Interview June/July

peter wallensteen:

Academic diplomacy is undervalued”

Peter Wallensteen, Senior Professor of Peace and Conflict Research, Uppsala University
Peter Wallensteen, Senior Professor of Peace and Conflict Research, Uppsala University.

Peter Wallensteen, Senior Professor of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University, gives exactly the kind of mild and peaceful impression one would expect from a peace professor. It is easy to understand that he has been involved in many sticky peace negotiations throughout the world. Is this mild demeanor innate or acquired?

By Ulrica Segersten

“The effort to create an environment like this Department of Peace and Conflict Research, where it is possible to reason scientifically about war and peace took some will-power to carry through.“

Today, the institution is cited more and more often for its global survey of world conflicts and peace agreements in UCDP (Uppsala Conflict Data Program). The UCDP information is freely available for discussions on international conflicts throughout the world.

“The driving force behind the institutions for peace and conflict research was that this kind of research requires many different academic perspectives. Sadly, there is often an anxiety in Sweden of treading the multidimensional path. The consequence is that large areas are devoid of research and opportunities to see broader connections are missed.”

A method used far too seldom in international conflict resolution is inviting academics to resolve locked positions, in Peter Wallensteen’s opinion. He himself has taken part of several peace processes, among them negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. One problem was that Israelis were unable to negotiate with Palestinians on a political level. But it was possible for both parties to meet at an academic conference with a clear academic agenda in an undisclosed location in Sweden. They were able to speak as academicians and scientists.

“We could have free discussions on a purely academic level. The academic seminar enabled an exchange of experiences. Being able to try and test ideas freely regardless of what side of the conflict one belongs to is tremendously powerful. Also, it often transpires that there are more things that unite than separate”, says Peter Wallensteen.

 As mediator between the government and the rebels in the Bougainville conflict in Papua New Guinea, Peter Wallensteen could again use academic diplomacy.

“I began by listening to what the groups wanted to achieve by the negotiations. Then I provided examples of other conflicts which were resolved. It is important to remember that no one wants to stay in a conflict, but also that the goal can’t be to win over the other side at any cost.”

“The advantage of academic diplomacy is that academicians can be present as a third party without bringing vested interests. Academic representatives are largely seen as impartial. This can help create openings.”

In a separate peace initiative between south and north Cyprus, physicians from both sides were important.

“They could communicate about how PTSD increased on both sides of the conflicts and able to show that the stress was equally negative on both sides.”

In a similar way it might be able for, say, engineers to unite by showing how the same water scarcity is prevalent on both sides.

“Common interests on different sides of a conflict can create a movement that can untie knots.”

Could the UN Agenda 2030 be used as a tool for peace? Peter Wallensteen says that although quite a bit in the Agenda are obvious compromises, it is an outstanding achievement to be able to unite around 17 common sustainable development goals.

“I was very encouraged when this was achieved in 2015, not least that Goal 16 was created. Never before has there existed a global target about peaceful and including societies.”

Although Peter Wallensteen would have preferred the usage of the words ‘democracy’ and ‘human rights’ in the SDG goal 16, he concludes that the main thing is how the goals interconnect with each other. Interconnection, incidentally, is something worthy of academic study, according to Wallensteen.

“Personally, I believe that some targets are more strategic than others. Goal 5 about gender equality, for instance, has great impact on all others. Also, the target about poverty has profound impact for quality of housing, which in turn impacts health and the risk of being exposed to violence. A lot of everyday violence is connected with poverty and bad housing.”

Screenshot Uppsala Conflict Data Program.
Uppsala Conflict Data Program.

The connection between goals16 and 3 (health and wellbeing) is surprisingly devoid of academic research both in terms of how war and violence impacts health and how the extent of health impacts violence and conflict.

It would be important to look at violence as a public health problem.

Today a sense of dystopia and fear of a more violent future is prevalent even in peaceful democracy. 5-6 years ago, Peter Wallensteen was able to show positive UCDP figures in terms of a diminishing number of armed conflicts. The Yemen and Syria crises made the curves gloomier for a while.

“It does look dark, but that is not to say hopeless. The earth will not go under. Our societies have tremendous ability to handle conflicts. Variation is in fact a good sign. Data that shows the reality make more people sit up and try harder. And what we need right now are really serious efforts, not least from those of great influence. However, such dedication isn’t visible by the great powers.”

In order to avoid using ideological vocabulary, Peter Wallensteen and other researchers of peace and conflict have introduced the terms particularism – universalism. Particularism embodying the will to put one’s self first without any general moral principles, the closely-knit society of smaller groups, as opposed to universalism.

“The key is to try to make more people realize that if I am scared, then probably the other side is too. Sometimes this has been called détente policy, but really it is the ability to see and understand the emotions of others.”

What can we learn from periods of strong particularism?

“If particularism is predominant during a longer period of time it will lead to more conflicts. If it lasts some 5-6 years, we will get serious trouble. And yes, we are currently in the middle of such a period. There is cause for some concern.”

The counterforces are popular movements and civil society. And the EU, according to Peter Wallensteen.

“Popular movements and civil society give me hope. I am especially intrigued by how the climate issue engages young people.”

Today’s conflicts are different than the conflicts of yesteryear. This is obvious from UCDP’s latest data.

“There are many more conflicts within countries with multiple involved parties and armed troops within countries and troops from abroad. Syria, Libya and Yemen are clear examples of this. This increases the complexity of the conflict and demands a whole new way of looking at negotiations.”

This also means that negotiations take longer time. Peace negotiations for Colombia took four years.

“However, protracted negotiations are nothing new. The peace of Westphalia took eight years to negotiate, so we have had these complicated situations earlier in history.”

Complexity demands new levels of ingenuity.

“Sadly, there is a prevalent impatience today that aggravates peace processes.”

Peter Wallensteen would also like to see a clear gender perspective in peace negotiations. Staffan de Mistura, the special envoy of UN to Syria, suggested that 30 percent of the negotiating delegation should be women, but had to give up. So far, only one woman, professor Miriam Coronel-Ferrer has had the lead role in high-level peace negotiations. She was the lead negotiator for the Philippine government and managed to sign a peace treaty with the Moro Islamic liberation front in Mindanao in 2014.

The difficulties of creating a more equal negotiating delegation in Syria was something of a negative heureka moment for Peter Wallensteen. We are still a long way from fulfilling the UN security council’s resolution 1325 about women, peace and security that was adopted already in 2000 in the knowledge that women are often excluded from peace processes.

“I am convinced that other issues would come up if women were part of peace processes and this is exactly what today’s processes would need. “

Apropos the need for multidisciplinary meetings to understand what creates peace, health and equality, he says that many academicians unfortunately prefer to stick to their subjects.

“The driving force behind the institutions for peace and conflict research was that this kind of research requires many different academic perspectives. Sadly, there is often an anxiety in Sweden of treading the multidimensional path. The consequence is that large areas are devoid of research and opportunities to see broader connections are missed.”

At the Department for Peace and Conflict Research of Uppsala another aspect provides opportunity for more perspectives. In competition with the most influential universities in the world the department is one of six approved as a Rotary Peace Center. This means that the department welcomes 10 Peace Fellows from all over the world every autumn.

“Incredibly vitalizing.”

And so, the inevitable final question to a peace professor: Are you hopeful or pessimistic about the future?

“Hopeful. Human relations are complex, but in the long run today’s conflicts are resolvable.”

Peter Wallensteen’s tips for conflict resolution:

  1. Find common interests.
  2. Show clearly that you respect the other party.
  3. Provide concrete examples of conflicts that have been resolved peacefully
  4. Try to create a personal climate and never underestimate the human dimension. “I have hardly been at any peace negotiation without the negotiators at some point starting to share pictures of their children and grandchildren. Golda Meir and Anwar Sadat did that too.”

About Peter Wallensteen

  • Head of the Department of Peace and Conflict Research, Uppsala University, 1972-1999.
  • Senior Professor of Peace and Conflict Research, since 2012.
  • Dag Hammarskjöld Professor of Peace and Conflict Research, Uppsala University 1985-2012.
  • Professor Emeritus, University of Notre Dame, since 2018.
  • Richard G. Starmann Sr. Research Professor of Peace Studies, Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, University of Notre Dame, Indiana, USA, 2006-18.
  • Has been part of several international peace negotiations.
  • Founded Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP).
  • In his research Wallensteen has concentrated on study of sanctions as well as mediation in order to resolve international conflicts.
  • One of Wallensteen’s former students is Crown Princess Victoria of Sweden.