Advocacy and Peacebuilding
The Peacebuilder’s Dilemma
In the last few months, I’ve been involved in dozens of discussions about creating a peacebuilding architecture in the United States. No matter what the topic or venue we keep running into a dilemma. How do we reconcile two goals that seem to conflict with each other that are near and dear to our hearts:
- Most of us became and remain peacebuilders because we believe in social change that would lead to a more inclusive and just society.
- Despite the fact that most of us are advocates for change, our work has brought people on all sides of an issue together in an attempt to reconcile their differences.
In the simplest possible terms, as we advocate for social change at home, we run the risk of alienating the people we disagree with, thereby making the goals in the second bullet point harder to achieve.
We haven’t run into the dilemma that often in the past, in part, because our analytical models and our toolkits are based on the often unspoken assumption that we did our work abroad in places where we did not have a huge stake in the outcome which meant that we could focus all but exclusively on the second bullet point.
That is a lot harder to do now that we have decided to work at home. Under those circumstances, I do have a stake in what happens—in who wins and in the policies that get adopted.
In the short run, I’m using the relationship between human rights and peacebuilding as my intellectual launching pad, because I’m sitting in on my friend Doug Irvin-Erickson’s graduate seminar. But, my guess is that these ideas would apply to all issue areas in which policy advocates and peacebuilders have seen somewhat different ways forward.
The differences don’t lie with our long-term goals. In fact, it is hard to imagine how a society that has a major human rights shortfall could enjoy what Kenneth Boulding called stable peace. However, it is less than clear how we can best blend human rights—or other examples of advocacy—with the tools peacebuilders have been developing over the last thirty years. Put simply, there are times when negotiation, problem solving workshops, and like aren’t going to be enough to secure human rights or any other policy goal. In other words, there are times when we have to take stands on issues and even oppose a given leader. Yet, when we do, we also run the risk of driving an even deeper wedge between ourselves and our opponents which could well make dealing with them more difficult once we “win” and achieve our policy goals.
Two Ways Out
Much to my surprise, two ways of dealing with the dilemma emerged while I was working on peacebuilding efforts in the late 1980s for the introductory textbook Doug and I are writing. They don’t resolve the dilemma in its entirety, and I also expect we will find others as our teaching and writing continues. Nonetheless, these two are worth thinking through.
First are some of the themes raised in the non-violent revolutions that toppled communism in Eastern Europe, in particular by KOR (Workers Defense Committee) and Solidarity in Poland in the decade before communism’s collapse. In particular, it is worth (re)read Jonathan Schell’s introduction to Adam Michnik’s Letters from Prison. Although Michnik never defined himself as a peacebuilder, his approach to non-violent change anticipates what could be done today in two main ways:
- Rather than contesting power as it existed, Michnik and his colleagues in KOR set out to create alternative networks of people who acted and lived as if they were free.
- Once the regime threatened to use force and then imposed martial law in 1981, KOR and Solidarity chose not to respond in kind and turn to violence on its own. Rather it “self-limited” the revolution in ways that allowed it to recreate the networks before the decade was out.
At about the same time Schell wrote about Michnik, I met the late Rushworth Kidder as he was creating the Institute for Global Ethics. Rush was particularly interested in helping business leaders and government officials deal with a surprisingly common ethical dilemma. What should you do when two ethical “goods” collide. In this case, how do we both advocate for human rights or other forms of social change but not alienate the people who resist the change because you know you will have to work with them later on. Rush never pushed for a single solution to that dilemma, but more often than not, participants in what he called ethical fitness workshops chose to emphasize the goal that had the largest impact on the largest group of people.
We obviously cannot replicate either Solidarity’s work or follow Rush Kidder’s advice in its entirety for the simple reason that our circumstances are different. Still, as Doug and I (and his students and our readers) continue to grapple with these issues, these are two ideas well worth thinking about.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Alliance for Peacebuilding or its members.
Also published on Medium.