As conflicts rage, future looks dim

October 21, 2005|By JOHN C. BERSIA

ORLANDO, Fla. -- With the specter of extremism in all directions, accentuated by last week's attacks in Nalchik, Russia, and the recent Bali bombings, the world of the 21st century appears as violent and conflict-oriented as ever - if not worse.

Add to those events the genocide in Darfur, Sudan; the surge in human trafficking; wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; the spread of weapons of mass destruction; disruption from unresolved self-determination issues; friction between the Koreas; narco-terrorism in the Americas; the Arab-Israeli crisis; multiple civil conflicts - the list goes on.

How did it happen? Did humanity not learn its lessons from the world wars of the 20th century? Did the lofty goals of the United Nations mean so little? Did the Cold War's conclusion provide insufficient room for a new order? Did accelerating globalization not offer enough incentives for the world's population to imagine and work toward a better future?

Or, in the end, has human nature simply prevailed? Are too many people still driven by greed, power, ego, competition for limited resources, narrow religious inspirations, arrogance and a callous disregard for others so long as they secure their "due"?

I ask these questions more out of a sense of frustration than anything else. When my students quiz me about future global prospects - and it happens often - it is challenging to outline optimistic scenarios.

As a child living in the United States in the 1960s, I grew up in a bubble of relative safety and security. Yet violence and conflict swirled all around - at home and abroad. In a blip of time, this nation witnessed the assassination of a president, a presidential contender and a civil rights legend. The Cuban missile crisis signaled how close we had edged to the threat of a nuclear exchange. In Asia, the United States was engaged in the increasingly unpopular Vietnam War.

Even as the Vietnam nightmare was ending, struggles in other parts of Southeast Asia, the Middle East and elsewhere pointed to anything but peace.

In the 1980s, serious detente between the superpowers drew attention, along with the clamor of the Iran-Iraq war, and of Islamic extremism that was transforming Iran and threatening to engulf other countries. Former Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev's perestroika and glasnost appeared a perfect balm for the decades of East-West tension, and even China was embracing reforms. The rapid unraveling of Moscow's control over Eastern Europe accelerated positive thinking, and then the Soviet colossus itself faltered.

Some observers thought the new adversary after communism would be environmental, such as the disappearing ozone layer. Others looked to the rise of Asia, especially China, as a problem. Few, though, expressed concerns about terrorism, long described as the war of the flea - relatively small and essentially impossible to eliminate.

Unfortunately, they were wrong. In the end, the biggest challenge to post-Cold War peace and stability came from terrorism. The most disturbing form, terrorists with global reach, differed from the shrinking communist threat in that they were not highly organized, spearheaded by countries and determined to win hearts and minds worldwide.

Those terrorists were similar to the communist threat, however, in that their movement was transnational, ideological, revolutionary and led by charismatic types such as Osama bin Laden who, at the very least, sought domination over the Muslim parts of the world.

In the 21st century, we have absorbed only a taste of the horrors that terrorists have in mind - in Afghanistan preceding the 2001 intervention and continuing today; on 9/11; in Bali in 2002; in Iraq after the 2003 intervention; in Beslan, Russia, and in Madrid last year; and, of late, in London, Bali and Nalchik. If analysts are correct - and I suspect that they are - we face many decades of similar violence.

Can we hope to change the course of events?

Of course. The United States must take the lead, as it did during the Cold War. The solutions are no secret. They lie in cooperatively broadening economic development through trade, investment and, yes, aid. Tackling emerging crises in a proactive manner is also a must. Education, including exchanges and awareness-building, should expand. The effort has to be creative, persistent and forceful. Otherwise, humankind will never realize its potential for a peaceful, stable and secure world.

John C. Bersia is a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel, a special assistant to the president for global perspectives and a professor at the University of Central Florida.

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