Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

JPT Practice #2 Take Independent Initiatives to Reduce Threats

In situations of conflict, an arms buildup or any form of escalation can lead to or expand a war. But so can unilateral disarmaments or appeasements. What is needed is a series of surprising, independent initiatives that reduce threat levels and act as “confidence building measures” that often open up new possibilities of peacemaking. It is important that such actions are public, visible, happen at the times announced, and invite reciprocation.

This is the most misunderstood of Just Peacemaking practices, so I’ll say a little more. Although the practice is probably ancient, it was only named and studied beginning in 1962. See Charles Osgood, An Alternative to War or Surrender (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1962).

Effective initiatives have the following characteristics:

  1. They are designed to decrease the threat perception and distrust by the other side. Example: Gorbachev’s removal of tanks and rivercrossing equipment from Central Europe so that NATO would be less fearful of a sudden Soviet invasion. That reduction in fear allowed for negotiation to remove the medium-range nuclear weapons which increased the probability of “war by accident” by giving Moscow only 6 minutes to check out false alarms before launching a counterattack.
  2. They are visible and verifiable actions, so that the other side can see that they are, in fact being taken. Words or invisible actions are not enough to break cycles of distrust.
  3. They are independent of the slow process of negotiation–although they often allow negotiations to become more productive.
  4. They are designed to decrease the threat to the other side WITHOUT being the kind of initiative which leaves the intiating side feeling weak or vulnerable itself.
  5. A series of small initiatives, on a regular timetable, does more to break cycles of distrust than a big one-time action that the other side can dismiss as a propaganda ploy.
  6. If the other side reciprocates with some independent initiatives of its own, confidence-building begins and real work toward stable peace can proceed.
  7. The timing of the initiative should be announced in advance and carried out promptly.
  8. The purpose of the intitiative should be clearly announced: to shift the context toward de-escalation and to invite reciprocation.

September 1, 2006 - Posted by | just peacemaking


  1. 9. They must be done in the context of a helpful mainstream media and intelligensia who aren’t going to spin every action into something horrible!

    Comment by Looney | September 4, 2006

  2. Well, looney, no one can guarantee what a free press will say.

    We can, however, work to stop media consolidation. The concentration of all news outlets into the hands of a few makes it more likely that corporate concerns will dictate news spin–if not directly then because controversy and he said/she said arguments sell more advertisement. The news as entertainment is a huge problem.

    But one cannot wait until one has a perfect media situation to try independent initiatives. When one tries one, the adversary’s press is sure to be suspicious as well as opposition op-eds back home. One reason for a series is to break through this suspicion and hostile propaganda.

    If Iran took an independent initiative on its nuclear standoff, say. Suppose it said, “Well, we won’t unilaterally stop our uranium production because we really want face-to-face negotiations with the U.S. But we will open our facilities to inspection by the IAEA.” Bush would think (and probably me too) that this was just a propaganda move or a stall. But I would urge our public reaction to be praise for this step and urge a small initiative in return.

    We can’t control suspicions or the media, but we can try for patterns that make people think, “Hey, maybe X is serious after all!”

    This is not magic or an instant cure. And all these practices have to work together to be effective in the long haul. But they beat always going to war as the answer to every threat or crisis.

    Think practically: Our military is stretched to the limit. We are bogged down in Afghanistan and Iraq. Do we really want to start something with Iran or Syria just now? But we cannot ignore the threat posed by the possibility of a nuclear armed Iran. So, we have to start trying other things.

    Why does Iran want nukes so much? Could it be because it fears attack by the U.S.? After all, the U.S. called Iraq, Iran, and North Korea an “axis of evil” and then invaded Iraq–but backed off its threats toward North Korea when it began to claim it had some nuclear bombs and was developing a missile that could reach the U.S. So, did Iran learn a lesson: “The U.S. may get mad at nuclear armed countries, but doesn’t invade them. It does invade countries without nukes. We’re next in its sights.”

    So, how can we defuse the situation–without ignoring the Iranian threat? What initiatives could we take that might break the logjam? The most obvious is for Bush to agree to face-to-face talks. If Reagan could talk to the Russians, can’t Bush II talk to Tehran?

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | September 4, 2006

  3. “If Reagan could talk to the Russians, can’t Bush II talk to Tehran?”

    I am inclined to agree, although noting that the Russians represented a failing ideology, whereas the Iranians represent an energetic religion that isn’t going away.

    Comment by Looney | September 4, 2006

  4. Yes, Looney. But 2 points: 1) I chose Reagan simply because he was a cheerful Cold Warrior and yet could talk. He wasn’t the only U.S. president to talk to the Soviets. Everyone since FDR did so, regardless of party or ideology. And Communism wasn’t failing during most of that time. Further, few people during the Reagan era–certainly few in his own cabinet who were busy preparing for Apocalypse–realized that Communism was then failing.

    2) Islam is not failing, but there are many strands within Islam. For most of a thousand years, Islam produced no terrorists and contributed some of the basic incredients to Western–even European–culture. Between 1979 and 2000 there was a small-but-growing reform movement in Iran, one that gained strength after Khomeini died. It lost power after Bush’s “axis of evil” speech and Ahmadinijad (sp?) and the hardliners regained almost total control.

    By refusing to talk to Tehran, Bush gives power to the hardline radicals. If we want to strengthen the reform movement in Iran, including reforming Islam, we cannot refuse to talk, we cannot allow our cabinet to start using terms like “Islamofascist” that may shore up the rightwing base but also give credence to the radicals’ view that the U.S. is warring not on terrorism but Islam.

    It’s time to remember the term “self-fulfilling prophecy.”

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | September 4, 2006

  5. I am also quite hostile to the “islamo-facist” rhetoric and more prefer the “cousins” paradigm of the Christian missionaries. On the other hand, the Islam=good, Christianity=bad revisionism of the 19th century that pervades our school textbooks isn’t helpful either.

    A more enlightened approach is certainly needed. I think it begins in the spiritual domain, which is the one Americans (both right and left) have the most difficulty with.

    Comment by Looney | September 4, 2006

  6. “On the other hand, the Islam=good, Christianity=bad revisionism of the 19th century that pervades our school textbooks isn’t helpful either.”

    You must have had some different school textbooks than I did–or have seen for that matter. Those 19th C. revisionists that thought Christianity was all bad (e.g., Frazier’s _Golden Bough_) tended to think all religion to be something belonging to a more primitive time.

    The first mass awareness of Islam in the U.S. was the Nation of Islam, the “Black Muslims,” and they got nearly universal bad press until the mid ’70s.

    At any rate, we mostly agree on this point except that I haven’t encountered the “Islam=Good,” Christianity=bad texts you have.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | September 5, 2006

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