There is no question that pacifism is largely ignored in IR. An important consequence of this is that normative theorising is more often than not limited to considerations of when to employ violence in response to threats and conflicts. This article aims to critically engage with some of the ways in which pacifist theory is neglected and dismissed in IR normative theorising, assess some of the consequences of excluding pacifist perspectives, and gesture towards the ways in which pacifist theory might help to expand the ethical horizons of debate over how to respond to violent threats. The article argues that taking pacifism seriously could help to expand the ethical imagination and range of policy options in considerations about civilian protection, among others. Investing in the exploration of pacifist approaches has the potential to go beyond short-term protection measures in violent conflicts, taking us instead towards the goal of breaking the long-term cycles of violence which perpetuate vulnerability in the first instance.
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I use these terms interchangeably to refer to a range of ethical positions relating to the rejection of war and organised forms of political violence, as well as a number of different types of theories of politics, and practical programmes for political action and social change. Although some scholars make a distinction between ‘principled nonviolence’ (or pacifism) and ‘pragmatic nonviolence’, I follow Stellan Vinthagen’s (2015) proposal that nonviolence refers to forms of political action which are simultaneously ‘without violence and against violence’ (p. 61, original emphasis), thus emphasising its underlying normative basis and disrupting the arbitrary dichotomy between principled and pragmatic nonviolence.
In an acrimonious public debate, and following a number of other similar criticisms from senior members of the UK political establishment, a former Labour shadow minister, Chuka Umunna, stated: ‘Jeremy Corbyn’s pacifist views should disqualify him from office because he cannot keep Britain safe’ (Hughes 2015).
See, among others: The Non-violent and Violent Campaigns and Outcomes (NAVCO) Data Project based at Denver University, available online at: http://www.du.edu/korbel/sie/research/chenow_navco_data.html.
Arendt (1970, p. 56) similarly argued that ‘power and violence are opposites; where the one rules absolutely, the other is absent… Violence can destroy power; it is utterly incapable of creating it.’
For a detailed discussion of the ethical values of pacifism and nonviolence, see May (2015) chapters 4, 5.
I am excluding here the extremely large and well-developed international conflict management literature which demonstrates the effectiveness of dialogue, negotiation, mediation, and third party intervention for both preventing the outbreak of violent conflict and achieving ceasefires and peace agreements.
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I acknowledge the support of the New Zealand Marsden Fund in the preparation of this article, the research for which was conducted under the Marsden Fund proposal, 14-UOO-075, ‘A new politics of peace? Investigations in contemporary Pacifism and Nonviolence’. I am also grateful to the Global Insecurities Centre in the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies (SPAIS), University of Bristol, for the award of a Benjamin Meaker Visiting Professorship during 2016 which enabled a period of study leave at SPAIS where I wrote the first draft of this article.