Peace Science Digest

Peacebuilding Within a Global Conflict System

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Millar, G. (2019). Toward a trans-scalar peace system: Challenging complex global conflict systems. Peacebuilding, 1-18.

Talking Points

  • Peacebuilding efforts always take place within—and are deeply constrained by—the global conflict system, whereby violence and peace coexist and mutually reinforce one another both within and between countries, privileging the few (“at peace”) at the expense of the many (subject to “rampant” structural violence and cultural violence, as well as the direct violence to which these often give rise).
  • Complex systems theory helps illuminate how the violence of the global system but also peacebuilding processes are not ultimately the product of intentional design but rather the unintended and unpredictable results of many individual actors’ decisions.
  • Overcoming “the violence of this global conflict system” and building a “trans-scalar peace system” requires recognizing and challenging this global system by “tear[ing] relentlessly at [its] legitimating logics,” centering local actors and alternative legitimating logics, understanding the unintended, sometimes violent effects of peacebuilding projects due to unpredictable interactions on various scales, and thereby reimagining peacebuilding with an emphasis on “downsiz[ed]” peacebuilding interventions and ongoing monitoring and evaluation.


Although other scholars have been attentive to the interactions between local and global contexts, they have mostly focused on these interactions and their meaning within particular countries, failing to analyze the broader phenomenon of a global system that systematically shapes violence and peace in countries around the world. Grounded in the “local turn” in peacebuilding, Gearoid Millar nonetheless urges peacebuilders to take a step back for a broader view of the context in which peacebuilding takes place. What he sees is a “global conflict system” where violence and peace coexist and mutually reinforce one another both within and between countries, deeply constraining the potential of local peacebuilding efforts. He characterizes this system as a “complex adaptive system” sustained by a host of “legitimating logics,” arguing that we need to draw on complex systems theory to rethink conflict and peacebuilding “more generally across scales: global, regional, international, national, and local.” Effective peacebuilding therefore requires a clear-eyed awareness and ultimately dismantling of this system and the construction of a “trans-scalar global peace system” emerging from local “alternative legitimating logics.”

Legitimating logics: include “the logics of individualism and capitalism which claim universality today and dominate the globalized economic order focused on here, but the list of such operative logics is long and different concepts have been taken as globally applicable for the various interventionary projects that are applied in post-conflict societies. This includes all of those legitimating and motivating logics that govern interventions for the purpose of peace, security, justice, and development processes.”

Drawing on Johan Galtung’s conception of violence in its direct, structural/indirect, and cultural forms, the author suggests that violence and peace—instead of being mutually exclusive—are deeply “entwined,” as illustrated by a neoliberal global economy that privileges the few (“at peace”) at the expense of the many (subject to “rampant” structural and cultural violence, as well as the direct violence to which these often give rise). As noted by the author, the secure and comfortable lives of “privileged citizens [in] Western democracies” depend upon the extraction and exploitation of “the land, labour and resources of those less privileged.” Moving beyond this relationship between structural violence and peace, the author also makes the case that direct violence is a frequent consequence of such a system, where war economies—like the illicit diamond trade in Sierra Leone that sustained war lords in that country’s civil war—thrive off resource exploitation due to global (especially Western) demand and consumption.

Direct, structural/indirect, and cultural violence: Johan Galtung’s overarching conception of violence is “avoidable insults to basic human needs.” Within this overarching conception he distinguishes between direct violence (which can be traced to an identifiable agent), structural/indirect violence (which cannot be so traced and which inheres in broader structures of inequality, resulting in uneven life chances between those differently positioned in those structures), and cultural violence (anything in the symbolic realm that justifies or legitimates the other two forms of violence).

Galtung, J. (1990). Cultural violence. Journal of Peace Research, 27(3).

Although the global system is often framed as beneficial for everyone, it is actually characterized by “a range of systems—discursive, normative, financial, political, military, technological, humanitarian, etc.—[that] collaborate without conscious direction but function nonetheless to pool influence, resources and privilege towards the West.” Complex systems theory helps illuminate how the violence of the global system within which—and up against which—peacebuilders are always working is not the product of intentional design but rather the unintended result of many individual actors’ decisions. Peacebuilding processes are also marked by unintended results and unpredictability and are ultimately beyond the control of those who may initiate them. As such, complex systems theory helps us analyze the interaction of peacebuilding projects with: a) one another, b) existing societal “norms and processes,” and c) “broader regional and global… norms, institutions and mechanisms.”

Complex (adaptive) systems vs. complicated systems: Whereas complicated systems operate according to predictable and linear causal relationships on the basis of intentional design and “stop functioning if and when a part is broken or removed,” complex systems cannot be understood with reference to the operation of their component parts or linear causal relationships between them, and they also adapt to changes, for instance when a part no longer works or is removed. In complex systems, “interactions and relationships between components ‘shift and change’“ on the basis of self-organization and positive or negative feedback loops. In short, complex systems may “function in ways unintended by… [or even] counter to the intent of all actors.”

Feedback loop: “a signalling mechanism by which information is transferred between components of the system in such a way as to either escalate [positive feedback loop] or de-escalate [negative feedback loop] a trend in the system.” The changes that result are “not planned or designed” but rather emerge organically via self-organization (constituting an “emergent property of a complex system”).

Related to this last point especially, the author notes that contemporary peacebuilding relies on this broader global conflict system and its same “powerful actors and institutions” and legitimating logics, which sustain violence in its various forms. Any effort to pursue peacebuilding in a way that “might overcome the violence of this global conflict system” must find a balance: it must recognize that the global conflict system structures what is possible in conflict-affected contexts, while also challenging this global system and refusing to privilege its legitimating logics, instead turning to local “logics and perspectives.”  The author thus puts forward four steps for dismantling this global conflict system and building what he calls a “trans-scalar global peace system”:

  • Focus on “understanding alternative logics on the ground” and engaging with a more diverse “set of [regional, national and local] actors and institutions in the development of post-conflict interventions,” while decentering traditionally dominant “peace industry institutions and… norms.”
  • Recognize and dismantle the inherently violent global system within which peacebuilding exists by challenging its legitimating logics, especially their “apparent universality and claim to truth,” while “constantly forward[ing] robust competing discourses.”
  • “[R]edefine what is acceptable in the design, funding, incentivization and administration of peacebuilding practice,” based on an understanding of how peacebuilding projects can exacerbate indirect violence due to unintended, emergent properties of the system.
  • In an effort to shape peacebuilding processes, even if these cannot be controlled, “downsize” peacebuilding projects, hand over “decision making and implementation power to local actors,” and engage in ongoing monitoring and evaluation, adapting projects as needed.

Informing Practice  

This research brings up big, philosophical questions about the extent to which our actions can influence the world in the ways intended—with practical implications for how we understand our role in the world and the usefulness and value of our interventions. If peacebuilders are always acting within complex systems that resist control, where even thoughtful program design may not necessarily lead to desired outcomes, what can or should motivate their actions? A sense that what they are doing is inherently good even if it cannot be guaranteed to bring about particular results? Further, do or should intentions matter even if outcomes do not conform to them? And how should peacebuilders understand the extent of their moral responsibility if systems have unpredictable results, due to the interactions of many different actors rather than traceable to the intentions and actions of any one actor?

These questions also tie in with questions raised by the current historical moment, which has made white folks confront racism more explicitly than perhaps they ever have before in such numbers. How does one’s position of privilege within a violent system—one animated by and serving white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism, and militarism—relate to one’s agency and one’s ability to challenge that system? In other words, to what extent can those who benefit regularly from a system, even if they do not intend to, “opt out”—and, if they cannot, how does that fact shape their capacity for meaningful action against the manifold forms of violence enacted by that system for their benefit? This question applies to “international” peacebuilders working against a global conflict system that ultimately benefits them as much as it does to white folks trying to make sense of their complicity in, and ultimately to counter, racism and white supremacy in their everyday lives.

The author’s response seems to be this: be sweeping in your critical analysis yet humble and delimited in your actions. These words—“humble” and “delimited”—may not feel satisfying in light of the monumental injustices confronting the world. How can actions of this sort constitute the revolutionary, anti-racist, anti-militarist labor needed to birth a global peace system? If we truly recognize the complex nature of the systems we live within, however, rife with unintended effects, there is something to be said for acting within our limited spheres of influence where we can actually trace the effects of our actions. There is also something deeply revolutionary about humility, about not asserting that you have all the answers or intend to control the processes in which you participate. So, as the author urges, notice and critique the global conflict system—including the racism that inheres in its logics—and how its trans-scalar interactions produce various forms of violence in unpredictable ways, and then use that knowledge to inform purposeful but ”down-sized” peacebuilding efforts that center local actors and alternative legitimating logics, all the while chipping away at the dominant legitimating logics that undergird both the “peace industry” and the global conflict system.

The author’s emphasis on the centrality of legitimating logics to the sustenance of the global conflict system reminds us that attending to this ideational realm is critical to resisting and dismantling violence in its many forms. In fact, peace and justice organizations are devoting resources to this sort of work—critiquing and “denaturalizing” narratives and discourse that have become widespread and “common sense” (and which enable violence) and putting forward new ones that resonate with relevant stakeholders and enable new forms of action for building peace with justice. Although they are difficult to “see” or pin down, narratives and discourse have enormous power to shape how all of us perceive the world and therefore how we act in it. Making explicit, questioning, and holding people accountable for the often implicit (and problematic) logics at work in a discourse that privileged folks simply take for granted—whether it is the assumption that armed police or military bring security or the assumption that global capitalism benefits everyone and facilitates peace—can itself be a powerful and consequential move, shifting thinking and therefore bit by bit the unpredictable interactions that together form the system in which we all act. [MW]

Continued Reading

AFSC. (2017, July 3). How to change a narrative: A guide for activists and peace builders. Retrieved on August 21, 2020, from

Oxfam. (2016, January 18). An economy for the 1%: How privilege and power in the economy drive extreme inequality and how this can be stopped. Retrieved on August 21, 2020, from (

Key Words: global conflict system; trans-scalar global peace system; peacebuilding; complex systems theory; violence