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The United Nations and the
Promotion of Peace
Paul Rogers

Despite the end of the Cold War, many other conflicts persisted in the 1990s. The hope that a peace dividend would help to alleviate poverty was replaced by doubts regarding the effects of free market globalisation and environmental constraints. Future concerns include the continuing aftermath of the Cold War, the increased destructiveness of modern warfare despite, the increased sophistication of modern weaponry, the widening poverty gap between a wealthy elite and the majority of the world’s population, and developing global economic and environmental threats. The response to all this should be economic co-operation for sustainable development, including trade reform, and radical change in the environmental impact of the industrialised countries.

Yet it appears that the response of the US, and to a lesser extent Europe, is to maintain the status quo in its own interests by military means, an attitude that seems to have been reinforced by the events of 11 September 2001. Nevertheless, these developments are opposed by citizen groups in the developed world and by analysts in the South. The United Nations and its agencies have been at the forefront of analysis and proposals for action in many of these fields. Its role is likely to increase in the next thirty years, and it must be made as effective a global body as possible.

The ending of the Cold War 12 years ago was expected to lead to a more peaceful and stable world. With the greatest source of potential conflict removed, and the possibility of diverting the billions of dollars of the peace dividend into social programmes, there were real hopes that progress would be made in the alleviation of poverty. Even the immediate horror of the  Gulf War did not diminish that prospect. Indeed, many saw the development of a broad international coalition against Iraq’s belligerence as proof that a new world order was well under way.

By the end of the century, people were less sanguine. Two of the most enduring conflicts, between the Israelis and Palestinians and between India and Pakistan, showed no sign of easing, former Yugoslavia was plunged into war for much of the 1990s, there were bitter conflicts in the Caucasus and protracted violence in Colombia, Mexico, Algeria, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Spain, Indonesia and many other countries. Only in Northern Ireland, Peru and a few other conflict-zones did there appear to be prospects for curbing conflict.

Moreover, by the turn of the century, grave doubts were emerging over the effects of free market globalisation. Public movements in the South against the perceived excesses of the free market had spread to Northern countries, as unlikely coalitions of interest groups staged mass demonstrations in Seattle, Washington, Prague and Genoa. While these movements eased their actions in the immediate aftermath of 11 September 2001, there remained an unease at the lack of progress towards a fairer world economy. Even the cuts in military spending had largely ceased by the end of the old century, and one effect of the attacks on 11 September was an immediate increase in United States defence spending, to be followed almost certainly by some other western countries.

Within this uncertain world, the United Nations remained as the prime intergovernmental organisation, working in many of the relevant fields through its specialised agencies, attempting to promote arms control and disarmament for conventional as well as mass destruction weapons, and seeking to promote peace-keeping and conflict prevention through a range of channels.

Future Conflicts

Looking to the future, we need to address four issues: what are the likely ‘drivers’ or parameters of future conflict, what are their probable effects in terms of types of conflicts that are likely to be prevalent, how can we best avoid such conflicts, and what is the role of the United Nations in doing so?

Of the potential drivers of conflict, one is certainly the enduring effects of the Cold War. That 45-year period left a legacy of weapons developments and proliferation that remains a feature of the world scene. While some control of nuclear and chemical excesses is in place, there remains a problem of proliferation of both classes of weapon. The potential for biological weapons has been demonstrated by the US domestic experience in late 2001, and the cascade of light arms from conflict-prone regions at the end of the Cold War has greatly added to violence in many parts of the world, most notably much of Africa and South West Asia.

Moreover, there have been marked developments in the field of conventional warfare. While most attention has been focused on precisionguided weapons, including cruise missiles and laser-guided bombs, a parallel development has been the increasing sophistication of area-impact weapons systems designed specifically to cause maximum damage over a large area. They include cluster bombs, fuel-air explosives and, in particular, multiple-launch rocket systems that deliver anti-personnel submunitions. Some of these, when fired as a barrage, are as destructive as small nuclear weapons.

These developments are a reminder of the destructiveness of modern conflict, but beyond the processes of weapons proliferation lie two further parameters of conflict. One is the root problem of the widening gap between an increasingly wealthy elite and the majority of the world’s population. Spread across the world but located mainly in countries of the North Atlantic community and some in the West Pacific, an elite of around one billion people has surged ahead of the rest. On figures from the UN Commission on Trade and Development, 2 the richest fifth of the world’s population had 69 per cent of the world’s wealth in 1965 but 81 per cent by 1990, with inequalities increasing through the 1990s. The poorer sectors of the world’s population may not have got poorer, but well over two billion people continue to have to manage on the equivalent of two dollars a day.

What has been called economic apartheid, with a minority of the world’s people surging ahead of the rest, seems set to continue in the coming decades, aided by relatively higher population increases in poorer regions. Birth rates have certainly declined markedly but the demographic transition is a fifty-year process, not least as billions of people born over the past thirty years grow up and have children of their own.

More generally, there is a strong argument that the increasingly globalised free market is delivering patchy economic growth but is consistently failing to deliver economic justice. But this is against a background of decades of determined efforts in southern countries to promote development, many of them focused on improvements in primary education, literacy and communications.

The results have been impressive, but one of the largely unrecognised effects has been that the marginalised majority of the world’s people are becoming far more aware of their own marginalisation. As a consequence, a potential revolution of frustrated expectations is beginning to make itself felt, not least in the evolution of anti-elite insurgencies and a more general anti-elite and anti-western mood in many countries of the South.

These may be expressed locally or globally and they may, in more extreme cases, involve the development of radical social movements that focus on religious, ethnic, nationalist or political identities. The ‘Shining Path’ rebellion in Peru had a brutal quasi-Maoist base, whereas the Zapatistas in Mexico draw support for a more tolerant socialist agenda primarily from indigenous peoples. In many parts of North Africa and the Middle East, Islamic movements are at the core of revolt, whereas in South Asia, Hindu nationalism is significant. Ethnicity remains central in many parts of South  East Asia, not least Indonesia, and a complex mix of ethnic, religious and cultural identities has been central to conflicts in the Balkans and Caucasus.

What is frequently the case, though, is that perceptions of marginalisation, elite control and even external control are primary issues in the development of discontent and radical response. Nor is this confined to local responses - the attacks of 11 September followed a decade of attempted actions against western interests. While previous attempts at mass-casualty terrorism had failed in New York, Paris and elsewhere, their significance was there to be seen, if all too often ignored.

Environmental Constraints
The final parameter of potential conflict is the developing phenomenon of global environmental constraints. This has long been predicted, certainly back to the Limits to Growth debate of thirty years ago, but is now much more clearly apparent, as is the realisation that it has profound security

There are two broad areas of concern. One is the potential for increased conflict over resources, especially those of a strategic significance that have a small location base. Some of these are resources of specialised use, such as the cobalt and tantalum reserves of central Africa that have a played a major role in recent conflict, and the rock phosphate reserves of Western Sahara, important fertiliser components in world agriculture, that lie behind much of the conflict between the Polisario Front and Morocco.

Most significant of all is the location of world oil reserves, with some twothirds of all known reserves in the Persian Gulf region. Moreover, most of the most easily obtainable reserves are located there, new reserves are being discovered at a faster rate than production, and the reserves are amongst the cheapest in the world. The Gulf War itself was fought primarily over the control of Gulf oil, and much of the anti-American mood from which the al-Qaida network and others have drawn their support comes from a perception of US control of the Gulf and support for a neofeudal Saudi elite.

The second area of environmental concern lies with global human impacts. An early marker was the impact of chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) pollutants on the ozone layer, a problem appreciated in the early 1980s, not least because of the activities of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). By focusing on the potential impact of CFCs, UNEP helped prepare the ground for action in the late 1980s that led to some quite effective international cooperation to phase out the pollutants. While the problem of ozone depletion remains significant, the international response does show that, in some circumstances, there is a real possibility of global co-operation.

Even so, of much greater long-term significance is the phenomenon of climate change, caused primarily by the emission of ‘greenhouse’ gases, especially carbon dioxide, from the burning of fossil fuels. Since the use of fossil fuels is an integral part of urban industrial societies, the control of such greenhouse gases is likely to prove very much more difficult than responding to ozone depletion.

Until about five years ago, most forms of climate change were expected to have their main effects on temperate latitudes, regions of relative wealth that might be able to cope. In the longer term, sea level changes would affect many tropical countries, including rich alluvial delta lowlands that support many millions of people, but in the shorter term it was anticipated that the northern and southern temperate latitudes would experience the major effects, mainly in the form of temperature increases and changes in rainfall patterns. These regions were, for the most part, composed of wealthy countries that might be able to make the necessary adaptations.

More recently, there has developed a view within climatology that the tropics will also be affected, both in terms of violent weather events causing great harm to impoverished communities, and a more general tendency for changes in rainfall distribution. The latter aspect is by far the most significant, with huge implications not just for social well-being but for international security.

There are indications that, over the next half century, the tropical regions of the world will experience substantial shifts in the distribution of rainfall, with more rain tending to fall on the oceans and in the polar regions and progressively less rain falling over the tropical land masses. The likely effects include the partial drying-out of some of the most fertile regions of the tropics, leading to a substantial decrease in the ecological carrying capacity of the land, resulting in decreases in food production.

These are the areas that support a very substantial part of the human population, much of it by subsistence agriculture. Many of the communities are very poor, and form part of impoverished states that have very little capacity to respond to such fundamental changes. As a result, the likelihood of persistent food shortages and even famines become much greater, leading to increased human suffering, social unrest and a greatly increased pressure on migration.

Taking these factors together, we can envisage, at least on present trends, the interaction of increasing socio-economic divisions with the effects of environmental constraints in a world that has a wide range of advanced and highly destructive military capabilities. On present trends, we run the risk of what the conservationist Edwin Brooks called ‘a crowded, glowering planet of massive inequalities of wealth, buttressed by stark force yet endlessly threatened by desperate people in the global ghettos.’

Among the forms of conflict that are most likely, anti-elite insurgencies will be particularly common, with paramilitary action directed not just against local elites but against their transnational supporters, whether these be states or corporations. There will also be substantial security implications stemming from greatly increased migratory pressures. Migration is already a major political issue in Europe, with anti-immigrant political parties quick to utilise the vulnerabilities present in the poorest sectors of societies that are receiving immigrants. If migratory pressures increase tenfold or more, as is a likely consequence of climate change, then harsh military responses that in turn lead to ‘militant migration’ are likely. Environmental conflict is also increasingly likely, not least over the control of the Persian Gulf oil supplies, a range of strategic minerals and, in particular, water resources.

The Response
To avoid the development of ‘a crowded, glowering planet’ requires progressive and often radical action on a number of fronts. Perhaps most important of all is the need for persistent progress towards economic cooperation for sustainable development. Economic co-operation requires action on three fronts - debt, trade and aid. The debt burden on many less developed countries remains the biggest single obstacle to development, and the much-lauded progress of the last three years has, in reality, achieved little so far. There is therefore an urgent need for a sustained and extensive programme of debt cancellation, with immediate action aimed at the most heavily indebted countries.

In parallel with this, there remains an essential requirement for trade reform, given that the post-colonial trading system was so unbalanced as to give industrialised states a near-permanent trading advantage. A sustained integrated commodities programme coupled with generalised tariff preferences would transform the trading position of most southern states, providing an immense boost to development prospects. While less significant, development assistance remains important, especially in the form of multilateral assistance for gendered programmes of sustainable development aimed at the poorest communities.

Even if there were to be the necessary transformation of debt relief, trade reform and aid strategies, it would not have the necessary global impact without radical changes in the environmental impact of the advanced industrialised countries. This requires rapid progress towards sustainable economies, especially in relation to curbing current rates of resource use. Perhaps most important of all is the need radically to scale down the emission of greenhouse gases, a process that will require a combination of energy conservation measures with the taking up of a wide range of renewable energy strategies.

While the Kyoto accords begin the process of moving towards low carbon economies, they represent no more than a tentative initial step. Expert opinion indicates that urban industrial states need to decrease their greenhouse gas emission by around 60 per cent - far more than is anticipated at present.

If it was possible to move towards a global system in which there is sustained action on issues of the socio-economic divide and environmental constraints, then it would be possible to envisage a genuine easing of the tensions that are currently developing in an increasingly fractured world. They would need to be accompanied by a wide range of measures intended to curb excesses of militarisation and weapons development, as well as international co-operation on issues of conflict prevention, peace-keeping and post-conflict peace-building. How, though, do they compare with actual trends?

The Western Perspective
In contrast to what is required, the current international security paradigm, dominated by the United States and its western allies, is much more a matter of maintaining the status quo. It was characterised aptly by James Woolsey, head of the US Central Intelligence Agency in the early 1990s, when he described the transition to the post-Cold War world as the west having slain the dragon (of the Soviet threat) but now living in a jungle full of poisonous snakes.

What is most commonly seen from a western security perspective is a volatile world of many threats to western interests and therefore to international peace and stability. This view is especially strong in the United States, not least since the election of George W. Bush. Conservative circles within the Bush administration see the United States as having an historical role, as the world’s only superpower, to preach the gospel of the globalised free market, with the United States the guarantor of stability, in its own image. This was a view memorably expressed by Charles Krauthammer when describing the need for the United States to pursue its own security needs in a unilateral manner:

Multipolarity, yes, when there is no alternative. But not when there is. Not when we have the unique imbalance of power that we enjoy today – and that has given the international system a stability and essential tranquillity it had not know for at least a century. …The international environment is far more likely to enjoy peace under a single hegemon. Moreover, we are not just any hegemon. We run a uniquely benign imperium.

The instruments of this benign imperium have involved a transformation of the armed forces of the United States and, to an extent, its allies. Instead of the massive tank armies and other features of the Cold War, we now have much more emphasis on long range force projection, whether by aircraft carriers, sea-launched cruise missiles or strategic bombers. There is a heavy emphasis on amphibious operations and special operations forces, a far greater concern with space-based reconnaissance and the use of drones, all subsumed in a belief of the need to be able to fight wars in far-off places in pursuit of security interests. There is a particular concern with the support of local elites and commercial interests - the US currently has counterinsurgency training missions in some 55 countries.

Overall, there is a deep-seated belief that control can be maintained and that the lid can be kept on the pot of discontent and opposition to the status quo - liddism rules OK.1 Moreover, it is a view that has been reinforced by the tragic events of 11 September. There seems to have been a profound failure to recognise the implications of those atrocities, and the manner in which they require us to rethink our security attitudes. Instead there was a three month war in which an intensive air campaign aided participants in the Afghanistan civil war to unseat the Taliban regime.

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