The worldwide lull in war

Both the war on terrorism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have reinforced Americans' misconception that the world is becoming more violent, with wars raging across the globe in the wake of the cold war.

In fact, the opposite is true. While Americans now feel more "at war," fewer people worldwide are dying in wars, and less fighting is going on, than at any time in decades. We are a long way from Immanuel Kant's vision of "permanent peace," but tantalizingly close to a worldwide cease-fire.

Some wars remain just below the ignition point, and some peace negotiations may fail, but for the moment, with just a handful of exceptions, the guns are silent. Even today's most serious conflicts – in the Middle East, Sudan, Democratic Congo, and Colombia – are currently marked by skirmishing rather than all-out battles.

We probably owe this lull to the end of the cold war, and to a unipolar world order with a single superpower to impose its will in places like Kuwait, Serbia, and Afghanistan. The emerging world order is not exactly benign – Sept. 11 comes to mind – and Pax Americana delivers neither justice nor harmony to the corners of the earth. But a unipolar world is inherently more peaceful than the bipolar one where two superpowers fueled rival armies around the world. The long-delayed "peace dividend" has arrived, like a tax refund check long lost in the mail.

The most devastating leftover wars from the 1980s have finally ended, giving new hope to tens of millions of desperate people. In Angola, 26 miserable years of civil war just came to an end after the rebel leader was killed and his successors gave up. In Afghanistan, the new US-backed interim government, despite its many problems, has brought a fresh start after decades of devastation. Hundreds of thousands of refugees are streaming back in, voting with their feet.

In Sri Lanka and Northern Ireland, longstanding civil conflicts are in transition, however tentative, from violent conflict to cease-fires and negotiations. The political problems there are far from solved, but today there's no active fighting.

Not only did these old wars end, but the alarming new ethnic wars that followed the cold war's end have also died down. In Bosnia and Kosovo, international troops keep the peace. In Rwanda, Burundi, and Uganda, only sporadic clashes occur, compared with cataclysmic violence in the 1990s.

Likewise to the west, in Liberia, Guinea-Bissau, and Senegal. In Sierra Leone, where rebels terrorized civilians with random mutilations in the 1990s, UN peacekeepers have disarmed militias, and democratic elections are taking place this week. Algeria's brutal civil war wound down several years ago. Because peace is less newsworthy than war, many Americans still think vicious ethnic wars are raging when in fact they have largely ended.

Nowhere in the world are heavily armed forces fighting each other with tanks, artillery, and warplanes on both sides. The last conventional war between states, Ethiopia and Eritrea, ended two years ago, with the border dispute sent for arbitration.

Despite this good news, the war lull is not complete. Little wars simmer in several countries, where armed factions control territory and sometimes fight each other or the government.

The list includes Somalia, Turkey, Georgia, Russia/Chechnya, parts of Central Asia, Nepal, Burma, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Peru. However, these are generally low-level sporadic clashes, with fatalities in major military operations reaching into the dozens or hundreds, but not thousands. And they are all internal to their countries, with little active outside support for armed factions. By contrast, rival states are intensely involved in Kashmir, where low-level violence could yet escalate dramatically.

The four most active hostilities today are the Israeli-Palestinian fight, the civil wars in Sudan and Democratic Congo, and the toxic brew of insurgency, terror, and narcotics in Colombia. The Mideast and Colombia are both in an especially vicious period following the collapse of a peace process. But the grinding wars in Sudan and Democratic Congo have been far more lethal, each killing millions. These two conflicts are complicated by territorial, ethnic/religious, and international-alliance elements. In each, shaky cease-fires and sputtering negotiations have replaced constant combat, but in neither has the peace process built momentum, and skirmishing continues.

By historical standards, these four main remaining wars are now relatively small scale, but like embers they could rekindle a larger fire if unattended. Today's fragile lull in war should refocus world leaders on consolidating cease-fires in the remaining battlegrounds, especially the Middle East. As ugly and consuming as the violence there has been, many of the wars discussed above were worse – yet they ended.

Progress toward peace in the Middle East and a handful of other hot spots would bring a worldwide cessation of major armed hostilities within reach. By contrast, the escalation of Mideast violence could reignite violence elsewhere.

The mere absence of active warring does not guarantee progress toward a durable and just peace – but it's a good start. Perhaps, inevitably, people focus on bad news – the intifadas, the Sept. 11s – but the big picture is much more hopeful. International relations is still a jungle, but the lion sleeps tonight. With effort, it might stay that way.

• Joshua S. Goldstein, a professor of international relations at American University, is the author of 'International Relations,' 5th ed. (Longman, forthcoming), and 'War and Gender' (Cambridge, 2001).

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