Imagine for a moment Sweden declaring war on and violently annexing Norway. The idea is close to unthinkable, in much the same way war between Greensboro and Raleigh would be. The Nordic countries have not warred amongst themselves for over 200 years.
They’re part of what Dr. Douglas P. Fry and Dr. Geneviève Souillac – and their collaborators – call a peace system. “These clusters of neighboring societies do not war on each other, and in some cases don’t make war at all,” explains Fry.
The married researchers in UNCG’s Department of Peace and Conflict Studies – Fry an anthropologist, Souillac a philosopher – push back against the narrative that war is tragic but inevitable, through their studies of sustainable peace and the factors that underlie it.
Nature is in some ways less “red in tooth and claw,” Fry says in his 2012 Science review of the subject, than their fields have historically acknowledged. When scholars invoke human or animal nature, the evolutionary basis for cooperation and helping gets little airtime. But they exist, Fry says, as do peaceful societies.
Examples of peace systems range from small bands of hunter-gatherers to the 300-year Iroquois Confederacy and the European Union. One of the EU’s explicit missions was to prevent warfare between member states, and it has succeeded for over 70 years. “The Mardu Aborigines of Australia,” says Fry, “even lack words in their language for feud or war.” But what allows some societies to remain peaceful, while others struggle with violence?
That’s the question Fry, Souillac, and their collaborators at Columbia University and the City University of New York seek to answer through the Sustaining Peace Project. The interdisciplinary group, with specialties ranging from psychology to astrophysics, develops complex mathematical models to capture the dynamics of sustainably peaceful societies.
Their latest study, published this year in the Nature journal Humanities and Social Sciences Communications, employed machine learning to identify the most important factors distinguishing peace systems from more warlike societies.
What are the most important peace-promoting factors? “Non-warring values and norms,” says Souillac, “such as the Upper Xingu view that aggression is immoral or the Nordic valuing of consensus decision-making.” Overarching identities, such as American or European citizenship over loyalty to an individual state or nation, also ranked highly.
The 2021 article has already received over 4,800 visitors and coverage in popular media including Scientific American.
“The work frees us from old, confining narratives about an aggressive, conflict-driven human nature,” says Souillac. “People are excited by our findings about an inherent human capacity for cooperation, particularly as we face issues – climate change, migration, pandemics – related to global survival and justice.”