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8 May 2024

Whatever happened to the language of peace?

Pope Francis is the only world leader who seems prepared to denounce war.

By Sohrab Ahmari

In a sit-down interview with CBS News last month, Pope Francis was asked if he had a special message for Vladimir Putin on Ukraine. Deflecting the question’s partial framing, the Roman pontiff addressed himself instead to the leaders of “countries at war, all of them”, pleading: “Stop the war. Look for peace. A negotiated peace is better than a war without end.”

Speaking the simple but powerful language of peace is nothing new for the modern popes. What’s notable about our moment is how Francis finds himself almost entirely alone among world leaders in urging humanity to beat swords into ploughshares; and how, among elite Western opinion especially, his calls are greeted with indifference – that is, when they aren’t met with outright hostility and accusations of “appeasement”.

Compare this to the reception of Pacem in terris, Saint John XXIII’s encyclical on “universal peace” published more than 60 years ago, in which the pope emphasised “negotiation” and “agreement” as the best means for resolving interstate disputes, and hailed the United Nations for helping to secure “the universal common good”. Pacem in terris came amid the nuclear drama of the Cold War, which pitted the West against a Soviet Union overtly hostile to the interests of the Catholic Church. Yet far from being ignored, the encyclical was reprinted in the New York Times.

Leaders on both sides of the Iron Curtain also spoke the language of peace. In June 1963, John F Kennedy delivered his “Peace for All Time” address at American University. “What kind of a peace do we seek?” JFK asked. “Not the peace of the grave, or the security of the slave. I’m talking about genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on Earth worth living.” Nikita Khrushchev had already articulated his vision of peace – “peaceful coexistence” – in a 1959 Foreign Affairs essay.

It is true that these leaders upheld their peace-loving sentiments only in the breach. JFK, a Democrat, was a more hawkish Cold Warrior than his Republican predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower. And Khrushchev’s tanks had crushed the Hungarian uprising not long before his Foreign Affairs essay avowed that socialist states have “no need to pursue an expansionist policy of conquest and an effort to subordinate other countries to their influence”.

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Still, their professed peaceful intentions were sometimes translated into significant diplomatic achievements. Four months after Pacem in terris – in which John XXIII taught that “nuclear weapons should be banned” – Britain, the US and the Soviet Union ratified the Limited Test Ban Treaty. The language of peace, even when hypocritical in the mouths of politicians, worked to the benefit of our species, all the same.

Today, by contrast, the word “peace” rarely passes the lips of Western leaders. A search for the term “peace” on the White House website yields relatively paltry recent results – and none calling directly for negotiations aimed at bringing the conflicts in the Middle East and eastern Europe to a close (as opposed to vaguely “praying” for peace or reproaching the other side for breaking the peace, justly or otherwise).

Whatever happened to the language of peace?

The most obvious explanation is that the living memory of the total wars of the first half of the 20th century is passing away – and with it, Western publics’ awareness of how awful these can be. In America, the age of mass mobilisation came to a close with Vietnam, and armed conflict has since become the business of a self-selecting class of warriors. The rest of us had merely to stick yellow-ribbon decals on our cars and say, “Thank you for your service.”

The collapse of the Soviet Union, moreover, elevated the US to supremacy. From that commanding vantage point, leaders in Washington no longer saw themselves waging “war” per se, but “limited interventions” aimed at quelling challenges to a globe-spanning Pax Americana. That mentality remains in place, even as the geopolitical landscape comes more and more to resemble the 19th century.

As the Catholic scholar Massimo Faggioli has argued, the collapse of the USSR as a systemic alternative has also contributed to the demise of genuine peace-seeking between rival global blocs. When John XXIII issued Pacem in terris, two ideologies, liberal capitalism and socialism, contended over which was the more advanced, humane and conducive to humankind’s peaceful development.

Today, only one of the two, liberalism, maintains a fragile hegemony, while pinched nationalisms and identitarianisms of various stripes reassert themselves in force – not least in the liberal heartlands.

Compounding all this, there has been no mass movement to force a public reckoning with the costs of war. That may be changing with the pro-Palestinian encampments spreading across US and UK universities. For the first time since Occupy Wall Street, the liberal establishment finds it impossible to channel left dissent into selective agitation against Donald Trump or
Nigel Farage and their populist movements.

Instead of echoing the slogans of Palestinian hard-liners, however, the students would do well to follow Francis in reviving the forgotten language of peace. This might strike those in power as naive. Yet a kind of holy naivety is precisely part of the grammar of peace: the radical love that 800 years ago led the Pope’s namesake, Francis of Assisi, to travel to hostile Muslim lands not to “engage in arguments or disputes, but to be subject to every human creature for God’s sake”.

[See also: The dark reality of Netanyahu’s postwar vision]

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This article appears in the 08 May 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Doom Scroll