Conflict is sometimes said to be the normal condition of human society; peace is the exception that requires explanation. Many of today’s conflicts are peculiarly resistant to efforts at resolution because a set of contradictory logics tilts the balance toward their perpetuation. For example, while most conflicts today are internal wars, almost all international modalities are designed for inter-state warfare.

Then there is the reality of increasing internationalization and globalization despite the persistence of competitive nationalisms. In Kashmir, the secular nationalism of India collides with the religious nationalism of Pakistan and the ethnic nationalism of Kashmiris.

To resolve a conflict, we must recognize that there are at least two parties, both with elements of right and wrong, and that there is a need for flexibility and pragmatism that permits compromise and accommodation. National or religious zealotry fights against any of this.

The logic of the past and future can be at war. If they are to enjoy peaceful coexistence, communities need to jettison their historical hatreds. But competing myths are important for the social construction of political identity, and therefore history is fiercely contested terrain. How can one be a Jew today without internalizing the collective consciousness of the Holocaust? Palestinian refugees view efforts to refuse them the right to repatriation as an attempt to deny their collective history and identity.

The logic of power is inconsistent with that of justice. Peace in the Middle East or on the Indian subcontinent cannot be grasped without bending to the military superiority of Israel and India. But no peace agreement will last if it is fundamentally unjust, resting on the temporary inability of the territorially revisionist Palestinians and Kashmiris to challenge the entrenched — but ultimately transient — might of status quo powers.

The logic of negotiation tends to be contradictory. The stronger see no reason to compromise. Israeli voters put the security of the in-group above justice for the out-group. The weaker fear that negotiations, if not delayed until parity or superiority has been attained, will force them into humiliating sellouts of their cause. The Palestinians felt that the offer at Camp David was made on the assumption of their military weakness: They seek justice in full, not the crumbs of charity. But what of historically informed justice for Jews?

Another problem lies in the contradictory logic of peace and justice. Peace is forward-looking, problem-solving and integrative, requiring reconciliation between past enemies within an all-inclusive community. Justice is backward-looking, finger-pointing and retributive, requiring trial and punishment of the perpetrators of past crimes.

But the pursuit of human-rights violators can delay and impede the effort to establish conditions of security so that displaced people can return home and live in relative peace once again. The tension must be reconciled on a case-by-case basis rather than according to a rigid formula. And it is best resolved by the countries concerned, whether in Chile, South Africa or Northern Ireland, not by outsiders. Europeans in particular must resist the temptation to embark on a new wave of judicial colonialism.

The democratic-peace thesis holds that democracies do not go to war against one another and that part of the reason for this lies in the beneficial impact of open public debate and lack of public support for waging war against other democracies. Yet, empirically, some of the oldest and most prominent democracies are among the most involved in warfare, if against nondemocracies.

Leaders who might be inclined to negotiate peace can be held back by fear of electoral consequences or of being destroyed for their daring. The fate of Ehud Barak of Israel is instructive. He offered more to the Palestinians than was conceivable even a year ago. Ariel Sharon went to the Temple Mount in September and provoked a Palestinian uprising, the downfall of Barak and his own election as prime minister. Would an elected leader of India or Pakistan dare to make concessions to the enemy when political rivals are waiting in the wings to ridicule and exploit any “sellout”?

The moment when opportunities arrive for making peace may not be the most propitious for forging a consensus to make the necessary decisions and compromises. Human history is full of missed opportunities. But there may be good political reasons why these opportunities could not be grasped at their most favorable time. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat missed his moment at Camp David last July: He simply could not have sold that package to the Palestinian people and his fellow Arabs at that time.

For the first time in 50 years, India is showing signs of a willingness to engage in a peace process in Kashmir. But the political, economic and religious mix in Pakistan remain inauspicious for achieving liftoff.

The final contradiction is between war as the historical method of settling conflicts and its contemporary illegitimacy. The logic of force is essentially escalatory. It is difficult to impress upon nationalist-born passions the enormous disparity between the ends sought, the means used and the price paid. A good example of the gap between goals, means and results is Milosevic’s decade-long quest to create a Greater Serbia.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.