Good News from the Battle Front

July 01, 1994|By JONATHAN POWER

STOCKHOLM — Besotted as we are by the daily reports of bloody, heart-rending conflicts in Bosnia, Haiti, Rwanda, we need to be reminded of the true state of affairs: that there are substantially fewer conflicts than there were in the Cold War years.

In 1993 major armed conflicts resulting in over a thousand battle- related deaths were recorded in 13 countries: Afghanistan, Algeria, Angola, Azerbaijan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Colombia, Georgia, India, Peru, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Tajikistan and Turkey.

It is worth noting a few things about this list. To begin with, Somalia, Haiti and Northern Ireland aren't even on it. They are too small to count as real wars.

And 8 of the 13 conflicts listed were under way in the so-called ''stable'' Cold War years; there are only five new wars and only one, Bosnia, is a real killer. Rwanda will join that list this year.

The most devastating on-going war, in terms of casualties being fought in Angola. It is a leftover from all that was bad about the Cold War -- the proxy fueling of distant conflicts to satisfy the inflated grand designs of Moscow, Havana and Washington.

It appears to be a miserable fact of contemporary life that the politicalpolluter rarely pays. But if Washington and Moscow gave rather more energy than they have in clearing up the mess they left behind in Angola and Afghanistan, that alone would radically improve the global conflict picture.

The other good news from Stockholm's International Peace Research Institute is the evidence that military spending is continuing to fall in all the industrialized countries. There is, moreover, no evidence that President Boris Yeltsin has had to pay off the Russian military with a larger defense budget in return for the generals' support in the attack on parliament last fall.

Nevertheless, it is true that, five years after the Cold War's end, we still don't have a real ''peace dividend,'' big enough to pay for both clean-ups and the invigoration of U.N. peacekeeping operations. When personnel costs -- wages and benefits -- are such a large part of modern military establishments it is difficult to make rapid reductions without ruining peoples' livelihoods.

There is no reason why the fall can't continue at a reasonably steady pace as long as we keep in perspective what is happening in the world. We are not being swamped by more numerous wars or more dictators or more pogroms. All these misfortunes occur with regularity, as they always have. What is substantially different now is they are not being nourished by the superpower political game.

Perhaps the most exciting thing I came across in Stockholm was a Pentagon paper, written in the aftermath of the Gulf War. Somehow I had missed it in Washington. It deals with the Pentagon's research program on non-lethal weapons which the paper describes as ''a more civilized means to achieve political ends.''

Apparently the Pentagon in deepest secrecy has decided to embark on an enhanced research program that could eventually ''compare in size and scope with the Strategic Defense Initiative.''

New non-lethal technologies will include high-powered micro-wave weapons able to disable unprotected electronic systems and chemical and biological agents capable of degrading the performance of military equipment and soldiers.

This research offers new vistas for peacekeeping and peace-enforcement, making it not only more humane but more palatable to the voters back home who don't want to see thousands of body bags returning from a U.N. operation.

The world does, after all, move on.

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

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