The Fragility of Peace

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I photographed this local Thai, relaxing in the heat in Lumphini park when I was there a year ago. These days the park is deserted, and part of the protest zone. It’s hard to imagine the change in mood.

I have usually been optimistic about peace. I have argued that, as living standards increase globally, so does world peace. This has been the reality of the last half century. Poverty is still a problem, but as a proportion there are many fewer really poor people than ever before. And while the 20th century is often portrayed as especially brutal, this is not the case for the latter half of that century. Despite highly publicised wars in Vietnam, Iraq, Bosnia, Afghanistan, etc., the world is actually a safer place now than ever before. Thus would have been my argument 5-10 years ago. But perhaps peace is more fragile than hoped.

Recent events in Bangkok have saddened me in particular, after spending quite an amount of time there myself just one year ago. Now you have people fighting in the streets, and 17 killed yesterday in anti-government protests, in this usually, if not quite, then at least peaceful city. After spending a month in Thailand, I even began toying with the advantages of Buddhism, since these people seem so content, and happy, and peaceful. Well, not any more. Perhaps Thailand is unique. But perhaps not.

I watch these events unfold on CNN in a hotel room in Slovenia, a former Yugoslav republic. This is my first visit to the Balkans, and what struck me the most by flying to Zagreb, Croatia, and the short drive across the border to Slovenia, was the complete lack of signs that 15-20 years ago, this was a civil war zone. Granted, Slovenia probably fared the best of these countries. But it still amazes me that after less than two decades, this place looks and feels just as safe and wealthy as Northern Europe. How could such things have happened here?

But dire circumstances lead to desperate measures. Take Greece, long-time EU member, where the financial situation is driving people to violent protests on the streets. One can always argue who is to blame. But the point is, such extremities are unfortunately not quite as extreme as we’d like them to be.

So what about the financial crisis? In a bleak article in the latest edition of Newsweek, titled “Depression 2010?”, Robert J. Samuelson suggests that we haven’t seen the worst yet: “Greece’s plight challenges [the] optimistic interpretation.” Many other western countries are seriously indebted, and there is a crucial need to, e.g., save more and spend less, rein in expensive welfare systems, and adjust global trade so things don’t run out of hand. The problem, partly, is one of leadership, says Samuelson. “The United States’ leadership since World War II is eroding before China’s ascent. There’s a danger now, as then, of a power vacuum. […] As for Britain’s place as global leader, the United States assumed that role only in World War II.”

How does the future look? “Will the recovery encourage conscious changes? Or is recovery providing a false sense of security?” asks Samuelson, and adds: “The stakes are, of course, enormous, because – as everyone knows – the economic suffering of the Great Depression transformed many countries’ politics for the worse and led to World War II.”

Could this happen again? Yes. Could it happen in Denmark? Yes, why not. We have grown accustomed to decades of economic growth and prosperity, and we’ve been too comfortable to have the need for stigmatising and declaring enemies. That can change. For people in Thailand, Greece (or Iceland, for that matter), it’s a matter of life and death, of the ability to support yourself. That makes you desperate. And others could follow.

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