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The Surprise Is That There Is Less
And Less War in the World



STOCKHOLM, Sweden-- Eight years on from the end of the Cold War we seem to be mired, even entrapped, in a seamless web of failures on the international scene. United Nations peacekeeping, once the flagship, has been holed below the waterline and is sinking fast--it doesn't even try to put in a port call in bloody African conflicts these days. START 2 (the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) meant to cut the over-large U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals, first held hostage by Senator Jesse Helms is now a prisoner of the equally chauvinist Russian Duma. The Clinton Administration's energies have been deployed almost exclusively on the expansion of NATO--there are not many beads of sweat to be seen in Washington from the pushing for START 2, much less START 3. Elsewhere, Saddam Hussein is still trying to build weapons of mass destruction, the Middle East peace process is dead in the water...

But is this all? It is not, though to find a mention in the press of another side of things is a laborious and unrewarding task. The media appears to revel in its melancholic view of life. Last week the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute held its annual press conference to launch its 830 page yearbook. Admittedly it is a complex read, but is that a good enough reason for ignoring the remarkable revelation made in its first chapter that for every year since 1989, the last year of the Cold War, the number of wars has fallen? In 1989 there were 36 major conflicts. In 1995 it was down to 30 and last year down to 27, of which all but one, between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, were domestic in nature.

Last year there was only one new conflict serious enough (over 1,000 deaths) to be noted--the war in northern Uganda between the government and the Lord's Resistance Army. This was far outweighed by the four wars that were wound up by negotiation, (at least for the time being). Two were in ex-Yugoslavia, in Bosnia and Croatia. In Angola, the UN-brokered peace finally took hold after 22 years of continuous warfare. The fourth was in Liberia where despite new fighting the implementation of the peace agreement remains on track.

There were also two conflicts that were settled by superior force of arms--the Indian government triumphed over the Sikh rebellion in the Punjab and the Myanmar government over the Mong Tai army.

The wars that did continue their course through 1996 experienced no dramatic signs of escalation. In most of the ongoing conflicts the intensity waned, even in the most serious--in Afghanistan, Algeria, Chechnya, Sri Lanka, Sudan and Turkey.

The other major conflicts were all of low intensity--Bangladesh, Guatemala, East Timor, Iran, Iraq and the Philippines. In fact there was only one conflict in the world last year that could be realistically described as potentially unsettling to the world at large--that of Israel and the Palestinians. Even here it is difficult to make a case that the conflict is a military threat to any outsiders, much less Russia and the major western powers who nevertheless continue to maintain large and expensive military establishments, left over from another era.

Last year was an historic watershed. It witnessed the end of the post-Cold War period. Those conflicts where Cold War superpower involvement had been greatest--in Southern Africa, Central and South America--were finally wound up. And the conflicts emanating from the breakup of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia were at last contained. Only the continuing civil war in Afghanistan is a left-over from this period.

The evidence appears conclusive that it was the Cold War that was the greatest single stirrer of conflict. With that out of the way it probably doesn't much matter so much if the Clinton Administration still spends on defense at Cold War levels or Russian and American missiles stay nuclear armed in their silos. Since America and Russia are no longer engaged in proxy wars it doesn't any more weigh on the rest of the world, only on the American and Russian taxpayers who should wake up and ask what it's all for.

We are now living in a very different kind of world than humanity has long been used to and the question is can we keep it that way--can the momentum of declining conflicts be sustained?

Africa and an arc of instability around the Russian periphery remain the most troubled regions. But who can help them? The most single successful arbitrator of disputes, for all its setbacks in Somalia, Rwanda and ex-Yugoslavia, remains the UN. These days, however, the Security Council remains shy of launching new initiatives. UN peacekeeping continues its dramatic decline and all the remaining large-scale UN operations are set to be terminated this year.

Yet, even though it is a truism to say it, peace must be struggled for continuously. A small band of UN enthusiasts, determined and skilled diplomats and, increasingly, voluntary organizations carry on with their unremarked upon good works of arbitration and interposition. No other generation in humankind's history has been so close to a world-wide peace. Are we going to go for the final push or are we not? Why on earth at just this moment are we losing our nerve?


July 2, 1997, STOCKHOLM

Copyright © 1997 By JONATHAN POWER

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