NNA News for civil society

Uncovering the roots of conflict: interview with peace researcher Prof. Friedrich Glasl

Tue, 22 Dec 2015 | By NNA chief correspondent Cornelie Unger-Leistner


Civil society activists demonstrate in London earlier this month against Britain extending its air strikes into Syria.
Photo: Dinendra Haria / Shutterstock.com

Peace building was a major topic at the conference and annual general meeting of the German Anthroposophical Society in Kassel earlier in the year. The speakers on the topic included the well-known conflict researcher and organisational consultant Prof. Friedrich Glasl from Salzburg. NNA took the opportunity for an interview with Prof. Glasl. Some of the references are to the Ukraine conflict which was in the news at the time of the interview. Although the conflict has meanwhile dropped out of the headlines it has not gone away, but the points made in that context in any case have a wider application and are just as relevant to the conflicts that dominate the news today.

KASSEL/SALZBURG (NNA) – NNA | Prof. Glasl, you spoke on the subject of peace building to the members of the Anthroposophical Society in Kassel – was there a particular reason for that?

Glasl | I was very pleased that the Society invited me to speak on this subject – I have spent my life studying it – because in the face of the increasingly threatening conflicts worldwide many people are currently asking the question: what can be done about them?

NNA | And what is your most important hypothesis in this regard?

Glasl | We can observe something very basic in all the present conflicts: they have a tendency to separate and polarise things which actually belong together. Thus the impression arises that irreconcilable antagonisms face one another. And such a view of polar opposites is supported by what we read in the media.

One example I spoke about in Kassel was the NATO exercise in eastern Europe. The Russian side immediately sees this as a provocation near its border, the NATO side argues with the threat from Russia to the eastern EU countries. Everyone is just reacting, the trigger is always the other one. Everyone blames the other one for the conflict. The question is whether we are willing to accept this way of looking at things.

NNA | What would be a different way of looking at things?

Glasl | This other way of looking at things arises in that we make ourselves aware: all conflicts are interactions between both sides. There is hardly a conflict in history which was caused by only one side.

The current polarising perception for example produces the impression that there is a trench between central, western and eastern Europe. But that is not true in that way. European culture belongs together, its value can only be understood if we accept the productive tension between the individual parts.

It is a fallback to old patterns if we assume that we here in the west represent democratic values and neo-Stalinism rules in the east. “There’s no point talking to him” is the result of such a perspective. Putin is represented as pathological and power-mad, we organise a G8 summit instead of G9, western politicans don’t go to Sochi and so on. Fortunately there were exceptions, the German chancellor for example going to Russia to attend the ceremonies commemorating the end of the Second World War. It was, after all, the Red Army which liberated a large part of Germany from the Nazi regime.

NNA | What are the dangers of such polarisation?

Glasl | The danger lies in dialogue breaking off. Because we live in a time today in which it is mainly professionally mediated dialogue which is increasingly needed.

NNA | What do you mean when you say professionally mediated dialogue?

Glasl | If, as in the Ukraine conflict, the EU governments and the Russian government have worked themselves into such an escalation through the use of their respective media, they are dependent on a third party offering its “good offices” to help them, such as for example Switzerland, the UN or the OSCE. This is a path which has been used for centuries. The Thirty Years’ War was brought to an end in this way, for example; a Venetian diplomat and the papal nuncio engaged in shuttle diplomacy between the parties to the conflict for five years, leading to the Peace of Wesphalia.

I know at first hand that the Swiss federal president, Didier Burkhalter, was very active behind the scenes in the Ukraine conflict as chairperson of the OSCE  and prevented a lot of bad things from happening. People in the EU should be glad when individuals take such initiatives so that talks can start again. The Austrian foreign minister, Sebastian Kurz, did that several times, as did the German chancellor. This approach has proved its worth many times – and it is lost when the EU turns into a block from which no country can deviate.

NNA | That all sounds very plausible and everyone should see its wisdom, but why then does such polarisation – and thus escalation – keep occurring?

Glasl | The question is who actually benefits from the escalation of conflicts. I am not making some cheap polemical point here, but there are many sources to prove it: NATO actually lost its raison d’etre with the break up of the Soviet Union and the process of rapprochment which followed. That was very bad for the arms industry. As soon as new enemy stereotypes arise, business starts flourishing again. After all, NATO is not just a political institution but the interests of the arms industry are also behind it.

It has also been pointed out by various people, for example the Swiss historian Daniele Ganser backed up with sources, how the American side deliberately stirred up matters in the Ukraine conflict (see also the interview with Ganser in der magazine Das  Goetheanum of 1 May 2015, p. 6–9).

NNA | It is quite noticeable how in recent times talk about assault weapons, drones and tanks has become part of the public discourse in Germany almost as a matter of course.

Glasl | I find that quite alarming as well, the extent to which the willingness for war has been articulated everywhere, at least in the rhetoric. The Western powers argued that we had to intervene on humanitarian grounds – for example in Libya, Afghanistan or Iraq – but that was only an excuse to violate territorial boundaries. If we look at the result today, the only thing that these interventions have done is to create chaos and strengthen militant movements enormously.

NNA | Which in turn requires the acquisition of more weapons in the fight against international terrorism, or the dismantlement of various democratic rights under the pretext of security. There are few voices speaking out against that – and here we should not forget either that in the EU the majority of governments currently have a neoliberal outlook. In other words, people elect representatives coming from this direction in times of crisis. How do you see this trend?

Glasl | We can say that there is currently a particular tension between progressive and regressive tendencies, that is the right wing populists in the West and the former Stalinists in Russia who are just rearing their heads again. Both here and there the old receipes are being dredged up from the past which have amply demonstrated their failings.

NNA | We started this interview with the concrete possibilities: what can the individual person do in your view?

Glasl | As civil society, we must not abandon the field to these forces.

Fortunately a majority of Germans, for example, emphasised in an opinion poll that Germany should not allow itself to be dragged into NATO military conflicts. Civil society has to make it voice heard more loudly! You can see the benefit in the protests against TTIP for example. That is an appeal to everyone in the sense of Stéphane Hessel’s call Time for Outrage. He has clearly stated as a former Resistance fighter that this is not the Europe which he fought to achieve in the battle against the Nazi regime – it was meant to be a Europe of peace, democracy, freedom and equality.

NNA | If military spending now plays such a big role again, does that not mean that the gap between rich and poor will keep growing? Because money spent on arms will not be available for investment in education, for instance? In view of the fact that social inequality is steadily increasing in almost all western countries, would that not be another devastating consequence of such conflicts?

Glasl | At the time of the Cold War we at least still had the social market economy which was concerned to balance out social differences at least to a certain extent. Now the neo-liberal concepts dominate everywhere and are accepted by politicians. These are not, after all, simply political concepts; behind them there stands precisely the military-industrial complex which we referred to earlier. That can easily be shown – we might quote the work of the Canadian journalist Naomi Klein for example: The Shock Doctrine. If civil society in Europe wants to set something against this development, it must not remain inactive, it must take matters in hand itself and become engaged.

NNA | Prof. Glasl – thank you very much for the interview.

 (The interview was conducted by NNA chief correspondent Cornelie Unger-Leistner via Skype)

END/nna/ung/cva

Item: 151222-02DE Date: 22 December 2015

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