Stable Peace

Máire A. Dugan

October 2003

MBI MOOS LogoCurrent Implications

At meetings over the last decade or so, we have been hearing fairly frequently that "peace is a dirty word."  By that, speakers mean that it isn't a word taken seriously in policy-making circles. More...

When we talk about resolving intractable conflict, we are talking about establishing peace. But what do we mean by peace? The word is used in a variety of ways, from a respite in hostilities to God's peace, "the peace that passeth all understanding."

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In 1978, Kenneth Boulding introduced the term "stable peace." It can serve to clarify the peace we are seeking in intractable conflict. He defines stable peace as "a situation in which the probability of war is so small that it does not really enter into the calculations of any of the people involved."[1]

While most of Boulding's short treatise focuses on relations between and among nations, he includes in the definition all levels of social groups -- families, businesses, churches, and nations. He points out that while there are examples of what might be called "war" among all types of social groups -- the feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys being an example of interfamilial war -- "war is much commoner between political organizations [bands, tribes, city-states, nations, and empires] than between any other kind of social organization."[2]

Boulding identifies several factors as important in developing stable peace:

  • Habit: "The longer peace persists the better chance it has of persisting"[3]
  • Professional specializations which include mediators, conciliators, marriage counselors, and diplomats, including a web of "integrative relationships" among leaders;
  • Rise of travel and communication within the system;
  • Web of economic interdependence;
  • Mutually compatible self-images which do not include the use of force against one another; and
  • Taboos against the use of violence within the stable peace system.

On an international level, Alexander George offers a slightly more specific definition: "Stable peace is a relationship between two states in which neither side considers employing force or even making a threat of force, in any dispute between them. Deterrence and compellence backed by threats of military force are simply excluded as instruments of policy."[4] George contrasts stable peace with his two other categories of peace. "Precarious peace" is a state of acute conflict which means "little more than a temporary absence of armed conflict."[5] "Conditional peace" is a relationship in which general deterrence plays a key role, although the possibility of stronger threats or even actual violence is maintained for crisis situations.

To be more concrete, the ongoing Middle East conflict tends to waiver between precarious and conditional peace, still falling, every so often, into war. The Cold War is a good example of conditional peace. The ongoing peacefulness between the United States and Canada or the Baltic states is a stable peace system.

Additional insights into stable peace are offered by Beyond Intractability project participants.

Even with stable peace, however, there are degrees. "Stable peace is a developmental process, not merely the absence of visible violence."[6] Within a relatively short time after World War I, even before the establishment of the Common Market, Western Europe could already be called a stable peace system. The European Union represents such a great difference in degree; however, it is difficult not to think of it as a difference in kind

For those nations and political groups entangled in intractable conflict, the words of Coventry University's Centre for Study of Forgiveness and Reconciliation may be more instructive than suggestions of simple cessation of hostilities:

At the heart of any sustainable peace is the condition and process of reconciliation: the restoration of wholeness. There are structural conditions that can promote reconciliation, but integral to the process is that element of compassion, charity, mercy -- forgiveness: the capacity to let go of the hatred and hurt of the past and begin to envision common futures.[7]

Although the transformation from intractable conflict to stable peace may seem all but impossible, Boulding has another observation that applies, which he called "Boulding's First Law." That states that "if it exists, it must be possible." At the time he wrote Stable Peace, the "Stable Peace Triangle" went from North America through Western Europe to Japan and Australia. The Soviet Union was not included, and the notion that it possibly could be seemed pretty far-fetched.

But now former Warsaw Pact and Soviet states are joining NATO and the European Union, a massive change since 1978. And Japan was listed as in the triangle of stable peace, even though the U.S. and Western Europe had been at war with Japan a few decades earlier. So stable peace can come to countries that have been at war, even to ones who have been mortal enemies for a very long time.

Current Implications

At meetings over the last decade or so, we have been hearing fairly frequently that "peace is a dirty word."  By that, speakers mean that it isn't a word taken seriously in policy-making circles.  The thought is that people advocating "peace" tend to be naive, "Birkenstock-wearing" hippies who have little or no grasp of reality. Power-politics-based "realism" again seems to be the prefered international frame.--

Part of this might be attributed to left-leaning academics and activists who, do, indeed, believe that if we just all "love each other"--or, as I admit I have often said, "if people i just listen to each other and respect each other-- everything will be fine."

(In my own defense, I don't usually say "fine," I say "much better.")

But as we say often in these pieces, the story is much more complex than that. It does take much more to bring about peace--but it is not a naive concept and it does exist!  (Boulding's First Law is "If it exists, it must be possible!")  

So this essay, written in 2003 by Maire Dugan, explains Boulding's concept of stable peace in this context.  For those interested in a much longer and more academic discussion of many different definitions of peace--and the peacebuilding activities they imply-- we refer you to the BI essay entitled "Toward Better Concepts of Peace.

--Heidi Burgess, April 2017

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[1] Boulding, Kenneth E. Stable Peace. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1978. (1978, p. 13).

[2] Boulding, p. 7.

[3] Boulding, p. 62.

[4] George, Alexander. "Forward" to Stable Peace among Nations. Eds., Arie M. Kacowicz, Yaacov Bar-Siman-Tov, Ole Elgstrom and Magnus Jerneck. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2000, pp. 11-18. (2000, p. 13).

[5] George, p. 12.

[6] Wehr, Paul. Conflict Regulation. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1979. (1979, p.16).

[7] Centre for Study of Forgiveness and Reconciliation. Coventry University,
 Downloaded November 5 2003


Use the following to cite this article:
Dugan, Máire A.. "Stable Peace." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: October 2003 <>.

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