Does Fear Prevent Peace?

When looking at the likely future pathways for world order, the fundamental question is this: does fear prevent peace?

I spoke highly of Thomas PM Barnett's book, Great Powers, in a recent post.  I concluded by saying his vision was quintessentially American and optimistic to the core.  I admire that.

However, I concluded with this,

"We are an ideal.  Beautiful and aspirational.  The world is tragic.  America sees hope around every corner.  History is tale of zigzagging progress, dizzying heights and precipitous falls.  Americans assume that tomorrow will be better than today and much better than yesterday.  Despite our periodic bouts of self doubt, hope and optimism are baked into our DNA. 

Barnett taps this deep reservoir and offers a grand vision of a world that could be.  The problem becomes whether what could be will be.  Has America allowed the world to finally break the cycles of rise and fall?  That would be a gift too exquisite to articulate in mere words.  Or is America living on the fumes of its past greatness at just the time where disorder re-enters history on a scale not seen since the beginning of the last century?

Hope vs. tragedy.  American, New World idealism vs. Old World pessimism.  We may not face such a clean, binary situation, but it is on the horns of these perceptions that I find myself touching ever so gingerly hoping not to become fully impaled by falling on the wrong side."

Today I read this interview with John Mearsheimer.  He is a famous International Relations theorist most famous for his pre-9/11 book The Tragedy of Great Power Politics.

He concludes the interview with this,

"The sad fact is that you can have a situation where two countries are satisfied with the status quo and have no interest in using military force to alter it, but they still are doomed to compete with each other for power.  The reason is that neither side can be certain about the other side's intentions.  Therefore leaders on both sides have to assume the worst case; they have to assume the other side is a revisionist state, not a status quo power, and compete for power with the other side.  That is the tragedy of great power conflict."

While that comment is specifically about US-Chinese relations, it has a universal quality to it with which one must intellectually grapple.  A lack of trust breeds fear and fear breeds a vicious cycle.  Ultimately, this is what drives international relations.  While agreements can be reached and peace secured under certain circumstances, usually under balances of power, it will all crumble.

Every nation seeks to secure itself against this inevitability even if those efforts are exactly the actions that make such an undesired outcome come to fruition.

Ultimately fear prevents peace by destroying the needed balances and shredding idealism.  

Can that be conquered?  That continues to be mankind's most pressing question.


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