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Issue No. 24 (May 2001) -- Mark Satin, Editor

Ury’s sweet Peace and Kaplan’s dark Anarchy:
Different words, same song?

How can we create a peaceful world? That’s the question -- by no means as innocuous as it sounds, as you’ll see -- linking two of the most compelling political books of the millennium season: Robert Kaplan’s The Coming Anarchy (Random House, 198 pp., 2000) and William Ury’s Getting to Peace (Viking, 250 pp., 1999, rev. 2000).

A closely related question is, Can there be peace between these books?

Kaplan, an award-winning chronicler of some of the worst horrors of our time (see especially his books Balkan Ghosts and The Ends of the Earth), is the most chilling “realist” you’ll ever want to read. For him, violence, prejudice, disease, environmental degradation, and social chaos is the human condition; and the only way to keep it all at bay is through a combination of strength, stealth, and superior intelligence. The Coming Anarchy consists of his essays from the last six years, and they’re more politically explicit than his book-length writing.

Ury, by contrast, is co-author of the classic introduction to negotiation and mediation, Getting to Yes (1981), and director of Harvard’s Global Negotiation Project. Much of his time is spent practicing what he preaches with warring ethnic groups and nations around the world (sometimes with Jimmy Carter in tow). Getting to Peace -- one part meta-politics, one part anthropology and one part how-to -- argues that we’re essentially a peaceful species that’s more than capable of learning to manage its conflicts.


Each author gives us his take on human nature, and where they come down is no surprise.

To Kaplan, many ordinary people are inexorably drawn to war and violence -- always have been, always will be. Look at the Tontons Macoutes in Haiti. Look at our television entertainments. And peace-loving upper-middle class Americans will play every cheap intellectual trick in the book to keep from confronting that brute fact.

Not Ury. Although he calls the Kaplan-like attitude “fatalistic,” he cheerfully concedes that the last 10,000 years have been brutal. He reminds us, though, that there’s now some evidence that when we were hunter-gatherers (i.e., for 99% for our existence as humans) we were far more cooperative; homo negotiator, you might say. More important, he posits that the transition from a settled, agricultural-and-industrial world to a more open and less hierarchical world based on knowledge and networking is bringing our cooperative side to the fore again. It’s not that we’ve suddenly become “ethical”; it’s more like we’re, well, pragmatic.


The authors’ approaches to world peace perfectly mirror their feelings about human nature.

Kaplan calls for a balance of power among governments -- “or, more precisely, balance-of-fear-and-intimidation” -- but he goes far beyond realist boilerplate.

He points to the insidious (and, in his view, metastasizing) power of drug cartels, mafias and private security agencies and warns that if their power isn’t broken, big chunks of the world will soon become ungovernable.

He notes that the “level of social development required by democracy” is extremely high, and calls on global institutions, including the U.N., to play a more constructive social role (in fact, at one point he urges the U.S. to pay its dues and effectively “take over the U.N.,” the better to make it more efficient and effective).

Ury’s approach is less top-down; you could almost say, less Old Testament. There’s a “Third Side” in the world, he says; it consists of others acting as third parties to facilitate the prevention or resolution of conflict; and if we want peace, the Third Side has got to become both stronger and more conscious of itself.

We’re all potentially Third Siders, Ury says -- in our families, at our workplaces, when conflicts break out on the street. And Third Siders are “increasingly stepping in to help resolve international disputes that once only warfare would have settled.” See Bosnia. See South Africa.

What’s essential is that Third Siders keep a larger community’s interest uppermost in mind. That sets everyone up for a Triple Win, “a resolution that satisfies the legitimate needs of the parties and at the same time meets the needs of the wider community.”

Kaplan and Ury are fascinating for their differences -- and for their blemishes (quick, which is more obnoxious: a famous journalist flirting with white-man’s-burden rhetoric ((in the Joseph Conrad essay)) or a Harvard prof seriously declaring that hunting and gathering was our “most successful way of life -- yet”?). But what really links them in my mind are the many surprising points of convergence.

Kaplan is no militarist -- on the last page he movingly calls for a “compromise” between humanity’s “willingness to fight for what it believes in” and the pacifist impulse. And Ury is no pacifist -- he speaks hopefully of the day when genocide and aggression “will be stopped by the armed will of a united world community.”

Kaplan thinks struggle is part of our nature and peace can’t be our primary goal. But he doesn’t necessarily think struggle has to be violent: “A world of natural limits, in which clean air and water were highly prized [commodities], might impose a sense of warlike reality upon us . . . yet without requiring the citizenry to fight.” Ury carefully distinguishes between “conflict” and “destructive conflict” and goes to great lengths to praise “fair fighting,” “good fighting,” etc., in which limits are set by the community (as in a labor strike).

Kaplan’s description of Asea Brown Boveri Ltd., the Swedish-Swiss multinational, as a model of a vital new “political and cultural form” (a Learning Organization, in fact) would warm Ury’s heart, as it did mine. And isn’t Ury’s dispute resolution an expression of the kind of organizing intelligence Kaplan wants good people to bring to bear on the world?

Kaplan admits, rather sheepishly, that he views his pessimism as a “humanism” and that he sees hope in the far future. Ury concedes that today’s conflicts could “get worse, particularly in the shorter term” as we stagger toward One World.

Let’s buy them both a drink.


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