Talking Peace

Talking Peace

by President Jimmy Carter, 2002 Nobel Peace Prize awardee from a speech given 2001 at the Burkle Center for International Relations.

Before I talk about promoting peace, I will tell a story that illustrates a basic cause of conflict. There was a hot argument in Texas in the 1920s -- one that is still going on in several states, particularly in California -- about whether Spanish should be used in the classroom to teach kids who came from Mexico, or whether only English should be permitted. Miriam “Ma” Ferguson had become the state's first woman governor, after her husband, Governor “Pa” Ferguson was impeached. She ended the debate quite quickly when she held up a Bible and proclaimed, "If the King's English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it's good enough for the children of Texas!"

That kind of parochial attitude causes much of the conflict in the world. In writing my book, Talking Peace, it was surprising to realize that the root causes of conflict between nations are often identical to the causes of conflict between a husband and wife, or between a parent and a child: a difference of opinion, an inability to communicate easily, pride in the insistence that I am right and you are wrong, I am superior, you are inferior.

All one has to do is open a newspaper or turn on the nightly news to recognize that the consequences of such thinking can be truly horrendous. Of about 110 existing armed conflicts, about 70 erupt into violence each year, and 30 of these are major wars in which 1,000 or more soldiers are killed on the battlefield. Almost invariably these are civil wars to which Geneva Convention rules and international law are not applied. In these modern wars, for every soldier killed, nine civilians perish from land mines, stray bullets, bombs, missiles, and deliberate deprivation of shelter, food and medical care.

Why are there so many conflicts in the world? One reason is simply that the number of nations has increased. When the United Nations was created in 1945, there were 51 members; today there are nearly 200. Yet, the U.N. is not equipped to address the kinds of conflicts that are breaking out most frequently. It was created to deal with strife between countries. It is illegal for a representative of the U.N. to communicate with revolutionaries trying to overthrow the government of a member nation, unless that government approves. The same restraint applies to diplomats from the U.S. and other countries. Often there is no global mechanism for the resolution of these serious conflicts.

What, then, is to be done? There is always an incipient desire among average citizens for peace, but it is their leaders who have to be convinced to try a peaceful route to solving their conflicts. Almost invariably, ruling governments are reluctant to seek help from the U.N. or a foreign government such as the United States, because in their eyes it gives legitimacy to the revolutionary group against whom they are fighting. This reluctance opens up opportunities for nongovernmental mediators to be brought in who are trusted by both sides.

This is the kind of work in which we are often engaged at The Carter Center. Of the many issues we deal with on a daily basis, promoting peace is the most salient. Because we try to follow every conflict that is happening around the globe, we already know something about the causes, the people involved, the history, the efforts already underway to reach a solution, and the potential for success. We can sit poised, waiting for a call or permission from the parties involved to go in to try to help.

The key is to build trust with all parties to the conflict, something that is difficult for an outside government, often serving its own self-interest, to accomplish. If there already is a war going on, there is no way for The Carter Center or for myself personally to be brought into the process unless both warring parties reach a point where they believe, or are forced to believe, that their ambitions cannot be realized on the battlefield and that through mediation they both have more to gain. If they get to that point, then trust becomes our most potent tool. If this can be established, then a nongovernmental organization such as The Carter Center, having no authority at all but having the trust of the antagonists, can make some progress.

But what of the global superpower? What should be the role of the United States of America in promoting peace?

We can, if we have the heart and the will as a nation, play a tremendous role. But it may be surprising to hear that many people around the world don't look upon this country as the champion of peace. We are the only Western nation holding out against the international convention to control land mines. We have opposed establishment of an international criminal court (President Clinton in January endorsed the creation of a world criminal court, but U.S. participation still must be ratified by the Senate). After 10 years of negotiation, the U.S. Senate voted not to comply with the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.

These issues were hardly mentioned in the presidential election campaign, but it is my belief that the totality of all that is going on in the world today makes it necessary for the United States to revise the basic premises of its foreign policy to address these concerns.

So what then, is my dream? I would like for every nation on Earth to know that the United States is the champion of peace. Whenever there is a conflict pending or underway, I would like our government to be there to help resolve it. I would like for our country to be known as a champion of democracy. I would like for our country to raise high the banner of basic human rights, and I would like for our country to be generous in the alleviation of suffering.

That is a dream, but I don't think it is impossible to realize if the American people insist upon it.

Published: Tuesday, July 16, 2002