A kratocracy—a government by those strong enough to seize power through coercive power, social persuasion, or deceptive cunning—would have a difficult time understanding why the unquestionable victor of a war would make considerable concessions to the vanquished. Why would the strong negotiate with the weak and willingly consolidate power? Traditional ‘might makes right’ security policies are inadequate for explaining and predicting such occurrences, and, in turn, are extremely short-sighted and limited when constructing conflict resolution strategies.
These policies become quite problematic in securing common, long-term interests of peace because, for one, they cannot answer the aforementioned questions effectively. In fact, traditional ‘might makes right’ policy suggests the victor does not make concessions to the vanquished and does not consolidate power. The long period of peace of early 20th-century Colombia is puzzling for ‘might makes right’ advocates since exactly the opposite of what would have been predicted occurred.
With this discussion, I underscore and unpack what is arguably Colombia’s greatest anomaly and conflict resolution success story—the decades of peace that followed the Thousand Days’ War. I hope to plant a seed of hope amid the current ‘might makes right’ war discourse of the Left and the Right. Maybe the deep-rooted pessimism many hold regarding a negotiated end to the conflict can release its grip just a little to allow for a potential handshake by having to accept that (a) the idea that violence and war are inevitable, especially when there is uneven growth of military force and executive dominance, is not only wrong but also damaging; and that (b) maybe it is time to eliminate the ‘might makes right’ policy once again since it was actually its rejection that ushered in the only period of peace Colombia has ever known.
Colombia’s greatest anomaly? The Thousand Days’ War
The history of Colombia’s oligarchy and élite is quite bellicose and has given rise to equally violent opposition movements. Nevertheless, not all Colombian history is one of wars and armed conflict. The country’s Conservative leaders in the early 1900s negotiated peace with the extremely politically weak and recently militarily defeated Liberals—concessions that brought forth decades of peace after experiencing an entire century of non-stop political violence. This raises the following important questions: Why order in the early 20th century after the chaos of the 19th century? Why did the Conservatives negotiate, reform, and accept a reduction of their power? Opening our eyes to potential answers to these questions may serve our current armed conflict situation well.
For example, Sebastian Mazzuca and James A. Robinson, in their academic article “Political Conflict and Power Sharing in the Origins of Modern Colombia,” shine some notable light on the issue. They argued that
“the correlation between the emergence of order and the introduction of power-sharing institutions is not coincidental but causal. Before 1905, institutions favoring power monopolization by a single party forced the opposition into revolutionary tactics and the government into violent repression, whereas starting in 1905 the emergence of institutions ensuring both parties a share of political power roughly proportional to their electoral force allowed for a peaceful interaction between government and opposition. […] In exchange for permanent representation in the legislatures, Liberals abandoned military insurrection as a political strategy.”
According to Mazzuca and Robinson, the Conservatives saw political power-sharing, brought forth by electoral reform, as a mechanism to achieve political pacification of their Liberal opposition.
The strategic concession made by the Conservatives to the Liberals is extremely noteworthy considering they had just (i) absolutely crushed the Liberals during the Thousand Days’ War, 1899-1902, and (ii) the Conservatives had a near monopoly over government institutions since the mid-1880s—for example, the Liberals held merely two legislative seats between 1886 and the end of the war. After a war-torn century grounded on ‘might makes right’ policies by both Liberals and Conservatives depending on who had power—see, for example, the Radical Olympus of the Liberals from 1860 to 1886, and the Conservative Hegemony from 1886 through early 1900s—both parties, weak and strong, recognized that the Colombian brand of the ‘might makes right’ strategy was ineffective for securing national interests because when violence was recognized as both means and end it could only lead to more violence. Their proof was the 19th century—6 dozen instances of rebellions and revolts and 9 civil wars that led to 11 different constitutions—which culminated into their most costly internal, inter-party war.
As Mazzuca and Robinson highlighted, during the political debates immediately before and after the Thousand Days’ War, Liberals argued that power and violence were opposites, not the same or complementary, and, thus, the conventional ordering of things in Colombia needed to be ruptured and replaced by the real power inherent in civil society and power-sharing mechanisms between weak and strong. Political exclusion of minority and militarily weak groups had to stop. They asserted that peace—understood as an essential interest of both parties—could emerge more effectively through generosity because peace that arose from force would produce a desire for revenge and violence among those forced to be peaceful. When the opportunity arises, these subjects of forced ‘peace’ would revolt against or stop cooperating with their keepers.
On the other hand, they argued, peace generated by means of benevolence would most likely be repaid with a reciprocal kindness. In such a way, self-interests could be better achieved—by helping others fulfill their ambitions one could also more effectively fulfill one’s own. Such concessions by the Conservatives allowed for the manifestation of their interests and security without constant fear of harm, revolt, conspiracy, coups, or subjugation to the Liberals—as had happened previously—if the Conservatives lost their military and political dominance. They recognized that if they continued with their traditional ‘might makes right’ policy after the great war, it would only produce more enemies against the Conservatives and inspire prolonged armed opposition. The predictive words of Liberal Rafael Uribe Uribe in September of 1898 just before the war captured the sentiment:
“I am not threatening or provoking. I am not coming here as the Roman consul before the Senate of Carthage, bringing in his uniform the options ‘war or peace’ for you to choose. I am just predicting the unavoidable. I am just warning that this, which today is a peaceful petition in favor of our rights, if you deny it, tomorrow will become a demand backed by the arms, and then, after costly sacrifices, one of two things will occur: if we win, we will give to ourselves not only what we are demanding today, or the full rights that belong to us, but even more than that, at your expense, because of the irresistible impetus given by victory; or, if we lose, not for that will our right die, and you will spend more resources in continuing oppressing us than those required to live with us in peace and equality […] Give us the freedom to make public and defend our rights with the vote, the quill, and the lips; otherwise, nobody in the world will have enough power to silence the barrels of our rifles” (Translation by Mazzuca and Robinson.)
The time for political negotiation has always existed
It should be noted that the context of the country’s armed conflict at the turn of the 20th century was different than the one we are living today at the turn of the 21st century. Nevertheless, there are obvious similarities. If we can take anything from the experience of the Colombia of the early 1900s, it is that long-term and enduring peace can be and has been successfully negotiated politically by Colombian politicians and armed opposition groups with great success, even when (i) the government had a near monopoly over government institutions and the country’s military apparatus, and (ii) the opposition was weak.
Such an event should inspire hope; a hope not rooted in fantasy or faith. This hope is grounded on actual historical facts that illustrate the creative and benevolent forces at play when Colombians work together toward the common cause of peace. Even though both sides had completely different ideological views on how the country should have best been ordered and organized, they found common ground for negotiation and collaboration for the sake of the country’s future.
My respected colleague Adriaan Alsema recently argued that the time for a politically negotiated end to the armed conflict is now. I would like to add to this discourse by claiming that the time for a peaceful end to the country’s internal war has always existed! Though I look forward to a potential time when we do not need to dream of peace, I do see hope in the time of Colombia. But we must act, like our ancestors did, for this hope to materialize because hope alone—like prayer—does not resolve conflicts.
Julián Esteban Torres López is an editor, writer, researcher, and educator with nearly two decades’ experience working with publications, historical societies, and cultural and research institutions, and has held leadership positions in the academe, the arts, journals, the business sector, and history museums. You can follow him on Twitter.