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Brian Coughlan

Johan Galtung on the era of accelerated history and a multipolar world order

Brian Coughlan | August 24th, 2013
Interview with Johan Galtung

Johan Galtung (Picture: Intl. Students Committee, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Johan Galtung (Picture: Intl. Students Committee, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Today we are talking to Professor Johan Galtung, a Norwegian sociologist, mathematician and the principal founder of the discipline of peace and conflict studies. He founded the Peace Research Institute Oslo in 1959, serving as its director until 1970, and established the Journal of Peace Research in 1964. In 1969 he was appointed to the world’s first chair in peace and conflict studies at the University of Oslo. He resigned his professorship in 1977 and has since held professorships at several other universities; since 1993 he has been Distinguished Professor of Peace Studies at the University of Hawaii.

Johan Galtung is a longtime supporter of a world parliament and one of the first signatories of the international “Appeal for the Establishment of a UN Parliamentary Assembly”.

Audio transcript of the interview

So, the first question I wanted to ask you relates to your really interesting prediction about the fall of the Soviet Union which turned out to be correct and you also made a prediction about the fall of the United States and you said that that might happen in 2020. From our perspective, it would be interesting to hear your views on how that would affect global governance, perhaps generally, and specifically with regard to the U.N. parliament idea, if the U.S. had such reduced power? 

OK, Brian, let me just correct you a little bit. I didn’t predict the collapse of Russia but of the Soviet Empire and that is what happened and I have not predicted the end of the U.S., but the end of the U.S. Empire and it is not for the year 2020, it’s already coming very, very quickly as the U.S. does enough stupidities to accelerate it. You are asking now for the implications. Well, I think we are not ready for globalization. There will be a stronger United Nations – they will be strengthened because they are right now crippled by the Anglo-American hegemony which will be reduced – but I think between global governance and what we have today is a regionalisation. What I see, Brian, is an upsurge of the regions Latin America and Africa, Europe (we already have South Asia and we have to some extent East Asia) and the Islamic world. They will come very quickly and that is what we have to somehow manage.

Another thing that struck me looking at your CV, so to speak, is that you have engaged in quite a lot of mediation in hundreds, or over 100 conflicts, and at various levels of governance over many decades and I guess it would be very interesting to hear what you’ve drawn from that in terms of lessons or life experience?

If I should concentrate it in one or two sentences, dialogue with all parties and that means all parties, even if you don’t like them. It’s not about if you like them or not that matters, what matters is that they are party to the conflict. Point two: You try to find out what their goals are. What do they want? Often it is much more simple than their rhetoric. Point three: You test those goals for legitimacy: Are they legal? Are they in accordance with human rights? With basic human needs? If they pass those tests, then comes the final stage – try to bridge legitimate goals; try to find something that all the parties will find reasonable. But again, I repeat: only the legitimate goals not illegitimate goals. This requires creativity and my experience – if you want it in one sentence – is this: If you formulate what Americans call a compelling solution that is the best thing you can do, but it has to be based on dialogue with the parties …

… and can you think of any specific examples?

Well, one example which is simple and pedagogical. Ecuador and Peru had been fighting since 1941 about a 500 square kilometers zone high up in the Andes. Some 54 years later, in 1995, I was asked by the Ecuadorian ex-president to come up with a solution: “How do we draw the border?” he said. “We’re fighting. We’ve had four wars. We have sacrificed lots of young men’s lives.” My proposal – after understanding what they stood for: they stood for exactly the same thing “The zone is ours! The zone is ours!” but that was slightly mutually incompatible – my proposal was: “Your excellency, how about not drawing a border at all? But administer the contested territory as two-state solution with a nature park?” Well, they did better than that, they made a joint economic zone that came in 1998, almost three years after I put that proposal forward, and it’s a blossoming zone and most people have even forgotten the wars. So it’s a question of some creativity and putting something new forward. That’s why we call it Transcend, to go beyond.

You’re a longtime supporter of the U.N. parliamentary assembly idea, that idea has been around for quite a while, what is it about this concept that attracts you that makes you want to support it?

Well, it’s democracy. It makes it possible – we are seven billion people but not all of them have the right to vote in the world, to express their opinions. You see, what we have now, if you will, would be like if you take the United States as an example. An assembly, a United States general assembly, which will consist of senator’s from each one of the 50 states appointed by the state leadership. Well, fortunately the United States has something more than that, they have the possibility of voting; of citizens even voting on specific issues on some occasions. So it is to go to that second stage, bringing the world citizens in. We have two enormous places in the world where this has happened: the Indian Union and the European Union. If the Indian Union and the European Union can organize this – though they’re not so good at participation – the world can do it. I’m enthusiastic about it.

Exactly, I have to confess to a certain lack of objectivity on the subject myself! OK, so I thought we’d wrap up with this Transcendent International organization of which you are, I think, the founder of or at least pretty central to. Can you maybe tell us a little bit of about that? What its function, its purpose is?

We’re just having the 20th anniversary now. It was founded in 1993 and there were four ideas from the very beginning. Transcend peace service – which is essentially mediation, mediation of conflict, of trauma mediation, of building equitable and harmonious relations. In other words positive peace, if you will. The second one is of course education and training so we have transcend peace university online at That is where you can find everything and Transcendent University press which has published some 22 books by now on all these kinds of issues and the third pillar is dissemination. We have Transcendent Media Service which has had about 10,000 postings and I write an editorial every Monday which seems to be quite demanded; it’s actually copied one way or the other in about 70 countries. The fourth one is research. Right now we’re working on the octagon model. The world is getting multipolar. It was bipolar for a short period, then it was unipolar during the U.S.-dominated phase, but it is getting very multipolar and we think there are eight and we’re exploring the dangers and the opportunities.

Sorry, eight different poles?

Precisely, I can read them all for you if you want?

Yes, that would be interesting. I’d certainly like to hear that.

OK, we start with the good old United States – it’s still there – Russia, India, China and then we come to the OIC the organization of Islamic cooperation very, very important and after that one we have Africa and Latin America and you know there’s something called BRICS: Brazil, R is Russia, I is India, C is China and S is a part of Africa and you have BRICS being the emerging, if you will, economies and the West meaning the United States and the European Union being the declining economies. It’s a dramatic world, and its happened so quickly, Brian! So insanely quick! It’s accelerated history!

I was in Berlin in 1989 a couple of days after the wall fell and the whole thing was just amazing. Now my daughter – she is 18 – but she only has the vaguest notion of the Soviet Union and yet that’s the world I grew up in and it’s just been swept away!

Unbelievable, and then if you go ahead in time you find the end of apartheid in South Africa …

… indeed, quite stunning, and also extremely fast and very hard to predict …

… precisely, precisely, so we humans are not that bad despite our reputation, our reputation is horrible!

Quite so, I guess we do have a bad reputation, but sometimes we do manage to deliver the right goods.

Showing some openings, lights at the end of the famous tunnel …

… that are not trains!

And what is after the tunnel? My answer is – there is another tunnel! But in the meantime we will ever learn better how to master it.

Professor Galtung that was fantastic! Thank you for taking the time to talk to us.

My pleasure indeed, all the best you.

Tags: Multipolar Order, Regional Integration, United States