Peace on Earth, good will to men: how likely a scenario for 2014?

The American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) wrote a poem entitled Christmas Bells. The first stanza reads:

I heard the bells on Christmas Day

Their old, familiar carols play,

And wild and sweet

The words repeat

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

The following stanzas however become increasingly more sombre. The poem was written in 1863 at the height of the American civil war, the first modern trench war, extremely brutal and bloody. The penultimate stanza rings out with a strong tone of despair:

And in despair I bowed my head;

“There is no peace on earth,” I said;

“For hate is strong,

And mocks the song

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”


So here we are Christmas 2013 looking at the New Year 2014. August will mark the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I, also a long drawn-out extremely brutal and bloody trench war. Of course history does not repeat itself, but, as Mark Twain commented, “it does rhyme”.

Two things about 1914

First, notwithstanding deep globalisation in the beginning of the 20th century, there was too much hate and too little good-will in 1914, just as Longfellow describes in the case of the American civil war. Second, as the rich current literature on the outbreak of World War I also reminds us, there was among the elites a lot of insouciance. War was deemed impossible. This complacency was driven by the high degree of economic interdependence.

As Margaret MacMillan, author of the “absolutely-must-read” The War that Ended Peace, wrote in an op-ed piece in the New York Times (“The Great War’s Ominous Echoes”, 14 December): “On the eve of World War I, Britain, the world’s greatest naval power, and Germany, the world’s greatest land power, were each other’s largest trading partners. British children played with toys, including lead soldiers, made in Germany, and the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden resounded with the voices of German singers performing German operas. But all that did not translate into friendship.”

20th century Europe and 21st century East Asiaeast-asia

In some respects, Europe in the early 20th century is comparable to East Asia in the early 21st. Again, one must remember Twain: not necessarily repetition, but certainly rhyme. Economic developments in East Asia over the last 30 years have been truly astonishing. They have also had a huge social impact as poverty in the region has dramatically reduced and new urban middle classes have arisen. A combination of massive production, especially in the form of regional supply chains, and exponentially increasing consumption – e.g. China is now the world’s biggest car market – has engendered deep, intense and extensive interdependence. There are also socio-cultural exchanges, notably the considerable amount of cross-border tourism flows in the Asia Pacific. Music is also a medium that joins East Asian fans, such a J-pop, K-pop, and M-Pop.

But there is also a fundamental lack of trust among East Asian countries, and even mutual hatred in some instances. This is both reflected in and exacerbated by the numerous territorial disputes that, in one way or another and whether on land and sea (or both), afflict virtually every East Asian country. Especially virulent is the distrust between the two biggest powers in East Asia, China and Japan, respectively the world’s second and third largest economies. This antipathy has deep historical roots, spanning over more than a century.

War in East Asia is by no means inevitable. Nor, however, is it unimaginable. East Asians should study closely the history of Europe a century ago, see what lessons can be learned, especially in developing means to avoid war. Believing war is inevitable leads to a psychosis, reflected, among other things, in an arms race. Believing war is unimaginable leads to dangerous complacency. Study the history of humanity and it is apparent that war tends to be the “default position”. When given a choice between war or peace, the visceral instinct has been to choose war.

Avoiding war in East Asia

To avoid war in East Asia many things will be necessary. There is an imperative to combat the distrust and antipathy by creating a sense of regional community. In turn, what East Asia desperately needs are regional institutions, both that can serve as arbiters of disputes and as platforms for confidence building and conflict prevention. But there are also important attitudes and policies that need to be adopted or modified among the existing powers.

These are tall orders, but necessary, indeed urgent. It would be great if the 21st century could be different from the previous centuries and if the “default position” of bellicosity could be changed to one of peace.

Longfellow’s last stanza places hope in the divine:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:

    “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;

        The Wrong shall fail,

        The Right prevail,

    With peace on earth, good-will to men.”


On the basis of evidence drawn from the last few centuries, it would appear somewhat risky to leave it to God. Far better if men and women of goodwill take energetically to the task. In a future blog I shall make some suggestions.

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