by Rich Rubenstein on August 15, 2015 · 4 comments

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Richard E. Rubenstein

[Note: Prof. Rich Rubenstein was invited to address the President’s Foundation on the Wellbeing of Society by its director, Dr. Ruth Farrugia, an expert on family law and human rights on the Faculty of Law of the University of Malta. The President of Malta, H.E. Marie Louise Coleiro Preca, spoke first about the Foundation and its work on behalf of children, the disabled, and other marginalized groups, and its strong interests in gender equality, interfaith dialogue, and peace. Dr. Farrugia then introduced the speaker, whose remarks follow.]

Your Excellency, Dr. Farrugia, students and other friends:

I am delighted to be back in Malta, which feels more and more like my second home. I bring greetings from the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University, and hope that many of you will visit us at our offices in Arlington, Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C., the next time you are in the States. As you may know, we have been teaching a dual degree master’s program on Conflict Resolution and Mediterranean Security in Valletta with our talented partners at MEDAC, the Mediterranean Academy for Diplomatic Studies. The program will begin its fifth year of operation this fall, and I’m eager to return to teach the course in theories of conflict and conflict resolution.

I made my first trip to Malta in 1994 and spent the fall term of that year teaching in the University of Malta’s Faculty of Sociology. We have all gotten a bit older since then. The chair of the department at that time was a priest named Father Joe Inguanez, now the director of DISCERN, the research arm of the Maltese Catholic Church, and a friend for life. He is in the audience today. One of my students was a startlingly bright and articulate woman named Helena Dalli, who is currently Malta’s Minister of Social Dialogue and another valued friend. Helena introduced me to the legendary Labour Party leader, Dom Minthoff. I had the rare opportunity of swimming with Mr. Minthoff at Peter’s Pool and spending an afternoon listening to him talk about the same topic I want to discuss with you today: how to move from cultures of violence to cultures of peace.1

Every year or two I have been asked to address a distinguished Maltese audience, and have taken the opportunity to report on new developments in my field that might prove useful to the Maltese government and people, with their rich tradition of peacemaking in a volatile region of the world. I previously reported on a breakthrough in thinking about conflict pioneered by my old colleagues and mentors, John Burton, Johan Galtung, and Elise Boulding. This was the discovery that the most serious, violent, and intractable conflicts could not be resolved simply by helping to rid parties of prejudice, eliminate ignorance, and correct failures to communicate, but required a deeper, more thoroughgoing type of analysis.

Many experts had thought that if these subjective and emotional barriers to peace could be overcome, people in conflict would be able to engage in rational negotiations to eliminate or accommodate conflicts of interest. What became clear,
however, was that many of the world’s worst conflicts were not based on conflicts of interest so much as on unsatisfied human needs – needs for material things like physical security and a decent standard of living, but also for immaterial necessities like identity, autonomy, dignity, and human development. These basic needs, said John Burton in a famous phrase, are “not for trading.” Unless and until ways were found to satisfy them, conventional negotiations would often prove useless, and cultures of violence would continue to flourish.2

Practitioners of conflict resolution who understood the centrality of basic needs used these insights to develop interactive peacemaking processes that produced several outstanding breakthroughs. Perhaps the best known is George Mitchell’s establishment of a framework for a needs-based dialogue in the Good Friday talks of 1998 that produced, finally, a dramatic amelioration of Northern Ireland’s long and bloody “Troubles.”3 Other successes were also recorded.4 But many other efforts were less successful, and the reasons for this gradually started to become clearer. The question was why so many people’s basic needs remained unsatisfied, not only in so-called “failed states” or in developing nations, but in richer, more stable nations like those of Europe and North America. And the answer, which some found difficult to accept, was the existence of socioeconomic, political, and cultural systems that deprive large sectors of the community of need satisfaction, and which therefore generate violent conflicts as a normal part of their operations.

We like to think of violent struggles as anomalous, exotic, or exceptions to the rule – something that other people do, not civilized folks like us. Yet we also
administer and profit from systems that produce violent outcomes as regular, predictable products of the social machine. Perhaps the clearest example of this sort of machine is the prison – a place where basic human needs for freedom, dignity, identity, security, and privacy are regularly and systematically denied. Naturally, considering the extent of these deprivations, prisons spawn gang fights, attacks on guards, brutality by guards and other officials, rules and regulations reeking of violence, and periodic riots. Violent riots are as predictable a product of prison life as the license plates or other products made in the prison shop. We know that this is true, just as we know that prisons do not rehabilitate – they recycle prisoners at a rate, in the United States, exceeding 40%.5 And yet we don’t do much to recognize or change this system. We will return in a moment to ask why not.

Let me first talk briefly about three further examples of systemically generated cultures of violence: the inner city areas of large U.S. urban settlements now experiencing heightened conflict between police and community residents; the current military struggles involving the U.S. and other Western powers known popularly as the war on terror; and the migrant crisis now affecting Malta, along with a number of other Mediterranean and European nations.

Police vs. minority communities
As you probably know, the past 3 1⁄2 years have seen a pattern of escalating violence in my country, as African-Americans and others have reacted with increasing impatience and sometimes with riots to the shooting of young black men, most of them unarmed, by police officers in cities ranging from Sanford, Florida, and
Ferguson, Missouri, to New York City, Los Angeles, and Baltimore, Maryland. Some people think that the problem is one of poor police-community relations. These relationships are poor, but they are part of a larger crime-and-punishment system that for the past two decades has featured the mass incarceration of poor and minority people, especially young adults, and which has produced the largest number of people in prison and under court supervision in any nation in the world. 6 Honest police admit that they are in a “war zone,” and – although they are not permitted to say this publicly – that under these circumstances “collateral damage” is to be expected.

This suggests a systemic origin of policy-community violence. But, to complicate matters further, the crime-and-punishment system is intimately related to and incorporated in two further structures: a cultural system that generates violent norms on the part of ghettoized youth and racist norms in the surrounding society, and a socioeconomic system that generates deep, intractable, trans- generational poverty in impoverished minority and white communities, as well as growing social inequality nationwide. These systems are interactive and mutually determinative. Trans-generational poverty is currently producing Third World levels of educational achievement, family instability, health problems, and reduced life expectancies in poor American communities. And, in case you are thinking that this is only a problem for racial or ethnic minorities, according to recent statistics the average life expectancy of white American women without high school decrees has declined by roughly 5% over the past two decades, and is now lower than that of similarly situated Black women.7

The practical questions that such an analysis raises seem obvious. What can be done to alter systems like this to permit cultures of violence to become cultures of peace? How can alterations be made that are both significant, not just reformist band-aids, and nonviolent, rather than bloody revolutions? We can’t get to talking about these crucial issues, however, without first describing the systems that frustrate the satisfaction of basic human needs, and then demonstrating how these arrangements produce violence. One needs to account for both the social and psychological factors that generate violent behavior and to understand how they interact. These are difficult, controversial tasks, but not impossible, so long as we keep in mind that, for purposes of transforming violent systems, the most useful descriptions and analyses are those arrived at by the conflicting parties themselves rather than by academic experts. An important task, to begin with, is helping people to overcome the self-protective taboos that so often prevent them from recognizing that there is a system causing the trouble, not just some maleficent enemy. If we do not challenge the crime-and-punishment system, for example, this is partly because such a challenge might implicate the poverty-and-inequality system also known as American capitalism. As the comic strip character Pogo said, apropos of an earlier political scandal, “We have met the enemy . . . and he is us.”8

The War on Terror
The so-called War on Terror provides a second example of these principles. Let me start with a personal story:

Four years ago, while I was teaching in Valletta, the then American ambassador to Malta invited me to come to the U.S. Embassy to talk to his staff about the options available to the United States and Europe in the Libyan civil war. You may recall that that struggle involved a revolt against the government of Muammar Ghaddafi by opponents mostly concentrated in the eastern part of the country. After some time had passed, Ghaddafi offered to negotiate with the insurgents and the African Union offered to mediate, but the rebels, supported by the American and European governments, refused to talk unless he was first removed from office. I strongly advised the U.S. diplomats to meet with representatives from the Ghaddafi regime as well as the opposition and not to intervene militarily in Libya. I argued that the warring parties in that country needed an opportunity to discuss their differences, that skilled facilitators were available to help organize such discussions, and that the results of a military intervention would almost certainly be disastrous.

The embassy staffers seemed quite skeptical about this. The ambassador, on the other hand, wished to meet with a Libyan representative then visiting Malta, but was ordered not to do so by his superiors in Washington. (“The train,” he told me later, “had already left the station.”) Not long after this, for reasons that remain obscure, he was forced to resign his office. Meanwhile, the intervention by U.S. and NATO forces took place, allegedly to protect civilians from terror by Muammar Ghaddafi, but actually to liquidate the Libyan regime and eliminate its leader. The escalated strife that we predicted in Libya became a reality, with a flood of migrants
leaving that country to seek a better life in Italy, Malta, and a host of other European nations.9

The point of this story is not that the conflict resolvers were right or that military intervention is always wrong. The most important lesson, in my view, is that both the violence of civil war and the question of possible intervention by outsiders demand systemic analyses and solutions.

In Libya, there were two systems requiring analysis. The first was local and involved the Ghaddafi regime’s sometimes enlightened but often brutal attempts to promote independent, orderly development in a seriously divided nation. Libya was a country historically split between inhabitants of the west, who were mostly loyal to the regime; easterners, who long considered themselves discriminated against and mistreated by Tripoli; and southerners, whose organization and loyalties were mostly tribal.10 What the nation needed – and still needs – is the opportunity for representatives of all major conflicting groups to meet with each other in facilitated dialogues designed to help them answer the most serious questions that concern them: not just what sort of government to create (the topic of current meetings between the two major rival groups under UN auspices), but what kind of social constitution to design.

This sort of social-constitutional dialogue represents an opportunity that was never offered to the Iraqis, the Syrians, or, for that matter, the Ukrainians, although it seems to me to be one of the keys to nonviolent system-transformation. In the case of Libya, a fatal combination of animus toward Ghaddafi (whose chief sin, in Western eyes, was not his brutality towards dissidents so much as his infuriating
independence) and lust for Libyan oil precluded any such dialogue and doomed that nation to disintegration. Western intervention involved the existence of a second system, global rather than local: an imperial order which many otherwise shrewd observers believe is passé, but which the overthrow of Ghaddafi demonstrated is very much alive. Imperialist powers always assume a correlation between their wealth and power and their degree of “civilization.” That is, they assume that that they represent a higher level of cultural development than that found among poorer and weaker peoples, whom they presume to dominate socially and politically while exploiting their resources for private gain. Imperialist interveners customarily justify their activities on grounds of humanitarianism (or “responsibility to protect”), but these self-declared shepherds almost invariably turn out to be a new breed of wolves.11

The imperial system, I would contend, is a primary cause of terrorism and the war on terror. Why, for example, do young people come from the working class districts of Minneapolis, Liverpool, or Paris to join the jihadists fighting against Western-supported regimes throughout the Middle East and North Africa? Again, the answers require that we analyze both local and global systems. Locally, dissident youths are driven by unsatisfied needs for meaningful work, identity, self- respect, adventure, and a sense of mission. Many are morally ambitious people unable to satisfy their basic needs for meaning and dignity at home.12 But why are these needs unsatisfied? Whether in Western or Middle Eastern locales, the main cause seems to me to be the existence of elite-dominated socioeconomic and political institutions that generate joblessness, racial and religious discrimination, anomie, and a deficit of moral meaning.

By contrast, an organization like the Islamic State, as cruel and murderous as it is, offers oppressed and alienated people not only employment but also a collective cause: the opportunity to defend fellow Sunni Muslims and their culture against wealthy, powerful, and corrupt aggressors. Imperialism is not a relic of history in the Middle East and North Africa (or, for that matter, in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia) – it is a living, evolving system. Little wonder that the IS’s advocacy of a “caliphate” resonates so strongly, since they present this attempt to revive the old pan-Arab dream as an answer to the divide and conquer strategy pursued by Western powers in their region at least since the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916.13 It is perfectly fine to express horror and outrage over the atrocities committed by these jihadists against people they consider heretics and against artworks they consider pagan. But to the extent that Western powers fail to recognize the systemic dimensions of this conflict – to the extent that they continue to choose sides, arm their clients, and attempt to impose their own will on the region – they sabotage any possibility of nonviolent conflict resolution.

The Current Migration Crisis
A third example of the need for structural analysis, which I will mention only briefly, is one quite familiar to members of this audience, including President Coleiro Preca, who made an impassioned and moving statement about it last week: the current migration crisis in the Mediterranean. Again, we can notice what happens when people try to solve a systemically generated conflict without recognizing the system that generates it. In this case, we have European nations talking about capturing the ships that carry migrants or blowing them out of the water. This is the equivalent of trying to solve the problems of inner city crime and police brutality by putting more police on the streets and giving them better weapons. I’m afraid that it is no more likely to succeed than that doomed strategy.

What are the structural causes of the great migration of the past fifteen years, which has brought more than 8 million Africans to European shores? As usual, one cannot discover definitive answers to such questions in the works of academic experts alone. Only by helping the parties most affected by the conflict to reflect on their own experiences and motives do tentative answers begin to emerge. Although I have been trying to educate myself about African affairs, I am just beginning to understand the global scramble for wealth that is going on in that continent today, unleashing pressures that most existing governments and social institutions seem so far unable to master. Unfortunately, many European nations seem to be yielding to the temptation to cash in on the gold rush (which is also a diamond, oil, tungsten, molybdenum, carborundum, coltan, and uranium rush) without considering the impact of unplanned, radically uneven development on local populations.14 As one of my Congolese students recently remarked, “It is like a replay of the 1870s and 1880s. Everyone wants what we have got. And what we end up with is political chaos.”

How African communities can best gain control of their own resources and devote the proceeds to putting their own people to work and improving their lives is
not a question that I am competent to answer. But the experience of Libya, the immediate source of the current wave of migration, suggests a process-oriented response. I think that what that country needs (along with Syria, Ukraine, Yemen, Israel/Palestine, and other deeply divided societies) is exactly the same social- constitutional dialogue that I mentioned earlier. When Europeans and North Americans ask, as they so so often, “But what should we do?” in war-torn societies, the answer must often be “Do much less!” It seems essential to stop taking sides in these civil conflicts and further inflaming them. In particular, the inhabitants of rich nations need to stop arming combatants and selling weapons to virtually any force that offers to buy them. And they need to stop exploiting the agony of Africa for purposes of increasing the stock exchange values of their largest companies.

Three Steps to System Transformation
In conclusion, let me summarize what seem to be the three main steps along the road to transformation from cultures of war and violence to cultures of peace and social development.

First, help conflicting parties to move from partisan moralism to the systemic analysis of conflict. So long as the structural sources of violent conflicts, and, in particular, the role of elitist systems in generating them, remain unrecognized, each party will consider the opposing party to be the conflict’s main cause. Neither will recognize that responsibility for system-generated violence must to some extent be shared, and that the violence will continue until the system is changed. But, this does not mean imposing the view of the “experts” as to the relevant system and its
operations. It means allowing the parties to do their own analysis. There are skilled, independent facilitators waiting to assist in this process of the Great Powers will back off long enough to allow them to operate.

Second, help the parties to think about ways of redesigning the system that are neither trivial reforms nor all-destroying revolutions. Use historical precedents and memories as sources of system redesign; all modern societies have experienced transformations in the past that deserve to be considered as lessons and sources of inspiration in the present. The most difficult task, perhaps, is helping them overcome the taboos that often accompany thinking about alternative systems. Current institutional arrangements are often considered sacred and untouchable, even when it is clear that they are producing violent conflicts. Religious authorities are in a particularly strong position to help people distinguish between what one might call legitimate taboos, like the taboo against causing needless suffering, from essentially idolatrous taboos, like the blind worship of existing economic or political institutions.

Third, help to eliminate the taboo against system-changing political ideas and activities. Enacting radical reforms is also hard because it requires bottom-up as well as top-down politics. Especially among well-established states, there is a tendency to consider out-of-the-ordinary political manifestations or unexpected community innovations to be destabilizing or even violent. Labor strikes were once considered violent, as were civil rights demonstrations, acts of civil disobedience, peace marches, and movements to occupy public places. Those seeking to transform dysfunctional systems always discover the need for new political concepts and styles – and their tactics often become part of the conventional vocabulary of a later political age.

I believe that we are now in the early stages of a new period of innovative community politics and social upheaval. A quick look around the internet will reveal an amazing variety of bottom-up initiatives involving local attempts to challenge and transform elitist, poverty-producing, environmentally destructive, spiritually deadening systems. A European, North American, and Latin American Spring? Perhaps! Many established players in the current political and social universe will very likely find these developments threatening. But in them, I devoutly hope, we may discover our own better future.


1 See Richard E. Rubenstein, “Swimming with Dom,” The Times of Malta, September 2, 2012
2 John W. Burton, Conflict: Resolution and Provention (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000); see also Burton’s edited book, Basic Human Needs (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000)
3 George Mitchell’s memoir of his experience is Making Peace (University of California Press, 2001)
4 See the cases collected in Louis Kriesberg and Bruce W. Dayton, Constructive Conflicts: From Escalation to Resolution, 4th Ed. (Rowman & Littlefield, 2011), and Christopher R. Mitchell, The Nature of Intractable Conflict: Resolution in the 21st Century (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014)
5 “State of Recidivism: The Revolving Door of America’s Prisons,” Pew Foundation, 2011 g/reports/sentencing_and_corrections/StateRecidivismRevolvingDoorAmericaPriso ns20pdf.pdf. If arrest rates are used to define recidivism, the rate jumps to more than 65% according to Justice Department statistics: nightmare.html
6 See Heather Ann Thompson, “Inner City Violence in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” The Atlantic, October 31, 2014. age-of-mass-incarceration/382154/
7 Diana Reese, “Life Expecancy for Uneducated White Women Now Lower than That for Uneducated Black Women,” Washington Post, September 13, 2013. span-falls-for-uneducated-white-women-now-lower-than-that-of-uneducated- black-women/
8 Walt Kelly, in Pogo (1951).
9 David Rothkopf, “We Are Losing the War on Terror,” Foreign Policy, June 10, 2014 Clearly, if the purpose of intervening against Ghaddafi had been to protect the residents of Benghazi against attacks by Libyan troops, the US/NATO air forces would not have pursued them after they fled from Benghazi, not stopping until the Libyan army had been destroyed and Ghaddafi himself captured and assassinated.
10 See Dirk Vandewalle, A History of Modern Libya, 2d Ed. (Cambridge University Press, 2012)
11 I have described this process involving America’s historic relations with subject peoples in Reasons to Kill: Why Americans Choose War (Bloomsbury Press, 2010)
12 See the analysis of terrorist motivations in my Alchemists of Revolution: Terrorism in the Modern World (Basic Books, 1987), and compare Mark Juergensmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence, 3rd Ed. (University of California Press, 2003)
13 David Fromkin, A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East (Holt, 2009). The relationship of “pan” movements to imperialism and totalitarianism is discussed at length in Hannah Arend, The Origins of Totalitarianism (Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1973)
14 See, e.g., Padraig Carmody, The New Scramble for Africa (Polity, 2011)

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Simone Miller August 16, 2015 at 12:32 am

I think that a large portion of the world expect the US to be leaders in peace making. How can we possibly do that when we,as a nation, expect other nations to be like us? We do not really understand how other nations work. Until we are taught in school about, Libya, Iran, Egypt, Israel Georgia, etc. we will not be able to be of any assistance. A good start for the US might be to extend the school year and Teach, teach and the teach some more. Stop dumbing our children down so they will be able to work with other countries not look down on them because they are not like us. (whatever us may be.)


Rich Rubenstein August 21, 2015 at 9:03 pm

I agree with this, Simone. But I’m also thinkiing that we need to take the opportunities to live and learn abroad that are mostly reserved to privileged young people and make them part of everyone’s education, ESPECIALLY working class people and the poor. I wish someone would come up with a program for mass education on other continents!


Valorie Tuft August 17, 2015 at 12:12 am

There is no doubt that “war” is visualized differently from one country to another. The definition of war is: “1. A situation in which people or groups compete with our fight against each other ., 2. An organized effort by a government or other large organization to stop our defeat something that is viewed as dangerous or bad .” When we as Americans “perceive” what the look of war is, and then see its destruction in 3rd world countries, it desensitizes our true perception to what war truly is. What we as Americans must do is is count the fatalities that we here in America have suffered as the result of the casualties of what is designed as a “silent civilized” war. The only difference between THEM and us…is how “covert” our war methods are. We are NO different, our organizational armies have just become more “civilized” in their methods.


Rich Rubenstein August 21, 2015 at 8:59 pm

An interesting comment, Valerie! I agree. We seem to have blurred the line between war and peace to the point that we don’t recognize our own violence as war until the body bags come home — and sometimes not even then!


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