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The best books on Peace

recommended by Steve Killelea

Peace in the Age of Chaos: The Best Solution for a Sustainable Future by Steve Killelea

Peace in the Age of Chaos: The Best Solution for a Sustainable Future
by Steve Killelea


Efforts to bring about peace have often focused on eliminating the conditions of war, violence and terrorism. But as Steve Killelea—founder of the Institute for Economics and Peace and the annual Global Peace Index—explains, the foundations of sustainable peace are radically different from the absence of war and violence. Here, he recommends five books that shed light on the building blocks of peace and explains why 'positive peace' is so important.

Interview by Benedict King

Peace in the Age of Chaos: The Best Solution for a Sustainable Future by Steve Killelea

Peace in the Age of Chaos: The Best Solution for a Sustainable Future
by Steve Killelea


Before we get to the books, I’d like to know how the Global Peace Index you founded is composed and constructed. How do you weight the various components together?

The Global Peace Index is composed of quantitative and qualitative data across three main domains: the level of societal safety and security; the extent of ongoing domestic and international conflict; and the degree of militarisation. It is based on 23 indicators that range from a nation’s level of military expenditure, to measure of its relations with neighbouring countries, to the percentage of the population in prison. These 23 variables seemed to strike the right balance between using too few indicators, which would risk creating unreliable results because of possible bias, and using too many indicators, which would run the risk of getting ‘fuzzy’ results.

Determining the correct value of the weight was also crucial—each indicator in the Global Peace Index is weighted according to the effect it has on society. We decided to use an expert panel to reach a consensus on the relative importance of each indicator. Our definition of peace as the ‘Absence of violence or fear of violence’, and the fact that the 23 indicators in the index are designed to be clearly differentiated from each other, makes us confident that the Global Peace Index is not a proxy measure of something else, such as per capita income.

Ultimately the Global Peace Index is there to provide the raw material to help people better understand and debate the differences between nations and shed light on their changing levels of peace. It provides the empirical base from which to analyse what factors are associated with highly peaceful societies and what sustains them.

How did you end up getting so focused on peace and setting up the Institute for Economics and Peace?

It’s an interesting story. My background is in computers and developing computer programs. I ended up developing two international IT companies that ended up publicly listed—one was listed on NASDAQ, the other on the Australian Stock Exchange. With the money I made, I created a family foundation that’s dedicated to helping eradicate poverty and conflict through humanitarian relief, development assistance and the pursuit of peace. The Charitable Foundation (TCF) has done about 220 different projects now in the developing world, with 3.6 million direct beneficiaries. Working with the poorest of the poor took me into a whole lot of war zones and post-war zones. In 2005, when I was in north-east Kivu in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which is one of the most violent places in the world, I started to ask myself what the opposite of all these stressed-out places is. I searched on the internet, but I couldn’t find a list of the nations ranked by their peacefulness. I thought that would be a really good idea… and that’s how the Global Peace Index was born.

“How much do we actually know about peace?”

This presented a number of profound realisations. The first is that if a simple business guy like myself can be walking through Africa and wonder what the most peaceful nations in the world are, but can’t find the answer, then how much do we actually know about peace? The second is that if you can’t measure something, can you truly understand it? And if you can’t measure it, how do you know whether your actions are helping you or hindering you in achieving your goal? The more I started to look at this, the more I realized that there were massive economic costs associated with violence—not just war, but ordinary street violence. At that stage, the cost of violence to the global economy had not been estimated.

That brought me around to thinking about studying peace. Generally, when people say they are studying peace, they’re really studying conflict. But the study of peace—and what creates resilient, sustainable and peaceful societies—is very different from what you need to stop conflict. And so that took me down a different track. These days, the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP) is probably the leading think tank in the world in terms of quantitative measures for peace. I think this financial year, we’ll get around 25 billion media impressions and about 1 billion social media impressions. We do a lot of work with the UN, the World Bank, the Commonwealth Secretariat, the OECD… I could keep on going.

So, your approach has been taken up by lots of huge multilateral institutions effectively?

Oh yes. And is included in some way, shape or form in 1,000s of university courses around the world. There are over 6,000 references to our work in Google Scholar, for example.

Let’s get on to the books you’ve chosen about peace. The first is The Universe In a Single Atom by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Why have you chosen this one?

I’ve got a personal interest in Buddhism, and I’ve met the Dalai Lama many, many times. Part of it goes back to some research we did where we were looking at the relationship between peace and religion. We were looking at some survey results, and there were only something like 13 countries in the world in which more than 20% of the population didn’t think there was some sort of spirituality or belief around the universe, if you like. That really got me thinking. In the modern age, particularly in the West, there is this massive gulf between science and something spiritual, and the Dalai Lama, in this book, tries to bridge that gap. There are a lot of interesting analogies and the basic Buddhist philosophy really does fit with the age we’re in at the moment, which is why I picked this book. I could talk about this for hours, but I’ll give one example: In Buddhism you have this concept of the middle way. You might think it’s about tolerance and not going to one extreme or the other, but that’s not what it’s about at all…

There are two schools in Buddhism. In the first school, there’s an objective reality; in the second one, there isn’t anything that intrinsically exists. Take your hand. You think it’s pretty solid. But actually, it’s made up of bones, of sinews, of blood vessels. At a lower level, we get into atoms and then subatomic particles, and then you move down to wave functions. None of it’s really solid. It’s a hand to us, but to a fly, it might be a dinner plate. It only exists because of its nominal designation. This can lead to thinking that nothing really matters, or what can be called nihilism.

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The philosophical basis of that is very solid. The problem is that we live in the real world and if you pinch us, we will actually feel pain. So, the middle way is not to take one view or the other, but to take both views and use both in the best way, in the appropriate context, when you need them. The analogy to that with science is in relation to quantum mechanics and Newtonian physics. If we look at the principles of quantum mechanics, you break things down into smaller and smaller particles and you get things like synchronicity, where one entangled particle can change, and flip something else somewhere else simultaneously, defying Newtonian physics. You can have something that is a wave function and a particle at the same time, and it’s only really the observer through observing it that determines whether it is a wave particle or a function.

Again, if it’s a particle, you can determine where it is, but you can’t determine its velocity or where it’s going; whereas, if it’s a wave function, you can determine that, but you can’t determine where it is. Quantum mechanics breaks all the laws of Newtonian physics, but science accepts both, depending on the way you want to use them.

And is the Dalai Lama writing about science and his own religious experiences?

What he’s doing is showing that both are valid forms of inquiry—one using the mind, and the other using empirical scientific techniques.

And do you feel that science is crucial for building peace?

Put it this way: science is a tool. And, like all tools, like a knife, we can use it to cut our dinner and feed ourselves, or we can use it to kill someone. For me, it fits more into that category. Having said that, breakthroughs from science have liberated humanity. We’ve got more free time, we’ve got less to fear, and that then frees us to be more peaceful. The basis of Buddhism is that all human beings are really searching for happiness and that, in the final analysis, our happiness comes through achieving inner peace.

The next book you’ve chosen is War and Peace by Tolstoy.

I love Tolstoy. He was one of the most amazing men. He was born an aristocrat, he was a gambler, a drunk, and a womanizer, but he gave it all up. The first book he wrote was one of the first books to have looked through the eyes of children and how they see the world. Up until then, books had been written about kids but always through the eyes of an adult.

War and Peace was groundbreaking in its age, because up until then, war had always been something that was glorified; he looked at war through the psychology of the people experiencing it, and the way they expressed that experience in their lives. That was a profound breakthrough. For instance, he shows people suffering from post-traumatic stress.

He ended up quite a devout Christian. He wrote a book called The Kingdom of God is Within You, which is the hardest thing in the world to read—I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. But it’s a profound book, because what he said was that for thousands of years now, humanity has been finding the bad guy, the enemy, and then, to create peace, has been fighting the enemy to destroy them. However, in the very process of doing this, we end up just like our enemy. Today, it’s still going on. Therefore, the way to peace is first to turn within, realise that the kingdom of God lies within; when we realise our own inner peace, then we can go about changing the world. Profound.

“Historians talk about the individual and the individual actor who changes history. But that’s not truly what happens”

Another area in which he was way ahead of his time—and this can be found in War and Peace—is in his views about the movement of history and the march of history through time. He says historians talk about the individual and the individual actor who changes history. But that’s not truly what happens, because we’re all a product of the age and times we live in. We’re constrained by that, and the actions we take are governed by those historical flows, and the relationships that exist within societies. So, for example, without the First World War, and the Great Depression, Hitler would have never risen. Tolstoy was commenting on Napoleon in his era, but he was looking at the history, which brings about the environment that causes the ability for individuals to affect history.

This fits back into the systems work we do at the Institute for Economics and Peace. We often focus on the individual, say, President Trump and his election, or his losing an election. But what really caused him to be elected was the relationships and flows that caused a man like that to be able to rise in the first place. That’s a much deeper philosophical and complex problem than just saying, ‘Oh, gee, here’s this guy. He’s a lunatic. He is in power, we have to re-educate the people who voted for the lunatic.’

Let’s move on to your next book on peace, Exhaust the Limits by Chic Dambach.

Chic is one of the most inspirational people I’ve met in my life. He’s a mate of mine. His whole life has been dedicated to trying to make a better world. Most of it has revolved around peace. When he was young, he was an Adonis. He was six foot two and represented the US in kayaking and was on one of the Olympic teams. He also played on his college football team. But he has had experiences all through his life that have shaped him. He was involved in peace negotiations in Colombia with various rebel groups there; he’s been instrumental in peace agreements between Eritrea and Ethiopia, and that’s just scratching the surface.

One of the biggest experiences that shaped him was when he was in the college football team. This was in the 1950s, when they had the first black person join the team. The coach was against this, and so he humiliated and pushed the guy around; he allowed him to get pounded by his fellow players—and more. Chic never stood up for him; at least he didn’t think he did at the time, but in hindsight he actually did. Eventually the guy left the team. Chic always felt this was a massive injustice and from that, he moved into the civil rights movement, where he was really quite an instrumental player. Much later in life, he met the guy from the football team who said to Chic, ‘I would like to thank you for the support you showed me at the time.’

Later, one of his sons had kidney failure, so Chic donated one of his own kidneys to him. The medical system in the US almost sent him broke in doing so, but this guy has just worked to the limits to really try and create a better world, with massive self-sacrifice. The book is his life journey.

And is this book an autobiography?

Yes it is.  It’s a good read.

Let’s go on to Connexity by Geoff Mulgan. Tell us about this book and how it relates to building peace. What is ‘connexity’?

It’s a very old English word, whose meaning is implied by the word itself. It refers to the interconnection of things, how things fit together. The book was written in 1997 and, in it, Mulgan makes three main thrusts. The first is that, because of the integration of economies, the arrival of the information age, the mixing of cultures, and global travel, the world is interconnected in ways that it has never been before. He argues that this has been a profound change, probably the biggest of our age.

25 years on, we can see the effects of the process he was talking about, with the internet, social media and so forth. He was way ahead of his time. This brings us back to the concept of systems. To truly understand the world, we need different frameworks from those we’ve been using for the last century, or the last 200 years. We need to be able to reimagine the way societies operate, and systems thinking is the way to do that.

“I searched on the internet, but I couldn’t find a list of the nations ranked by their peacefulness”

The second thing he said is that the mechanisms of governance we’ve got today are outdated. Current systems are hierarchical in nature. They’re built around politicians and government, or the legal entity of the corporation. But because of this interconnectivity now, the issues are much broader. We need to think of new ways of being able to govern. Part of that is the concept of the network. In our age, we can see networks everywhere, and we can see how networks actually create and distribute information in ways hierarchies never can. They can create movements. Think of Black Lives Matter, for example, whether in the US, the UK, or even in Australia. What networks can’t do is act effectively, because there is no real chain of command. Hierarchies are very, very effective at being able to do things. And so, unless you have got a hierarchy, it’s hard to really execute on something efficiently. Think of the military. They’re becoming more and more hierarchically bound because modern weapons and wars are happening so much faster. They need the process and disciplines in place to manage that. Think of an operating theatre. If you go in for an operation, do you want to go for an operation with a bunch of people who came together because they were networked on social media? Or do you want to go into it with people who have true and tried practices and procedures?

So, as we move into this age now, somehow we have to have new ways of governance, which can look at the effects of the network, and combine these with old-fashioned hierarchical structures.

The third aspect is this concept of a moral dilemma. As we look at the connectivity and challenges of the age, we see that a lot of them are global in nature. Climate change is the obvious one, with challenges to biodiversity and plastics in the ocean, amongst many others. Then there is war, which can affect all sorts of people beyond its immediate participants. We need to understand this interconnectivity. We need an ethics that understands we are intimately interconnected with others, and that their misfortune is our misfortune as well. COVID-19 would be an excellent example of that.

Does Geoff Mulgan in his book specifically address issues of national and global governance? Is that his main focus?

No, more the issues of the age. Moving forward, we need to have multiple views of the way things operate. Hierarchies quite often just have a single view. We have to have multiple lenses. It’s not that we want to do away with hierarchies. The book is more about the philosophical way to think, rather than ‘here’s a new way to govern’.

Let’s move on to the last of the books you’ve chosen on peace. These are the chapters by John, Lord Alderdice in Psychoanalytic Perspectives on Fundamentalism, Radicalization and Terrorism.  The first chapter is in Part 1 and is called “Terrorism as Dissolution in a Complex System”. The second, in Part 2,  is “Fundamentalism, Regression and Repair”.

I know John really well and his chapters in this book give an excellent perspective on the psychology behind terrorism. When you look into it, it’s much broader than just terror.

John started off as a psychologist before getting into politics, and he was instrumental in negotiating the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland. That’s how he became a member of the UK’s House of Lords—because of those negotiations. In this work, like the others cited above, he also points to the importance of systems. He uses the analogy of an ant colony. If you want to understand the emergent properties of the ants, you don’t learn by studying each individual ant and what it’s doing. You’ve got to look at the whole.

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Coming back to terrorism—this is built out of his experience in the peace processes in Northern Ireland—you’ve got to look at the whole. And what you find is that most ‘terrorists’ are not psychologically dysfunctional. Quite often, they’re very sane. They may have radical ideas or ideas that we think verge on unbalanced, but when you look at them, there is a deep history of emotional trauma within the group that has never been rectified, so they’ve got these feelings of disgust, anger, hurt—sometimes going back hundreds of years.

The bigger thing for me is that this can also explain a lot of other dysfunctional behavior. Think of mass shootings in the US; think of the cyber attacks by people who just want to do harm because they don’t like governments or they don’t like corporations. There’s a mixture, and this work shows the background psychology that gives rise to this kind of phenomenon.

Another thing he argues, and he’s quite right, is that when we think of terrorism, we quite often think of jihadists. But historically, it’s a fairly new phenomenon. Northern Ireland was full of what we termed terrorists, but one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. So there is the latent potential within the US and within Europe for these kinds of movements to spring up.

And is a lot of the work of the Institute for Economics and Peace thinking about the problems in the world in this way, and using that as a focus to eliminate, say, terrorist threats?

Terrorism and a whole range of other dysfunctional behaviour. We started with peace, which gets different results than starting with war, and worked out what created peaceful societies. But once we had worked out that structure (what we call ‘positive peace’), we found it was also associated with many other social characteristics that are considered desirable. Societies that are more adaptable—which means that, as things change, as times change, they change and adapt with them—are also much better at picking up new ideas and technology. They have a much better performance on GDP, for example. Countries which are improving in Positive Peace have 2% per annum higher GDP growth rates than countries which are deteriorating over long periods of time. These societies are more resilient; they have fewer civil resistance movements that last for shorter amounts of time. They’re also more moderate in their aims and far more likely to achieve them. In addition to the absence of violence and better economic outcomes, positive peace is also associated with better measures of wellbeing, higher levels of inclusiveness and more sustainable environmental performance.

So, what we can see then is that when you combine positive peace with systems thinking, it gives you a new and unique way to envisage how you go about societal development. In other words, this concept of positive peace creates an optimal environment for human potential to flourish. Understanding what creates sustainable peace cannot be found in the study of violence alone.

Interview by Benedict King

June 27, 2021

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Steve Killelea

Steve Killelea

Steve Killelea is the Founder and Executive Chairman of the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP). He is also the founder of the Global Peace Index, a leading measure of peace that ranks 163 countries and independent territories by their relative levels of peacefulness each year. In acknowledgement of his contribution to the global peace movement, Killelea has been awarded the Luxembourg Peace Prize, twice been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. He is the author of ‘Peace in the Age of Chaos: The Best Solution for a Sustainable Future’ (

Steve Killelea

Steve Killelea

Steve Killelea is the Founder and Executive Chairman of the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP). He is also the founder of the Global Peace Index, a leading measure of peace that ranks 163 countries and independent territories by their relative levels of peacefulness each year. In acknowledgement of his contribution to the global peace movement, Killelea has been awarded the Luxembourg Peace Prize, twice been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. He is the author of ‘Peace in the Age of Chaos: The Best Solution for a Sustainable Future’ (