Volume 11.3 – The business of peace – the role of commerce in peace building

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by Peter S Heslam

Peter Heslam reflects on the potential of contemporary business to fulfil the ancient ideal of ‘commerce and peace’. Within a volatile global context, he calls on all people of goodwill to support this cause today.

In his first major initiative since becoming Middle East envoy, Tony Blair recently announced an ambitious business investment plan to boost the peace process through the creation of jobs for thousands of Palestinians in the occupied territories. This comes a year after the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the micro-credit entrepreneur Muhammad Yunus. Both events put the link between commerce and peace under the spotlight.

The key to understanding this link is relational capital. This is the value that strong and healthy relationships have to the economy. As this kind of capital is always the first casualty of warfare, violence and terrorism, it is perhaps not surprising that most of the armed conflicts around the world today are located in poor countries. Violent conflict thwarts economic growth.

In the 1990s, the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman captured the link between peace and business in his Golden Arches Theory of conflict prevention, according to which, no two countries with at least one
McDonalds restaurant have ever gone to war with each other. While this observation oversimplifies the role of business in peace-building, and may indeed no longer be true, the contribution of commercial enterprise to peace and security has to be part of any consideration of the role of enterprise in alleviating poverty.

Of key importance here is that business is recognised as a valid and honourable part of what can be called civil society – the sphere of voluntary associations apart from the state that forms the basis of a functioning society. Whereas the strengthening of civil society is often regarded as the most effective antidote to civil conflict, business is generally relegated to the ‘private sector’, pitted against civil society because its profit motive is antithetical to civil society’s motive of care. This view has to be challenged, not least because leaving business out of the frame when it comes to peace-building risks losing a powerful incentive for peace – the preservation of the relational capital required for successful enterprise.

Relational capital cannot, therefore, be dismissed as a ‘soft’ issue. One of the greatest deterrents to multinational corporations deciding to begin operations in a particular country is civil unrest, conflict and war. Indeed, financial capital only readily flows to cohesive societies, where it helps creates a virtuous circle of relational capital and wealth creation. It is a Marxist fallacy, therefore, that capitalism inevitably leads to war. The market, as a relational entity, relies on peace. Although today’s market economy differs in many significant ways to trade in biblical times, there are hints of the business-peace relationship in the Hebrew Scriptures. There the hope of peace is often associated with the vision of the coming messianic age in which trade has a role: ‘the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you’ (Isa 60.5). Likewise, Jeremiah’s purchase of a field at Anathoth in the context of war is a sign of hope that the peace that will allow the buying and selling of fields will one day be restored (Jere 32)…

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