CONSIDERING the shrill invective which marked much of the 1980s, the decade ended with some mellow episodes of political accommodation and peacemaking. In particular, the dampening of conflicts in Central America and Southeast and Southwest Asia spring to mind. Any list of the decade's notable accomplishments would have to include the Namibia settlement, and the general, if uneven, progress toward peace in southern Africa. The return of representative government to Chile and Nicaragua, both presaged as the 1980s closed, are among the decade's highlights.
But persistent, stubborn conflicts, especially in the Middle East and the Horn of Africa, show little hint of ending. The conflict in Lebanon descended yet a few more steps into the basement of horrors. The all but unnoticed carnage in southern Sudan and the dying in Ethiopia just go on and on.
These conflicts - each in their own way - illustrate a major danger of the 1990s: the spreading of inter-ethnic and inter-communal combat exacerbated by the unpredictable, but unavoidable process of modernization.
At the same time, the disappearance of a bipolar, superpower-dominated security system will foster a more unruly international regime. Third-world players may try to throw around their weight. Anarchic tendencies in the international system are fed by the global dispersion of sophisticated and lethal military technology through licensing arrangements and the development of indigenous arms productions capabilities.
As many as 15 third-world armies possess ballistic missiles, and about 10 others have active missile development programs. Thought must be given to how the proliferation of these technologies will affect the nature of combat in the third world. Military staffs around the world undoubtedly noted that the use of inaccurate SCUD missiles by Iraq against Teheran had a decisive effect on Iran's willingness to accept UN Resolution 598.
Persistent regional and internal conflicts, as well as the axiomatic determination to protect national sovereignty, will ensure that defense will continue to consume a disproportionate share of third-world income.
Many developing countries now possess the means to thwart limited military operations, thereby rendering military solutions (i.e. intervention) less attractive to, and certainly more costly for, the great powers.
Third-world politicians confront rapidly increasing populations whose demands exceed the ability of their governments to deliver. Demographic pressures accelerate the impact of social and economic change. Throughout the world, but especially in the developing countries, the economically productive segment of the population is shrinking while the elderly and young increase.
In the developed world the major trend has been toward a graying of society - mean ages have increased and the proportion of the citizenry that is elderly in growing. In most developing countries, however, the most significant effect has been on the other end of the chronological scale. Improved health care and lower infant mortality rates, accompanied by high birth rates, have led to explosive increases in the number of children. In many third world states half or more of the population is below the age of fifteen.
In already difficult economic circumstances, the portion of the population prone toward activism is expanding quickly, thereby further complicating the task of government and increasing the likelihood of repression.
In many parts of the world where progress was once at least a dream, the struggle has now shifted to avoiding regression. In a nutshell, socioeconomic change will continue to increase demands on already exhausted governments. This resource-demand gap, in turn, will inevitably add to internal cleavages along religious, ethnic, regional, or tribal fault lines. In many cases governments will further exacerbate tensions and deepen cleavages by promoting one group over another.
Everything we know about the third world tells us the engine of change does not sever people's ties to family, lineage, and village. Rather, it reinforces those ties. Even that presumed cauldron of modernity, the city, becomes an extension of the values of the countryside. The stresses, strains, and crowding of the city create new passions for real and artificial national identities.
There can be no question that the spread of new ideologies, often grounded in religion, have promoted a reshuffling of identities and political agendas. Whether in the form of Liberation Theology, radical Shiism or Judaism, or militant Sikhism, religion continues to gain momentum as a factor in third-world politics.
Those of us living in the fortunate, profligate West, may be inclined to try and forget the developing world. But the problems which dog third-world governments - building cohesive societies, winning legitimacy, and meeting the basic needs of citizens - will not always respect borders or be quietly resolved. In point of fact, it is a safe bet that the global agenda for the 1990s will be shaped largely by the imperative of responding to third-world crises.