Peace, governance, and civilization: Reflections on the Paris Peace Forum

During the course of my life, I’ve become increasingly interested in peace. How is it made? How is it maintained? How is it destroyed?

From a young age, I was deeply influenced by my father’s interest in history and the Remembrance Day (November 11th) events by the Canadian Legion. However, despite many earnest attempts to instill in me a sense of the magnitude and meaning of the World Wars, they remained far removed from my everyday thoughts. They were distant, nebulous, and dramatic events with a larger-than-life cast of characters that made them seem more myth than history.

Gradually, over the intervening years, I’ve garnered a sober and deep sense of the magnitude of human folly during the World Wars and throughout the rest of history. My understanding grew slowly thanks to conversations, movies, and many books. Thanks to all of the patient friends who’ve helped me walk this path.

Recently, the arc of my life brought me to the Paris Peace Forum. One hundred years after the Armistice of World War I (November 11th, 1918), President Macron of France brought together dozens of heads of state and hundreds of governance thinkers and practitioners with the purpose of figuring out how the world can create and maintain peace.

Being lucky enough to attend, I feel an obligation to provide everyone else a glimpse of what insight I have gleaned from attending the Forum.

Here goes.

There are no simple solutions to “the world’s problems”. In fact, there are no simple problems either. All of the simple problems have already been solved. If a problem looks simple to solve today, it’s because there are other factors at play, including clashing beliefs or the fundamentals of limited money, time, and attention. In my experience, if anyone has a neat and tidy narrative about a problem and how it can be solved, they’re typically missing entire categories of systems or actors that relate to that problem. If we seek to understand our world and act effectively within it, I think we must beware tidy narratives. We must stress-test the stories we’re told by subjecting them to scrutiny by the smartest, best-informed people we know.

Most governance challenges may seem surprisingly mundane. How do we get food and water to those that need them? How do we remove the barriers that prevent the impoverished from being able to help themselves? How do we end the use of torture by governments? How do we tax large corporations? How do we foster interfaith dialog?

I think that this apparent mundanity is an illusion. In today’s world, governance both sets the rules for how a society operates and acts directly (and often powerfully) to shape outcomes. Getting the details right means that people can thrive; getting them wrong leads to suffering and conflict.

Nothing happens in isolation, so every success or failure of governance can have reverberating effects across the society and the world. Modern governance must embrace this complexity to succeed, which often means making compromises. Ideologues on all sides of politics either miss or dismiss this point. Again, there are no simple solutions, but there is a powerful undercurrent in human tendencies that draws us toward simple narratives. If we hope to help our societies thrive, each of us should do our very best to understand multiple theories and perspectives on society and how it works.

This vision of governance may be unsatisfying at first glance. I think we all have a strong tendency to like simple questions, simple answers, and systems that we can fully understand. We like to feel like we know the game that we’re playing.

But I think we can go much further than simply accepting this discomfort. Pondering the vast scope of governance can elicit satisfaction, hope, respect, and even awe. Functioning governance is perhaps humanity’s greatest invention. It’s a work of stunning complexity that has evolved over centuries to solve problems as complex as we are. When you add up all of the mundane pieces of modern governance and the systems that they govern, you get something beautiful, powerful, and precious: civilization.

If you’re reading this, it’s highly likely that you live in a country where you have opportunities to contribute to and change the governance of your society. Like me, you thus have some power to shape the evolution of governance. I believe that this power also implies that we have a responsibility to conscientiously engage if we can. We’re all players in a game whose rules we can change.

But where to focus our efforts? Some ideologies ask us to pay attention only to people who are like us or local to us. Some people see the world as a battle where only the highly motivated warriors of good can hold back the darkness – and the darkness will always be there. In essence, they believe that there are good people and bad people, and that the good must marshall all of their strength to fight back the encroaching influence (or movement) of the bad.

In today’s world, I think that this narrative is almost entirely misleading and misguided. I think that the challenge of our time is not about holding back the darkness, it’s about casting the light we have found to every soul. Given the chance, most people would be a force for good in this world. Our challenge is to ensure that everyone in the world gets that chance. It’s not just about minding your own house, it’s about engaging with the rest of the world with integrity.1 The “light” I refer to is that of modern governance and open, civilized society. Over the last several decades we’ve accumulated a lot of evidence that humanity is succeeding at building effective societies – despite huge setbacks and risks. There is much cause for hope, but much work still to be done.

All of this brings me to the core of my intent. Given all that I know and all that I think is possible, what do I aspire to accomplish?

I want to see how far humanity can go. How good of a world can we build for ourselves? What are the possibilities for human flourishing on this planet and beyond? My hope begins with the realization that open, modern societies today allow and foster human thriving that is beautiful, inspiring, and precious. If systems can be built (or modified) that allow and foster such thriving across of all of humanity, we will have achieved a worthy goal.

For those of you who are inclined to look further into the future to anchor your hope, I invite you to meditate on this thought:

Everything that is not forbidden by laws of nature is achievable, given the right knowledge. – David Deutsch

Soon, I hope to explore in more detail where this thought takes me personally. For now though, I think it’s worth noting that humanity is on a path towards tremendous knowledge and power. If we can avoid the dangers posed by nature and ourselves, I think that we will (gradually) shape our corner of the universe to our desires. What I wonder about is what those desires will be, how they will change, and how we ourselves will be remade in their achievement.


Extra notes:

Notable public speeches related to the Forum:

  1. Emmanuel Macron’s Armistice Day Speech at the Arc de Triomphe
  2. Angela Merkel’s speech opening the Paris Peace Forum
  3. Transcript of António Guterres speech at the Paris Peace Forum
  1. Here, I agree with the sentiment expressed by Macron in his Armistice Day Speech (English version) in which he argues that nationalism is a betrayal of the values that a nation holds dear. At least for the case of France and most (if not all) advanced nations, I think that this is very true. The prevailing cultures in these places are generous, open-minded, and enlightened. Turning inwards and ignoring the plight of the world would be a betrayal of those deeply held values. It might be very difficult to meaningfully engage with the world while retaining one’s integrity, but I think that it is what we must aspire to do. []

Ben Harack

I'm an aspiring omnologist who is fascinated by humanity's potential.

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