What is the connection between trade and peace?


By Chintan Girish Modi


“The political relationship between India and Pakistan, and the weak institutional structure has inhibited the two countries from realizing the benefits of trade liberalization,” write Nisha Taneja, Samridhi Bimal and Varsha Sivaram in ‘Emerging Trends in India-Pakistan Trade’, a working paper published by the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations in August 2018. They emphasize the need to bridge information asymmetries that increase the cost of trading between the two countries, create forums that bring buyers and sellers together, and to simplify trading procedures. They say, “A large proportion of bilateral trade between India and Pakistan in recent years has shifted to the sea and road from the rail route. It is important to address the impediments on the rail route so that it is used for trading. Rail is the cheapest mode of transporting goods.”

I began to think seriously about the potential of trade for peace after reading a seminal book called Peace, Love, and Liberty: War is Not Inevitable edited by Tom G. Palmer, and jointly published by Students For Liberty, Atlas Network and Jameson Books, Inc. Palmer is a well-known libertarian thinker and author who works with the Atlas Network and the Cato Institute. These organizations are devoted to the promotion of individual rights, rule of law, limited government, vibrant civil society, and the emergence of social order through the free exchange of ideas, goods and services -- all of which are key principles for libertarians who are often unfairly characterized as evil, immoral, insensitive creatures obsessed with personal gain, indifferent to the woes and well-being of the collective.

Palmer has put together an impressive anthology of essays, poems and an interview that make a convincing argument for having peace at the very core of libertarian thought because liberty implies freedom from restraint and violence imposed by others. Libertarians have profound respect for the right to life. They advocate coexistence, contract and cooperation as efficient ways of participating in society. They actively denounce the use of violent means to bring about change. Whether it is a people’s revolution or a government’s crackdown, brute force is considered a morally abhorrent approach to take. They believe that peace can be built only on the foundation of rational, non-violent discourse, and respect for each other’s dignity. They are critical of the military-industrial complex, and advocate for diplomatic solutions to mitigate conflicts.

“What’s the connection between commerce and peace?” asks Palmer. “What motivates a businessman to support peace and oppose foreign interventionism? What is the relationship between liberty, voluntary action, and peace?” The response comes from Chris Rufer, a businessman who founded the world’s leading tomato ingredient processor and operates agriculturally based processing, distribution and service enterprises. He says, “You can think of the product you sell to another human being, whether it’s across borders (internationally), or within borders (domestically), as an emissary for peace, for cooperation, for respect. When you see other people as customers, it doesn’t really occur to you to want to shoot them or hurt them. Trade is such a beautiful alternative to violence and coercion.”

Rufer also founded the Self-Management Institute and the Foundation for Harmony and Prosperity. Palmer places him in a long tradition of business leaders standing up for peace. He names Richard Cobden and John Bright in England, apart from business people associated with the Anti-Imperialist League in the United States who opposed the Spanish-American War and the American occupation of the Philippines and other Spanish colonies. “I know that businesspeople -- not cronies, but honest businesspeople -- are emissaries for peace. Voluntary exchange is a win-win deal all around. It’s unfortunate that more people don’t get that. There’s an old saying I remember, ‘When goods cannot cross borders, armies will’. I favour exchange of goods, rather than bullets and missiles,” says Rufer.

Steven Pinker, Emmanuel Martin, Erik Gartzke, Robert M.S. McDonald, Justin Logan, Radley Balko, Sarah Skwire and Cathy Reisenwitz who have contributed their writing to this book are eloquent in their articulation. They prove that the economic argument for peace is not as disconnected from the humanitarian one as we might be led to believe by those who are deeply distrustful of free markets. Wars give governments a chance to attack individual freedom. Surveillance is justified under the pretext of national security, and the guardians of the law misuse it for their own ends. Military adventures not only cost the taxpayers a lot of money but also lead to scarcity of goods and services, which have to be diverted towards ends determined by the state. Wars are not profitable to ordinary citizens in whose names they are fought but to arms manufacturers, defense contractors and cyber security firms who capitalize on fear and terror.

I think this book would be of interest to readers engaged in the study and/or practice of peacebuilding, conflict transformation, non-violent resistance, political science, international relations, and allied fields. The role of trade in fostering peaceful societies merits deeper engagement though it might be more fashionable to focus on counter-terrorism and military combat through increased investments in deadly weapons, fighter jets and nuclear capabilities.

War takes away from people not only their freedom, their property, and their ability to create but also their loved ones and their peace of mind. Peaceful transactions ensure that both sides have an opportunity to gain and prosper. There is no victor or vanquished. There is no bloodshed, no prisoners of war, no human rights violations, no collateral damage. People are more likely to invest in places that are not prone to violent conflict. Palmer says, "The role of commerce in creating gentle mores was implicitly acknowledged in the Greek language, for, as scholars have pointed out, the verb katallassein means 'to exchange' but also 'to admit into the community' and 'to change from enemy into friend'." This is a fascinating proposition, and might offer peacebuilders in India and Pakistan some new strategies to replace worn out diatribes that need to retire.

Note: Chintan Girish Modi is an educator, writer and peacebuilder who works on gender and LGBTQ issues. You can reach him at chintan.prajnya@gmail.com