Jan Oberg: Stop the security intellectual disarmament – Learn to conflict and peace constructively!

Jan Oberg: Stop the security intellectual disarmament – Learn to conflict and peace constructively!

Shubham Dhage on Unsplash

Jan Oberg

March 4, 2022

The first draft of this article was written in mid-February, ten days before the Russian invasion of Ukraine but while the NATO-Russia conflict centred upon Ukraine was building up. Little could I know that virtually all the examples of conflict and peace illiteracy that I list below should be illustrated so vividly, so quickly and so tragically.

Conflict-resolution and peace-making has no relevance if the parties want war. But if th parties want some kind of peace and cooperation and trust – then, perhaps they just don’t know how to get there. And may not even know that there is something they don’t know?

Deeply convinced that all this could have been avoided if some little conflict and peace professionalism had been applied, I offer a series of constructive alternatives below. My focus is on ways of thinking and principles and not on how-to techniques.

They say that if you want peace, prepare for war. What nonsense: If you want a good meal, prepare the rotten ingredients? If you want health, prepare for death and disease? If you want joy, prepare for sorrow?

No, if you want peace, prepare for peace. Simple as that!

• Mixing the violence with conflict

Most people – researchers, politicians and media people – focus on violence and single actors, not on the underlying conflicts and the interactions among conflicting parties. A conflict is a problem that stands between the parties and which they cannot find solutions to. Most people also overlook that conflicts are about processes unfolding over time. So, if you ask only: When did the violence start, you will miss it all. The important question is: When did the conflict begin?

One huge problem is that the media can easily make footage of military affairs and destruction – but how do you visualise the underlying conflicts?

• Conflicting parties have nothing in common

Wrong, we only conflict with those we share something important with – for example, the desire for the same territory, influencing the other, winning over him. Therefore, if you fight the other over a sufficiently long time, you will become more and more similar – like two scorpions in a bottle: you’ll be together in the conflict and you cannot get out of it, it absorbs you completely.

Conflict-resolution is about finding out how to make constructive use of the similarity – the common interests, common fears, common desires and see whether they can be turned into stepping stones towards peace. In contrast, there is no such thing as violence-resolution.

• Security is almost only about military matters

The word ‘security’ has come to mean military matters whereas until some 20 years ago, military tools were one, albeit surely important, dimension of a broader security concept. There was talk of common security – security with and not against the adversary – and of human security.

The political discourse and media coverage and discussions are devoid of constructive ideas about how to solve complex conflicts. Instead, they excel in taking sides, apportioning guilt and declaring sympathies and solidarity with one of the sides. It may be human and even moral – but it does not lead to solutions.

• Conflict reduction

Western approaches very often reduce everything to two parties with one good and one evil in a very short time perspective: Look what they did yesterday! But most conflicts have many more parties and have been simmering, or latent, for a long time before they become visible, i.e. break out in violence and become manifest. The “Ukraine” conflict has about 50 parties and has been developing over at least 30 years.

Another very unhelpful reduction is personification, or focus on a leader. Milosevic was the factor in Yugoslavia. Saddam was Iraq – get rid of him and everything will be fine. Syria can be explained by al-Assad, The Butcher. And now – the US is Biden and Russia is Putin. Regrettably, however, it is nonsense that we only need to know about the top figure rather than all of a society – its history, economies, politics, culture and place in the world. As if the personality of Adolf Hitler could explain the Second World War. In this particular conflict, we are exposed to all the journalistic portraits of Vladimir Putin and get all the stories about his childhood as well as amateur psycho-political hypotheses about whether or not he has gone mad.

However, if you can convince yourself that what happens between NATO and Russia in Ukraine is all about Putin’s personality or even madness, you a conveniently relieved of every self-reflection and comprehensive analysis. Putin is the reason of today’s tragedy.

Unless you are a diplomat or a peace mediator about to meet him, all this is a waste of time. If you want to move towards peace, you have to deal with him, try to dialogue, and that is where it’s very important to get an a prior impression of his personality and history.

• Deterrence and dialogue

We hear again and again that NATO operates on two parallel tracks: deterrence and dialogue. Deterrence means (implicit) threatening, signalling to, others that if they do this or that, we will punish them. We thereby hope to deter them from doing the bad things we surmise they are up to. But here is the crux: You have to be willing to actually do what you deter. If the other side knows for sure that you are bluffing and would never do what you threaten, deterrence won’t work.

And what about dialogue? You may liken deterrence to pointing a gun at the other side and saying: I shoot if you do that…! How willing would we be to dialogue with someone who points a gun at us?

You need confidence-building measures and a sense of common security. Promising destruction through deterrence will always be seen as threatening in the eyes of others.

• Intentions and capabilities

We have capabilities, yes – but our intentions are always stability, security and peace – we are defensive and not a threat to Russia.

They have (much smaller) capabilities and 12% of our military expenditures but their intentions are to destabilise, threaten and most likely they aim at war – ‘imminent invasion of Ukraine’).

We ascribe bad intentions to ‘the enemy’ and only good ones to ourselves, unable to live ourselves into their situation and perceptions (as they are vis-a-vis us), and both sides choose the most negative interpretations among all possible interpretations of how they behave.

Frank Busch on Unsplash

• We are defensive – they are offensive

That’s what all parties say – and probably mean/feels it. But beyond rhetorics what is defensiveness? To be defensive means that your weapons have limited destructive capacity and short range. It’s weapons you may accept to use to defend your own country. Missiles that can travel thousands of kilometres and destroy cities deep into the adversary’s territory are by definition offensive no matter that you insist that your intentions are only defensive. Nuclear weapons can not be defensive. NATO is not a defensive alliance, no matter how often that assertion is repeated.

• Security zones and common security

We’ve heard now for months that Russia’s troop movement on its own territory is a threat to Ukraine, to Europe and its post-Cold War security structure and, in the worst of cases, to the world. In principle, troops on one’s own territory are not offensive whereas troops deployed on someone else’s can be. This depends on how one reads the intentions behind troop movements.

If A and B have some kind of animosity or conflict, none of them would like to have the other very close to its border. (Otherwise with friendly neighbours). In addition, history must be taken into account: Who may have a trauma or grievance based on history. East European countries remember the Russian interventions in Hungary 1956 and Czechoslovakia 1968, of course, and Russia lost 27 million people during World War II in defeating Nazi Germany’s invasion. West European and NATO countries have no such experiences, neither has the US.

The US seems to see the whole world as its security zone – why else 700+ bases in 130 countries? – while denying Russia some kind of security zone – which is what you do when insisting that Ukraine shall become a full NATO member.

Shubham Dhage on Unsplash

• Countries shall decide their security policy and partnerships freely and democratically

Not even remotely true. No new NATO member has held a referendum about membership. If you give a country – say Ukraine – a NATO office in 1994, military training, economic support, promise it integration in Euro-Atlantic community (“our” side), decide at a NATO meeting 2008 that it shall become a NATO member and then also mastermind and finance a regime-change in 2014 that installs an anti-Russian leadership in Kyiv after which you let its extremist forces be trained by CIA and in 2020 give Ukraine NATO Enhanced Opportunities Program, the decision to bcome a member of NATO will be anything but ‘free.’ It will be the result of wooing and bribing.

Further, when Putin – really freely – wanted Russia to become a NATO member and discussed it with Bill Clinton and then NATO SG, George Robertson, the answer was ‘No.’

• Borders are sacrosant

The US/NATO world presided over the division of Yugoslavia into independent states – no matter the human and other costs of the violence that idea entailed. NATO bombed Kosovo and Serbia for 78 days to make Kosovo the second Albanian state in Europe – even though a negotiated solution was fully possible. (I know that because I was a mediator there for four years). The US and other Western/NATO countries have ignored Syria’s border completely; today the US has at least 10 military bases on Syrian territory. And virtually every border around Iraq, Kuwait, Somalia, Libya, Yemen has been violated by No-Fly Zones or flown over in order to bomb inside those countries.

There is no legal or moral difference between Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and all the invasions, bombings and occupations done by NATO states in defiance of the UN Charter.

• Conflict – this is not a conflict

The intellectual level has sunk this far: This is not a conflict because it takes two at least to be in conflict. No, this is about us, the good guys who have done nothing wrong being provoked all the time by another state, Russia and its leader, Vladimir Putin. If they’d just change their views and behaviours, there would be no problems.

This – self-deceptive and anti-intellectual – perception of what all this is about conveniently fees the US/NATO world from every self-examination, -criticism and learning any lessons. It deepens incredibly dangerous Groupthink and broadens political autism and hubris.


The most typical response to ‘the other’s” action is tit-for-tat: We do to them what they did to us – just a little worse to ‘punish’ them and show we do not back down. This may give each side some satisfaction – short-term, at last – but it doesn’t do any good. Instead, it means escalation. The parties will blame each other at every step they take up the escalation ladder and shout things like: You started this, I am only reacting because you do what you do.

This focuses only on the violence as a driving force – and makes it more difficult to solve the underlying conflict. Never do tit-for-tat, do something completely different – perhaps surprising – but something that does not escalate the tension further, perhaps a game-changing gesture such as GRIT – Graduated Reciprocation in Tension Reduction as suggested by Charles Osgood sixty years ago.

• Rules-based international order versus international law and the UN Charter

You may have noticed that US/NATO leaders now systematically use the term ‘rules-based international order’ while they accuse other leaders of being criminal, undemocratic and violating human rights. They deliberately no longer talk about international law in which the UN Charter is the most important.

The difference is that the rules-based term is used by the US about the world it wants with universalised neo-liberal economic, parliamentary democracy and freedom (implemented even with violence and in violation of the international law that all the world has developed over the last 100 or so years). It translates into “our” – exceptionalist – Western rules for ourselves that we will not permit other countries to do too. In addition, the US itself has violated international law and the UN Charter more than anybody else since 1945. Here is a short and succinct exposé from The Hill in Washington of how the US itself does not honour anything rules-based – also because of its sanctions and its refusal to sign a long series of important treaties that are part and parcel of international law.

• What constitutes a threat?

In the First Cold War, the military expenditures of the Warsaw Pact moved up and down around 60-70% of those of NATO. In addition, NATO’s general technological level, its military-technological sophistication, was much higher. No NATO general would prefer to sit in Moscow had he had a chance. Today’s Russia has a military budget that is 8% of the 30 NATO countries’ combined budget. NATO consists now of ten countries that used to be Warsaw Pact countries and insist on not promising Russia that Ukraine will not also become a member.

Why does NATO see Russia as a threat while it refuses to acknowledge that it too could be perceived as a threat by Russia? Isn’t this Matthew 7:3 – “Why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but fail to notice the beam in your own eye?”

We can learn to peace if we want

In general, disarmament in the military field and a systematic intellectual armament with a focus on underlying conflicts rather than the means of violence would increase everybody’s security and open opportunities to bring about peace.

This is built into the UN Charter’s Article 1 – that peace shall be established by peaceful means – and that only when all peaceful means have been tried and found in vain shall the UN be empowered to use violence as a last resort.

This is is the binding principle that all UN members have promised to respect and virtually all states violate on a daily basis – certainly both US/NATO and Russia.

The intellectual disarmament I’ve illustrated above increases the risk of war and diminishes the opportunities for stability, security and peace (to repeat NATO’s mantra).

It reduces complexity. It makes for lousy conflict understanding – diagnosis, prognosis and treatment. It increases the risks of miscalculations, increasingly autistic group think and hubris: We can’t do wrong and we can’t be wrong.

It banalises war and cancels peace.

And that is when the dynamics of the conflict itself takes over and we risk losing control: The war nobody wanted breaks out thanks to the extremely dangerous mix of too many violent tools in the toolbox and too much psycho-political projection, tit-for-tat, demonisation, knee-jerk revenge/hatred, Groupthink and boundless self-righteousness.

M K Gandhi wisely warned the world almost 100 years ago: “An eye for an eye will one day make the whole world blind.” But have we understood it?

Will we ever learn to conflict intelligently and peace emphatically?

If you like constructive thinking about peace more than war… well, why not reward TFF here?

3 Responses to "Jan Oberg: Stop the security intellectual disarmament – Learn to conflict and peace constructively!"

  1. DennisM   March 17, 2022 at 3:42 pm

    Thank you Jan for writing this!
    This is the best written article of the conflict in modern time.

    Don’t we already know how to “conflict intelligently and peace emphatically”?
    We’ve seen Bill Clinton & Putin try in the past. You are writing about it and I understand it….

    Isn’t the question rather: will an intellectual leader raise his voice and stop the madness of today, so we can start a peaceful dialog again?

    That could lead to even solving the conflict once and for all! A conflict that’s much bigger of the events we hear about in 2022.

  2. orjappel   March 4, 2022 at 11:37 pm

    courageous and indispensable!

    • JO   March 8, 2022 at 9:49 am

      Thanks a lot, dear Örjan


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