top of page
  • Writer's pictureErik Isaksson

Pacifist Identities As a Counterweight

Military solutions dominate the international conversation on security policy. Pacifist identities can constitute an important counterweight to these ingrained tendencies in violent international politics.

Peace and security are the privileges of a few, as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Israel-Gaza war, along less medially present conflicts in countries like Myanmar, Yemen, and Sudan underscore. In the public debate on security policy in European countries and Japan - my own country of study - the general mood is appropriately bleak. The prescription offered is one of increasing defense spending, upgrading military capabilities, and joining or strengthening military alliances. In this vein, Finland and Sweden have joined or are joining NATO, Germany is in the process of a self-styled “Zeitenwende”, and Japan is aiming to raise defense spending to 2% of GDP and acquire so-called counter-strike capabilities. These efforts can be seen as part of militarism, broadly defined as “preparation for war, its normalization, and legitimization” (Stavrianakis and Stern 2018, p. 3). 

These prescriptions might in their individual contexts - carefully applied and communicated - very well be the right thing to do. However, an accompanying discreditation of opposing pacifist ideas is unhelpful.

Examples of this might be the derogatory words heiwa boke (e.g. Sankei 2023) and fredsskadad (e.g. Abramowicz 2022) in the Japanese and Swedish languages. Both roughly mean “retardation by peace” and are used to discredit peace activists.

The reason to avoid such discreditation is not because strictly defined pacifism - which could mean that violence in each and every situation is unacceptable - is always the right way. Rather, it is because pacifist ideas and the internalization of such ideas as part of one’s identity might constitute a counterweight to the militarist tendencies of states. This is particularly true in relation to the might-makes-right inclination of great powers - think of the U.S. in Iraq, Russia in Ukraine, and Chinese aggressive behavior in the South China Sea.

Taken at a D-Day reenactment in Blyth, northumberland, UK

Photo by Duncan Kidd on Unsplash

That “states” have “militarist tendencies” is a big claim, as it could hint at entire societies being steeped in military culture, or that military expenditure trumps whatever else the state spends money on. I would not want a debate on whether Finland is turning into North Korea - it is not, and there are other countries where that comparison would be more appropriate. We can instead draw on research that shows how states become militarist through shared militarist understandings between governments and citizens (Parashar 2018), or through lacking civilian control of military institutions (Diamint 2015).

In Europe, the militarist impulse precedes the War in Ukraine - illustrated by Ursula von der Leyen’s ambition of a “geopolitical commission” (Hoijntink and Muehlenhoff 2020) but has been profoundly affected by it (Minakov 2022). Moreover, classical theories of International Relations will invariably tell us that (military) security is the core concern of states, be these theories variations of realism (e.g. Waltz 1979; Mearsheimer 1994), or complex interdependence liberalism (e.g. Keohane and Nye 2012, p. 14).

These theories are sometimes framed as objective truths. In reality, however, they are not qualitatively different from other knowledge in society in that they are produced by people, intersubjectively, and are influenced by the positionalities of those that produce them. Not only is such knowledge formed through our subjectivities, they in turn construct how we see the world; and what meaning “things” like “security” come to have. We would, furthermore, be fooling ourselves if we claimed not to recognize the pattern of militarization put on display by governments today in the face of international insecurity.

The realist position that there is something resembling an instinct among states toward achieving security through military means often looks vindicated in times of international tension. In sum, a militarist tendency among states, kept alive by politics as well as influential theories and expert commentary, is difficult not to see.  

This is where pacifist identities matter. Identities inform how we see ourselves and our role in the world, and by extension what kind of politics we wish to have. A pacifist identity can be many things: it can be based on absolute pacifism, renouncing all violence. It can be conditional, proposing contexts where violence is allowed (Russel, 1943). It can even be “militant”, directing the “militancy” toward injustices (Whiton Calkins 1917, pp. 76-77). What pacifism means can, in this way, be debated at length. More important might be the function that existing pacifist identities have in our societies.

Be they civil society organizations protesting violence in Gaza (Jewish Voice for Peace 2023), or Russian conscientious objectors resisting militarization (MCO 2024), individuals and organizations with a pacifist or anti-militarist inclination are a factor in the international conversation. Their demands should be taken seriously rather than ridiculed and marginalized. If identity and the aspirations for politics emanating from that identity are inclined toward violence, on the other hand, that is fuel to the fire of the violent bent of states. This can be illustrated by the militarization of Russian society, where the increasing popularity of the armed forces and the militarization of education and memory politics make the Russian government’s legitimacy rely more and more on military success in Ukraine. This, in turn, likely prolongs the war (Klein and Schreiber, 2022).

Not every individual is, of course, equally influential in shaping state policy, and a comprehensive engagement with the concept of identity requires defining whose identity is at work. A pacifist state identity as an intersubjectively shared story is arguably more effective when shared by state officials than by individual citizens or limited facets of society. At the same time, it seems unlikely that our political leaders would harbor pacifist identities if the society in which their subjectivities were formed lacked such milieus.

At a time when many international actors argue that democracy, human rights, and the rule of law are under siege, it is important to consider what meaning we actually ascribe to these ideals, and whether mounting militarization is really conducive to realizing them.

Even more certain is that a demonization and discreditation of what in many societies is an already politically marginalized pacifism leads us down a dangerous path, particularly when our political leaders fail us, and lead us toward war rather than peace. 



Abramowicz, N. (2022). Naomi Abramowicz: Kommer Ukraina att få den fredsskadade svensken att nyktra till? Trelleborgs allehanda. Available at:


Diamint, R. (2015). A New Latin American Militarism. Journal of Democracy 26(4). Pp. 155-168. 

Hoijtink, M. and Muehlenhoff, H. (2020). The European Union’s new muscular militarism in a ‘dangerous world’. Open Democracy. Available at:

Jewish Voice for Peace. (2023). Jews of all ages are organizing for a ceasefire. Jewish Voice for Peace. Available at:

Keohane, R. and Nye, J. (2012). Power and Interdependence. Fourth Edition. Boston: Longman.


Klein, M. and Schreiber, N. (2022). Der Angriff auf die Ukraine und die Militarisierung der russischen Außen- und Innenpolitik. SWP-Aktuell, 2022A, 76. Available at:

MCO. (2024). Movement of Conscientious Objectors to military service in Russia - MCO. Available at:

Minakov, M. (2022). The Militarist Remapping of Europe and Northern Eurasia. Focus Ukraine: A Blog of the Kennan Institute. Available at:     

Parashar, S. (2018). Discursive (in)securities and postcolonial anxiety. Enabling excessive militarism in India. Security Dialogue 49(1-2). Pp. 123-135.

Russell, B. (1943). The Future of Pacifism. The American Scholar 13(1). pp. 7-13.

Sankei. (2024). ‘Heiwa boke no Nihon yo, ima koso boueiryoku kyouka wo’ Kadota Ryusho shi. Sankei Shimbun. Available at:

Stavrianakis, A. and Stern, M. (2018). Militarism and Security: Dialogue, Possibilities and Limits. Security Dialogue 49(1-2). pp. 3-18,

Whiton Calkins, M. (1917). Militant Pacifism. International Journal of Ethics 28(1). pp. 70-79.


44 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page