BY one defense scholar's count there have been 130 wars since the end of World War II. Forty-one of these are still going. The historian of the US joint chiefs of staff totals 259 wars or warfare incidents during the period. Most of these were small. Many involve civil wars or guerrilla wars -- two categories often indistinguishable. In celebrating the 40th anniversary of World War II, we are so grateful to have avoided nuclear war for more than a generation that we tend to forget this constant background noise of lesser wars. Unless, of course, our particular nation has been involved. Or unless one of those less-than-world wars is particularly long-lasting, or threatens to draw the superpowers into collision. No one should doubt that the major task of world leaders is to keep working to prevent any confrontation that could lead to nuclear war. But there's not much logic to a world in which politicians (and publics) casually ignore, or even tacitly encourage, these lesser wars under the guise of yielding to the demands of realpolitik. That's like congratulating a fire department because it has prevented a firestorm downtown, while individual houses are left to burn in the suburbs.
Unfortunately, some diplomatic leaders find rationales for ``letting brush-fire wars burn themselves out.''
The Iran-Iraq war is a case in point. Talk to some Western politicians and you hear the argument that this war ties up two potential troublemakers. Or that it helps keep OPEC offstride. Both are senseless arguments. The grain of truth they contain is dwarfed by the larger fact that a constructive peace would leave the Gulf states, the region, and the oil consumers of Europe and Japan better off.
No student of history would argue that it is easy for outsiders to step in and stop a brawl once it has started. The annals of each war are filled with accounts of peace efforts that were miscalculated or mistimed and went nowhere. But that should not prevent the community of nations from working to improve its conflict-preventing and conflict-solving machinery.
Citizens of any modern industrial nation would be indignant if their government did not have and use machinery for solving labor-management disputes or disputes between corporations. We expect -- and get -- constant use of cooling-off periods, injunctions, arbitration, mediation, special panels, court action, trade bargaining, and a host of other conflict remedies.
Doesn't it make sense for national leaders who say they are striving around the clock to prevent world war to get in some practice preventing smaller wars?
Much conflict-solving machinery exists on the international scene. We often lack only the will to use it fully.
Any inventory starts with the United Nations Security Council and the quiet dispute-prevention experience of the UN secretary-general. Add to that the mediation, arbitration, and peacekeeping powers of the regional organizations of each continent. The World Court, despite disuse and politicization, has dealt with some territorial disputes successfully. And even international economic machinery can play a role in preventing military conflict. The International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and regional development banks can sometimes provide financial incentives that outweigh the temptation to wage war for economic reasons.
But the machinery obviously isn't working well if the calculator can tote up 140 wars in less than half a century. Why?
One reason is the reluctance of smaller nations to intervene in territorial disputes of their neighbors because they fear claims on their own territory. A look at the 159 members of the UN discloses an alarming number of irredentist movements threatening those states. (Irredentist is a two-bit word meaning a person or party who advocates reclaiming territory formerly considered part of his nation.) Add to that the number of nations with some kind of guerrilla war seeking autonomy for a region, and you increase the number of leaders reluctant to get involved in other peoples' conflicts.
There's an irony here.
The machinery meant to prevent or halt warfare doesn't work very well because nations fearing disputes of their own don't want to get involved in the disputes of others.
It's further undermined because the great powers are too busy with their own concerns to give smaller wars their full attention.
There's no one patented way of remedying this Catch 140 situation. But it wouldn't be a bad idea to ask the foreign ministers who travel every fall to the UN General Assembly in New York to devote several days to reviewing the wars in progress and the disputes that threaten to become wars. And then to have them look at the dispute-solving machinery already in existence. From that effort might come some decisions as to which disputes might best be solved by UN machinery; which by regional organization efforts. And that might lead next to some decisions as to which of the larger powers would agree to follow up each case and help the mediators in terms of logistics or economic incentives.
The foreign ministers ought to undertake this review behind closed doors -- not, decidedly not, in public speeches and debates. The latter would only make matters worse.
President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev have many bilateral issues to discuss when they hold their long-awaited summit. But they, also, could profitably spend an hour or two when they meet on the question of repair and use of international dispute-solving and peace-keeping machinery. It would help both of them to keep the larger peace if they were to give public and private support to efforts at keeping the smaller peace.
And finally, countries like Japan, which have benefitted by world trade and a purposely restricted arms budget, might take a leadership role in trying to get the world to make better use of its peace machinery. That can only be described as enlightened self interest.
Earl Foell is editor in chief of The Christian Science Monitor.