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Ideas in the Wild: Bård Nikolas Vik Steen and Asle Toje are Shedding New Light on Our Notions About Peace

Almost a decade after Steven Pinker published his seminal book The Better Angels of Our Nature and popularised interest in the idea that humanity is becoming more peaceful, the debate is as heated as ever. Attempting to summarise current conclusions on what actually causes peace, foreign policy scholars Bård Nikolas Vik Steen and Asle Toje […]

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Almost a decade after Steven Pinker published his seminal book The Better Angels of Our Nature and popularised interest in the idea that humanity is becoming more peaceful, the debate is as heated as ever. Attempting to summarise current conclusions on what actually causes peace, foreign policy scholars Bård Nikolas Vik Steen and Asle Toje of the Norwegian Nobel Institute collected and edited The Causes of Peace: What We Know Now.

Their goal was to put together the world’s foremost perspectives from top thinkers on the sources of and solutions to human conflict. Debate over whether the world is getting more peaceful is followed by commanding discussions of the influence of hegemony, democracy, ideology, nuclear weapons, and institutions.

Featuring Niall Ferguson, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Ned Lebow, Bruce Russett, Paul Collier and many others, The Causes of Peace provides uniquely qualified insight into the present status of this age-old question. I recently caught up with Bård Nikolas Vik Steen to learn the impetus behind this book and highlight an under-appreciated idea more people should know.

What happened that made you decide this was a book you needed to help create? What was the exact moment when you realized these ideas needed to get out there?

As a member of the Norwegian Nobel Committee and as the Program Manager of the Norwegian Nobel Institute, we naturally spend much of our time studying the underlying causes of peace. On this score, scholarly research has advanced in leaps and bounds since Alfred Nobel instituted the Nobel Peace Prize in 1896. The causes of war and peace remain among the most contested questions in the study of not only international politics, but of human affairs in general. Research has been carried out by historians, theorists, and social scientists that have greatly increased our knowledge, with a baffling array of theories attempting to explain the requirements of peace. Surprisingly, however, these various strains have rarely been brought together in order to attempt to establish an overview of the present “state of the art.”

This book charts eight of the most fruitful points of entry into the causes of peace:

  1. Is the World Getting More Peaceful?
  2. Hegemony and Peace
  3. Ideology and Peace
  4. Democratic Peace
  5. Peace through Institutions
  6. Peace and Development
  7. Deterrence and Disarmament
  8. What Makes Peace Last?

What is one under-appreciated idea in the book that more people should know?

The book is rich in insights, and we could go on at length as to the insights in each chapter, but perhaps the one that surprised us most was the extent to which the book challenges the received wisdom famously articulated by Stephen Pinker that we are growing increasingly less warlike. Bear Braunmueller and Nassim Taleb take Pinker to task in a way that will intrigue anyone with an interest in questions of peace. This sets the tone of the book, which shows how we are still far from a consensus on the extent to which certain mechanisms contribute toward peace. Democracy and hegemony for example, have received great acclaim for their supposed contribution toward a more peaceful world, but as this book shows — the jury is still out.

What’s an example of how one nation or group is applying that idea?

The grand debate going on between “globalists” and “nationalists” on the future of the international system as one determined by self-interested nation states or supranational governance is very much shaped by this debate as the Pinker or Braunmueller/Taleb propositions lead to very different assessments of the future. Is our relatively peaceful times the new normal or an atypical interlude? Different answers to this fundamental question make leaders such as President Trump and Chancellor Merkel arrive at very different views on the best path forward for their states and the international system in general.

If one takes the view that we have arrived at enlightenment — some sort of end state — it stands to reason that one would act in a very different way than if one remains concerned with the anarchic underpinnings of international politics coming back to haunt us. The answer to that question determines what actions one considers necessary to create a better world and making the wrong decision could prove inimical to such an outcome. The stakes could not be higher.

To learn more about the current state of peace in the world, you can find The Causes of Peace: What We Know Now on Amazon.

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