Small steps to wider détente

Umberto Eco meditates on localised truces as a strategy to inspire broader peace

When we talk of peace and wish for peace, we always think in universal, global terms. We would not talk of peace if we thought of it only for a few, otherwise we'd go live in Switzerland or enter a monastery, as people used to do in the dark days of endless invasions.

The second way of thinking about peace, complementary to the first, is that it is an original state. From the idea of an Edenic society to that of a golden age, peace has always been advocated as the restoration of a primal condition of humanity that was at a certain point corrupted by some act of hatred and injustice. But let's not forget that, with regard to the myths of the golden age, Heraclitus was rational enough to say that "struggle is the rule of the world and war is the father of all and the king of all". He was followed by Hobbes and his homo homini lupus and Darwin and his "struggle for life".

So let's try to imagine that the general curve of entropy is dominated by conflict, destruction and death, and that the isles of peace are pretty little blips in the overall entropic fall, exceptions to war that need a lot of energy to survive.

The great peaces we have known in history, the ones that involved large territories, such as the Pax Romana, or in our time the Pax Americana (but there was also a Pax Sovietica that for 70 years curbed areas that are now in turmoil and seething with mutual conflicts), were the result of continuous military pressure. This arrangement might please those who stand in the eye of the hurricane, but those at its margins suffer from the wars that serve to maintain the equilibrium of the system. As if to say that if there is peace, it is always ours, never that of others.

I don't believe that on this earth men, who are wolves preying on their fellow men, will attain global peace. The historian Francis Fukuyama was thinking about this peace with his idea of the end of history, but recent events have shown that history repeats itself, and always in the form of conflict.

There remains the possibility of working gradually for peace. If universal peace can result only from a military victory, local peace can spring from a cessation of belligerence. It is established when combatants are weary and a negotiating agency offers to mediate.

A succession of local peaces might lead to a long-term decrease in the tension that keeps war alive. Even if we do not always achieve this end, a peace realised like a small blip in the general entropic curve to chaos would still serve as an example, a model.

Peace as an example. This may be a very Christian concept, but I would argue that it would have been accepted by many pagan sages. Let's make peace between us two, even if only between the Montagues and the Capulets; it will not solve the problems of the world, but it will show that negotiation is still possible.

An extract from Umberto Eco's "Turning Back the Clock" (Vintage, £9.99), out now

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How to survive the recession