Power and a Sustainable Just Peace

A Response to Reardon’s “On Frameworks and Purposes—Patriarchy is the Problem”

Dale T. Snauwaert
The University of Toledo

Editor’s note: This response from Dale Snauwaert is part of ongoing dialogical encounters among peace educators. The original intention of this exchange was to introduce alternatives to standard thinking on global problems through focusing on the work of those who manifest such thinking. These encounters are also a model of peace learning process toward transformative structural change to resolve a global problem. In this case the problem under exploration is the elimination of poverty through significant changes in the social and political order manifest in the functions and false logic of the “war system”: the maintenance mechanism of the global patriarchy.   It models an alternative to the common mode of academic exchange process of argument – refutation – counter argument. Each participant in this dialogue responds rather than refutes, seeking to focus on what is useful in the arguments of the other, to extend and deepen those aspects in an effort to arrive at a view of the problematic that each might apply to their respective efforts to confront it.

This particular dialogue begins with Dale Snauwaert’s review of Jeffrey Sachs’ “The Age of Sustainable Development,” in which Snauwaert proposes the war system as a holistic conceptual framework for critical inquiry into the core problematic of violence that perpetuates global poverty. Reardon builds upon Snauwaert’s review and framework adding a critique of patriarchal power structure. This response from Dale Snauwaert elaborates on Reardon’s discourse on power.  A future contribution to the dialogue by Betty Reardon will offer reflections on proposed alternatives to the present global economy.

Links to all essays in this series will appear here when they are available. We encourage you to read this series in order.

  1. Sustainable Just Peace: Jeffery Sachs’s “The Age of Sustainable Development” – A Review Essay and Dialogue from a Peace Education Perspective. By Dale T. Snauwaert (Oct. 1, 2017)
  2. On Frameworks and Purposes: A Response to Dale Snauwaert’s Review of Jeffery Sachs’ The Age of Sustainable Development – “Part 1: Patriarchy is the Problem.” By Betty Reardon (May 12, 2018)
  3. Power and a Sustainable Just Peace: A Response to Reardon’s “On Frameworks and Purposes—Patriarchy is the Problem”
    By Dale Snauwaert (May 15, 2018)
  4. On Frameworks and Purposes… “Part 2: Solidarity is the Solution.” By Betty Reardon (forthcoming)


In my review of The Age of Sustainability by Jeffrey Sachs, I suggest that sustainability is an important dimension of just peace, offering an analytic, normative, and pedagogical framework for peace education. In her response to that review, Reardon uncovers unjust power as the first question of justice. She asserts that the major obstacle to the realization of a sustainable, just peace to be a profoundly unequal and unjust ‘global power arrangement’ linked to the war system legitimized by patriarchy. Reardon’s support of the pedagogical framework I put forth, and her further elaborations, strengthen the idea that the basic purpose of peace education should be the empowerment of future citizens through development of their political efficacy. This empowerment builds a formidable foundation; a bulwark against unjust, arbitrary power, which we conceptualize as a necessary condition in the creation of sustainable just peace.

I find Reardon’s discourse on power to be of compelling significance for the pursuit of a sustainable just peace. In her comments on Sachs’s claim that the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) constitute conditions of a good society Reardon writes:

Only transformative changes in global power structures are likely to achieve them. Poverty results from lack of power, and any serious attempt to eliminate poverty should recognize this uncomfortable reality. The concept of transformation invoked here is a deep-rooted change in the core values of the societies and institutions confronting the problem and undertaking the intentional institutional reconstruction of power arrangements toward what Sachs calls “human inclusion” that I would describe as a democratic redistribution of power. A review and assessment of the core values is made possible by framing the goals within the problematic of the war system which cannot be transformed without deep rooted, sustainable change in social and political values. Transformative processes arise from values changes which in turn result from changes in world view. They also derive from choices, intentional political choices, not available to the poor … Without such structural change the elimination of poverty is not possible.

As Reardon suggests, the achievement of a sustainable, just peace cannot be realized without a fundamental change “in the distribution and locus of power in the world order and the global economic system”, and that a “democratic redistribution of power,” is a necessary condition for its realization.

Reardon offers an illuminating argument that the core obstacle to this redistributive transformation of power is the interrelated structure of patriarchy and the war system. Both are grounded in a hierarchical structure of power. She writes: “The global patriarchal order, a power hierarchy that places all human beings on various levels of a hierarchy of human value and political power, is the essential problematic that must be addressed in assessment of and prescription for solutions to development and other world problems.”

My comments here will lay out an elaboration of Reardon’s discourse on power. I will begin with a general comment about the nature of power and then employ three types of public discourse, outlined below, as a framework for analyzing power as the basis of peace.

It is generally recognized that the first question of politics, including political justice, is: “What confers authority on government (Grayling, 2018, p. 50)?” In other words, what constitutes legitimate political power? Political legitimacy is in general attained by avoiding structures and practices of arbitrary power. Politically legitimate power is in principle limited by particular values and norms which constitute the rational basis of its legitimacy. The exercise of power is arbitrary when it does not adhere to particular political, ethical, and moral constraints that define the boundaries of its justified and hence legitimate exercise. The content of these constraining boundaries is of course a matter of public deliberation. This deliberation entails at least three kinds of public discourse: analytic/pragmatic, ethical, and moral (Habermas, 1996).

Politically legitimate power is in principle limited by particular values and norms which constitute the rational basis of its legitimacy.

Analytic/pragmatic discourse refers to inquiry into political effectiveness and stability. Within this discourse we ask what conception of power leads to acceptably good outcomes and political stability over time? Ethical discourse refers to inquiry into the coherence between the values that define collective self-understanding and identity within society (cultural, national, international, global) and the basic structure of society and its social practices. Within this discourse we ask: What conception of power comports with our values as a people?   Moral discourse refers to inquiry into the justification of valid moral norms. Within this discourse we ask: What conception of power is consistent with our basic moral norms? I outline below the nature of legitimate power from within the framework of each of these discourses. This analysis will provide an elaboration of Reardon’s fundamental claim of the need for a democratic structure and distribution of power. I will then discuss the implications of this analysis for peace education.

Analytic Discourse on Legitimate Power

From the perspective of analytic discourse, it is essential to explore the nature of power and to justify a particular conception as a matter of political pragmatism. There are at least two views of the nature of power: the traditional view of power as a command-obedience relation, and the consensual theory of power that understands power to be a collective act grounded in consensual agreement (Arendt, 1970; Sharp, 1973). The command conception understands the essence of power as the capacity to command, by the threat or actual deployment of physical force, the obedience of others. The command theory equates political power with the organization of violence; from this perspective political power is contingent upon one’s capacity to project military force, for in open conflict an opposing power can only be controlled or destroyed by overwhelming physical force. As Mao asserted “Power is found at the end of a bayonet.” Militarism is a manifestation of a command conception of power; the continual organization of the means of force is the very foundation of political power. If political power is conceived in terms of command-obedience, then militarism, the creation and maintenance of a war system, logically follows.

The consensual theory of power offers a different understanding. As Hannah Arendt suggests: “Power is indeed the essence of all government but violence is not. Violence is by nature instrumental … power … is an end in itself (Arendt, 1970, p. 51).” Power requires legitimacy, derived from consent, and, therefore, power can never grow out of violence. Power is the ability to act in concert, and such action is grounded in consensual agreement. Therefore, “Power is never the property of an individual; it belongs to a group and remains in existence only so long as the group keeps together (Arendt, 1970, p. 44).” “When commands are no longer obeyed, the means of violence are of no use; and the question of this obedience is not decided by the command-obedience relation but by opinion, and of course, by the number with those who share it. Everything depends on the power behind the violence … (Arendt, 1970, p. 49).” Power is the opposite of violent force; it is created by free, uncoerced consent, not by the threat of violent force.

Power is the opposite of violent force; it is created by free, uncoerced consent, not by the threat of violent force.

Power also arises from diverse social sources, based in the cooperation of multiple institutions and people. Political power depends on the cooperation of the people; it is therefore pluralistic and fragile. In turn, power is contingent upon the acceptance of political, as well as ethical and moral, legitimacy. Thus, political power is not a static given quantum—power varies and is contingent (Sharp, 1973, p. 15). Power is always one of mutual influence and interaction—it is “mutually determined action” (Sharp, 1973, p. 16). The idea of the consensual nature of power is illustrated in the theory of nonviolent action as “based on the view that political power can most efficiently be controlled at its sources (Sharp, 1973, p.10), “the belief that the exercise of power depends on the consent of the ruled who, by withdrawing that consent, can control and even destroy the power of the opponent (Sharp, 1973, p. 4).”

The command conception of power tracks toward insulated power concentrations and thus toward arbitrary power. Analytically, the concentration of power can proceed by degree along a continuum, thus constituting a slippery slope toward authoritarianism–a move from legitimate power to structurally violent systems. As George Washington warned “Overgrown military establishments are under any form of government inauspicious to liberty (Farewell Address, 9/17/1796).” Here is President Dwight D. Eisenhower: “This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience . . . In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted (Farewell Address, 1/17/1961).” In contrast, consensual power is diffuse and, being based upon consent, is authentically democratic—legitimate power is always socially and politically inclusive.

Analytically, sustainable development is concerned with staying within the limits of the carrying capacity of the natural environment. We face a carrying capacity crisis. This crisis has and will continue to lead to conflict. We have already witnessed the deep connection between climate change and violent conflict in Syria, Rwanda, Somalia, Sudan, to name a few of the most troubling. From within the perspective of the command conception of power, as the sustainability crisis worsens and conflicts increase, there is likely to be increased military seizure of territory and resources (e.g., water) by the powerful from the weak, which brings to mind the Thucydidean logic of command power: “The strong do what they will, the weak accept what they must” (Thucydides, 1972, Chapter 17). In contrast, when it is acknowledged that legitimate power is consensual, democratic structures of public deliberation and consent can be established, protected, and expanded within and across societies. Democracy is a critical precondition for the nonviolent transformation of conflict, socially and politically just inclusion, and sustainable development. This analytic argument gains further support from the normative perspectives of ethical and moral discourse.

Ethical Discourse on Legitimate Power 

Ethical discourse refers to inquiry into consistency between the values that define the collective self-understanding and identity of the society (cultural, national, international, global) and basic structure and practices of society. What conception of power aligns with our values as a people? There are at least two core values that are common to liberal democracies (and possibly other political systems): the value of equal human dignity and the value of freedom. The foundational value of democracy and human rights is that each person possesses an equal inherent dignity; that each person has equal intrinsic value. Human dignity is the foundation of the normativity, the moral weight, of human rights. It is the call of the other person’s dignity that gives rise to our obligation to respect their justified claims. In turn, the value of freedom follows from equality. If all persons possess an equal human dignity and value, then they have a basic right to define and pursue their own conception of the good life. Democracy is founded upon, and in response to, the conception of the individual person as a free and equal being.

Legitimate power must be based in the consent of the people as political agents of justice.

Which conception of power, command or consensual, best comports with these fundamental values? The command theory of power threats persons as the objects of force and compliance. In doing so it conceives citizens as receipients of power and not its agents. It does not locate the source of power in the free and equal consent of the citizenry. The consensual conception of power in contrast understands the person as a source and agent of power. Legitimate power must be based in the consent of the people as political agents of justice.

Moral Discourse on Legitimate Power

Moral discourse refers to inquiry into the justification of valid moral norms as well as the moral justifiability of social structures and practices. Within this discourse we ask what conception of power is morally justifiable in terms of its consistency with our basic moral norms?

Power is morally arbitrary and thus metastisizes into violence when it is imposed; when it is exercised without the consent of those subjected to it.   The basic moral constraint on power, upon which its legitimacy is dependent, is whether it is justifiable to all those affected by it. This idea is articulated by the political philosopher Rainer Forst (4th generation scholar of the Frankfurt School) who argues that the first question of justice is arbitrary rule: being subjected to power without valid justification (Forst, 2012). Justice in turn is based upon the principle and right of justification: the idea that the equal, intrinsic, human dignity of each person constitutes a basic human right to receive justification, and a correlate duty to offer justification to others, as a fundamental matter of respect. Persons have a basic right to ask for reasons of justification and to question those reasons, which constitutes a right not be subjected to norms and practices that reasonably persons would have grounds to reject (Rawls, 1971; Scanlon, 2000)). It can be argued that respect is the condition of non-domination, not being forced to comply to demands and practices that are unjustifiable, that one has reason to reject. In positive terms, respect is deserving and receiving valid justifications. In turn, if you deserve valid justifications for the norms and practices you are subject to, justifications that are based upon sharable reasons, then so do I. To be subjected to norms and practices that do not have valid justification is to suffer domination, and domination in turn lays the ground for various types of oppression. From this perspective, justice is the practice of justification, and persons should be active agents, and not mere recipients, of justice.

Forst (2012) identifies two normative constraints (criteria of validity) that determine the validity of justification:

  • Reciprocity of contents: “… one cannot raise any specific claims while rejecting like claims of others.”
  • Reciprocity of reasons: “one cannot simply assume that others share one’s perspective, evaluations, convictions, interests, or needs …”
  • Generality: “… the objections of any person who is affected … cannot be disregarded, and the reasons adduced in support of the legitimacy of a norm must be capable of being shared by all.” (p.49)

Reciprocity and generality constitute a principle of justification, a principle of reasonable reject-ability as the normative standard of justification. In turn, respect for persons demands that each person has a right to justification, to be offered, and to offer reciprocal and general justification for the social and political rules and institutions to which they are subjected.   This conception of moral justification provides a moral ground for the analytic conception of consensual power, which in turn provides a rational basis for the legitimacy of a democratic structure and distribution of power. It is clear that the command theory of power suffers from moral arbitrariness. It lacks moral legitimacy, for it fails to offer a valid basis of justification.

In summary, these three types of discourse, analytic; ethical; and moral, constitute frameworks of justification that can be applied to questions of politics and justice, and in particular, the basic question of legitimate power. An agreement across these three discourses constitutes the strongest form of justification. These discourses are also essential processes for the practice of democratic public deliberation concerning the distribution of political power. The foundation of a just, sustainable peace is the democratic distribution of power. However, such a distribution is not sufficient in itself; legitimate power requires a politically, ethically, and morally efficacious citizenry.

…it is of primary importance that citizens be able to critically discern the difference between ideology and justice.

In particular, it is of primary importance that citizens be able to critically discern the difference between ideology and justice. The work of ideology is to justify invalid and illegitimate structures of power. In this sense patriarchy and militarism are ideologies. The ability to discern the difference between ideology and valid political, ethical and moral discourse is contingent upon understanding the nature of justification, substantively and procedurally—a kind of political and normative literacy.

In conclusion, this analysis has sought to strengthen Reardon’s claim that the goal of achieving sustainable, just peace involves analyzing, transforming and redistributing the interrelated power structures of patriarchy and the war system. This review has analyzed three main types of human power and argued that the development of critically discerning citizens is foundational and instrumental to conceptions of peace education. The overarching purpose of peace education should be the development of the political efficacy of future citizens, as well as offering a conception of that efficacy as the capability to engage in informed analytic, ethical, and moral discourse; peace education can be understood to be politically and morally discursive in this sense. A politically informed citizenry is the strongest bulwark against arbitrary power, and holds the greatest promise for sustainable, just peace.


  • Arendt, H. (1970). On Violence. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company.
  • Forst, R. (2012). The Right to Justification (J. Flynn, Trans.). New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Grayling, A. C. (2018). Democracy and Its Crisis. London: Oneworld Publications.
  • Gutmann, A. (1999). Democratic Education (revised edition ed.). Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Habermas, J. (1996). Between Facts and Norms: Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
  • Rawls, J. (1971). A Theory of Justice. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
  • Scanlon, T. M. (2000). What We Owe to Each Other. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.
  • Sharp, G. (1973). The Politics of Nonviolent Action. Boston: Porter Sargent.
  • Thucydides. (1972). History of the Peloponnesian War (R. Warner, Trans. M. L. Finlley Ed.). New York: Penguin Classics.

Be the first to comment

Join the discussion...