Is Peace Possible? A Dialogue with Johan Galtung on Ukraine, Trump, Putin, Gandhi, and…

Dr. Gary Corseri

is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment. He has published and posted articles, fiction and poems at hundreds of venues, including, TMS, The New York Times, Village Voice, Redbook Magazine and Counterpunch. 

He has published 2 novels and 2 collections of poetry, and his dramas have been produced on PBS-Atlanta and elsewhere.  He has performed his poems at the Carter Presidential Library and Museum and has taught in universities in the US and Japan, and in US public schools and prisons. 

“Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.”
— From “The Sermon on the Mount”


Interviewer’s Note: A man who has published more than 150 books and 1500 articles on peace and related issues; the founder of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment.; a man who has worked as a mediator with the U.N. and with various nations in conflict around the world, should need no little introduction… but I will recommend previewing the bio-data at Wikipedia and then beginning to sort through Johan Galtung’s omnibus of articles, plays, books.

Prof Johan Galtung

Briefly, extracted from Wikipedia, etc.: Born in Oslo, Norway in 1930, Galtung first served as a professor at the University of Oslo, and subsequently at various universities around the world. He is known for his contributions to sociology, political science, economics, history, anthropology and theology. “He has developed several influential theories, such as the distinction between positive and negative peace, structural violence, theories on conflict and conflict resolution, the concept of peace-building…” Frequently nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize [which he should have received long ago!], he was awarded the international ‘Right Livelihood Award’ in 1987.—G.C.


Gary Corseri: I’m here in the Washington, D.C. area, with Johan Galtung–master teacher, and originator, since 1959, of “Peace Studies” programs at universities around the world….

Johan-sensei–When my wife and I met your wife and you, informally, for lunch a week ago, we discussed doing an interview. And you sent me some ideas about your current interests, including, the crisis in Ukraine, which seemed of paramount concern to you just now. So, we’ll start with Ukraine today, but, knowing you a little, being a little familiar with the treasure trove of your work, I’m certain that our talk will ramify and develop its own course…. But, first: “Why do you want to talk about Ukraine?

Johan Galtung: I’m working on it! I’ve been in Skype contact with the parties—the enemies!–… and there are many! It’s a complex crisis. Moreover, both Russia and the United States are involved. They’re both former super-powers, and there is in Ukraine the possibility of another major war… which might soon become a nuclear war. Also, I focus on Ukraine now because it is closer to the area where I used to live—in Spain…. And, because the dangers seem to be more imminent.

Gary Corseri: Yes, I learned just last night, scanning the news: this is the 3-year anniversary of the Maidan protests. So, it’s topical.

And, of course, for the purpose of this interview, I’d be remiss if I did not get your reaction to the US presidential election…. And the results figure into Ukraine…. Because, Donald Trump made a big issue of working with Putin. Do you believe him, do you believe that possibility?

Johan Galtung: I think there is a big difference in the campaigner Donald Trump, with his horrible remarks, and all his prejudices, and the President-Elect—who announces himself as the President for all Americans! While we are focusing on Ukraine…, I was particularly interested in a statement made by a member of the Trump team about the 200-year relationship between Russia and the United States: the point was made that Russia supported what became the United States, against the French and the English empires. And that was Tsar Alexander I! So, from the beginning of the American War of Independence in Concord, up to the end of it in 1812….

Gary Corseri: Excuse me…., you’re conflating the… what we call the “American Revolution”… with the “War of 1812”?

Johan Galtung: Yes…. It was all part of a “long stretch” of history. I’ll note here that to the British, the “Redcoats,” your “War of Independence” was a terrorist war! And the terrorists won!

Gary Corseri: Right! I don’t think most Americans would frame it that way…, but I think it’s important to reflect on that….

Johan Galtung: Now, that first century of cooperation with Russia continued up until 1917—the Bolshevik Revolution. And the 2nd century has been very far from the first…. Now, in the Putin-Trump working model, there is a clear intent to turn back the clock to the earlier kind of cooperation.

It helps to have a long time-perspective! This is the first time in my life that I have heard of a President-Elect, or a President, having an historical perspective! I didn’t find it in Clinton, or the Bushes, or in Reagan…. I didn’t find it in general. Not even in F.D.R.! That means that Trump is breaking a taboo—the anti-intellectualism of the U.S.; because, in order to have a perspective of 2 centuries, he needs a little help from some intellectuals who have that knowledge! On the other hand, Putin doesn’t have that problem. He is surrounded by intellectuals, and can confer with them as much as he wants. So, I expect these two men to cooperate. And they have announced that the first area of cooperation will be—not Ukraine, but Syria….

Gary Corseri: As difficult as Syria is, as thorny and horrible, it may be easier to deal with than Ukraine?

Johan Galtung: Well, they are both very complicated, but Syria is the more immediate concern now. And, you see, Putin has an 8-point plan for Ukraine…. It is known all over the world. They can work with that. It’s based on “Federation”; that is, if you have a State with 2 nations that hate each other, you can keep the State, but make it a federation! (Russia, itself, is a federation of something like 190 “nations”!) Putin says, if you don’t like the word, “federation,” call it “decentralization”! I expect Trump and Putin to cooperate about Ukraine on that basis.

Gary Corseri: For me, Putin’s plan seems to incorporate a lot of Galtung’s thinking: Find mutual interest…. Something I gained from reading about you—basic info on Google, and articles that can be downloaded, and, of course, your weekly columns at the TMS (Transcend Media Service site)–… the idea of the “buffer state.” My wife, also reading about you [in Japanese] told me about your work with Peru and Ecuador: they had this border clash, this crisis, and you came along and said, Let’s make this neutral territory, turn part of it into an international park, administered by both countries, share in the profits from resources carefully (in terms of the environmental impact) extracted… and all can profit from it. And, I believe it was a Peruvian leader who said: It will take 9 years to work this out, and—

Johan Galtung: It was an Ecuadorian who said it would take 30 years to get used to the idea, and then 30 years to implement it! But, we reached an Agreement after just 3 years, and began to implement it 3 years later!

Gary Corseri: And now it’s a peaceful border…. So, we can be somewhat optimistic about Putin and Trump working together, embracing new kinds of ideas, creating mutual benefits.

Johan Galtung: I must say that I’m more optimistic about Mr. Putin than about Mr. Trump. Some of his bad, old habits—from the campaign of Trump–, mainly, to be angry and react thoughtlessly to any kind of criticism– seem to have surfaced again. I hope he will be wisely advised….

Now, let us return to Ukraine…. There is, in fact, no country in the world for which the “name” of the country expresses the nature of its problems! For example, if you say, “Deutschland,” you mean the land of the Germans. “Norway” means “the way to the north!” But, “Ukraine” in Russian means, “At the border!”

[Here, JG pronounces the name in Russian.]

…. So, imagine: for centuries Catholic Europe is pushing Eastward; one country after another falls to the Crusaders, or the invaders, but that all ends “at the border,” at Ukraine. From 395, with the break-up of the Roman Empire, Ukraine is mostly Greek Orthodox! And, it has been divided all these centuries, invaded repeatedly by the West.

Gary Corseri: And, that’s true now! An article by John J. Mearsheimer [“Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault,” Foreign Affairs, 2014] describes the work of the N.E.D. [National Endownment for Democracy], spending some $5 billion between 1991 and 2013, funding “more than 60 projects aimed at promoting civil society in Ukraine.” Of course, “civil society” is just another misnomer or euphemism for Western values! When Russian leaders look at the chaos of the US-supported and largely-funded “Orange Revolution,” they do not see “civil society” so much as “social engineering.” And that is “engineering” aimed at Russia itself! It’s the spreading of surface “Western values”—the memes and myths, but not the realities of exploitation and militarism; extremes of wealth, power and poverty.

Johan Galtung: So…, what to do? We have a “nation” divided by religion, and language….

Gary Corseri: And, ethnicities….

Johan Galtung: Basically, you have 2-nations-in-one. So, how can you elect a president from one of those “nations” and not expect conflict?

Gary Corseri: And the answer is?

Johan Galtung: Well, they could learn from the Swiss! Switzerland is basically 4-nations-in-one. Their “presidency” rotates among their different ethnic and language groups. The President’s Cabinet represents the different groups within the State: there are 3 German-speaking members; 2 French; 1 Italian; 1 Rhaeto-Romansh.

Gary Corseri: Rhaeto-Romansh?

Johan Galtung: Yes. Or, Ladino–they often call it that… It’s a special Swiss group—not connected with the nation of Romania…. The point is, the Ukrainians could do something similar in a federation of their own.

Gary Corseri: A rotating presidency and proportional representation in the Cabinet. And both “nations” are recognized within the federation. One “nation” is not trying to force its language on the other!

Johan Galtung: The language issue is extremely important—

Gary Corseri: To be “educated” in Europe is to be at least bi-lingual. For me, the rebellion of the Russophone part of Ukraine is quite understandable. Resentments have been brewing for generations. We’re in a nascent stage of such conflicts in the US…with our growing Hispanic populations, especially in California and Florida. And the Anglophones and the Spanish speakers don’t know how to encounter each other; and both groups resent any sense of “special treatment,” or “favoritism” or impositions from a distant central government…. You have written about the importance of language in fostering “cultural violence.”

Johan Galtung: It’s one of the key factors. You see, for “mediation,” you have to listen to all the parties…without criticism. And you ask, “What does Ukraine—or any other State—look like if your goals, your ideals are realized?” And then people explain their visions, they look forward.

Gary Corseri: And you have written about “sychrony.” It’s kind of “Eastern”: time periods interacting—future, past, present. As opposed to “diachrony.” That’s what we have now! We’re diachronous, situated in a particular space-time. But, you’re saying, imagine and visualize the future. And, interact with that idea of it.

Johan Galtung: Yes, but not a long “causal flow.” Gandhi spoke about the “unity of means and ends.” We cannot do terrible things to achieve wonderful results! And we can’t project way into the future, hoping that “expedient,” but immoral, measures now will turn out fine then!

Gary Corseri: “Unity of means and ends.” I wrote that one down, from your paper on “Cultural Violence.” [Journal of Peace Research, Vol. 27, No. 3 (Aug., 1990)]. Gandhi was speaking about 2 things: the “unity of life” and the “unity of means and ends.” And you wrote: “No life… particularly no human life, can be used as a means to an end. If the end is livelihood, then the means has to be life-enhancing. But how do we understand ‘unity’? A reasonable interpretation… would be in terms of closeness, against separation. All forms of life, particularly human life, should enjoy closeness and not be kept apart by steep Self-Other gradients that drive wedges in social space.”

Johan Galtung: You must listen to all parties without criticism. After they have expressed their ideals, you ask if their ideas are legitimate. You ask about their “historical perspective.” Then, you are probing “deep culture,” deep understanding.

Gary Corseri: Aldous Huxley quoted Blake about “cleansing the doors of perception.”

Johan Galtung: If “contracts” have been made between parties, one party cannot just “walk out.” We must be very clear about that.

Gary Corseri: That’s the importance of “historical perspective,” seeing how compromises, resolutions were made in the past. That’s the importance of language, too—being sure the other party is understanding us in their language, not just ours!

Johan Galtung: …And all the time working towards a more inclusive future…. Bridging legitimate goals will take creativity! So, Gary, you quoted Gandhi on unity…. Gandhi was a genius. Another genius of the 20th Century was Einstein. Do you know what Einstein said about “unity”?

Gary Corseri (shrugging): All I can think of is E=MC2.

Johan Galtung (smiling): Einstein spoke about the “unity of space-time.” I am trying to understand different kinds of unity; and encourage others to think in terms of greater unity!

Gary Corseri: You’ve taught me a lot in this short interview. I hope this little introduction to your work will encourage others to dig deeper, to understand more. So, one last question: How do we apply your thinking of the past half century and more—I think our readers will not mind my wishing you a happy 86th birthday!—how can we work towards a more peaceful world? Can we have hope?

Johan Galtung: To be so “alienated” within one’s society or nation or world, as to feel “hopeless”—that is to suffer a terrible kind of cultural violence!

Gary Corseri: Realism and hope…. Can that be a “unity,” too?

Johan Galtung: I’ll let you answer that…. But, imagine this. [He points to a mercator-projection map on his office wall–] Let’s say, our modern world can be divided into 8 great regions: There’s the Anglo-American world, including, Canada; there’s Latin America; Africa; the Muslim world; the E.U., or the European region; Russia—which is really a “nation of nations,” a federation; East Asia; South Asia. Since the end of the Second World War, we have tried to unite the world in the United Nations! What do we have there? Something like 200 bickering nation-states. They compete to be heard in that forum. Then there is a Security Council, awarding the privilege of the veto to a fraction of the numerous states….

People are working towards new kinds of unions, new unities. The SCO, for example [the Shanghai Cooperation Organization], with Russia, China and India working towards greater cooperation; and Iran is an associate member. We hear much about the New Silk Road, a high-speed rail system that China is developing, crossing from the port cities of China to ports on the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. There is also the “New Silk Lane,” which we hear less about—China and other nations in Africa and across south Asia, uniting in trade along the old sea lanes, with a fleet of better, faster ships.

So, yes, there are terrible dangers to confront, cataclysmic challenges to overcome…. But, imagine now, that the regions could unite, and that the people of the regions had representative democracy, and they chose a regional leader…. Then, the 8 regional leaders sit around a kind of Arthurian Round Table. All are equal there. And they try to understand each other. They describe their visions of their ideal world together, develop their historical perspectives together. They report to their citizens about what they have done and what they have learned.

Gary Corseri: We have to change the machinery, the mechanisms—political, economic, social—that have governed our world since the end of WWII….

Johan Galtung: And longer than that! Do you think we might make progress then? Might we have greater understanding then? A world at peace?

Gary Corseri: How do we develop such a vision?… If we could teach the children to think in new ways! Shouldn’t a “democratic” society enjoy the “autonomy” of peace?

Johan Galtung: Certainly, there would be differences; but we would dialogue about our differences. We would recognize our “contracts” with each other to work towards peace, to develop “closeness,” recognize and work against what I have described as “direct violence, structural violence and cultural violence.” That has been my life’s work: to develop modalities to understand how the three kinds of violence destroy us, how they interact, and how we can re-create ourselves. Can we strive for anything less?

Gary Corseri: “‘T’is a consummation devoutly to be wished….”

Johan Galtung: Hamlet, isn’t it?

Gary Corseri: Yes…. And I think of some lines from Tennyson, too, which I memorized long ago:

“Ring out the old, ring in the new….
Ring out the false, ring in the true.
“Ring in redress to all mankind….”
“Ring out a slowly dying cause….
Ring in the nobler modes of life….
“Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace….
“The larger heart, the kindlier hand….”

credits : TMS: Is Peace Possible? A Dialogue with Johan Galtung on Ukraine, Trump, Putin, Gandhi, and…

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