The Second World War had a lasting effect on me. Especially because my beloved father was imprisoned at Grini (west of Oslo). And we were informed that every time there was a British bombing, prisoners would be shot. So, every night the air raid siren went, my mother and I would run out to the air raid shelter and sit there with only one thing on our minds. And my mother never wanted to go and get the paper the day after in case the headline read: ‘Dr Galtung shot this morning in retaliation for last night’s bombing raid’.
Johan Galtung, interviewed by Henrik Urdal
Henrik Urdal: You were born six years before the war came to Norway. Could you tell me a bit about your childhood? What sort of influence did your father and mother have on you?
Johan Galtung: My father’s educational background had a real influence on me. He’d attended the Norwegian Military Academy and received top marks in tactics, something he was very proud of. So he knew quite a bit about war and that sort of thing. And, of course, he’d completed a medical degree. And, on top of that, he’d studied political economy. As a politician in the 1920s, a deputy mayor and acting mayor at one point, he’d felt he needed a better understanding of economics. All of which is to say that he was, in effect, fully qualified in three distinct fields. And I suppose I’ve copied him to some extent. Studying one subject shouldn’t stand in the way of studying another. So, when I chose to take both a cand. real. degree in mathematics and a mag. art. degree in sociology, you could say I was following in my father’s footsteps.
It all comes back to my beloved father – he always supported me. He also had a daughter, of course, my sister Ingegerd, who was a strict conservative. She idealized people like Salazar and Franco, while I stood for the complete opposite. She wrote in Morgenbladet and I wrote in Dagbladet. My father would try to reconcile this conflict by praising our writing: ‘You both write such elegant Norwegian!’ You might say he was a bridge builder. But there was, of course, also something of the politician in this approach. At the same time, he supported me completely when I terminated my membership of the state church. He was a devout Christian and went to church every Sunday, but he understood that when I left the state church, it was the state and not the church I was rejecting. It was my view that the state and the church should have nothing to do with each other.
It’s interesting to try to understand how the historical context in which you grew up was formative for you and for your perspective on peace research. Let me return to the impact of the Second World War. How would you say your childhood experiences and your experience of war contributed to your views on social change and on the significance of peace work?
Since my mother was afraid of finding news in the newspaper that my father had been shot, it became my job to collect the paper each morning. Pretty intense, but it is a memory of war. Another memory I have is of visiting my father in Grini. We were allowed to visit him twice a year. We were pale and exhausted, he was brown, sunburnt from working on the commandant’s Kräutergarten, a medical herb garden. The war played an enormous role in my life and had a considerable effect on my views on peace research. My sense of the madness of war was very much focused on my father: no-one was allowed to take my beloved father away from me.
But then I entered a period of my life in which another figure would play an increasingly important role, and that was Gandhi. When he was shot on 30th January 1948, I found myself crying – much to my puzzlement and dismay. I was 17 and 17-year-olds don’t cry. And a boy to boot. And it wasn’t a habit of mine to cry. Somehow or other, Gandhi’s message had affected me so deeply that I reacted in this unexpected way. So I emerged from the war with a palpable disgust for war, primarily because the war had stolen my father from me, even if he ultimately came back. The war was over, and Gandhi’s message was that there was an alternative.
When [Gandhi] was shot on 30th January 1948, I found myself crying – much to my puzzlement and dismay. I was 17 and 17-year-olds don’t cry. And a boy to boot. And it wasn’t a habit of mine to cry. Somehow or other, Gandhi’s message had affected me so deeply that I reacted in this unexpected way.
When did you discover Gandhi?
In ’48. I knew about him before then, of course: I kept myself informed, like any bright teenager. But I had no idea that he had affected me so deeply that I would cry when he was shot. And out of ’48 came ’51, when I became a conscientious objector. I’ve told this story many times before, but if it hadn’t been for obligatory military service in Norway, I wouldn’t have become the campaigner for and specialist on peace that I am today.
My father had always told me not to just go along with what you’re supposed to do, but to be conscious of everything you do. And he was a first lieutenant in the Army Medical Service, which isn’t an especially high rank, but even so. With his medical background and education from the Military Academy, he’d become an officer. So, I took his advice seriously and decided to try to find out more about it. Coincidentally, I’d receive a stipend that month to study in Finland. So this was how it all started: as a former big man on campus, with a succession of positions in student politics under my belt, I was awarded this stipend, at the same time as I was very unsure whether to carry out my military service or become a conscientious objector.
It was quite popular to be a conscientious objector at the time, wasn’t it?
It wasn’t that uncommon, that’s true. But a lot of objectors were Jehovah’s Witnesses. There was a community of them in Vennesla, north of Kristiansand, where a lot of the conscientious objectors came from. But objecting to military service on political grounds was still quite rare, although it was starting to become less so.
Anyway, while I was in Helsinki, I went to the library. I didn’t tell the librarian that I was being conscripted or anything like that. I just asked: ‘Do you have any good books on peace studies?’ ‘No, but I’ll ask our parent library in Uppsala’. Finland had been a Swedish colony. ‘Come back tomorrow’. Well, Uppsala said that we don’t have anything as silly as peace studies, but we do have a brilliant book on war studies. ‘Well, that’s interesting,’ I thought. ‘Peace studies doesn’t exist’. And the idea struck me that perhaps this would be my life’s work.
And you were twenty?
It was actually more or less on my twenty-first birthday that this happened. The 24th of October. There were various elements that coincided here: my military service was a very important element, but also this librarian who searched the catalogue for rauhantutkimus, the Finnish word for ‘peace research’. The first book in Finnish on rauhantutkimus was written by me, and that was published ten to fifteen years later. When I returned to Norway from Finland in ’51, I’d made a decision: I was going to dedicate my life to peace, and I was going to do it through research. I had some sort of intuition that I ought to combine the word ‘peace’ with the word ‘conflict’: peace and conflict research.
So, in ’51, this defining decision was made. But I’d also made another decision. I’d read an awful lot in preparation for a potential application for transfer from military service to alternative civilian service. And something that had really struck me was that the arguments against war were very clear, but there seemed to be very little on peace and arguments for peace. This is the difference between negative and positive peace, a key conceptual distinction that I went on to formulate in 1968.
What I took from this lack of work on peace was that if I was going to do this, if this was going to be my life, I’d have to start from scratch, from nothing. Not accept or reject any of the things I’d heard or read, but simply try to free myself from all presuppositions and begin again from zero. This is impossible, of course. You can’t be ‘pure’. That is, a Buddhist monk sitting in front of a white wall is trying, but it seems to me that Buddhist monks all arrive at the same conclusion in the end, and that makes me sceptical. So, what ended up happening is that I jobbet med saken, as we say in Norwegian – I worked on it. As the years passed and I made my way through my education, it rapidly became clear to me that if you’re going to work on peace, Johan, a degree in mathematics isn’t going to be sufficient. You’re going to have to learn something about these so-called social sciences as well.
Arguments against war were very clear, but there seemed to be very little on peace and arguments for peace. This is the difference between negative and positive peace, a key conceptual distinction that I went on to formulate in 1968.
But when you chose to study mathematics, did you see this as part of the process of equipping yourself to study peace, before you changed tack and turned to the social sciences? Did you see maths as a useful tool for studying peace?
Maths taught me to think. This way of thinking could be applied to anything. I knew full well that one way in which mathematical thinking had been used was the development of nuclear weapons, but it could also be used to develop peace. And after a while, the ball really got rolling. One question I needed to consider was which social science to study: psychology, down at the level of the individual; sociology, in the middle; or international relations on top? I thought I’d go for the middle. And that’s how I ended up taking two degrees in parallel at two different faculties.
You were studying both at the same time?
I didn’t make it easy for myself.
No, that’s ambitious.
I found my time as a student incredibly rewarding. In the end, I majored in mathematics with a minor in physics for my cand. real. in natural science and majored in sociology with a minor in philosophy for my mag. art. in social science. I completed the first in 1956 and the second in 1957. And in the autumn of that same year, I was appointed assistant professor at the Department of Sociology at Columbia University.
At that time, Columbia was the Mecca of Sociology. Two greats of the discipline, Paul Lazarsfeld and Robert K. Merton, both wanted me to be their successor. I was granted tenure in 1960. I gave a speech and thanked my colleagues – I was deeply grateful and it had been a fantastic year – but my job now was to return to Norway and continue work I’d set in motion to establish peace research as a field of study. And this would never have happened if it wasn’t for the Rinde family: Erik Rinde and Sigurd Rinde. Sigurd Rinde was the CEO of Norske Skog. In other words: capital! Erik had a law degree, but he was completely uninterested in business. His passion was for social science. His father provided him with funds to set up the Institute for Social Research, ISF.
And this was in 1950, the establishment of ISF?
They’ve played a huge role. So then I joined the institute.
How did that come about? Did you already know the Rinde family?
They contacted you while you were still at Columbia?
I had a free semester autumn 1958, and that’s when I travelled to Norway to establish peace research. It was a question of where and how. Erik was very keen to bring me to the institute as a researcher. He was pretty horrified when I told him I wanted to set up a department for conflict and peace research. He wanted to have me there as an individual specialist. I got the department.
And we worked very well together, Erik and I. And a little while later, when we needed more funding, Erik said: ‘I think you ought to have a meeting with my father. He makes the decisions’. I’ll never forget that meeting. Sigurd Rinde was a strong and very capable man, self-assured, like me. We sat there and looked at each other. He opened with the problem, as he saw it: ‘What is this conflict and peace research?’ Afterwards, he told his son, Erik: ‘I didn’t understand much of what he said, but what I did understand was that this Galtung is an entrepreneur, and as a businessman I appreciate that. He’ll get his funding’. It was as an entrepreneur, someone who sets things in motion and gets things to work, that I secured the funding we needed. So, in the beginning, we had private funding from the Rinde family.
Who perhaps weren’t people you’d expect to harbour much of an interest in this topic? They weren’t motivated by a desire to contribute to a political process?
No, neither Sigurd nor Erik. But what they were interested in was a strong institute for social research, and if conflict and peace research had to be a part of social research, so be it. I never had any good conversations with Erik about international issues or anything like that. He was an entrepreneur. In any case, he had Sverre Lysgaard, Vilhelm Aubert, and then Sverre Holm, who was professor at the Department of Sociology, as a rather small, rather innocent counterpoint.
And when was this, Johan?
In the early ’50s. In the summer of 1952, I’d refused military service and was called up for alternative civilian service. I had a motorbike, and I was very happy that our camp was at Havnås, near Mysen, an hour’s drive from Oslo. And I remember I often asked myself: ‘Johan, be honest, would you have become a conscientious objector if the camp was halfway up a mountain in Østerdalen?’
And what’s the answer to that question?
I prefer not to think about it. Because I have no idea what the answer would be. Anyhow. I ended up on these motorbike rides. And every Saturday and Sunday I was at home in Oslo. And every Saturday morning I taught Sverre Holm maths, and every Saturday afternoon I taught statistics at the Institute for Social Research. Throughout my civilian service I kept this up. And I recall that Hansen, the leader of the camp at Havnås, was sceptical to this set-up, but went along with my having four Saturdays a month off instead of just three. I was very grateful to him for that. It all worked out in the end, with a bit of help from my motorbike.
I’d refused military service and was called up for alternative civilian service. I had a motorbike, and I was very happy that our camp was […] an hour’s drive from Oslo. And I remember I often asked myself: ‘Johan, be honest, would you have become a conscientious objector if the camp was halfway up a mountain in Østerdalen?’
Havnås was the central camp for civilian service in Norway at that time?
And Hustad, which is further north, up near Molde, Åndalsnes, around there. That was the camp for the northern part of the country. Havnås was for Southern and Eastern Norway.
So if Havnås had been a little further north, the situation for peace research in Norway might have been considerably worse?
That’s the question I’d rather not answer. Obviously, I weighed up the pros and cons, and some self-interested considerations played a role there.
But anyway, we know how things turned out in the end. And I must say that these Saturdays were unbelievably fulfilling for me. At just 21 years of age, I was teaching a full professor maths every Saturday morning, and giving lectures on statistics for a bunch of researchers double my age. It was very challenging.
There are loads of exciting things I’d like to ask you about, Johan. We touched on your childhood and formative years.
Ask whatever you like!
You’ve had an international orientation in your professional life from an early stage. But since we’ve been talking a little bit about personal things and family: how has it been for you to be so rootless, to not be connected to a place? It’s clearly opened up possibilities, but has it also had personal costs? Is there anything you’ve found challenging in terms of family, social life, that sort of thing?
There are women in every country. There are attractive women in every country. I got to know, and know well, a fair few of them. My first marriage was Norwegian. That lasted 12 years. My second and last marriage is Japanese, and we’re celebrating our 50th anniversary next year. Why didn’t the Norwegian marriage last as long as the Japanese marriage has?
Well, one answer is that there’s no difference in class between me and my Japanese wife. We both come from old, lower aristocratic families. Her family were samurai, while mine were Norwegian Viking petty nobility. My Norwegian wife and I had the same nationality, but came from different classes. I came from a Norwegian upper class, socially if not economically. She came from a family who had worked their way up from a spartan existence in Western Norway. For them, the Labour Party had provided a social ladder to climb, whilst I saw the Labour Party as a tool of American imperialism. So, we had some different viewpoints where my Japanese wife and I had a shared viewpoint. But it was also a matter of the difference between class and nation. Perhaps it’s more important to have the same class background than it is to have the same nationality. So, an East-West project, from Japanese samurai to Norwegian lower Viking nobility, has worked well. We’ve had our ups and downs, like any marriage. But it works and has done now for nearly 50 years.
But what you’re saying is that, on a personal level, it’s harder to overcome class background than cultural and linguistic differences?
Yes, in my experience.
Has your international orientation made it difficult to keep in touch with your children or with friends?
Well, I remember somebody asked one of my children if it’s difficult having a strong father. And their response was: ‘Well, he is very strong, but one advantage is that he travels so much, so he comes in small doses!’
I wondered whether we could talk a little bit about the creation of PRIO. We’ve dated the origin of PRIO to 1959, the date when we, or rather you, started the department at ISF. You’ve talked about how the creation of this department was the result of your ultimatum to Rinde, that you would only be willing to come to ISF if he was willing to fund a department.
Yes, not just an individual, but a whole department.
How big was this department at that time?
It consisted of me, my wife, Ingrid, and her best friend, and wife of my best friend, Mari Holmboe Ruge, who became my assistant. She lagged a bit behind Ingrid in her education. We three were the core of the department. But we made connections with others from disciplines we wanted to bring on board. I’m thinking of Arne Martin Klausen, an anthropologist, and Sivert Langholm, a historian. So we ended up being five people. And that was the department.
Were they based at ISF already? Did you recruit them?
Yes, they were there already. But the department got stronger and stronger as more people came on board. And, in many ways, we were more dynamic than many of the other departments. So eventually we became such a strong department that we had a basis for a discussion with Erik about maybe becoming an autonomous institute.
Were there many internal conflicts about this at the institute at that time?
On the contrary. I think there were more than a few who were happy to see the back of us.
Because this was a milieu that must have been important, something of a flagship for ISF?
Yes, but we were so strong and dynamic, more than the others, although their work was also extremely strong, especially in industrial sociology and that sort of thing, no doubt about it. But I’m pretty sure they saw us as competitors and that people were really quite pleased to see us go. I’ve always had an innate drive for independence, and I still find it difficult having any kind of authority over me making decisions on my behalf.
Was it always your plan to form a separate institute?
Not right from the start, no. But an independent department, yes. But as the department grew, it became pretty clear that it was beginning to look more and more like its own institute. Erik and I entered negotiations and talked about how brilliant our collaboration would be, how this wouldn’t be affected by our becoming an independent institute. We needed a name, and I came up with Peace Research Institute Oslo, PRIO, which worked very well internationally. At the same time, PRIO stood for priority. And that was that.
And this was around the same time SIPRI and COPRI were created, although they were a little later?
They came later, yes.
[They] believed in peace through numbers and data, the thought being that if you could just document how much money we waste on armaments, people would lose the taste for them. I was far more interested in whether this hypothesis was right or wrong, and my view was that it was wrong. If anything, people quite often seem to be of the view that we should pay our way out of our problems if we can.
As I understand it, PRIO was an important source of inspiration for them?
That’s my understanding, yes. Some people think SIPRI came first, but that’s not the case. I sat on the board, and SIPRI was very important, but they had a completely different orientation. Gunnar Myrdal and Robert O’Neill believed in peace through numbers and data, the thought being that if you could just document how much money we waste on armaments, people would lose the taste for them. I was far more interested in whether this hypothesis was right or wrong, and my view was that it was wrong. If anything, people quite often seem to be of the view that we should pay our way out of our problems if we can.
You say the orientation is different, is this still an orientation SIPRI has today, towards publishing this kind of data?
Yes, with the yearbook and that sort of thing. And it’s a great yearbook, but it’s based on the idea that if we can just get all the facts out into the open, we’ll put people off the arms race.
Whereas you had a slightly broader idea of the social sciences producing knowledge that could alleviate society’s problems – and specifically the ultimate societal disease that is armed conflict – just as medical research can alleviate health problems and the natural sciences can address natural-scientific problems.
That was the idea, without a doubt. Absolutely. And, in fact, you’ve brought up an idea that was even more crucial, which was the similarity with medical research. My father and grandfather were both doctors. Jørgen Ulrik Galtung: if you take a trip to Moss, you’ll find a street called ‘Doktor Galtungs vei’. It was my grandfather who’d left Torsnes, where my family came from, and settled in Moss as the county doctor for Smaalenene. The County of Smaalenene, as it was called then, what we call Østfold today, with Vestfold on the other side of the Oslofjord. And here, at the mouth of the fjord, a body of medical knowledge accumulated. And it was this medical knowledge that was passed on to me as a model.
That’s my father’s side of my intellectual inheritance, but my mother’s side was also important. She was a nurse. You could say that a nurse is somewhat subordinate to a doctor, but her father was considerably superior to a doctor, he was a medical director. And so he – Mikael Holmboe – was of course a central figure in all this. And this is where governmental and organizational perspectives enter the frame. I grew up with all these models, and I absorbed this medical knowledge – one consequence of which is my impeccable health, even at the age of 88.
Let’s return to the topic of the milieu at PRIO in the early days, Johan. The institute formally became independent in 1966. This was a time when political divisions were becoming more rigid, I’m thinking perhaps especially of the ’70s, but also the ’60s. Critics of peace research, on both the left and the right, were becoming more vocal. At the same time, there was a certain degree of political breadth at PRIO, at least in the ’70s. Was this a deliberate aim?
No, I wouldn’t say so. We were pretty uninterested in party politics. It was clear to us that foreign policy in Norway was developed and implemented over the heads of the political parties. I was actually part of a movement called “Foreign Policy at the Ballot Box”, and we were harshly and dismissively criticized for sowing division that could be exploited by the nation’s enemies. Our response was of course that you can be pretty sure that an attack on Norway would have a unifying effect, and that the risk of attack is in any case not a good reason not to discuss how to ensure that we aren’t attacked in the first place. But that debate never got us anywhere. Foreign policy is still removed from the purview of party politics and handed over to secret meetings of the Standing Committees on Foreign Affairs and Constitutional Affairs. When it comes to foreign policy, democracy is suspended in favour of secret meetings.
Something I want to try to get a handle on is the attitude to political contacts and allegiances at PRIO at that time. It’s interesting to think about this in terms of dialogue. PRIO was characterized by collective decision making at this time, which had internalized and institutionalized a dialogue between people with different ideas about how PRIO should be run. You’ve said that this wasn’t a reflection of party politics or an attempt to ensure that a range of views were represented. But PRIO, and you personally, had good political contacts in the government and the Norwegian parliament at that time, who played an important part in establishing PRIO and ensuring a sufficient level of political and financial support for the institution.
You could say that. Look, I didn’t even know where people at PRIO stood in terms of their allegiances to political parties. I wasn’t interested. I didn’t think about it. I was only interested in the quality of their research.
But could you say something about how important your network of contacts was for securing PRIO’s existence during its formative years?
Torstein Eckhoff, he was an extremely important person. His contacts were very important. He had contacts at the ministries and good political contacts in parliament. I also had a good relationship with the Norwegian authorities at this time. My own network was primarily through Knut Frydenlund, who was the Norwegian Foreign Minister for many years. He was a close personal friend of mine. Our friendship was based on total disagreement, except on all the really important things in life – love, life and death, that sort of thing – on which we agreed completely. We were particularly in agreement on the sexual element of life and death.
There were three of us who often ended up sat in a room at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, making plans: Knut Frydenlund, Halvard Lange and myself. Knut had been the MFA’s representative on the so-called Galtung committee, which had been looking at setting up a Norwegian peace corps, something I’d come up with in 1960, a couple of months before Kennedy. And supposedly he was very impressed by how I’d managed to organize a debate in which the different sides all got to have their say and together arrive at a conclusion that they could all live with. I took great care to make sure that each participant’s main point had been heard. This has always been my approach. Everyone should feel at home: ‘that’s me, I remember that sentence, that was my best sentence’. I suppose I have a certain talent for identifying each person’s best statement and for merging all these together. In any case, Knut was impressed by this, and involved me quite heavily in the development of Norwegian foreign policy. For a while, I occupied a position that was frankly undemocratic.
As a sort of unofficial adviser?
Exactly. I had a great deal of influence. I don’t think I did anything wrong, I don’t think so. But there certainly wasn’t an open debate on foreign policy, that’s for sure.
Did you feel like you made any real breakthroughs?
Oh yes, to some extent.
Can you give any examples that aren’t confidential?
Not confidential! Well, for example, I said that Algeria would very quickly gain independence. In the wake of the Évian Accords, it’ll happen any day now. We know from social research that there is something called imprinting, that a new born life’s first impression is extremely important. This applies to animals and it applies to humans. Whether, for example, a baby is treated with love and warmth or is treated harshly is something that will have a lasting effect on its life.
A new country was born in 1962, Algeria. Make sure Norway is one of the first in line with a gift. And that’s what Norway did. We gave them some good-quality Norwegian wooden houses that could be placed up in the Atlas Mountains. And this created a positive impression of Norway in Algeria that I believe has persisted to this day. The so-called ‘imprint’, the impact of a first impression: this was applied social-scientific research.
Did this happen on any other occasions?
It’s just an example.
Did you contribute to changing the way people thought at the MFA?
That’s a good question, but I wouldn’t want to hazard a guess.
These are interesting processes.
I remember someone high up at the ministry lectured me once on the three pillars: the embassies, the consulates and the ministry. You circle upwards between these three pillars. You progress from secretary to the consul, to consul general to the counsellor, to ambassador, to director general and finally secretary general. And as the secretary general, you’re in effect the deputy foreign minister. But you’ll never become the foreign minister. As one of them said: ‘That job goes to someone who’s been drinking coffee at the party headquarters since he was 20 years old’. He’s the one who gets to be foreign minister. There’s plenty of coffee drinking to be done at the party headquarters. And another thing he told me is that it doesn’t matter that much in any case, as it’s the secretary general, the consul general, and the ambassador who really run the ministry. So this was the sort of picture I had of things. There was no end to my insider knowledge of the workings of the Norwegian state and this was something I made use of. I wasn’t out to involve myself in any political drama. My aim was to show what could be achieved directly through positive action.
How long did you have this unofficial role as adviser?
That’s an important question. With a very clear answer. And that answer perhaps doesn’t cast me in an especially good light. I had a very close collaboration with Knut Frydenlund, as I’ve said. What happened was that Ingrid and I got divorced. Knut had always got on very well with Ingrid. And then I married my lovely Japanese wife, Fumiko, who Knut also got on with. But you could say that I married out of a Norwegian reality and into an Asian reality. And then came Norway’s support for NATO’s decision on the Vietnam War, that Norway would unambiguously pledge support for the Americans in Vietnam. And the people the Americans were killing in Vietnam had the same skin colour as my wife. They looked like my wife. So I sat in Knut’s office and said, ‘Knut, they’ve got the same skin colour as my wife. I’m not with you on this one’. ‘Yes, but Johan, you must understand, Johan, we can’t go against the US. If we do that, we’ll have no guarantee that they’ll be on our side “when the Russians come”’. Not if the Russians come, but when.
And when was this?
This was right after Fumiko and I got married, so in 1969. That was the end of my close collaboration with Knut. Not the end of our friendship, but certainly of our collaboration. We were separated by a racial divide, and by lines of conflict.
So, from your point of view, it was you who withdrew from the relationship?
I was the one who withdrew, and I don’t think I should have done. I’ve regretted it since.
Why is that?
I think I ought to have stayed and discussed the details with Knut, tried to find some kind or overarching perspective.
But that was difficult because this was also something personal for you?
Yes, exactly. There wasn’t any pressure from my Japanese wife, not at all. I think she would have been more willing to collaborate than I was, in fact. Maybe I made too much of it. But the Norwegian support for the US was very strong. And here, Knut had two stories that were important for him. Let me see if I can remember them. He was sitting and talking with the American ambassador, and they’re talking about some conflict or other in Europe. And Knut says to him, according to Knut himself, ‘our ambassador doesn’t quite agree with you there’. And the American ambassador replies: ‘Your ambassador is ill-informed’. And so Knut asks, ‘Ok, how can he be better informed?’ And the American ambassador says, ‘We can’t reveal our sources’. And so Knut responds, ‘But we’re a close ally’. ‘I can’t reveal our sources’. That made a real impression on Knut, and not a positive one.
And then the other story. This same American ambassador says to Knut: ‘We’re in trouble now in Vietnam. We know it and we’re being criticized around the world. If you also criticize a friend in trouble… Well, we’re the friend and we’re in trouble. You don’t criticize a friend who’s in trouble, but if you do, then we can’t guarantee American support when the Russians come.’ This was at the very foundation of Knut’s worldview. I argued that you’re better off without that kind of help, and that a much better approach would be something like Gerhardsen’s foreign policy from ’45–’49, a foreign policy aimed at building good relations with both sides simultaneously.
But his attitude was coloured more by what he perceived to be realism than by idealism?
If you want to use those terms, then yes. I find these terms a little difficult, as idealism often strikes me as more realistic than realism, which often seems to me more like submission than realism. You can talk about concrete policies and concrete things and their effects, and then observe the effects. It’s a matter of how good you are at predicting the future. A future I predicted was a Norway even more subjugated to the US, and that’s the Norway we’ve ended up with, and to an ever increasing extent. It’s gone so far that Norway is in effect occupied by the US, with American military bases positioned at all the most important points. A Norwegian foreign policy in any way in conflict with American foreign policy is in practice inconceivable.
Can I ask you about one last thing, if we spool back in time a little. I’ve had the pleasure of enjoying another fruit of your labour, namely the Journal of Peace Research. I took over from Nils Petter Gleditsch as editor, and had this role from 2010 to 2017.
Such a long time?
Yes, I decided not to try to beat Nils Petter’s record – he was the editor for 26 years. The journal has changed over the years, but we’ve certainly found it very rewarding to be able to build on the visibility and international standing that the journal achieved under your leadership, as a result of the way it was established as an international journal with the goal of making an impact on its field. Could you say something about the background for the development of the journal? This is something I’ve personally wondered about, and that you perhaps haven’t talked so much about previously.
We had something quite simple in mind. We’d established a peace research institute, which had initially been a department, but which was in the process of establishing itself properly in 1965. The Journal of Peace Research was part of this struggle for independence. Of course, the journal could have been based at a department at the Institute for Social Research. But by establishing a journal, we distanced ourselves from the Norwegian Institute for International Affairs. Not that we were against them, but we were something else. They had their own publications, of course, but by establishing the journal, we also in effect signalled PRIO’s status. So for me, the journal was a sort of predecessor to our becoming an independent institute. And this is basically what I wrote in my first editorial, where you can also read a fair bit about the things I’d later try to achieve.
It has of course upset me to see how the journal has, as many people have pointed out, effectively become an American journal, with the majority of articles written by Americans. And I remember mentioning this to Nils Petter, who pointed out to me that ‘Americans have the enormous advantage that they know how to write an article. They have footnotes and lists of references, all ready to go. Ask a European, or especially a Norwegian, to write an article and they don’t know where to start, there’s an awful lot of work to be done’. So that’s one aspect of it, and I know what Nils Petter was saying. It’s true, Americans know how to write, they’ve had a better academic upbringing than Norwegians. But another aspect is Americanization, and if you take a look at the Journal of Peace Research and count the number of American and non-American contributors, it becomes very clear that it’s an American journal.
Actually, they’re in the minority now.
Are they? Maybe something’s happened recently. But it was certainly that way for a long time.
This has been a very interesting conversation, Johan. Just one final question. It seems to me that you’ve to a large extent succeeded in using your research skills, your thinking, your intellectual inheritance and your experience in a way that is increasingly practical, although still clearly anchored in your earlier research. Is this your impression too, or do you feel you’ve made a definitive move from research to practical politics?
I’d put it slightly differently. We have an empirical reality, the actually existing world. And when it comes to understanding this reality, I’m an empiricist, a sociologist, and I work in the same way as any other researcher to try to understand it. But we also have another world, the potential world. And if you look at history, it’s the history of how the potential world supplants the old empirical world. Look at how the Middle Ages supplanted the Roman Empire, or how modernity supplanted the Middle Ages, to use a European example. And there are corresponding examples from other civilizations. In light of this, the potential world becomes very real, as opposed to what we might call the non-world. An example of something non-worldly is a unicorn. There are no unicorns. Animals only ever have two or more horns, never just one. And it then becomes an interesting question to ask why this is the case. And this is where I’m more interested in the potential world.
But that isn’t to say that I’m unempirical. I draw parallels from history and geography. I look at other epochs of Western history and other locations and ask, “Why couldn’t that have happened here?” That isn’t unempirical, but it isn’t necessarily empirical in the society in which we find ourselves. There’s historical knowledge and geographical knowledge that needs to be grounded in your having really been there. That’s why my method has been conversations, dialogue, all over the world. Unfortunately, it isn’t possible to have a dialogue with the past, but you can have a global dialogue with the present. I see this as empirical research, but you also need critical and constructive research. We have critical research in medicine, we critique illnesses, we want to do something about them. We have it in law, we critique the law and breaches of the law, we want to do something about them. And, in my view, this also applies to war, violence – these are things we critique and want to do something about. So, not just empirical research, but critical and constructive research. And this is where we get this triangle of data, theory and value. If you draw a line between data and theory, you get empirical research. You can start with data and develop a theory, or you can look at the data to see if it matches your theory. That’s empirical research. Then you have data and value, and I’m thinking of law and medicine in particular. Here you have values, for example obedience to the law, or good health, and you can investigate how the data fits with these. And on this basis, you can critique reality and suggest that something needs to change. Reality is data. And then you have the exciting relationship between value and theory. It’s here we can talk about being constructive. Say I want a more egalitarian society, more equality in international collaborations, with reciprocity and equal utility for all parties. Then we have all sorts of theories, and the question is what kind of theory we need to build the society we want.
Thank you very much, Johan.
This published English-language interview is an abridged, translated and language-edited version of an audio recording. The full transcript of the audio, in the interviewee’s preferred language, is available here (.pdf).
We must emphasize that these interviews are based solely on the memories of individuals, and have not undergone any form of editorial review.