Skip to main content

Giving Peace a Chance

The Perpetual Peace Project has thrust The SU Humanities Center--and the liberal arts--onto the world stage

Dec 12, 2013 — Article by: Rob Enslin

Photo of Gregg Lambert

Gregg Lambert

Although the Perpetual Peace Project (PPP)’s coming-out party was the 2010 Syracuse Symposium, Professor Gregg Lambert says the initiative can trace its roots to an event some 13 years earlier in South Africa.

The event in question was the commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the death of anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko. The speaker that day was 79-year-old Nelson Mandela, who deemed it time to “redress the legacy of oppression.”

“[It] will be achieved by each of us respecting ourselves … and respecting the humanity in each one of us,” he told a rapt audience in the coastal town of East London. “It means an attitude of mind and a way of life that appreciates the joy in the honest labor of creating a new society.”

Mandela would retire from active political life less than three months later, but not before his Biko speech went down in history. Many consider it one of the high-water marks of his presidency.

“Nelson Mandela believed that the idea of peace was not something abstract that belonged to the future,” says Lambert, founding director of The SU Humanities Center and Dean’s Professor of the Humanities. “He felt it was embodied in the actions of extraordinary people. Peace is what one does in the present—not what one hopes for in the future, since the future comes about only through our actions.”

No doubt one of those “extraordinary people” was Mandela, himself. Case in point: His now-famous Biko speech was the subject of PPP seminars at The University of Pennsylvania and SU in 2010. (At SU, the seminar was part of Syracuse Symposium's theme of “CONFLICT: Peace and War.”) Lambert selected the speech for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was its compelling evocation of the futility of war.

“We used this speech, along with those by President Obama, Martin Luther King Jr., and Mahatma Ghandi, to re-frame the idea of perpetual peace for the contemporary world,” Lambert says. “Students were asked to consider and develop their own perspectives, so that fresh understandings of peace and conflict were able to emerge.”

Since Mandela’s death on December 5, 2013, Lambert has been preoccupied with thoughts of Mandela, whose legacy exemplifies the core values of Immanuel Kant’s 1795 essay, "Perpetual Peace," from which PPP draws its name and inspiration.

“Although Kant and Mandela were separated by two centuries and thousands of miles, they understood the basic conditions for peace,” Lambert says. “They also knew that no one person or institution could lay claim to the concept of peace. To them, peace meant working together, to bring about a more humane society. And that’s what we attempt to do in PPP.”

A video still of Lambert and cultural theorist Taek-Gwang Lee at the North Korean border, 2012.

A video still of Lambert and cultural theorist Taek-Gwang Lee at the North Korean border, 2012.

PPP was established in 2008 by The SU Humanities Center, in conjunction with the Slought Foundation in Philadelphia; and the European Union National Institutes for Culture, based in Brussels (Belgium).

The project is the brainchild of Lambert. Along with Aaron Levy, founding executive director of Slought, and Martin Rauchbauer, then a diplomat in the Austrian embassy who has since taken over Deutsche Haus at New York University, Lambert has transformed PPP into a multi-lateral curatorial program.

“Our original intention was not to formulate public policy, but to conceptualize a peace movement, by raising questions about how such a movement might occur,” Lambert says. “Initially, we created initiatives that brought together theorists and practitioners to create what we hoped would become a common space for discussing peace and international law."

The result was a flurry of high-minded initiatives along the East Coast, including a documentary film and an art exhibition, both of which premiered at Manhattan’s New Museum of Contemporary Art; a daylong symposium at the International Peace Institute; and various academic workshops and seminars.

Lambert: “The Perpetual Peace Project was conceived as a response, from a humanities perspective, to current global events that has been mostly absent from legal and political discussions by experts and contemporary state actors. Kant’s overriding goal transcended short-term interests and quotidian conflicts—that by departing from a state of nature, as defined by wars and violence, and entering into a peaceful state of society, one went beyond mere security, in addressing the political possibilities of global society.”

In 2011, Lambert began offering programming that was more ambitious and mainstream. Witness The Eat Together for Peace initiative that he helped organize on campus last fall, followed by a two-day forum with the Dalai Lama. (His Holiness’ visit culminated with a marathon rock concert in the University’s Carrier Dome.) Lambert has been on an academic sabbatical for much of 2013-14, as evidenced by this fall's Visiting Distinguished Professorship in the Centre for the Humanities at Utrecht University (Netherlands). Currently, he is reeling from a successful PPP keynote address at The University of New South Wales (Australia). 

Lambert is particularly proud of his visiting professorship, which coincided with the 300th anniversary of the Treaty of Utrecht, a series of treaties signaling the rise of the British Empire. For the tri-centennial, he helped commission a collection of short films and critical essays, inspired by Kant’s six preliminary articles on perpetual peace among states. Among the contributors were SU professors William C. Banks and Louis Kriesberg.  

“The preliminary articles outline conditions [for peace] that must be established, prior to exploring any political structures that could guarantee a lasting or sustainable world peace,” Lambert says.

Three of the articles (i.e., Nos. 1, 5, and 6) address duplicitous treaties, interference with another state's constitution, and illegal warfare, respectively. They are considered prohibitive in their formulation. The other three (i.e., Nos. 2, 3, and 4) take on colonialism, standing armies, and the monetization of war, respectively. They, in turn, are regarded as provisional.

"The 'prohibitive' articles could be employed as legal sanctions, if there’s an agreement in how an international body could enforce them," Lambert says. "The other three are provisional, given the impossibility of their being realized in the context of 18th-century political practices.”

Kriesberg, an expert in social conflicts and conflict resolution, provides a contemporary commentary on Kant’s Third Article, which addresses the abolition of standing armies.

During a recent email exchange, the Maxwell Professor Emeritus explains how conflicts may be conducted without recourse to mass violence. “This includes a reliance on strategic nonviolent actions, interventions by international organizations in the form of peacekeeping forces, applications of mediation at various levels, and amelioration of conflict-generating conditions,” he writes.

Kriesberg cites a few of the many success stories: Costa Rica, which has not had a civil war since 1948, when it abolished its military forces; the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which supports the development of democratic civil societies and the protection of fundamental human rights; and Common Ground, an NGO that uses public dialogue, mass media, and community building to thwart destructive conflicts.

He holds out the possibility that, someday, individual standing armies will be replaced by a global peacekeeping force, evolving out of the United Nations’ operations.

“The U.N. could play a much greater role, were the U.S. to endorse and support more significant operations,” Kriesberg says. “A great change among the peoples of the world is needed, especially a change in their sense of identity. Americans, with the largest military establishment, by far, would have to model such changes. The structure of the U.N. then could and would be transformed.”

Steps to reduce and manage standing armies would also produce immediate benefits, he adds.

Banks is equally persuasive in his essay, which takes on the legalities of warfare, as outlined in Kant’s Sixth Article. An expert in national security law, Banks says that although foundational treaties and international agreements have remained substantially unchanged over the past decade, the laws of armed conflict have evolved through other means.

“Many states have enacted new laws or have reformed existing rules to better anticipate asymmetric warfare waged by non-state actors,” says Banks, professor of law and of public administration and public affairs, as well as director of the Institute for National Security and Counterterrorism. “State militaries have also revised operational law—the legal advice given by military lawyers to commanders in operational environments. The new actors have significantly stressed the conventional LOAC/IHL [Law of Armed Conflict/International Humanitarian Law] regime because the rules were written for state militaries, and only a little attention was paid to non-traditional fighters.”

Banks posits that nowhere are new humanitarian codes of conduct more sorely needed than in Western and Muslim-majority states. Because of their disparate heritage, these states differ in their methods and sources of legitimacy and authority. Banks thinks 21st-century reformers should abandon the tendency to reduce such states to static, monolithic constructs and, instead, should approach them as complex, dynamic, and pluralistic entities.

“Western and Muslim-majority states shoulder the pressing burden of publicly endorsing and then working to implement shared humanitarian codes of conduct during wartime that reflects the best of our shared traditions,” he concludes.

As Lambert prepares to return to campus, he shows no signs of slowing down. He is currently ramping up for a two-year histories of violence project, founded and directed by Brad Evans, senior lecturer in international studies at the University of Bristol (U.K.). Organized in part by PPP, the project examines the theoretical, aesthetic, and empirical dimensions of mass violence.

Lambert is also working with Rosi Braidotti, a leading philosopher and feminist theoretician, on an updated version of Kant’s essay, featuring contributions from PPP’s retinue of philosophers, sociologists, legal theorists, artists, and activists. Designs are also afoot to bring the aforementioned art exhibition, which has since traveled overseas, to SU.

As if that’s not enough, Lambert is knee-deep into his four-year term as a member of the International Advisory Board of the Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes and is preparing for a major summit at the Chicago Humanities Festival.

“At the beginning of ‘Perpetual Peace,’ Kant writes that the only peace humankind knows is the peace of the graveyard,” Lambert says. “His entire treatise—and, by extension, our work with the Perpetual Peace Project—is intended as a refutation of this sentiment, by proposing a political and legal framework for world citizenship and cosmopolitan rights. 'Peaceful' may not always mean 'friendly,' but by improving legal relationships between peoples, we can reduce the devastation and suffering caused by war.”

Contact Information

Rob Enslin