Professor Johan Galtung talks to Insight on Conflict’s Ben Baruch about the Arab Spring, his concepts of positive peace and negative peace, the conflict in Sudan, his views on mediation and the merits of local vs. outsider participation in peace processes.

Johan Galtung

BB Professor Galtung, it is a great honour to speak to you. I would like to start by asking you whether you think the Arab Spring offers a useful model for attaining peace through political transformation?

JG I think we are very far in the Arab Spring from any peace. From my point of view, it’s the third Arab revolt against imperialism. The first was against the Turkish Empire, the second against Western colonialism. This third one is against the US-Israel empire, and it will take some time. It seems that the US Israeli project is now to redraw the map of the Middle East, for instance, by splitting Syria into four or five parts, so there are many things going on there. But that doesn’t mean that in the process you cannot get more peaceful regimes. In Tunisia more easily than Egypt,  since Egypt has its military paid 1.5 billion dollars  a year to keep negative peace with Israel, and they are not  likely to give up that money. I don’t think you will easily get it in Libya though. That’s a much deeper conflict. You simply have to look at it from one country to the other. There are 22 Arab countries, and they are all very different.

BB You mentioned negative peace there, one of your own concepts. Could you explain it?

JG It’s very simple. You see, negative peace is conflict transformation, so that violence stops, full stop. Positive peace is cooperation for mutual and equal benefit, and the word equal is very important: when in harmony, I feel what you feel and you feel what I feel, because we are somehow coupled together. Obviously this is very different from negative peace which is essentially the absence of violence.

There is a basic point here. If you have some conflict going on, you can start with some cooperation, but if you go ahead with that without trying to solve the conflict you will be bitterly disappointed. You will build all kinds of ties and bonds, and then suddenly bang, it all explodes in a bloodbath, which may be even worse because people may have a feeling of having been deceived. The Middle East is an example. An Israeli and a Palestinian can cooperate on certain specific things; that is positive peace. But don’t expect that from there you can add up a lot of things and you get negative peace, because negative peace – the absence of violence – presupposes that you have solved the underlying conflict, and very often that will be a deep political process.

BB So could you have positive peace without negative peace?

JG I would say that  some positive peace is possible without negative peace, but I don’t think that you can substitute positive peace for negative peace. You cannot have positive peace without negative peace. It will be torn to pieces.

BB Thank you for explaining that. So, how could we use this to analyse the situation in Sudan? Do you think there are better prospects for peace since its division in July?

JG You know, it’s a very big country and a very complicated situation. My experience has led me to feel that there are four very different levels to consider in this conflict, and they all have to be attended to. Most people focus on only one of them. So if I may briefly recapitulate these four levels:

You have at the mega level, Africa: in a sense, this is between the West and the Orient. People are talking about US and China, but that’s only a part of it. India is also really active in Africa, and of course Europe is the colonial power. So in a sense you have the old thing, that Africa becomes a kind of tossing ball in a big football court not constructed by Africans and not according to their liking. I think the only way out is for Africans to be in command, and simply say to the outsiders “...kindly keep out, we have had more than enough of you”.

Now the second level is Sudan with its neighbouring countries. There are eight, and the tendency has been for conflict outside to be measured inside Sudan, and for conflict inside Sudan to be measured on the outside. So, you take two enemies, Ethiopia and Eritrea. If Ethiopia is with one group in Sudan, you can almost bet that Eritrea will be with the opposite group. Now, how does one solve that one? Well, I think the best thing that could happen would be for Sudan to argue in favour of some kind of North-East African confederation community which would include Egypt, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Chad and so on, and it would of course be subject to rulings by the African Union. It would be a sub region, and it would be a very important one.

So to now go into the third level, we are coming into Sudan itself, and I am now thinking of Sudan before the division of July. I like to see it as being essentially in four parts. Somehow it should become a more symmetric federation. In a true federation, one would certainly cooperate on foreign affairs, security policy, finance, communication, but leave education, religious affairs, style of government, pretty much to the parts. If they had formed a federation, they could have avoided that split, and the way to come together again would be through a federation. But they have now chosen division and independence, and they have cut ties and bonds that are there and are positive, side by side with the very negative impressions and experience and the very horrible wars they had.

And then you zoom in, fourth level, on a more local level. In Darfur, for example, I came to see it as essentially a question of land ownership. In order to sort out land ownership around the world and conflicts coming out of it, I think the ancient formula “public properties, private use” is a very good one: we do not own land and authorities say: “look, this is your plot, and you use it, you produce what you can for your family. Whatever is extra you put on the market. We’ll have a look at it every two years and see if you make good use of it. If you let it to go fallow we’ll take it away from you.” So private use is on conditions and the ultimate ownership is not yours. I find that a very fruitful pattern and it is famously the pattern of Paraguay in the 19th Century when it became the richest country in America, making the most of private use.

So when you look at these four, you would imagine they would act on all four of them and Sudan would be very well off. But what I find when I talk with politically willed people in Sudan is that they master only one or maximum two of them.

BB In conflicts like that, how can we show that peace has been achieved?

JG That’s a very good question. Well, one way is that if a conflict has been solved, you will find that the violence starts disappearing. And not only the physical violence, but also the nasty feelings, let’s call it hatred, starts disappearing. What happens instead is that people start cooperating. I myself, having lived through the cold wars, was quite astounded by how little time it took for east and west to stop hating each other. And in  some cases, like Ecuador and Peru, this change came immediately.

There is a reason for it, and the theory is actually quite simple. You can say hatred is a psychological preparation for violence. When people are thinking of violence, it is that “I have to hurt somebody in order not to be harmed myself”. It’s much easier to hurt somebody I hate, because then there are very good reasons for hurting him. But, if  a conflict transformation has happened, and violence is now unlikely, why should I hate him? I don’t have a reason to be psychologically prepared. So you can say that hatred is for the mind what adrenaline is for the body.

Together with hatred, you often find fright as a kind of basis for flight, and hatred  is a basis for fight. So here you have the English language coming up with three words that are very separate – fight, flight, fright – and they are tied together in this very simple theory that explains quite a lot.  So I would say, when people stop flying away, stop fighting, you know that something has happened.

BB Would you argue that outsider involvement in mediation is crucial to resolving violent conflicts?

JG An outsider will very often see things the parties don’t see themselves as they’re too close. My opening question when I mediate is “What does the country where you would like to live look like?” In other words, try to get their ideal image of the situation. Very soon you will understand much of what goes on, usually better than they understand it themselves. You may wonder whether the people will be willing to talk with you, and my experience is they are, because they love to talk about their conflict, and they love to try to explain what’s going on. Each time you listen to a new conflict party, the conflict changes colours and you see it from a new angle, and a new angle, and once again a new angle. And since they often don’t talk with each other, the mediator gets a much better overview than they have themselves.

BB Can it not be better for a local to be the mediator?

JG It becomes more problematic, you know, because they will all ask: “well if he is not an outsider, then on whose side is he?” And it becomes much more difficult to play the role of the one who is not a party to the conflict. I won’t tell you not to, as he may be on the side of a solution, but you may get into problems. So I would say, a mediator should not have any conflict with any of the parties, or be too close to any of the parties, because in that case he would be suspected of having taken sides in advance.

BB I understand, thank you. Peace Direct has numerous local partners, who work to resolve micro or medium level conflict – for instance, between two neighbours from different tribes. How integral is resolving these to the wider negotiations between conflict leaders?

JG It could be very important as a model. You simply make a solution at the micro level, or rather the local level, that takes on the character of being an example. In the Southern United States, back in the 1950s, it was terribly important, especially in small places where blacks and whites were working together. I was very active there at the time as a young professor at Columbia University and what was important for those people to show was that blacks and whites can work together for mutual and equal benefit, without the blacks killing the whites and the whites exploiting the blacks. So I think that’s very important as an example.

However, one should not believe that the sum of 100 local solutions is the macro solution, as these are different levels. That is the mistake the West makes today when thinking that if all countries in the world are democratic then you get a democratic, peaceful world. Not at all. Democracies fight and go to war against democracies. These are simply two different levels.

BB So if I understand correctly, you are saying that the micro, or local, level is very important, and that there is a connection between micro and macro?

JG It is not a simple connection. What I am saying is that if you have peace at the local level, firstly you should celebrate that. Secondly, you should ask: could this be an example? Could it be something that could be imitated at the macro level, between states? And what will that look like? Then it is usually called a confederation, when it is between states, a community. So you can say that the European community is very similar to Switzerland, at one level higher up.

BB I understand, thank you. It’s been a pleasure to have you talk with us, thank you so much for your time.