But although from time to time martial figures do push themselves through to the seats of power they seem unable to carry the public with them for long. It looks likely that in the next general election Americans will vote for a candidate who stands against overseas adventurism. Those who are trying to erect a case for de-fanging a putative nuclear Iran by force will not succeed. Nor will those who want to up the ante with China.
Of course, nothing is simple when it comes to matters of war and peace. Edward Luttwak, writing in Foreign Affairs a few years ago, argued that "An unpleasant truth often overlooked is that although war is a great evil, it does have the great virtue it can resolve political conflicts and lead to peace". World War II is everyman’s exemplar of this. But World War I, the more important geopolitically of the two great wars, was the reverse. Without the tragic mistakes of statecraft that preceded it, allowing Europe to drift into massive carnage, there would have been no great depression, no rise of Hitler, no consolidation of the autocracy of Stalin, no Second World War, no unilateral development of the nuclear bomb and its use on Japan, and no Cold War. The tragedy of war or violence is not that sometimes it does not have positive outcomes. It is that the same goals could have been met without war if the protagonists had been more farsighted and more prepared to be patent and creative in their diplomacy and less bellicose in their confrontation.
The war in Iraq has become a living witness of how not to use the blunt instrument of armed might. At the same time its fire and smoke is obscuring many positive trends all over the world. For the tenth successive year the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute has reported that the number of wars has fallen over the last twelve months. The New York-based Freedom House reported this month that the spread of democracy and the respect for human rights continues on its upward trajectory. This year was one of the most successful years for freedom since 1972.
The hype of a portion of the political class constantly impressing upon us the need for combat if our precious freedoms are not to be undermined too often pulls the wool over our eyes. Muslim extremism is the present case in point. The renunciation of violence that was declared three years ago from their jail cells by the leaders of Egypt’s Gamaa, one of the parent groups of Al Qaeda, was only barely reported and commentated on at the time but it demonstrated how terrorism can be defeated by solid police work.
And every time there is a bombing or racial disturbance in Europe we are fired up against the danger of Muslim extremism within by warnings of the danger of the fifth columnists who have grown up in our midst. Yet, following the Madrid bombing, Elaine Sciolino reported in the International Herald Tribune that senior European counter-terrorism officials were saying that "the movement of young men from Europe to Iraq has not come close to the levels seen in the 1980s, when at least 10,000 men travelled to Afghanistan to fight against the Soviet occupation." In 1980 not only did not that worry us, the authorities were pleased.
Pull the wool aside and what can we see? Michael Mandelbaum in the journal of London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies notes, "the practice of war, once the prerogative of the strong, instead is increasingly the tactic of the weak". Most wars these days are conducted by and within the poorest of the world’s nations. "The great chess game of international politics is finished, or at least suspended" he writes. "A pawn is just a pawn, not a sentry standing guard against an attack on a king."
If only we could recognise this we could start to become more creative in our tactics. The Financial Times’ Washington correspondent reported earlier this year that exiled Iranian activists are studying and training in the techniques of non-violent conflict. They are learning from the same group that contributed to the success of movements for change in Serbia, Georgia and Ukraine. This is how it should go. Then the work of building a more peaceful world can continue for another year.
Jonathan Power is a veteran foreign affairs commentator based in London. He can be reached at JonatPower@aol.com
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