Pre-Emptive Peace

JONATHAN POWER

April 23, 1993|By JONATHAN POWER

Stockholm. -- "Every road toward a better state of society is blocked, sooner or later, by war, by threats of war, preparation for war. That is the truth, odious and unacceptable truth.''

Every time I visit Sweden, Aldous Huxley's words come racing back. Never at war in 178 years, Sweden, if no longer the most prosperous country in the world, is still the one with the best all-round record of social and economic achievement -- where incomes are high and infant mortality low, where a long and secure life is practically assured and no one is ill-housed, where women have made more progress than anywhere else.

At last, with the Cold War over, one thinks America could start to spend some money on its own problems. Yet Yugoslavia has pushed it into a desperate struggle with its warrior instincts.

Many of the old hawk-dove demarcation lines have become blurred. President Clinton is under attack from a strange alliance of old-time liberals who opposed military action in Vietnam, Grenada, Panama and the Persian Gulf, but now believe the might of America should be deployed to impose a peace on ex-Yugoslavia. Those who know war and have supported the cause of war in the past, like Gen. Colin Powell, see the terrible dangers of being bogged down for many fruitless years.

We are all moved by the televised suffering in Bosnia-Herzegovina, but I can't help wonder whether if the everyday violence, squalor and degradation of America's inner-city ghettos were given the same air time, the new hawks would be as prepared for drastic action there as they are in Yugoslavia.

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the world's foremost think tank on conflict research, has given me a list. It is long, but not as long as it used to be when the Cold War stirred pots all over the place. It records, in alphabetical order, all the conflicts in 1992 where more than 1,000 people died in battle: Bangladesh, Chad, Colombia, Guatemala, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Iran, Israel-Palestine, Laos, Liberia, Mozambique, Myanmar, Northern Ireland, Peru, the Philippines, Rwanda, Somalia, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Tadjikistan, Turkey and Yugoslavia.

In nearly all these cases, one could erect a plausible case for outside intervention by superior firepower. The reason this doesn't happen is not that the U.S. army can't fight everywhere -- it could easily handle four or five of these little wars if there were no budget constraints -- but that American television can only manage one and half foreign wars at a time. Public opinion is not engaged in Tadjikistan, Liberia or Rwanda because heart-rending, anger-making pictures, are not there night after night to wind it up.

The solution to this quandary lies in another document easy to pick up in Stockholm. It is a report, ''Common Security'' written under the chairmanship of Sweden's best-known politician, Olof Palme, who was assassinated by an unknown gunman seven years ago. The Palme Commission was the first to have high-level representation from the U.S., the Soviet Union and also the Third World. It formulated many of the concepts that Mikhail Gorbachev later adopted as his own.

Among its many path-breaking ideas was pre-emptive peacekeeping. Palme, and later Mr. Gorbachev, argued that it is no good going into a conflict after war has already started and passions are out of control -- that is both too complicated and too expensive. Rather, U.N. troops should be deployed when tensions first start to erupt, to get in between the would-be contestants, to calm the nerves of those who feel at risk, and to offer an on-the-spot neutral negotiating forum.

Imagine if this had been done in the early days of the Yugoslav conflict. In August 1990 unhappy minority Serbs staged an armed insurrection in northern Croatia, but it was a year before the first serious clashes between Croats and Serbs and two years before blood was drawn in Bosnia. There were, in fact, a few who argued for such a U.N. deployment then. No one in authority listened to them and the press ignored them.

The old superpowers need to be at the forefront of such pre-emptive peacekeeping. This kind of peacekeeping would break nobody's bank and wear down nobody's army. And its chances of success would be very high. If there's one lesson to be learned from Yugoslavia, this is it.

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

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