A New View of the Third World as Threat

JONATHAN POWER

February 12, 1993|By JONATHAN POWER

London. -- Every so often some intellectual writes a book or an essay that turns America's head.

Rachel Carson did it in the 1950s with ''The Silent Spring'' that planted the first snowdrops of the environmental movement. John Kenneth Galbraith did it in the 1960s with ''The Affluent Society'' that first made modern-day Americans start to question naked capitalism. More recently Francis Fukuyama did it with ''The End of History.''

Now, I think, Steven David, professor of political science at the John Hopkins University, might have done it with an essay deceptively entitled ''Why the Third World Still Matters.'' It appears in the current issue of Harvard's International Security. That's a magazine you won't find on airport bookstalls, but I think this essay is going to sell. Since the end of the Cold War too many Americans have been looking for something to worry about and fight against, and here it is -- the Third World and all its works.

In 33 persuasive pages, we have a litany of worst-case scenarios of Third World turmoil, instability and threats aimed at America's jugular. If it found widespread acceptance, it would end up fueling Pentagon budgets, just as wiser Americans had concluded that it is time to repair neglected problems at home. The Third World, Mr. David insists, is an unstable mishmash of youthful, immature states, unreceptive to democracy, teeming with population and with a propensity to despotism and war-making.

War is the norm in most of the Third World, he asserts, because ''enemies are vilified and dehumanized in the press and textbooks; class differences within states are great, raising the possibility of going to war to justify the privileged position of the .. elite; and the glories of the military struggle are celebrated.''

Besides this, religion, in particular Islamic fundamentalism, is a force for war, and cultural inhibitions make Western concepts like ''deterrence'' less likely to keep the lid on. In the Third World, ideology openly seeks the destruction of neighbors ''as seen in Arab calls for the elimination of Israel, Indonesia's brutal suppression of East Timor and Iraq's attempted incorporation of Kuwait.''

The absence of democracy makes war more likely, Mr. David continues. Political instability is complicated by exploding population growth, and ''pressures forecast by Malthus are coming true.'' The possession of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons is spreading rapidly. ''At least six Third World states are expected to have intercontinental ballistic missiles by the end of this decade, making them capable of instant destruction of American cities.''

War? Is Professor David aware that this last year there has been no all-out interstate war in the entire world, and that the number of wars has been decreasing by the year for the last six years?

Democracy? Is he aware that more people live under democratic government in the Third World than in the West; and that there are more Third World democracies than there are Western?

The Third World is a big place with 3 billion people. To highlight the rotten apples -- Iraq, population 18 million, Libya, population 4 million -- distorts and skews reality. One may look at the pictures of starving children in Africa and conclude that the Third World is hungry. The truth is that 90 percent of the Third World is being adequately fed.

India, the world's second-largest country, may be poor, may have population problems, may not have the growth rates of the Asian ''tigers'' and may be nuclear -- but it is democratic, its family-planning policies are beginning to show results and its economy has grown well ahead of its population for most of the last decade. India's middle class is the size of Germany's and Britain's put together. These families average only two or three children each; they value political stability and detest religious extremism. Indian nuclear weapons are not aimed at America and there's not one -- not one -- Indian politician who suggests they should be, even if they were capable of reaching that far.

What about that vast continent, South America? When was the last time one of its countries went to war with another? You have to go back to before World War II. When, a few years ago, Chile and Argentina had a serious territorial dispute they asked the pope to mediate. He did. They accepted it. Brazil may be secretly developing nuclear weapons, but certainly not to aim at the U.S. Rather, it's a silly game of prestige for an underemployed army. Brazil hasn't been to war since 1870.

Of course, we do have to watch the nuclear genie very carefully. There are some danger zones, Iraq and North Korea in particular, which may call for tough action, but we must distinguish between predatory nations and those which are more likely to use them for deterrence.

Most of the problems Professor David puts his finger on are within the West's ability to control, by its own self-discipline and self-denial. It is Western companies who have sold and still sell most of the nuclear-weapons equipment, indeed most of the modern paraphernalia of war. It is the West's, in particular America's, overconsumption of oil that makes the combustible materials in the Middle East such a potential flash point.

We are a long way from Armageddon, further than we've been for a couple of generations. With a little common sense we should be able to keep it like that.

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

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