The Struggle for Peace

By Carment, David | Harvard International Review, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

The Struggle for Peace


Carment, David, Harvard International Review


Rethinking Intervention

According to recent reports from the Center for International Development and Conflict Management, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, and the Peace Research Institute of Oslo, the world is a less risky place to live in than it was 10 and even five years ago. Three positive trends contributing to this transformation have been identified. First, the number and magnitude of armed conflicts within and among states have significantly decreased since the early 1990s. Second, ethnic groups are gaining greater autonomy and power. Third, democratic governments now outnumber autocratic governments two-to-one and continue to be more successful in resolving violent societal conflicts.

Despite the system-wide decline in overt conflict, the demand for innovative, long-term, and effective conflict-management strategies has never been greater. Some conflicts are being brought to a close or are slowly winding down as a consequence of concerted peacebuilding efforts and exhaustion. However, state failures in sub-Saharan Africa, emerging conflicts in Central Asia and Southeast Asia, and long-standing protracted conflicts in the Balkans, the Middle East, and South Asia will continue into the indefinite future. The pressure to respond to these problems is unlikely to go away, and if past performance is any indication, the prospects of relieving this pressure are not good. Over the last decade, the international community's track record has been neither farsighted nor strategic, failing to resolve conflicts in four ways.

First, it has failed to prevent the slow collapse of states in Central and West Africa, despite a clear understanding of when and where such events would occur and the availability of forecasts for predicting and explaining their causes and manifestations (as in the Congo, Guinea, and Sierra Leone). Second, it has failed to anticipate the moral hazards that are generated by efforts to address refugee flows, ethnic cleansing, and clan warfare (as in Rwanda and Somalia). Third, it has failed to understand the way biased interventions can accelerate conflict between combatants (as in Kosovo, Sierra Leone, and Liberia). Fourth, it has failed to produce credible responses to warring factions, thereby generating even greater violence (as in Rwanda and Bosnia).

When examining these failures, the question to ask is: Why? What do these failures suggest about when and under what conditions the United Nations or regional organizations should intervene to prevent tensions from escalating out of control, and how to manage crises when they do?

Status Report

After 10 years of "wandering in the void," the academic and policy communities are finally generating answers to these questions. We now know that post-Cold War peacekeeping operations differ from their predecessor missions in a number of important ways. For one thing, the central characteristics of traditional peacekeeping missions--the use of force for self-defense only, the interposition of troops after a cease-fire, and the maintenance of tactical and strategic impartiality--no longer provide the boundaries for presumed mission success. Second, intrastate conflicts are more complex and more deadly for both peacekeepers and ordinary citizens caught in the fray. Third, in order to perform functions such as guaranteeing the safe passage of humanitarian aid and assisting and protecting displaced persons, peacekeepers have had to resort to more forceful actions. These changes have led some observers to conclude that the key principles underlying conventional and essentially peaceful missions are problematic, if not anachronistic, in an era dominated by armed conflict within rather than between states.

We also know that regional politics should be recognized as a serious influence, if not a constraint, on peacekeeping effectiveness. Today's intrastate conflicts are seen too much as internal problems. …

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