The World Is Getting More Peaceful

JONATHAN POWER

February 05, 1993|By JONATHAN POWER

London. -- If you lined up the world's population and singled out every 300th person, shot them in the head and dumped them one on top of another, you'd have a pile of corpses 3,600 miles high.

It would, in fact, be the number of people killed in war since 1945, the end of what North Americans, Europeans and the Japanese like to call ''the last war.'' We have lived through hard and dangerous times.

So why so much agitated concern in 1993? The world is not

worse than it has been; it is probably better. To read the forebodings of the politicians and pundits is to be plunged into the depths of despondency. The world, they appear to say, is spinning out of control.

It is simply not so. The world we live in today, despite Yugoslavia, despite Somalia, despite Northern Ireland, despite Cambodia, has probably rarely if ever been so peaceful. Since the waning of the misnamed Cold War, which stirred up hot proxy wars all over the place, the number of conflicts has been on a steady decline. According to the Stockholm International Research Institute, the number of wars in 1987 was 36, in 1988 33, in 1989 32, in 1990 31, in 1991 30 and down to 27 last year.

The majority of the big ''post war'' killers were the direct consequence of communist-capitalist confrontation -- Korea, Vietnam, Angola, Mozambique, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Afghanistan, Ethiopia-Somalia, to mention only the principal ones. Added to these there were the great anti-colonial wars, Algeria, Kenya, Cyprus, Rhodesia and, long before they became Cold War wars, Indo-China, Angola and Mozambique.

There were the big interstate wars -- Israel versus the Arabs, Pakistan versus India, Iran versus Iraq and Iraq versus Kuwait and the rest of the world. Finally, as there still are, there were numerous ethnic or tribal wars.

The Cold War is over. The colonial era is over. Indeed, right now there are no all-out wars between nations. How then this awful sense of gloom that pervades the political discourse?

It is certainly not Somalia. The world is pretty hardened to African wars, although when you consider that there are 800 tribal groupings in Africa, that the political demarcation lines imposed by the imperial powers bear little relation to traditional boundaries and that the Cold War stuffed the continent with armaments, then it is amazing there are not more.

It is certainly not Cambodia, for all the reports of setback after setback in the election organizing of the U.N.'s peacekeeping force and the intransigence of the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia remains, as it was during the Vietnam war when Nixon and Kissinger ordered it bombed, a sideshow.

It is, in fact, Yugoslavia alone that has wrought such a mood of unrelieved, near irrational, pessimism. Why? After all, it is not Europe's first post-war ethnic blood-letting. The Basque conflict in Spain and the ''troubles'' of Northern Ireland have at times challenged the central establishment of government. In Britain, the IRA killed the queen's uncle and barely missed killing Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Is it then the horrifying proportions of the carnage? It is not much worse than the blood bath in Burundi three years ago that nobody outside Africa took much notice of.

It is most likely a combination of factors: the scale of the killings, the white skins involved, the short one-hour flying time for film crews to and from ''civilization'' and, not least, the growing anxiety that the Yugoslav tragedy may be reproduced in the former Soviet Union, only on a much larger scale and with even greater complexity.

In the federal structure of both Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union the republics were identified with different ''nationalities,'' but the territory of each republic corresponded only roughly with the area inhabited by people of that nationality. Moreover, the largest nationality, the Serbs in one case, the Russians in the other, was present in large numbers in most of the other republics. Once the glue of communist dictatorship was removed, disaster followed.

The signs of friction in the ex-U.S.S.R. are by the day more evident, but so far a fireball of Yugoslav proportions has been avoided. Perhaps the Yugoslavian civil war, well reported throughout the former Soviet area, partially inoculates would-be combatants against the disease of war.

So far, 1992 and 1993 do not deserve the fashionable pessimism that has become dangerously pervasive. Unknown to ourselves, may live in the best of times. Two single steps could help keep it that way -- controlling the sale of arms and nuclear technology and using the U.N. more sensibly. We should not ask the U.N. to do the impossible and ''impose'' a peace on Yugoslavia. It arrived on the scene too late for that, thanks to Europe- an dithering. Use it for pre-emptive peacekeeping -- going into a country when danger beckons but before major blood is shed.

This is what should have been done in Croatia and Bosnia. Wisely, it is being done now in still-quiet Macedonia, where 1,000 peacekeepers were recently sent.

The U.N. should do the same in Kosovo and in parts of the former Soviet Union where trouble is brewing and, maybe, if the sense of deja vu is bearable, return to Zaire.

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

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