Peace on earth

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IN the Christmas season, the world turns to hopes for peace. It should be a time, therefore, for special recognition of those who undertake the arduous task of resolving conflict. Even if leaders at a summit decide that a conflict must end, peacemakers must work out the details of a solution. As 1987 draws to a close, United Nations officials, diplomats, clergy, and political leaders are seeking to bring about the resolution of conflicts in Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq, Indochina, Central America, Lebanon, Northern Ireland, and southern Africa. Their tasks are formidable.

They must begin with the recognition that, in the midst of conflict, only they, the peacemakers, may want peace. The warring nations or factions may each still have a certainty of victory fed by pride, confidence in their strength, and the rhetoric of leaders and supporters. Iran's reluctance to negotiate is, in part, based on a belief in ultimate victory.

Even the basic task of getting representatives of two sides to a table is a test of wills and diplomatic power. The peacemaker must often settle, in the beginning at least, for the frustrating alternative of ``proximity talks,'' in which he or she shuttles between rooms or buildings or cities. Cardinal Obando y Bravo moves between the different locations of the Sandinistas and the contras. Henry Kissinger, in his famous Middle East ``shuttle diplomacy,'' flew daily between Cairo and Jerusalem.

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Every gamut of human emotion confronts the peacemakers. The dehumanizing process of war breeds hatred. The legends and stereotypes of the enemy that are often factors at the outbreak of a conflict persist and are magnified in battle.

Fear accompanies hatred. Each side is afraid of humiliation, of subjugation, of the consequences of defeat. In civil conflicts, such as those in Lebanon, where deaths are attributed to individuals, to families, to clans, the desire for revenge breeds a bitter vindictiveness.

Ambitions and ideologies, whether the traditional unrequited claims for territory, the struggle for internal power, the dogmatic beliefs of a charismatic leader, economic disparity, or the clash of religious doctrines, may be the seeds of conflict. These, too, breed rigid resistance to concessions.

The peacemaker often becomes quickly aware that perceptible divisions exist within each side at the table. In many cases the delegations are under rigid instructions that provide little room for maneuver. The principal negotiators will often plead a lack of authority to make concessions. Leaders of delegations may genuinely fear that, within their own group, ambitious opportunists or those of a different point of view may seek to undermine them if they detect the slightest deviation from the official position.

The peacemakers who step into the arena of conflict resolution must be prepared to sit patiently for days, months, sometimes years, listening to rigid statements, emotional denunciations of the other side, and trying, in the midst of such cacophony, to detect those slight signs of a common interest or of the relaxation of a position that will ultimately lead to success. Once that faint glimmer is detected, the mediators must move carefully to prevent a premature rejection.

The task of the peacemaker is to establish that degree of trust with both sides that will make the process of resolution possible. One of this country's great mediators, the late Ellsworth Bunker, negotiator of conflict resolutions in Indonesia, Indochina, Panama, and the Dominican Republic, stressed always the importance of integrity in the making of peace. In several recent disputes, in the Beagle Channel between Argentina and Chile, in the settlement of the uprising of the Cuban prisoners in Louisiana and Georgia, and in Central America, governments have turned to clergy to bring that measure of credibility.

The world is often impatient with peacemakers. After a few meetings in a negotiation, there may be a pause or one side may walk out. Many in the public jump immediately to a judgment of failure, unwilling to recognize or acknowledge the difficulty of the mediator's task.

Perhaps it is in the nature of humankind that there will always be conflict. More and more today, recognizing the catastrophic implications of conflict, people yearn for peace. Whether that peace is achieved will depend ultimately on individuals with those special qualities of courage, patience, understanding, firmness, imagination, and balance who can curb the heated emotions of conflict and lead nations or factions to lay down their arms.

David D. Newsom is associate dean and director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University.

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