It is a situation that generates instability and tension, making conflict likely. Now when individuals act as cyclists or motorists they enter into a role that places them right in the middle of this unstable and tense situation, where they could potentially become implicated in a conflict (examples of which are listed above). In any conflict a victim and a perpetrator will be present, although the roles can sometimes be a bit blended (e.g. if revenge is taken) or there may be multiple victims and/or perpetrators. When a conflict occurs, it is a way of diagnosing the fundamental difficulty (or the unstable and tense situation) that allowed it to happen. Once a diagnosis has been made, it is possible to resolve the fundamental difficulty and remove the source of conflict – hopefully leading to peace.

Now I see three ways in which a fundamental difficulty can be resolved. First, the two parties adapt to the situation, and learn how to cope with it (tolerance). Perhaps cyclists and motorists will become more used to each other and learn to make allowances. Second, one party may edge out the other (victory and defeat). Perhaps the bicycle-loving mayor of Wellington (where I live) will ban the use of cars in the CBD. Or perhaps cyclists will be banned from certain major roads due to concerns for their safety. Finally, the fundamental difficulty might suddenly be removed due to a change in circumstance – allowing each party to exist as before (conflict dissolution). Perhaps the adoption of driverless cars greatly reduces the risks run by cyclists.

  1. Tolerance
  2. Victory and defeat
  3. Conflict dissolution

Now if ‘conflict dissolution’ sounds like nonsensical waffle that some corporate manager might ineffectually throw at a troubled cubicle farm, then you would be forgiven… I thought up the term myself (or so I thought), googled it, and this silly thing was the first result! [Now some people think conflict is simply due to an overactive sense of individuality – that we must revert to some romanticised Rousseau-esque state of nature where we coexist with each other in pre-industrial happiness and the word ‘rival’ does not exist. Were it so easy. Fundamental difficulties (and the conflicts that arise from them) are at least as old as biological life. Predation and biological competition are reminiscent of conflict, and even the pre-agricultural humans from over 10 000 years ago practised warfare. This isn’t to say that the history of life is just a long tale of brutal striving and struggle, but we should all be able to agree that conflict is in the mix somewhere – and that you can’t get rid of it by just “suspending make-believe and being natural”.]

Rather, by conflict dissolution I mean an abrupt (or miraculous) change in circumstances which suddenly makes everyone go “why are we fighting over this? It used to matter, but now it doesn’t”. One might claim that a conflict could still be perpetuated out of a sense of historical grievance (and there is some truth in that), but in my opinion the only historical grievances that get remembered are the ones where something tangible is still at stake. Conflict dissolution removes that which is at stake and essentially ringbarks the conflict. It may hang around for a bit longer, but its life is gone.

What about mediation? A mediator has no power as such, and can only facilitate negotiations between the two parties – in the hope that some sort of mutually acceptable arrangement may be reached (a mix of tolerance, and of victory and defeat). This can lead to peace some of the time, but it doesn’t always work! Just ask any of the numerous US presidents and secretaries of state who have tried to negotiate an agreement between Palestine and Israel…

Madrid 1991
Madrid 1991
Oslo 1993
Oslo 1993
Aquaba 2003
Aqaba 2003
John Kerry, Tzipi Livni, Saeb Erekat
Washington 2013

A lot of the time (and certainly in the case of Palestine-Israel…) a conflict may be so deeply entrenched and intractable that it would take nothing short of a miracle to make the underlying problems go away. Sure, if you wait for 500 years perhaps the Palestinians and Israelis will have grown tolerant of each other (perhaps), if only because the conflict has become too destructive for each side to countenance. If one side drives out the other by force, then the conflict will also be resolved – but bear in mind that resolving the source of conflict is not sufficient for peace. The means of resolution must also be a peaceful one (‘pacifying’ your enemies militarily is not the same as making peace with them!) Mediation is worth trying, but don’t expect it to give you something for nothing – peace with no attempt to resolve the fundamental difficulties that give rise to conflict. In extreme cases like Palestine-Israel, it is nigh-impossible to imagine a dissolution of conflict such that ‘peace in our time’ would be a reality.

Conflict is awful, because it draws in nice ordinary people and pits them against each other. Most should be avoided like the plague (tolerance). Some conflicts are worth getting involved in (victory and defeat) – but one should never become judgemental and prejudiced towards the other side. Finally, we should hold out in hope for the dissolution of deep-seated issues underpinning our conflicts. Perhaps driverless cars will fix our road safety issues. Perhaps Big Business will decide that preserving the environment is in its interests. Perhaps Sunnis and Shiites will come to some some happy theological accommodation. Perhaps the lion and the lamb will lie down together, and the wheat will be separated from the weeds. “Give peace in our time, O Lord“.


One thought on ““Peace in our time” – not entirely silly

  1. Bruce McDowall says:

    Hi Chris, well done.
    I am an expert on conflict – as an observer and as chief protagonist. I agree, bitter conflict is to avoided like the plague – altogether far too painful and destructive. We must manage our conflicts well and seek peace in the midst of turmoil.

    I like your concept of ‘dissolution’ of conflict. In my experience dissolution comes when there is a change of perspective. A change of perspective can come in a variety of forms: Time out to calm the emotions; time out to get things in perspective – through discussion and/or thinking things through; outside intervention; the arrival of new information which puts things in a new light/perspective; when there is a commitment to patience, and respect for the other party.
    Blessings, Dad.


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