Professor Daniel Philpott is a leading theorist of global politics and religion at the University of Notre Dame’s Department of Political Science and Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. He is the author of the forthcoming Just and Unjust Peace: An Ethic of Political Reconciliation, which proposes a comprehensive conceptual framework for peacebuilding in the wake of conflict.
This interview was conducted in conjunction with the SSRC’s project on Religion and International Affairs.—ed.
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NS: I am struck by how you describe your model of reconciliation as more “holistic” than the prevailing “liberal peace” approach to post-conflict situations. What do you mean by holistic?
DP: You have to understand what the liberal peace approach is in order to understand why mine is more holistic. It is the approach that dominates the discourses of human rights and international law, as well as the thinking of the U.N., the International Criminal Court, and most Western governments. The key commitment is the establishment of institutions based upon the rule of law, human rights, democracy, free markets, and punishment. These are good things. Human rights are essential to my own approach. And, while some argue that punishment is inimical to reconciliation, I think there is a legitimate role for it. I accept the central commitments of the liberal peace framework, but I think that a broader, more encompassing approach is needed for bringing about justice in the wake of war, genocide, and dictatorship.
NS: So how is reconciliation different?
DP: The liberal peace is a way of thinking about justice largely rooted in the Enlightenment, stressing individual freedom and law. But there’s a different way of thinking about justice, a way that can be retrieved from religious traditions. I look particularly at Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, although one can find it in other traditions as well. They tend to think about justice in terms of what I call “comprehensive right relationships.” Restoring these relationships requires a holistic, transformative process that consists of a wide range of practices. For instance, forgiveness is something that you don’t see very much in the liberal peace. It is often thought to be opposed to justice, but I think it can be seen as part of the justice of reconciliation. In other practices as well, such as punishment, apology, or reparations, the goal should be not just a legalistic righting of a balance, but a transformation in the emotions and judgments of citizens.
NS: Why has this kind of model not been articulated in the past?
DP: For much of Christian history, reconciliation and forgiveness were thought to be things confined to interpersonal relationships and families. They were relegated to the confession booth and were not understood to have broad social significance. Interestingly enough, in the 20th century there were theological developments on the part of Christians, Jews, and Muslims that sought to expand these ideas to the level of societies. My book picks up on this.
NS: Part of this expansion has been the growing popularity of restorative justice in the context of courts and prisons. You’re proposing that it ought to be brought a step further, into state-level politics. Can you summarize briefly what restorative justice represents?
DP: First of all, it’s a way of looking at crime. Crime means more than breaking an abstract law, although that’s an important part of it. Crime does harm to a variety of persons and relationships: the victims, the community’s shared moral standards, and also the perpetrators. As a result, addressing crime involves not just righting a balance or paying a debt, but addressing this whole range of harms. You need a set of practices that can redress and heal all those wounds.
NS: To what extent does this, as well as your general approach to reconciliation, depend on the Abrahamic faiths? Does it lose its force when translated into secular language?
DP: The core ideas, I believe, are expressible in secular language. The same is true for just war theory. Augustine was centrally concerned with whether killing a person could be compatible with the love of Christ; yet, over time, the core commitments of his ideas on just war have come to be expressed in secular terms. It’s very important that they did so, since the human rights community, the international law community, and the U.N. all have a very secular mindset. On the one hand, I would like the liberal peace community to be more open to bringing religious rationales and religious voices into the conversation. But on the other, religious people should do their part by learning how to express their values in both religious and secular vocabularies.
NS: There’s a lot of diversity within and among Abrahamic faiths. How much is common in how they understand reconciliation? What kind of challenges do the differences present?
DP: My interpretation of reconciliation is going to be contested by people within each of the faith traditions. I am trying to work with certain strands and certain core commitments in these traditions, but inevitably I’m developing it in ways that some will not agree with. I do believe that the core propositions of the traditions are capable of commanding an overlapping consensus, but not everybody is necessarily going to join it. So you do what you do whenever you have disagreement: you enter an argument. In the Christian tradition, there are certain theological strands that tend to be much more favorable to reconciliation. Some of the ideas coming out of Calvinism, for instance, are less favorable to it. But the notion of restoring right relationships was much more prevalent in the early church of the first three centuries.
NS: Have you seen this approach at work on the ground?
DP: I flesh out the ethic of reconciliation in terms of six practices: building social institutions, acknowledgment, reparations, punishment, apology, and forgiveness. All six of these have been tried extensively in the many societies that have sought to deal with their pasts in recent generations. These aren’t just pie-in-the-sky proposals; all of them have been enacted. They have achieved important successes, but there have also been shortcomings. That’s basically what we’d expect from any ethic. Human rights have won some victories, for example, but the world is still far short of enjoying universal human rights. In a given situation, the ethic of reconciliation will work to some degree but then fail to some degree as well.
NS: Where in recent history have these practices been successful?
DP: South Africa, Guatemala, and Chile have demonstrated them in inspiring ways, and they are a lot better off for having done so. You could also look at the case of Germany. One hesitates to say that Germany is a model of anything, given the degree of evil that the Nazis’ injustices involved. And certainly the response to those injustices afterward was compromised or inadequate in some respects. But over 60 years or so, Germany has been a model of a country that has practiced many different dimensions of reconciliation with meaningful results. This shows in the close relationships that it now has with Poland and France, as well as with Israel. Such peaceful foreign relations are very much a result of devoting decades to practices of reconciliation. Japan, in contrast, has much more tense relationships with China and Korea, and it has been far less committed to practices of reconciliation. The differences can partly be attributed to that.
NS: The case of Iraq comes to mind; we all remember the image of Saddam Hussein in a noose. What was done right, do you think, and what was done wrong?
DP: The United States has generally followed the liberal model, though we haven’t done so in conjunction with the kind of institutions that embody it, like the U.N. We’re trying to build democratic institutions. There’s also a strong emphasis on punishment—you saw that with the trial and hanging of Saddam. And we’ve used a punitive practice known as vetting, which means removing members of the former regime from the new bureaucracy. Punishment, building democratic institutions, and vetting are all standard liberal peace practices. From the perspective of my ethic, though, it really falls short. We haven’t made a priority of acknowledging victims—whether through a truth commission, or memorials, or remembrance efforts. There has been very little in the way of reparations for victims of either Saddam’s regime or the war. There haven’t been practices of apology and forgiveness. The hanging of Saddam was exactly the opposite of restorative. It did what you might expect it to do, which was to enflame sectarian tensions all across the Middle East.
NS: There have also been efforts to put the spotlight on the last Bush administration for war crimes. Do you think, as the current administration suggests, that this would be an unnecessarily divisive procedure? What does one do when caught between principles and realism?
DP: Powerful people have the ability to, and will, obstruct these practices to various degrees. A prominent debate often carried out in International Criminal Court circles concerns whether you should try to prosecute the powerful. Sometimes prosecuting them will produce a backlash that will only prolong a crisis, as in Sudan. Or you might need the powerful to help sign an agreement. In Uganda, for instance, they’ve indicted Joseph Kony. But because he’s indicted, he won’t come to the negotiating table, so there can’t be a comprehensive peace agreement. Meanwhile, a terribly bloody war continues, involving rape and the induction of child soldiers. Part of what I’m trying to do in my book is to address these kinds of dilemmas. As for George W. Bush, I do not think we should investigate the misdeeds of his administration. It would set a precedent of partisan vendettas whenever a president of one party is succeeded by one from another. The victim would be the rule of law in the United States.
NS: Just war theory, too, is an approach to conflict for a fallen world. What can really be expected from such a framework?
DP: When we reason about justice, whether it is the justice of war or of reconciliation, we’re providing a set of moral standards. We know that they’re going to be violated. But I still think it is important to articulate them. For instance, in courts of law, if we’re trying to decide whether something is a war crime, we need some standards to know what that means. Even if moral standards aren’t always respected, people need to be able to make moral claims against violators. The ethic of reconciliation and just war theory provide a proscription for what just action ought to look like. Military academies in the United States take just war theory very seriously. This is what they teach their soldiers: no, you can’t kill civilians; no, you can’t wage aggressive war. The standards are really tough, and people are expected to conduct themselves in that way. It’s also ensconced in international law. My dream is that the ethic of reconciliation will have a similar status, providing a cookbook for how to approach certain problems, even if, at times, it is going to wind up being compromised.