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Dietrich Fischer

Can individuals make a difference for the course of history, or are their efforts insignificant compared to major trends, like the movement of a single molecule in the wind?

Johan Galtung Photo: Transcend Media Service (TMS)

When Johan Galtung, widely recognized as the founder of the academic discipline of peace research, founded the first International Peace Research Institute in Oslo in 1959, he and his colleagues sent copies of their working papers regularly to about 400 social science institutes around the world, including the Institute for World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO) in Moscow. They received acknowledgements from many places, but never heard anything from IMEMO. It was as if the papers disappeared in a black hole, leaving no trace. Despite of this lack of feedback, the members of the Oslo team persistently kept sending their papers on alternative approaches to peace, security, development to IMEMO throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

In 1982, Johan Galtung attended a conference at IMEMO. During a break, the librarian took him to the back of the library, opened a locked room, opened a locked cabinet inside the room, and showed him a pile of papers. Here was the entire collection of papers that he and his friends had been sending over the years. The “black hole” had been identified. Surprisingly, the papers were worn out from having passed through many hands, edges bent and torn, with portions underlined and numerous notes in the margins.

In 1991, Vladimir Petrovsky, then Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister, came to see Johan Galtung in Oslo and said, “I really wanted to tell you once how grateful we were for all your papers that you kept sending us, even though we could never respond. During the Brezhnev era, I was part of a group of young scholars at IMEMO who met frequently to discuss new ideas, and we studied your books and papers intensively, among others. We knew that our system needed reform, and that the time for change was coming, but we had no clear ideas what form those reforms should take. You provided us with valuable new concepts and concrete ideas how to proceed. And you were neither Marxist nor anti-Marxist.”

The end of the Cold War has many sources, but new ideas developed by Western peace movements‑‑on human rights, economic and political participation, nonviolent conflict resolution, security based on mutual cooperation instead of threats and confrontation, conversion of military industries to civilian use, and nonoffensive defense‑‑which seeped into the former Soviet Union through various discrete channels and apparently found receptive ears, have played an important role.

Can individuals make a difference for the course of history, or are their efforts insignificant compared to major trends, like the movement of a single molecule in the wind? It is clear that if a situation is not ripe for change, if nobody wants to hear new proposals, one individual can make little difference. But if people are unhappy with their present conditions and search for new ways, a good idea, persuasively argued, can go a long way. Yet even when an opportunity for major change arises, someone must seize it or it may be missed. Similarly, if one plants a fruit tree in the desert, it will die. But even in the most fertile soil, under the best climatic conditions, only weeds may grow unless we plant something better. And we never know for sure whether an apparent desert may not hide fertile ground just below the surface, in which one seed can over time give rise to a whole forest. Even if we do not see the results of our efforts for peace immediately, we should not give up, because they may bear fruit some day in unexpected ways.

Dietrich Fischerborn in 1941 in Münsingen, Switzerland, got a Licentiate in Mathematics from the University of Bern 1968 and his Ph.D. in Computer Science from New York University 1976. 1986-88 he was a MacArthur Fellow in International Peace and Security at Princeton University. He has taught mathematics, computer science, economics and peace studies at various universities and been a consultant to the United Nations.

(Excerpted from Dietrich Fischer’s Stories to Inspire You – TRANSCEND University Press- this article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS)

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