The Love Wins Theory of Peace

illustration / pnc

In light of Russia’s war in Ukraine – which in its scale, debased cruelty, and territorial ambition seems like a throwback to the last century – many people are feeling understandably queasy about the status of human progress. Here’s an observation that might not be irrelevant: Two countries with legal same-sex marriage have never gone to war.*

Of course, marriage equality is not enough to prevent war. But if there is progress in civilization after all, despite its twists and turns, maybe some milestones are more definitive than others – bells of human achievement that cannot be unrung. Call it the Love Wins Theory of Peace.

This theory might replace the Golden Arches Theory from Thomas Friedman, who proposed that two countries with McDonald’s chains would never go to war (until they did in the Balkans), and his subsequent Dell Theory of Conflict Prevention, which made the same prediction about countries with integrated high-tech supply chains (until they did, too, when Russian attacked Ukraine, both of which play important roles in computer chip manufacturing).

Maybe this time.

Watching the video feeds from Ukraine has brought home, again, the gut-wrenching reality that war is dehumanizing, destructive, and – finally – stupid. Starting a war is never the right thing to do. We all know this, and we know that reasonable people agree. In fact, that’s how we know they’re reasonable people. And if we believe human society is “moving forward,” as politicians like to say, or becoming more “rational,” as the proselytizers of modernity put it, then war must become obsolete. Which is the problem today.

Maybe it’s natural for people to think things are going to keep getting better. In a viral moment at the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee’s confirmation hearing for Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker declared, “This country is getting better and better and better!” That’s uncheckable, an article of faith. It’s that arc of the moral universe bending toward justice to which Martin Luther King, Jr. and Barack Obama referred. Wars of choice aren’t on that path.

Booker’s remark stood out for its counterfactual exuberance. Along with the pandemic, the crisis of democracy born of Trumpism and its populist cousins around the world, the armageddon of climate change, and the chaos of disinformation – Russia’s unprovoked war against Ukraine appears as one more rupture in what social theorist Anthony Giddens described as the “progress narrative” of modernity.

All this has been jarring, even for those too young to remember the heady days of the “end of history” in the 1990s – when Frances Fukuyama wrote that the Western liberal democracy, in ascent after the collapse of the Soviet Union, would be “the final form of human government.” In a sharp turn against that progressive tide, we have suddenly reached the point, according to Chris Hayes, of “a sustained battle between liberal democracy and its enemies.”

As many have noted, there’s a not-so-subtle racism – not to mention historical myopia – to the assumption that Europe has risen above nationalist wars and senseless violence. But there is also a view of progress that sees wars of choice as outside the realm of civilization or, to use the political consultants’ term, at least outside the Overton window of policy choices. Europe is not above or beneath that history, but part of it.

The Love Wins Theory of Peace is aspirational – like the “Love is Love / Science is Real / Black Lives Matter…” yard signs in American suburbs. It represents a view of marriage equality as symbolizing the turning of a corner toward progress, away from discriminating on the basis of “who you love,” and toward individual human rights and dignity. The movement for marriage equality won by turning the tables on hate. Rather than attacking the “traditional” family, as earlier gay rights campaigners were more wont to do, they had offered an expansive vision of inclusion in the human family, which ultimately won over the great majority of Americans and a few dozen other countries.

Unfortunately, in the U.S., marriage equality itself – like abortion rights, and voting rights – is not a settled matter, one forever pinned to the office plaque of past human accomplishments. If we’re not vigilant, it may be more like a Mission Accomplished banner. We saw this in the Jackson confirmation hearings, when a number of Republicans expressed concern about the “unenumerated rights” that emerge from judicial interpretation rather than from the literal Constitution. Their immediate sights were set on abortion rights, for which the Court divined the right to privacy from the legacy of the Constitution rather than from its text. But the Supreme Court’s Obergefell marriage equality decision, with its similarly unenumerated logic, sits squarely on that same slippery slope of democratic retrenchment.

In the McDonald’s and Dell theories, Friedman argued that material comforts would become more important than nationalist fervor in societies with a dominant middle class, so that politicians would face grave penalties for starting wars. People want to queue up for new Apple products, not bread. Love Wins takes it up a notch on the Maslovian hierarchy of human needs – beyond the care and feeding of the body, to the nurturance of the actualized human self. Imagine soldiers from two different countries celebrating their newfound right to pose in uniform with their same-sex spouses – then killing each other, bombing each other’s ports and apartment blocks and hospitals.

According to the theory, we who breathe the peaceful air of human freedom, where love flourishes, will not give that up for the senseless violence of war without just cause. Societies in which the right to love is enshrined in the laws of the land have risen beyond the base level of brute force and cruel competition that such war represents. 

Maybe the McDonald’s and Dell theories were naive because they were based on economic interest, unlike the higher-order achievement of love unbound represented by the Love Wins Theory of Peace. But the legal protection of human rights and freedoms – including marriage equality – are no more automatically permanent than the presence of a McDonald’s (now shuttered in Russia) or the global technology supply chain.

I hope we will find that countries with legal same-sex marriage don’t start wars with each other. That would be progress indeed. But the problem with the theory – like Fukuyama’s – is the comfortable assumption of the progress ratchet, the complacent narrative that has burned us so many times in the modern era. The Love Wins Theory of Peace won’t apply to societies that let their rights be taken back.

* I don’t like the implication that Russia and Ukraine “went to war” with each other like a mutual thing. The Love Wins Theory should be modified to read, “countries with legal same-sex marriage won’t starts wars of aggression.” Russia does not have same-sex marriage, but it doesn’t seem relevant whether Ukraine does (it doesn’t).

After Trump’s election I had an idea to write a book about liberals and their (our) progress narratives, and failure thereof, called Craptastic. I got as far as showing pitching it to an agent, who politely suggested I never call her back. Maybe it was too soon. With each new global disaster I think about it again; and 1000 people write better books. There’s an interesting relationship between people making assumptions of progress and science predictions, which I wrote a post about once. Social scientists who are also people seem well positioned to overinterpret this successfully.

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