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World: Analysis From Washington -- Toward Peace?

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 31 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- A new U.S. study has found that the number and intensity of armed conflicts around the world have declined by more than a third over the past decade, a trend the authors of this research attribute to the rise of democracy, power-sharing settlements, and increased international cooperation in dealing with such clashes.

Prepared by the Center for International Development and Conflict Management at the University of Maryland, the new study said the number of armed conflicts around the world had fallen from more than 180 a decade ago to only 120 at the present time. It noted that the violence and intensity of the remaining conflicts had fallen as well.

The authors, Ted Robert Gurr, Monty G. Marshall, and Deepa Khosla, argue that this positive trend toward peace reflects three underlying developments around the world:

First, it represents a dividend resulting from the replacement of autocratic governments with more open and democratic ones. Indeed, the authors say, the world now has twice as many democratic regimes than authoritarian ones, the best ratio ever.

Second, many of the conflicts of a decade ago have been resolved not by the traditional means of the victory of one side over the other but rather by power-sharing arrangements in which all sides are able to walk away with at least a partial victory. Until the end of the Cold War, few governments were prepared to contemplate such arrangements, but now, the authors suggest, ever more regimes see them as the way to go.

And third, with the collapse of communism and the Soviet Union, the major powers are more willing than ever before to act in concert to end conflicts or at least to avoid acting in ways that exacerbate or prolong those conflicts they see as undermining the position of their geopolitical opponents. That, the authors note, represents perhaps the most fundamental shift in the post-Cold War environment.

But the study's authors warn against an easy optimism, against the assumption that the current trend will inevitably continue and thus will relieve major governments of the need to develop and promote policies designed to end conflicts. Indeed, they say, there are some good reasons to think that the number of conflicts could easily rise again in the very near future.

In the second part of their study, Gurr, Marshall, and Khosla assessed the prospects for stability in 160 countries. Half of those countries, mostly in Europe and Anglo-America, appear likely to remain stable, but 80 of these states, the scholars said, are at high or moderate risk of the kind of instability that could trigger new rounds of violent conflict within or between them.

The majority of countries at risk are in Africa or the Middle East, but a sizeable number are located in the post-communist region of Eurasia or in the still communist countries of Asia. Among the countries at high risk of violence in the post-communist region are Georgia, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and the Yugoslav successor states, with the Russian Federation and the other countries of Central Asia and the Caucasus being at moderate risk.

In Asia, the study says, Cambodia is at high risk, with Vietnam and China being at moderate risk of such violent conflicts in the next decade.

Given this enormous range of potential conflicts, the study concludes, more violent conflicts are likely even if current conflicts are resolved. And that in turn argues, it says, both for continued international involvement in conflict resolution and also for the development of new ways of power-sharing and other means of making peace. If that does not happen, if the populations of the major powers come to believe that peace is now inevitable, then, the authors suggest, the world is likely to move not towards peace but in the opposite direction. And such a trend in turn could mean that the era of small conflicts would be replaced by a new period of larger and more violent wars.