Accepting Dole Leadership Prize, former Colombian president tells KU crowd ‘peace doesn’t grow on trees’

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

Juan Manuel Santos, former president of Colombia and an alumnus of the University of Kansas, accepts the 2022 Dole Leadership Prize from Audrey Coleman, director of the Dole Institute of Politics at KU on Sept. 20, 2022.

Juan Manuel Santos, the former president of Colombia, knows conflict.

Thus, the KU alumnus and 2016 recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize had little difficulty in answering a question at a Lawrence event Tuesday evening about the morality of negotiating with a political enemy. It was a question he got all the time as he worked to end a more-than-50-year Colombian civil war during his presidential tenure.

“I was very much attacked,” Santos told a near-capacity crowd at the Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. “How do you dare sit down with these terrorists who were my enemies? The answer is very simple: You don’t make peace with your friends. You make peace with your enemies. You have to sit down with them.”

Santos was in Lawrence on Tuesday to receive the 2022 Dole Leadership Prize, and he focused many of his comments on the need for American political factions to come together and resolve their differences.

“Thinking differently, that doesn’t matter, but talking to each other and agreeing on fundamental things that would benefit everybody, because if that does not happen it is very difficult to have a government that will resolve the problems of the people,” Santos said.

Santos was president of Colombia from 2010 to 2018, a period of massive reform in Colombia that became possible as peace negotiations between the government and guerrilla warriors took hold.

He reminded the audience that before he was the Colombian president, he was the country’s minister of defense, and was good at waging war. He said waging war required a relatively easy form of leadership, one where direct orders were given and “as long as you win, you are in good shape.” Leadership to wage peace is much different, he said.

“Peace doesn’t grow on trees,” Santos said. “Peace you have to construct … Making peace is a completely different type of leadership. You have to persuade.”

Santos has a degree in economics and administration from KU, a school he attended after one of his older brothers came to Lawrence to study journalism. When it was time for Santos to choose a college, his brother told him “don’t look, come to Kansas. You will fall in love.”

Santos has become known as an elder statesman of peacemaking, talking with leaders around the world, which recently included a meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Santos often tells them news about peace processes that can be disconcerting.

“There is never a peace process that is perfect,” Santos said. “It is a negotiation between human beings who are killing each other. In a nutshell, what a peace process boils down to is where do you draw the line between peace and justice? How much justice are you willing to sacrifice to have peace? … Most peacemakers have been called traitors. Many of them have paid with their lives.”

Santos said Zelenskyy asked him how to manage the media while trying to make war and peace at the same time. Santos said communicating with the public and the media during peace negotiations is one of the most difficult tasks of a peace process.

“I say that a peace process is like a work of art,” Santos said. “The artist never allows you to go and see the work when it is half done because usually it is terrible. They allow you to see it when it is completed. The same with peace processes. If it is half done, everybody will start criticizing what you are doing and then you lose your political support.”

Santos, though, said during the Colombian peace process he also came to realize a vacuum of information will be filled by “fake news” that will take on a life of its own and become real in its own destructive way.

He said that made the question of how to communicate during a peace process one of several that he doesn’t have an answer for. Unfortunately, he said, how to reduce rising polarization in the U.S. was another one. But he thinks sitting down to talk — something he noted Nelson Mandela called the greatest of all weapons — will be a key.

“It is extremely dangerous for a society to stop talking to people who think differently, because that is what initiates wars,” Santos said.


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