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Humanity is at a tipping point

5 Mar, 2022

Interview with 2018 Global Business & Interfaith Peace Gold Medalist Steve Killelea

Every year the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP) issues the “Global Peace Index” (GPI), the purpose of which is to score 163 nations according to their levels of peacefulness. The overall GPI score for 2021 indicates that the global situation – as a result of the coronavirus pandemic among others – has once again deteriorated. But will this trend continue? “The changing economic conditions in many nations increases the likelihood of political instability and violent demonstrations”, says Australian philanthropist and IEP founder, Steve Killelea, during an interview with Sven Lilienström, founder of the Faces of Peace Initiative. The 72-year-old creator of the Global Peace Index is certain: “Humanity is on a tipping point!”

Source: Faces of Peace initiative

Mr. Killelea, you are the creator of the Global Peace Index (GPI) – the world’s leading quantitative measurement of global peacefulness: What does “peace” mean for you personally?

Peace can have many meanings and I find it best to understand what type of peace I want to talk about first. For example, if I am interested in personal peace, I would describe it as the absence of afflictive emotion. One of the greatest writers on peace was Leo Tolstoy, the author of “War and Peace”, who realized that peace had a spiritual dimension that could only be expressed through the individual. History, he said, had been about finding evil and attempting to destroy it, but in the process of destroying evil, we become the very thing we are seeking to destroy. He said we have been doing this for thousands of years and without success; therefore, we need to find a new approach – we need to find peace within. His perspective was that only when one has become personally peaceful can one truly create peace in the world. This is a profound insight and one that reverberates down through history to the present day. It is paraphrased in simple ways such as “Peace starts within one’s self”. For me, personal peace is what I aim to feel within. Not being overcome by negative emotions really makes for a clearer head and, therefore, better judgement calls. And personal peace is important because all power structures, in the end, are composed of people, and serene leaders are more likely to make peaceful decisions. Similarly, peace is an upward and downward phenomenon: the system influences people and people influence the system.

Politicians today, however, still often use peace to simply mean the absence of war. This implies that once the guns fall silent, peace has been achieved. This way of thinking doesn’t describe what creates a resilient peace, one that will not lapse back into violence, and one that is associated with many other social characteristics that are considered desirable, including stronger economic outcomes, higher resilience, better measures of well-being, higher levels of inclusiveness and more sustainable environmental performance.

At IEP, we use two different definitions of peace. The first was used to develop the Global Peace Index (GPI) – the absence of violence or the fear of violence; otherwise known as Negative Peace. But as mentioned above, while this is an excellent definition to determine how peaceful a country may be, it doesn’t tell us what is required for a country to be peaceful; it closes off the possibility for finding new approaches and solutions that extend beyond security, and can create the conditions necessary to restructure our societies so that they have the capacity to adapt and modify to our constantly changing environments. The definition we use for a sustainable peace is Positive Peace, which refers to the attitudes, institutions and structures that create and sustain peaceful societies.

The Global Peace Index (GPI) 2021 registers – as is has for most previous years – a deterioration in global peacefulness. What is the reason for this? What role will climate change play in future?

Measuring peace is contextually rich; in some areas peace is improving, and in others it is deteriorating. This is also true for countries and regions.

Over the last 10 years, peace has deteriorated by 2.4 percent; however, in that time, 86 countries have improved, while 75 have deteriorated. This highlights that when countries fall in peace, they fall at a faster pace than they improve. Peace is built up gradually over time.

The Global Peace Index can be divided into three domains. Two have deteriorated over the decade, namely “Safety” and “Security”, which measure the internal state of peace, and “Ongoing Conflict”. The other domain, “Militarization”, has improved, but as can be seen from rising tensions in Indo-China and NATO relations with Russia, this trend is reversing.

At an indicator level, “Violent Demonstrations” has deteriorated over the ten years, along with “Number of Refugees”. The COVID-19 pandemic had a significant impact on the level of conflict and violence in the world in 2020, with some of these effects likely to last for years to come. There were over 5,000 pandemic-related incidents between January 2020 and April 2021 that involved some form of violence, ranging from violent demonstrations and riots in response to lockdown measures, to physical assaults targeted at people of Asian descent. There were at least 158 countries that recorded one or more violent incidents directly related to the pandemic during this time. While it is still too early to fully gauge the long-term effects of the pandemic on peace, the changing economic conditions in many nations increases the likelihood of political instability and violent demonstrations.

In terms of climate change, many ecological threats exist independently of climate change; however, climate change will have an amplifying effect, causing further ecological degradation and pushing some countries through violent tipping points. The main finding from IEP’s latest Ecological Threat Register – which combines measures of resilience with the most comprehensive ecological data available to shed light on the countries least likely to cope with extreme ecological shocks – is that a cyclic relationship exists between ecological degradation and conflict. It is a vicious cycle whereby degradation of resources leads to conflict, and the ensuing conflict leads to further resource degradation. Ecological threats will continue to create humanitarian emergencies and will likely increase without a sustained effort to reverse the current trend. Breaking the cycle requires improving ecological resource management and building socio-economic resilience

Keyword European Union: According to the Global Peace Index 2021, Europe is the world’s most peaceful continent. The Russia-Ukraine conflict aside, what makes Europe one of the safest regions in the world?

This comes back to Positive Peace. Europe has the highest rates of Positive Peace globally. Eight of the ten countries with the highest levels of Positive Peace reside in Europe.

Positive Peace consists of eight Pillars. These Pillars function as a system with each interacting with all others. The Pillars are: Well-Functioning Government, Strong Business Environment, Low Levels of Corruption, Free Flow of Information, Equitable Distribution of Resources, High Levels of Human Capital, Acceptance of the Rights of Others and Good relations with Neighbors.

However, for some European countries, these measures have been deteriorating and substantial improvements in economic and health indicators were partially off – set by worsening political radicalisation and quality of informed debate. Denmark, Iceland, United Kingdom, Greece and Spain have all deteriorated over the last decade, although they are still rated highly.

In the overall GPI score for 2021, Germany has fallen to 17th place. On the positive side, the German Federal Government intends to make weapon exports more dependent upon the human rights situation than before. What is your opinion about this announcement?

Germany is one the world’s largest economies, with arms exports a major industry. The country also recently announced they will supply Ukraine was sophisticated weapons to fight the Russians, including Stinger missiles to target planes.

As I note in my book, “Peace in the Age of Chaos”, the desire to live in a safe, sustainable and prosperous world is universal; and I believe it is achievable if we use a more expansive understanding of the concept of peace – a peace that is practical, one that recognises threats and believes a level of military action is needed. The sad fact is that many parts of the world are not safe, and therefore the military is a necessity. The Russian invasion of the Ukraine points out that adequate defenses are necessary; however, the sale of weapons to countries that will use them for coercing other states to their will or abusing their citizens is abhorrent.

The bigger question is what is the adequate level of protection that a country needs, as excess expenditure would be more productively spent on funding business, health or educational sectors to name some.

The USA, Russia and China in particular, are driving the development of hypersonic weapons. Does this development affect the GPI score? Are you in favor of regulating this type of weapons technology?

Yes, it does affect their scores. One of the indicators in the Global Peace Index is sophistication of weapons and the more sophisticated they are, the higher the score.

The Institute for Economics and Peace is in favor of agreements to limit the use of weapons; however, in the current global situation it is hard to see the nations possessing hypersonic missiles agreeing to being regulated.

In fact, at this stage getting agreement between the major powers is becoming more unlikely as rivalries and tensions increase.

In your book “Peace in the Age of Chaos”, published in 2020, you write, among other things, that western democracies need to be revitalized. How do you mean this? What makes reading the book worthwhile?

When looking at Positive Peace, many western democracies are slipping. The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) recently published their Democracy Index which found that democracy had fallen globally, and for most western democracies.

There are three domains within the Positive Peace Index – Attitudes, Institutions and Structures. The attitude domain has fallen in most western democracies. This domain consists of factors such as group grievances, corruption, quality of information and fractionalized elites. The latter being where the elites of a society fight amongst themselves. All of these factors have been falling for the last decade.

“Peace in the Age of Chaos” has four themes running through it. The first is my personal journey to peace and time spent in some of the more violent places in the world. The second is the entrepreneurial journey of creating a global think tank, while the third covers the research on what creates and sustains peace.

The fourth theme, which is the most important, explains why Positive Peace, combined with systems thinking, provides a transformational approach to reinvigorating western democracies and building a more peaceful world. Humanity is on a tipping point, and unless we do something differently, we will never get the levels of trust, cooperation or inclusiveness necessary to solve our global problems, including climate change, bio-diversity, lack of food, to name a few.

In these Anthropocene environments that we humans are creating, two aspects become critical – our capacity to deal with rapid change and our ability to manage the ecosystems of the planet. Adaptability and resilience will be the key. Positive Peace is both the measure and the solution for these. It provides a mechanism to understand which countries are most at risk. These future shocks could be financial, biological, ecological or societal. Given the right severity of shock all countries will implode, but with an understanding of the likely shocks and levels of resilience, development can be better targeted. Through building up the Positive Peace factors a country’s resilience can be enhanced, thereby improving its adaptability and responsiveness when shocks do occur.

Mr. Killelea, our seventh question is always the same: What three trouble spots are in your opinion currently the most dangerous and what measures do you suggest to de-escalate conflict and stabilize peace?

The first is the Ukraine, which has everyone’s attention currently. But the issue is more than the Ukraine, because given the deceit that Russia has shown in the lead up to the war, what other aspirations does the President have in building back the greater Russia. This can only be dealt by realization that war does not work. This can be accomplished by sanctions, although Europe is unlikely to put in place sanctions that are truly crippling on Russia. The other is a long-protracted campaign that saps Russia’s military resolve. It is likely to create regime change, but it would appear that an insurgency campaign would then ensue. We have seen the effects of this in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

The second is the Sahel in sub-Saharan Africa. It has the fastest growing Islamic militias in the world and the fastest growing rate of terrorism globally. The problems here are systemic and complex and so need a truly systems thinking approach. Weak governments, lack of adequate food and water, the highest rates of population growth in the world and a large number of refugees. The starting point is a thorough systems analysis and then building international agencies that match the systemic nature of the problem.

The third is North East Asia. The rising power of China and the clash of values with democracies, especially the US. This conflict is going to be played out over decades, especially as China uses more coercive methods to achieve goals. Taiwan is a flashpoint and could easily start a regional war.

The scale of the issues confronting humanity is truly daunting, and our current approaches are simply not working. Systems thinking provides a solution, a new way of conceptualising our world, our societies and how politics should function. At the heart of this view is that complexity cannot be understood by breaking problems down into ever smaller and smaller bite-size chunks. The application of systems thinking to societies is a recognition that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and that emergent phenomena like peace or climate change are irreducible. Positive Peace provides the vision of where to take the system.

Mr. Killelea, thank you very much for the interview!

Press Contact:
Sven Lilienström
Founder of the Faces of Peace initiative | Faces of Democracy

Broicherdorfstraße 53
41564 Kaarst – Germany
phone: +49 (0) 2131-5978299
mobile: +49 (0) 177-3132744

About the Faces of Democracy and Faces of Peace initiatives:

With more than 100 prominent national and international individuals from politics, the media, business and society – including numerous European heads of state and government, Nobel Peace Prize Laureates, the publishers and chief editors of leading media publications and the CEOs of international companies – the Faces of Democracy initiative is now in its fifth year of existence. The first “faces” of the 2019 founded Faces of Peace initiative are SIPRI Director Dan Smith, the Chairman of the Atlantic Brücke e.V. Sigmar Gabriel, the OSCE CiO 2019 and Minister of Foreign and European Affairs of the Slovak Republic Miroslav Lajčák and the Chief of Staff of the 69th Submarine Brigade of the Northern Fleet Vasili A. Arkhipov.