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World: Analysis from Washington - Making Peace is Hard To Do

  • Paul Goble

Prague, 13 August 1997 (RFE/RL) - Press reports that the United States now plans to step up its efforts to make peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan highlight the difficulties any great power faces when it gets involved in the resolution of such disputes.

On the one hand, American involvement in such peace-making activities inevitably creates expectations both in the region and in the United States itself that Washington will be able to succeed where others have failed.

But on the other, the remarkable ability of one or another participant in such conflicts to torpedo any accord means that the expectations so often expressed are almost as often dashed. And when they are, the U.S. may find its ability to make peace reduced as well.

These sobering conclusions arise from an examination of current American efforts to resolve apparently intractable disputes in the Middle East and the countries of the former Yugoslavia as well as Washington's plans to become more deeply involved in the Caucasus.

In the Middle East, U.S. special envoy Dennis Ross has been meeting with Israeli and Palestinian leaders in order to restart the peace process outlined by the Oslo accords but undermined by the bombing in Jerusalem two weeks ago.

While Ross and his aides repeatedly said that they are "encouraged" by talks and believe that the two sides can again move toward peace, pictures of the American envoy published around the world over the weekend, showing a very tired and dejected diplomat, highlighted the problems he faced.

Meanwhile, in the countries of the former Yugoslavia, U.S. special envoy Richard Holbrooke visited with officials there in order to try to keep the Dayton peace accords from unraveling.

Holbrooke pressed Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to observe all provisions of the Dayton peace accords, including the trial of accused war criminals. And he met with Bosnian Serb President Biljana Plavsic to back her against local Serb radicals.

Reportedly, Holbrooke carried with him a message from President Bill Clinton that the U.S. was now prepared to use force to arrest accused Serbian war criminal Radovan Karadzic unless he quickly turns himself in.

In both of these conflicts, one or another party to the dispute appears to have the ability to block any real steps toward a genuine peace -- even when a great power like the United States is actively seeking an accord.

The same pattern is likely to be true for the expanded American peace-making effort in the Caucasus.

On Monday, a U.S. State Department official told journalists that Washington will intensify its efforts to find a resolution to the long-running conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan that has cost tens of thousands of lives and produced a million refugees.

Expectations that the United States would play the role of peacemaker were first raised when Washington was able last winter to secure its selection as a co-chairman in the so-called Minsk Round of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Established to promote peace in the southern Caucasus, that body so far has been unable to move beyond a shaky ceasefire.

And these expectations were dramatically increased during Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev's recent visit to Washington. A variety of U.S. officials announced that the U.S. would seek to promote peace in the Caucasus so that oil from the Caspian basin could flow to the West.

While Aliyev indicated that he could accept American proposals that would give substantial autonomy to ethnic Armenians in his country but not challenge Baku's sovereignty over them, Armenian officials have said that they cannot accept that.

And some Armenian leaders have even warned that no oil will flow until there is a political settlement to the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute acceptable to Yerevan and the ethnic Armenians of that enclave.

American efforts to promote peace in all three cases may in fact do much good, but recent history shows that making peace in such regions is never easy and that raising expectations about the prospects for peace may not be the best way to promote it.