Is Peace the Absence of War?

Prof Dr Michael Brzoska

A generally accepted definition of peace exists neither colloquially nor in peace research. Three basic approaches can be distinguished.

A narrow concept of peace is based on the opposite concept of war. According to this definition, peace prevails wherever there is no war. This shifts the problem of definition to the concept of war, which is then usually equated with deadly and destructive conflicts between at least two militarily organised armed groups. 

Even when the war is over, fighting often continues

Criticism of this narrow definition of peace, also called “negative peace”, is widespread. It can be found as early as 1651 in historical writings such as Leviathan, in which Thomas Hobbes wrote: “The nature of war consists not in the actual fighting; but in the known disposition for it, during the continuance of which there is no assurance to the contrary.” Currently, the distinction between war and peace is particularly problematic in situations where military conflict between organised armed formations has ended but violence has not been contained. An example of this is the situation in eastern Congo, where sporadic outbreaks of violence continue to occur.

What leads to violence?

In the second approach, peace is defined more ambitiously. The approach focusses not on large-scale armed violence but the conditions that lead to this violence. This opens up a wide spectrum of factors and layers that can be considered important. This openness makes it difficult to agree on when peace in a broad sense, also called “positive peace”, prevails. While many definitions have been proposed, none has yet attained a meaning as clear as that of peace as the absence of war.

Narrow and broad concepts of peace are combined in a third approach. The starting point is the absence of war. Where there is war, there is no peace. But the absence of war in a given place does not always mean that there is peace. Peace is understood here as a process in which the absence of war is the beginning of a path. Even if there is no agreement on what constitutes positive peace in the end, elements of a process of peace that have general validity can be found. Central to this is the reduction of the probability that wars will occur again. The two elements of war preparation, i.e., armament and the military, and the prerequisites for violence, i.e., conflict and mistrust, can be derived from the Hobbes quote. Where either is reduced, progress towards peace can be found. Immanuel Kant outlined another path. This path can be described as one combining democracy, international law and economic integration. Beyond these and other, similar general elements, concrete steps for moving towards lasting peace can be found and used in concrete situations that reduce the probability of war.

This approach corresponds to the quote from Willy Brandt: “Peace is not everything, but without peace everything is nothing.” The task, not least for peace research, is to identify and support the implementation of the right steps in the peace process. 

In Ethiopia's Tigray province, many civilians were killed in armed fighting in November 2020. (c) AFP