Giving Peace A Chance


The third Global Peace Index (GPI) was launched at the United Nations in New York and in London last week. It ranks the orientation of 144 countries to peace — understood as an absence of war and violence — by 23 criteria such as the size of defence budgets, access to small arms and light weapons, rates of imprisonment and homicide, level of organised crime and battlefield deaths. Specific criteria were assembled in three broad categories: ongoing domestic and international conflicts; measures of safety and security; and measures of militarisation.

The creation of the GPI is due to the vision and generosity of Steve Killelea, a significant but low-key Australian businessman-philanthropist. The report’s credibility owes much to Steve’s selection of internationally respected research staff, including New York City’s former chief economist. His Australian staff also work closely with the Economist Intelligence Unit, the research arm of the prestigious journal The Economist.

This year’s league table of peaceful nations ranks New Zealand first, Denmark second and Norway third. Australia ranked 19th, up from 27th in 2008, the USA 83rd, up from 97th in 2008. The bottom four in descending order were Israel, Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq. As with the interest of sporting clubs in their performance, individual nations in this league table are likely to focus on such rankings, but it is the other findings which are compelling. These show how significant peace is for a country’s economy and for the well-being of its citizens.

Qualities which contribute to the peacefulness of countries include functional governments, low levels of corruption, high participation rates in primary education, freedom of the press and good relations with neighbouring states. The social values which bolster such forms of governance include tolerance and an equitable distribution of a nation’s wealth through education and health services. The public in the peaceful nations reject the use of torture, see their country as respecting human rights and believe that women and men make equally good political leaders. Gender equality as measured by the percentage of women in a parliament is also a modest driver for peace.

Citizens’ rejection of violence, their support for the UN and their caution about the use of military force also indicate ways of supporting peace. The GPI study shows that the peaceful countries were more likely to want the elimination of all nuclear weapons, would only have supported military action in Iraq if it had been supported by the UN and would be more likely to disagree with the need to use military force to maintain order in the world.

Two particular facets of societies — firstly, the extent of nationalism and secondly, the close association of religion with politics — appear more likely to foster violence than peace. There is a lesson here for many countries, not least for the US. Nations where the public emphasises the special value of their own culture and morality tend to be classified as not peaceful. By contrast the public in the peace-oriented countries do not see their country as morally superior and are less likely to think that their way of life needs to be protected against foreign influence.

Attitudes to God and religion are also reported as likely to promote violence rather than peace. Where religion is intertwined with politics, where the state uses religion for its own ends, or where organised religion takes over the state, prospects for peace are seriously eroded. By contrast, nations are likely to be categorised as peaceful when citizens feel that politicians do not need to believe in God. They are also more likely to believe that good and evil are more contingent than absolute, and are more likely to believe that it is not necessary to believe in God to be moral.

An innovation in this year’s GPI statistical analysis concerns the economics of peace. This analysis has been made possible by Killelea’s encouragement of research at the University of Sydney on the impact of peace on economic growth. One of the principal conclusions of this investigation is that peaceful nations are better able to respond to economic crises due to the inherent qualities of peace. The peaceful, relatively affluent nations can also contribute to the peacefulness of poorer nations if overseas development assistance ensures that such funding facilitates structures for peace — like low corruption and high primary school enrolments.

This relationship between peace and economic prosperity has also been recently affirmed by the US Director of National Intelligence’s statement to the US Congress in February, in which he said that the greatest near-term security threat to the US came from instability caused by the global economic crisis rather than terrorism.

Researchers in the economics of peace, like Ben Goldsmith at the University of Sydney, question the use of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as the central measure of a nation’s success. Instead the report’s discussion paper emphasises other criteria to assess a country’s well being: levels of debt, the well-being or happiness of a nation, the gap between rich and poor, and whether a country’s natural resources are being depleted at an unsustainable rate.

There’s a built-in irony in the respect now being paid to such quality-of-life criteria. They affect GDP by improving economic performance. How refreshing it would be if nightly news bulletins included social as well as stock market criteria, indications of peacefulness rather than reports on the swinging fortunes of big companies.

The commentary on the Global Peace Index shows that activities which contribute to peace should be central to all deliberations about social, economic and foreign policies. Economic stimulus packages, for example, are more likely to be effective if they help to build the structures and values inherent in the most peace-oriented societies. Peace, it seems, is not only good for business, it’s a "pre-requisite for survival in the 21st century".

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.