When World War I broke out, young men in Europe rushed to sign up. Crowds came out to send their boys off with flag-waving parades. The almost-festive air expressed the historical view of war as a normal and noble extension of statecraft. But the Great War began to change all that.
The horrors of that conflict - from the enormous casualties and devastation to chemical warfare - struck both the victor and the vanquished, and helped spawn other global nightmares: The Russian Revolution and Communist Party. The rise of Nazism and World War II. The Holocaust. The cold war, and its host of proxy wars.
What if World War I had been prevented?
"It's conceivable the whole history of the 20th century would have been different," says William Ury, director of Harvard University's Project on Preventing War. "The defining events that scarred the entire century all emerged from that war; and looking back at the diplomacy of the time, it seems it was preventable."
The idea of preventing war may be as old as diplomacy itself. But in the closing decade of the 20th century, it gathered adherents with a new sense of urgency and purpose.
As it became clear that the end of the cold war had not ushered in an era of peace, but of deadly conflicts that defied traditional diplomacy, world leaders began to call for a greater emphasis on preventive action. Many countries, after all, had already started to reduce their military forces.
But aiming to prevent violent conflict is not the same as doing it. And at the turn of the millennium, many policymakers and mediators, researchers and military leaders are grappling with how it can be done. They are working to develop a prevention strategy as practical as "deterrence" was in earlier decades.
Does it make sense?
"During the cold war, the major powers' focus [in proxy wars] was not on preventing conflict but on prevailing, because those conflicts meant something to them politically," says Barnett Rubin, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
Today's conflicts, he says, "pose great humanitarian problems and moral and financial burdens." They more often break out within states than between them. And they are occurring in a world of increasingly destructive weaponry and destabilizing economic and social change.
The United Nations, United States, and NATO have gotten entangled in multiple tragedies, often after long hesitation over whether or when to get involved. The delays have been costly and the outcomes uncertain.
"By waiting so much during the '90s, we ended up in situations like Bosnia, with huge costs of reconstruction, a lengthy commitment, and the Humpty Dumpty problem - how do you put it back together?" says Bruce Jentleson, director of the Terry Sanford Institute of Public Policy at Duke University and a former member of the State Department's Policy Planning Staff.
While some say the US should just not get involved, others point to the danger of fires spreading. In Yugoslavia, the fighting moved from Slovenia and Croatia to Bosnia, then to Kosovo, and could have spread to Macedonia and beyond. Rwanda's conflagration fuels the Congo war and other neighboring conflicts.
In a "unipolar" world, the US with its incredible power and global interests faces burdens of expectation and performance, says Jane Holl, executive director of the project on the Role of American Military Power, of the Association of the United States Army. Yet the US can't be the globe's policeman.
"Prevention is an idea whose time has come," she says emphatically. From 1994 to 1999, Ms. Holl headed the Carnegie Commission's Project on Preventing Deadly Conflict, a comprehensive global effort to understand why some situations deteriorate into violent conflict and others do not. The Carnegie project - which involved civilian and military policymakers, academics, and nongovernment organizations from all regions of the world - reached conclusions that support a global prevention strategy (www.ccpdc.org).
No historical determinism
Violence is not inevitable; it doesn't just happen because of ancient hatreds, Holl says. "War is a phenomenon of leadership. If people are spoiling for a fight, they may riot, but they don't engage in systematic campaigns of violence unless they are led." And there are ways to affect those decisions, she adds.
The impetus for a strategy first came from the "Agenda for Peace," UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali's 1992 report to the Security Council, highlighting the need for preventive diplomacy. US Presidents Bush and Clinton both echoed the call.
Then the Rwandan genocide demonstrated it wasn't simply a matter of having sufficient warning, but of failure to act, or act appropriately. An international panel of senior military leaders has concluded that the intervention in Rwanda of 5,000 UN troops within two weeks of the initial violence could have averted the slaughter of a half-million people.
Other catastrophes hold similar lessons. "The real analysis of Kosovo is not whether we should or should not have bombed on March 24, ... but why we did so little between December 1992, when President Bush first issued Milosevic a warning on Kosovo, ... and 1998," says Dr. Jentleson, editor of a new book of case studies of preventive diplomacy, "Opportunities Missed, Opportunities Seized."
Dr. Rubin also sees a window of opportunity overlooked in Kosovo after the Dayton Peace Accords. The nongovernmental group that brokered Mozambique's peace agreement, Sant'egidio, brokered a small Serb-Albanian agreement, "but not much was done to support the efforts." It was hard to get any money to back their ongoing dialogues between Serbs and Albanians, he says, but later "we ended up spending billions."
A new culture of prevention
There have been some success stories (see story at right), but to multiply them would require a broad systematic effort - and modifying concepts of national interests and sovereignty. Are fundamental values part of interests? Does sovereignty include responsibility, as many now insist, and thus allow for intervening when leaders persecute their own people?
Ultimately, decisions to act become a question of political will, as Rwanda indicated. For politicians that's tied to public support. Jentleson, who has closely studied public opinion, says it's a myth that the US public has a casualty phobia and taking preventive action is more politically feasible than many assume. The public, for instance, was out in front of the president on use of ground troops in Kosovo.
Still, a natural caution and limited resources stand in the way. "Prevention fails to take place for the same reason that credit cards are a success," Jentleson says. "People always prefer to pay tomorrow rather than today. Governments say, 'Let's wait and see if we really have to deal with this.' "
Also, "people are concerned with putting out the fires that are burning," says I. William Zartman, professor of negotiation and of African Studies at Johns Hopkins University's School for Advanced International Studies. "There's not much incentive given to Foreign Service officers to report problems on the horizon."
Yet when "you are always running around putting out fires, you begin to wonder, 'Shouldn't we have a fire-prevention effort?' " says Ury, another negotiator with years of international experience. The fire analogy is pertinent, he says. Fires were once thought to be something cities couldn't do anything about, but gradually a lot was learned and slowly people put systems in place. "Now they expect individual fires, but no one is worried one will destroy an entire city as they used to."
Proponents say a similar process has to occur with today's conflicts where traditional diplomacy doesn't suffice. The Carnegie report and other studies have begun to define strategies and roles that public and private actors can play from the grassroots to top leadership levels. Developing practical mechanisms for early response and coordination is key, they say.
Meanwhile, prevention is gaining priority on several fronts. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has reorganized his UN offices to support prevention, and a UN special envoy recently averted conflict between Iran and Afghanistan's Taliban. The Organization of American States has developed measures to counter threats to democracy in the region. Defense ministers of Brazil and Argentina helped end a coup attempt in Paraguay, Holl says. The US military's engagement and Partnership for Peace programs aim at prevention.
Harriet Hentges, executive vice president of the US Institute of Peace, says the European Union has a prevention initiative, and Japan has put prevention on the agenda of the July 2000 meeting of the Group of Eight in Osaka.
The US, in fact, may lag behind others in this area, partly because short- rather than long-term thinking takes precedence in Washington. "It's not always the US that has to do it, but there are things where the US has to take the lead and become committed to a long-term process, which in fact we haven't," Dr. Zartman says.
Many still question how realistic a prevention strategy can be. Others point to the soaring costs, limited options, and quagmire potential of intervening after the fact. Perhaps in the new millennium, in a shrinking world of multiplying flashpoints, prevention has simply become necessity.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society