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
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
"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