I have just finished reading an important book by Gabrielle Rifkind and Giandomenico Picco called The Fog of Peace: The human face of conflict resolution. It is of course a riff on Robert McNamara’s documentary: The Fog of War: Eleven lessons from the Life of Robert S McNamara, in which he talks about how the US failed in Vietnam because they did not understand the culture and history of the Vietnamese people. 

The book seeks to demonstrate how foggy and complex the art of making peace can be; without empathy each side cannot understand the other and therefore falls back on stereotypes and feelings of superiority that stand in the way of relationships developing that can end conflict and build peace. 

This quote from the introduction chimes so closely with my own view of foreign policy, formed after working in and around issues of foreign and security policy since the late 1990s. What I have seen is a game of chess played by clever men in capital cities around the world, based on their own logic which is highly partial and limited, and with little real appreciation for the lived realities of the impacts of their decisions and therefore an often careless and smug approach to understand the interests of the different parties around the table. Having been through the trauma of having a family member kidnapped – and now spending my days supporting other families through that – you get an altogether different and more realistic understanding of what conflict is. It looks and feels different when it is in your own living room. 

So here is the quote:

“Politics and international conflict are usually examined through the lens of realpolitik, which is primarily about power involving ‘the rational evalution and realistic assessment of the options available to one’s own group and to an opposing one’. The chess games of power relationships are dominated by the desires of elite groups to shape the world according to their own best interests, which operate in the world of economic and military calculations, strategic options and political alliances and alignments. But it is the belief of the authors that conflict is most likely to be resolved when you also place the geopolitical complexity in a bed of human relationships. Suffering humiliation and powerlessness are the conditions in which groups are more likely to resort to violence. Respect, treating people with dignity and inclusive politics that give groups and communities access to resources and influence over their lives are more likely to induce behaviour that is not destructive. We are most likely to understand more about the smell of politics and human behaviour if we start at the kitchen table.”

They go onto quote Hans Blix who says that peaceful relations between states ‘can and must be practiced both at the conference table and the kitchen table’.

They argue that human motivation and psychology need to be part of strategic decision making because it is man who both makes wars and makes peace, so you must understand what drives him to make one decision or the other. It is just as likely to be emotional as ‘rationale’. 

There are some lovely quotes about the importance of putting yourself into the shoes of the ‘other’:

“If we had been born where they had been born, and taught what they were taught, we would believe what they believe” Abraham Lincoln

“We must put ourselves inside their skin and look at ourselves through their eyes, just to understand the thoughts that lie behind their decisions and their actions” Robert McNamara

And finally, an important quote that somehow seems to offer the backdrop to my professional career, which has been dominated by the war on terror:

“The shadow of the ‘enemy’ seemed to be omnipresent, as if humankind could not exist without it. I then realized it is not humankind that cannot exist without it but only leaders who cannot lead without and enemy.”

I cannot recommend this book highl enough.