ALMOST unnoticed outside military circles, United States military aircraft have helped keep the peace for two decades along one of the tensest borders in the world.
Part of an operation dubbed "Olive Harvest," the high-tech, low-profile reconnaissance flights have monitored implementation of a 1974 disengagement agreement between Israel and Syria, providing information impartially to each about the size and movement of the other's forces. Part of a wider UN peacekeeping operation, the flights have helped the two old adversaries maintain a remarkable incident-free peace.
Though not known as such when they were begun, the overflights are part of a lengthening list of "confidence-building measures" (CBMs) that have come to play an increasingly important role in cooling tensions in trouble spots around the world.
Ranging from information exchanges on troop movements to "hot lines" between political leaders, CBMs helped keep the cold war from turning hot. Forced by the end of the cold war to find solutions on their own, nations are learning that CBMs can be an essential first step in resolving regional disputes.
"During the cold war it was easier for adversaries to rely on powerful patrons than to resolve regional security issues," says Michael Krepon, president of the Henry L. Stimson Center, a foreign-policy research institute in Washington. "Now that they're on their own they're turning increasingly to CBMs to reduce tensions in their regions." Promising diplomatic tool
"The 1990s will be the decade of confidence-building measures," Mr. Krepon predicts. "It's the wave of the future."
One of the most promising diplomatic tools of the post-cold-war era, CBMs pre-date World War I, when European nations invited foreign observers to witness military exercises.
The first systematic use of CBMs dates to the mid-1970s when massive armies, poised on a hair trigger, stared at each other from opposite sides of the Iron Curtain.
In Helsinki, in 1975, the Western nations and the then-Soviet-bloc nations agreed to a series of rudimentary measures, including prior notification of large military exercises, that set the precedent for military cooperation.
Eleven years later, in Stockholm, they carried CBMs a step further by calling for obligatory on-site inspections and exchanges of information on military activities to reduce the risks of accidental war or surprise attack.
A third stage in the evolution of CBMs in the context of East-West relations was reached in Vienna in 1990, when the European nations agreed to exchange detailed information of military forces, weapons deployments, and military budgets. The effect has been to regularize and deepen patterns of cooperation.
These measures did not end the cold war, but they did help create an atmosphere of trust that made it easier for superpower negotiators to agree on dramatic cuts in nuclear and conventional arms once the Soviet Union collapsed.
"There has been a widespread recognition that these measures helped pave the way for the breakthroughs in East-West arms-control negotiations," Krepon says.
Designed mainly to preclude inadvertent conflict and to keep lines of communication open during times of bellicose rhetoric, Europe's success with CBMs is being emulated by other states with cool or non-existent relations. India and Pakistan as examples
Mired in a nuclear arms race and conflicting claims to the border state of Kashmir, India and Pakistan, for example, have instituted regular meetings between their foreign secretaries, agreed to notify each other of aerial border incursions, instituted hot lines between military commanders, and initiated joint patrols along the borders of Punjab and Rajasthan.
The pattern of consultation now even includes regular dialogues between Indian and Pakistani journalists, businessmen, and scholars.
"There's an increasing tendency to link moves towards a political settlement in the Kashmir Valley with confidence-building measures between India and Pakistan," notes Selig Harrison of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "CBMs can't solve the Kashmir issue. But they can prevent it from escalating into another war and abet prospects for a political solution."
CBMs between India and Pakistan now also include the exchange of lists detailing the location and purpose of nuclear facilities. An agreement implemented this year identifies the geographic coordinates of nuclear facilities the two countries have agreed not to attack.
CBMs are also being used in Latin America, where high ranking military officers from five countries, including Argentine, Brazil, and Chile, now hold regular joint strategy seminars, reflecting a trend toward increasing political and economic integration in the region.
As the case of India and Pakistan suggests, CBMs are primarily useful as a means of keeping a lid on tensions until political or arms-control agreements can be reached.
CBMs also provide political leaders with a means of demonstrating that they are interested in lessening tensions without having to get at the core issues of a controversy prematurely, and without the necessity of rushing into formal binding agreements that would require building public and legislative support.
CBMs offer another advantage, diplomatic analysts say. The mere process of taking small tension-reducing steps can help break down barriers that stand in the way of reaching agreement on more fundamental issues.
"Increased communication between the two sides will engender trust and a willingness to take risks for peace," says a report on confidence-building measures in the Middle East issued last week by the United States Institute for Peace.
Experts say CBMs fall into three main categories. "Transparency" measures provide for the sharing of information on the size, shape, and movement of armed forces, reducing the chance of surprise attack. "Communications" measures, including hot lines, are designed to lower the risks of accidental war. "Constraint" measures, including the regulation of various military activities, limit peacetime maneuvers that could be viewed as threatening by an adversary.
A separate category of CBMs defines specific rules of the road, like a 1990 agreement between the Britain and Argentina that governs air and naval operations in the South Atlantic, including joint search and rescue procedures. The agreement between the parties to the 1982 Falklands Islands war has been so successful that last year restrictions were relaxed.
"A lot of political problems remain to be solved," says the Stimson Center's Steven Wolfe of the Falklands agreement. "But this did take a lot of tension out of the situation and could abet the process of reaching a political settlement."
Analysts note that in most cases CBMs are instituted in advance of formal political agreements. Thus the trust engendered by the orderly disengagement of Egyptian and Israeli troops in the Sinai Peninsula in the mid-1970s helped lay the groundwork for the 1979 Camp David treaty.
But sometimes the process works in reverse. On their heavily armed and divided peninsula, North and South Korea agreed in advance to host international and bilateral inspection of nuclear facilities, then set out to define procedures to carry them out. Political will required
Analysts say confidence-building measures usually work if both parties are convinced that they enhance their national security and have the political will to make them work.
"Generally speaking, confidence-building measures are useful when neither side wants a war," says James Goodby, who was chief of the US delegation at the Stockholm negotiations. "Will they prevent a war someone does want? The answer is obviously no."