Peace Writ Small: Reflections on “Peacebuilding” in Iraq, Burma, Israel and Palestine, Northern Ireland, Rwanda, the Balkans and Beyond

“There’s a crack in everything.  That’s how the light gets in.”

– Leonard Cohen, “Anthem”

Over the course of my career as a practitioner and researcher in the field known as “peacebuilding,” I have worked alongside thousands of people in conflicted societies, including in Iraq, Burma, Lebanon, Israel and Palestine, Northern Ireland, Rwanda, the Balkans, and elsewhere. In this article, I explore a dilemma I see in the field, namely the increasingly singular emphasis on grand narratives of peace, known as “Peace Writ Large.” I fear that this frame, while valuable in many ways, may have the unintended consequence of actually undermining inquiry into and support for the powerful micro interactions that occur in even the most polarized conflicts. I argue that we must not lose sight of the power embodied in “peace writ small.”

Since the mid-1990s, approaches to theory-building, policy-making and intervention in conflict have increasingly emphasized macro, long-term societal changes, first under the rubric of “conflict transformation” and now “peacebuilding”.

Building on Johann Galtung’s fundamental concept of positive peace (meant to contrast with “negative peace,” meaning the cessation of violence), “Peace Writ Large” articulates an expansive vision, embracing human rights, environmental sensitivity, sustainable development, gender equity, and other normative and structural transformations. (Chigas & Woodrow, 2009). Anderson and Olsen (2003:12) define Peace Writ Large as comprising change “at the broader level of society as a whole,” which addresses “political, economic, and social grievances that may be driving conflict.” Lederach (1997:84), integrates Peace Writ Large into his definition of peacebuilding, which is:

“…a comprehensive concept that encompasses, generates and sustains the full array of processes, approaches and stages needed to transform conflict toward more sustainable, peaceful relationships…Metaphorically, peace is seen not merely as a stage in time or a condition.  It is seen as a dynamic social construct.”

The focus in this article does not allow space for a full discussion of the rich dialogues and debates relevant to peacebuilding or Peace Writ Large. That said, I note that in my own work I have found that this meta approach expands our tools of engagement and pushes us to move beyond official “Track I” diplomacy and state-based mechanisms, to involve civil . . .

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