The hope of peace and the permanence of wars



“Peace” turned out to be the greatest of human utopias

“It is good to remember that hope and prediction, although inseparable, are not the same thing [...] and every prediction about the real world has to rest on some kind of inference about the future from what happened in the past, that is , from history” (Hobsbawm, E. About the story, P. 67).

On July 30, 1932, Albert Einstein posted a letter in the small village of Caputh, near Potsdam, Germany, addressed to Sigmund Freud, dealing with the theme of “war and peace” between men and nations. In that letter, Einstein asked Freud how he would explain the permanence of wars, through the centuries and throughout human history, and also asked whether Freud considered it "possible to control the evolution of man's mind in such a way as to make it testable". of the psychoses of hatred and destructiveness”.[I]

From Vienna, Freud replied to Einstein that, from the point of view of his psychoanalytic theory, "there was no way of totally eliminating the aggressive impulses of man", although it was possible "to try to divert them to such a degree that they would not need to find its expression in war”.[ii]

But at the same time, in his “reply letter”, Freud posed another question, apparently unusual, addressed to Einstein and all other “men of good will”: “why do you, I and so many other people revolt so violently against war, even knowing that the instinct for destruction and death is inseparable from the human libido? And he hastened to reply, speaking to himself, “The main reason why we rebel against war is that we cannot do otherwise. We are pacifists because we are obliged to be so, for organic, basic reasons [...], we have a constitutional intolerance to war, let's say, an exacerbated idiosyncrasy to the highest degree”.[iii]

Everything indicates that Freud managed to correctly identify the ambiguity of the natural impulses of individuals that could be behind a collective history of humanity, marked by an endless succession of wars that succeed each other in an almost compulsive way, despite the fact that most of the human societies consider and defend “peace” as a universal value. But despite this, there is still no theory that has been able to explain how these wars gave rise to a succession of “international ethical orders” that lasted until the moment when they were destroyed or modified by new great wars, and so on, through the centuries. centuries. As happened with the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648), and with the signing of the Peace of Westphalia, in 1648, which gave rise to the system of European national states that later became universal and was being modified at the same time by the wars between the Europeans and then between Europeans and the “rest of the world”, in the XNUMXth, XNUMXth, XNUMXth and XNUMXst centuries.

This was the case, for example, of the Nine Years' War (1688-1697), involving the main European powers of the time, which culminated in the signing of the Treaty of Ryswick; or with the War of Spanish Succession (1701-1714), considered the first “global war”, which ended with the signing of the Treaty of Utrecht; or even the Seven Years' War, (1756-1763), which developed simultaneously in Europe, Africa, India, North America and the Philippines, and which ended with the signing of several peace treaties, which produced territorial changes in four continents .

And so on, with the Revolutionary Wars and the French Napoleonic Wars (1792-1815), which changed the political map of Europe and led to the Peace of Vienna, which was signed and was responsible for the creation of an extremely conservative “international order”. , almost religious, and very reactionary from the social point of view; or also, with the First World War and the Peace of Versailles, of 1919; and, finally, with the Second World War and the establishment of the Peace Accords of Yalta, Potsdam and San Francisco, of 1945, responsible for the birth of the so-called “liberal international order”, tutored by the United States, and contemporary with the Cold War in the North -Americans and their western allies, with the Soviet Union.

But the same did not happen after the end of the Cold War and the Gulf War of 1991, when no new major peace agreement was signed between the victors and the defeated, and the world entered a period of thirty years of almost continuous wars, mainly in the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia, involving the United States, Russia and all European NATO powers, which invaded or bombed at least 11 countries located in the three aforementioned regions. A period that was celebrated, in the early 90s, as the definitive victory of the liberal, cosmopolitan and peaceful order, advocated by the “Western powers”, but which turned into one of the most violent and destructive times in modern history.

And now again, already in the third decade of the 30st century, after the disastrous withdrawal of American and NATO troops from Afghanistan and Iraq, and their displacement to the Pacific and Indian Ocean region, with the aim of encircling and contain China, men ask themselves again – like Einstein and Freud, in the 1990s of the last century – if it is possible to dream of a lasting peace between nations or if humanity is just preparing for a new succession of wars between its nations. great powers. At this time, in order not to incur in frustrated expectations and hopes, as happened in the XNUMXs, the best thing that can be done, in the absence of any theory that can account for this endless succession of “wars” and “peaces”, is to resort to the very History and some of its lessons. To this end, we would highlight four great teachings from the past, which it is best not to forget again:

The first is that the aim of all wars has never been "peace for peace's sake"; was always the conquest of a “victory” that allowed the “winner” to impose his will on the defeated, along with their values, institutions and rules of behavior to be accepted and obeyed from the victory consecrated by the signing of “agreements” or “treaties of peace” that come to regulate the relations between winners and losers. However, what History also teaches is that the peace conquered through war and the submission of the defeated ends up becoming – almost invariably – the starting point and main motive of the new war of “revenge” of the defeated.

Exactly as predicted by the French diplomat Abbé de Saint Pierre, in his classic work of 1712, in which he first formulated the thesis[iv] which was taken up and defended by Hans Morghentau, on the “resentment of the defeated” as the main cause of new wars.[v] The two authors, sharing the conviction that every peace is always, and ultimately, just a “truce”, which can be more or less long, but which never interrupts the preparation for a new war, either on the part of the defeated, either by the victors.

The second is that "peace" is not synonymous with "order", nor is it a necessary condition of "order", even when "order" is a necessary condition of "peace". Consider the classic case of the Peace of Westphalia, which defined the foundations of a “European order” whose arbiter, in the last resort, was always war itself, or rather, the ability of some to wage war greater than others. . And now again, in the last thirty years, after the victory of the United States in the Cold War and in the Gulf War, when it conquered the unipolar command of the world, with exceptional conditions of exercise of its global power, without any type of contestation.

What was witnessed in practice, as we have already seen, was a new world order maintained through the exercise of continuous war, or an “endless war”, as the North Americans themselves called it. This confirms the idea that every “international order” requires hierarchies, norms and institutions, arbitrators and punishment protocols, but at the same time makes it clear that those who establish these norms and hierarchies, in the last instance, are the dominant powers themselves through their wars.

The third is that power needs to be permanently exercised in order to be recognized and obeyed. Therefore, in the interstate system created by the Europeans, the “dominant powers” ​​of each era need to be in permanent preparation for war, in order to be able to exercise and preserve their own power. At the international level, as Machiavelli would say, power needs to be feared more than loved, and it is feared for its capacity for destruction, much more than for its capacity for building or rebuilding peoples, countries or nations that have been punished and destroyed by their "disobedience" with regard to the will of the "powerful".

Furthermore, the power of the great powers needs to expand so that they can maintain – at least – the position they already have. The very logic of this “continuous expansion” ends up preventing the dominant powers from accepting the status quo that they installed themselves through their victories. With this objective in mind, the “great powers” ​​are obliged, many times, to destroy the “rules” and “institutions” that they themselves have created, provided that such rules and institutions threaten their needs and their process of expansion.

It has always been like this, but this trend has worsened in the last thirty years, after 1991, when the United States saw itself as the exclusive holder of global power within the international system. This corroborates our thesis that the hegemon he is the main destabilizer of the international system he leads, for the simple reason that he needs to change the system itself in order to maintain his pre-eminence or supremacy. A phenomenon that seems, at first glance, surprising and contradictory, but which has been repeated throughout history, and which we ourselves dubbed in another text the “hyperpower paradox”.[vi]

And the fourth, finally, is that despite the permanence of wars, the “search for peace” ended up consolidating itself, in recent centuries, as an increasingly universal utopia, and of almost all the peoples of the world. And that this utopia acquired a particular drama after the invention and use of atomic weapons in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, announcing the possibility of self-destruction of the universe of Homo sapiens. From that moment on, as Freud predicted, it is possible that this “desire for peace” acquired an even more instinctive and almost biological dimension of preservation and defense of the human species, against its own instinct or “death drive”.

And in this sense it can be said that “peace” ended up becoming the greatest of human utopias. At the same time, it is necessary to recognize that despite their destruction, the wars of the past often functioned, as we have seen, as a conscious or unconscious instrument of creation of the so-called “international morality” that was being woven by the “agreements” and “treaties of peace”, imposed by the “victorious ones” and later denied or reformed by the former “defeated ones”, in a continuous succession of new wars, new “peaces” and new “ethical conquests”.

This dialectical and necessary relationship between war and peace has always been very difficult to understand and accept, just as it is, or even more, difficult to understand and accept the existence of a death drive alongside the human libido itself. But the truth is that in history, as in the current situation of the international system, war and peace are inseparable and act together, as energetic sources of the same contradictory process of search and construction of a universal ethical order that is being woven little by little. , but which is always further ahead, as a utopia or great hope for the human species. [vii]

* Jose Luis Fiori Professor at the Graduate Program in International Political Economy at UFRJ. Author, among other books, of Global power and the new geopolitics of nations (Boitempo).


[I] Freud (1969, p. 205 and 207c).

[ii] Freud (1969, p. 217).

[iii] Freud (p. 218, 219 and 220).

[iv] Saint-Pierre, Abbé de. Project to perpetuate peace in Europe. Publisher UNB, São Paulo, 2003, p. 35.

[v] Morghentau, H. Politics among Nations. The struggle for power and peace. Boston: McGraw Hill, 1993, p. 65-66.

[vi] “The great theoretical problem lies in the discovery that the main crises of the world system were always provoked by the hegemonic power itself, which should have been its great peacemaker and stabilizer” (Fiori, JL Formation, expansion and limits of global power. In: _______ [ org.]. The American Power. Petrópolis: Editora Vozes, 2004, p. 15). Recently, the American political scientist Michael Beckley came to a similar conclusion in his article “Rogue Superpower. Why this could be an illiberal American Century", In Foreign Affairs, Nov-Dec. 2020 (

[vii] This article anticipates ideas and some passages from a new book by: Fiori, JL (Ed.). about peace. Editora Vozes, Petrópolis, 2021, which is in press and should reach bookstores in December.

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