NOTWITHSTANDING the great advances humankind had made down through the ages, to most people in 1985 a stable, worldwide peace still seemed a remote utopian fancy. The developments of the ensuing 25 years that caused fancy to become reality entitled that period to recognition as one of the truly seminal eras in human history. Ironically, the single most important event of the period began with what was widely denounced as a near-act of war. . . .
The worrisome act was the irrevocable commitment by the United States in the late 1980s to proceed with the development of a space-based ballistic missile defense system (BMD) capable of shielding the nation from strategic nuclear missiles launched anywhere on the globe.
Despite BMD's manifest attractiveness, many people in the US and elsewhere feared that it would so destabilize the superpower balance of terror that the Soviet Union might be provoked into a pre-emptive nuclear strike. . . .
What finally won the skeptics over was the second step in the BMD adventure, a step that was, if anything, even bolder and more controversial than the first. This was the decision by the US to share the BMD technology with the rest of the world, including the Soviet Union. . . . This was an act of geopolitical ``generosity'' (actually of enlightened self-interest) almost without parallel in history.
The consequences of this decision were twofold. The first one, obviously, was that it ended the danger of a nuclear holocaust. Whatever other ills men might visit on each other in the future, they no longer were capable of blowing up the planet.
But the symbolic . . . effects of the great BMD episode far outweighed the literal consequences. In addition to lifting the mushroom cloud that had hung over mankind for half a century, the episode lifted an even blacker, more ominous cloud that had settled onto the collective spirit of the world's inhabitants. . . .
Courage and moral perspective were being leached from human thought as sheer survival started to become paramount over mankind's nobler values and aspirations. The growing perception that events were in the saddle and mankind no longer was in control of its destiny gave rise to fatalistic stoicism and, even worse, despair.
The lifting of the nucler threat had a profoundly cathartic effect on human consciousness. . . . Humans were seen as having retaken the reins of history into their own hands, and the resulting confidence quickly bore fruit in other areas of endeavor. It was also significant for world morale that science and technology -- which had started to be viewed by some people as ``evil genii'' whose release ultimately would bring more ill than good -- had been harnessed for the common security.
The second major challenge facing world leaders in the area of defense was how to lessen the chances that nations would -- or successfully could -- resort to nonstrategic weapons to settle international disputes. . . .
The populations of the industrialized nations were gradually aging, with the result that these nations had a diminishing pool of manpower available for military purposes. Also, nations were finding it increasingly difficult to sustain the relentlessly rising costs of maintaining large standing armies. . . During this period world diplomats made some important breakthroughs in reducing the danger of military conflict between nations. Through imaginative new rules of engagement and the increased involvement of international mediation organizations and peace-keeping forces, the world community managed to create a system of ``circuit breakers'' that could be triggered when countries seemed at the brink of war.
As an outgrowth of the cooperative effort to reduce international confronations, the major powers also made great strides in curbing both the proliferation of nuclear technology . . . and the worldwide traffic in conventional arms. . . .
The four key intellectual developments were a banking of their fires of nationalism; the demise of Malthusianism in its latter-day incarnations; a subsiding of religious fanaticism; and the passing away of communism as a serious paradigm for the ordering of human societies. . . .
A closing word: As important as the foregoing developments have been to bringing about the peaceful conditions the world now enjoys, people should not be misled into thinking that peace is simply the product of impersonal forces or clever international arrangements. Nor should they believe that peace is static and immutable. Mankind has not attained a millennial state. The age-old enemies of peace -- fear, ignorance, want, bigotry, and hatred -- remain in one form or another. The price of peace, like that of freedom, is eternal vigilance.
In the last analysis, peace is not a condition but rather, like love or virtue, an attribute of character. It is a creation of human heads and hearts attuned to the deeper meanings and purposes of life. Though building on the legacy handed down to it, each generation must create peace anew for itself. The great lesson of history is that those majestic words of Scripture, ``on earth peace, good will toward men,'' are not so much a promise of what shall be as of what can be. They are not a pledge, but an injunction.