Identifying What Makes Peace Sustainable: Q&A with the AC4 team at Columbia University

Colombian art teacher Zully Aldana places plaster masks made by students on a billboard at the Heladia Mejia school in Bogota on August 1, 2016, in the framework of a national education initiative for peace. (GUILLERMO LEGARIA/AFP/Getty Images)

Both the UN General Assembly and Security Council have adopted recent resolutions on “sustaining peace,” described as a goal and process for building a common vision of a society, which ensures that the needs of all segments of society are taken into account. The UN Secretary-General is due to release his report on sustaining peace in February 2018. One important research area that has attracted the attention of researchers and peace scientists is uncovering the attributes, processes, and mechanisms that enable societies to build and sustain peace.

The Advanced Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict, and Complexity (AC4) at Columbia University embarked on this very research in 2014.

AC4 has gathered evidence pointing to the fundamental peacefulness of humans and how societies in the past and present have maintained and supported peace. In a conversation on the margins of an event that took place at the International Peace Institute, AC4 researchers Dr. Peter ColemanDr. Douglas Fry, and Dr. Larry Liebovitch shared their views with the Global Observatory editor Samir Ashraf on the science of sustaining peace and its implications for the ongoing work of the United Nations.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Your work clearly has much to offer policymakers. What would you say is most critical to know about this area of research?

Dr. Coleman: It is important to recognize that there is scientific evidence that suggests peace has always been with us, that we are a fundamentally peaceful species, and that many societies have figured out how to organize, behave, and conduct business in ways that are peaceful. There is a lot we can learn from that. Peace in some ways is the default—war is an exception and a pathology that has evolved.

How would you explain what your team has learned about sustaining peace?

Dr. Fry: When looking at different peaceful societies we have found there are a number of key factors. One is an overarching and inclusive identity. It is fairly clear if you look at human groups that we can use identity either to divide or to bring together. It makes a difference, then, when people make an effort to expand the identity of those who belong to as many as possible, rather than limiting it.

Another important factor is cultivating and promoting non-violence or peacefulness as a value. My colleague, Bruce Bonta, came to the conclusion that internally peaceful societies have an explicit non-violence, anti-aggression type of belief system. While the evidence for this is less clear, it seems to make sense that if an ethos is developed, a value system that promotes peace, then people get habituated to it, children get socialized into it, and institutions start to reflect it.

An example of a value base that supports peace is among the Zapotec people in Mexico. Benito Juarez, a former president who is half-Zapotec, said, “Respect for the rights of others is peace.” There is a wonderful monument to this idea in Oaxaca Valley and people there talk about the importance of respect. Another is Norway, where they have a peace-promoting, conflict management, conflict resolution ethos, and have historically not been a warring country.

Dr. Liebovitch: There can be a temptation in policymaking to search for one action that will have a clearly defined effect that works. But societies and conflict function as a system. Parts evolve and change and it is necessary to understand what that means and to have the skills and the abilities to get the appropriate data.

There are more actors now that have a complex influence on different societies. What are some implications of this complexity on sustaining peace at the national, community, and multilateral levels?

Dr. Coleman: To some degree, the overwhelming complexity of this world results in a search for simple statements by strong men who say, “I’m going to fix this thing.” In some ways, technological tools that have come with the complexity, like social media, can inform decision-makers in ways that make navigating easier. It’s a mixed bag, but it’s about recognizing that the complexity in our world presents challenges, and then capitalizing on the opportunities and investing in them. However, the stakes are getting higher, because of weaponized information and actual weapons. That means how we educate people morally and intellectually is paramount.

Dr. Fry: Also, all human societies have had to deal with conflict, and just about every society on this planet has mediators or some way of handling conflict. Sometimes there’s an official role and other times it’s an elder family member, neighbor, or an impartial party. One example of how conflict is handled is in Finland, where people would be sent away. Ostracism is an age-old solution to the person you can’t reform. A simple model for a peaceful society is to socialize and try to create good and useful human beings, and if something goes awry, to deal with it and then later bring them back into the fold.

Does education have a role in this?

Dr. Coleman: Yes, but the question is what form of education. In some ways, peace education is basic education that families have had for generations—you don’t harm others, you try to treat them as you want to be treated, like it says in the Bible or Quran.

There are also educational processes and tools for navigating the world, along with fundamental values that can be inculcated through education, particularly if it’s not happening in families. Education is often disparaged as “soft” since it’s not security or military. In fact, it’s fundamental security.

Dr. Fry: At a basic level, the more educated a population is in general, the more they will be active citizens. But also, non-violence and peace education specifically are central components of a peaceful society. Humans can be socialized and educated in a way that emphasizes war-like or war-supporting views that perpetuates us versus them mentalities. These views are fundamentally opposed to peaceful societies. This is evidence-based. If you look at peaceful societies in the past and present, what are they doing? They inculcate respect, they encourage the use of special conflict resolution mechanisms.

Part of AC4’s work is to use applied mathematics to determine the push points for policies. What factors have you found in your research that demonstrate the efficacy of using mathematics in this way?

Dr. Liebovitch: Part of the process the group has been going through is to identify the positive and negative factors. Essentially, we are employing the approaches to “big data” that are used in marketing or media. In terms of sustainable peace, the people who are trying to understand it should be learning from those working with large data sets to see how they can use those same techniques to identify what is more likely to build sustainable peace.

Where would the sources of such data be in the sustainable peace context?

Dr. Liebovitch: One interesting possibility is crowdsourcing. Taking an example in economics, one project allowed people who went to a market to enter the price of tomatoes or other goods and the company was doing real-time analysis—not just every quarter or every month. In a sustaining peace context, a similar project could search public tweets to see what people are complaining about, or how they feel about society. Natural language processing and image processing could allow analysis of YouTube videos to see what people are viewing. Companies are already doing this to sell products, so now it could be used to better understand the potential for peace in a society.