Friday, December 22, 2006

Can intractable conflicts be solved?

The answer to this question highlight why it is the participation of the US is vital to resolving intractable conflicts. Why is it that we see ethnic tensions turning violent or criminal elements becoming more powerful in places like Bosnia, Iraq, and Palestinian Territories? The answer is that there is no longer a strong, overarching power keeping those tensions in control. In the absence of astrong central authority, smaller despots will coalesce their power, in whatever base they can, be it tribal group, co-religionists, like minded criminals, and struggle for power. This is a pattern seen everywhere in the world. The Chinese call it the Dynastic Cycle; as the power of the central authority wanes, local chiefs contest for power during a period of anarchy that lasts until one of them gains sufficient advantage, or a foreigner comes in to smash the squabbling forces and takes over the divided kingdom.

Colonial powers conquered and ruled their colonial holdings much as did the Mongol invaders who invaded China. A strong, unified power came into an area without a unified government, and was able to establish control and rule. This pattern has been in evidence all over the world. Britain ruled India, eastern China, Australia, and southern Africa among other places. The US government destroyed dis-unified Indian tribes and extended control over the entire continent, Hawaii and smashed the Boxer Rebellion in Beijing. Japan and the Chinese Nationalist ruled Taiwan by oppressing the indigenous people with such ruthlessness, there was no chance of uprising. After smashing Japan, the US forced the Japanese people to renounce their traditional warrior culture, and adopt a peaceful constitution before they were allowed self rule. In all these situations, a stronger power came in and forced a weak group of squabbling people to change their behavior to live in peace.

Such is the situation the US faces around the world at the end of 2006. Theorists have essentially thrown away centuries of collected wisdom of how a major power pacifies a troublesome area, and has attempted to do things in a new, unproven way. The US has attempted to be culturally sensitive in the situations where it has intervened lately, and to be charitable, the jury is still out on whether this approach will be successful. Bosnia appears to be a success story, but still requires the heavy commitment of US forces and money to keep the warring parties apart. It is hard to imagine that peace would reign if the US redeployed. Iraq is really up in the air and has all the earmarks of a situation that is not “ripe” for settlement, since none of the sides seems yet to fear being destroyed by any of the others. Since the largest power, the US, is unwilling to impose its vision of a settlement on the country and destroy those who would combat that vision, the minor despots continue their insurrection. Since Israel has been unwilling to destroy the forces of the Palestinians, hat situation does not appear to be ripe for settlement either.

There is now an institutional bias against ethnic cleansing, against partition, against maintaining secure borders and against intervening to destroy one warlike culture to replace it with one more attuned to political settlement of differences. The idea currently in vogue is for the dominant power to avoid a large cultural “footprint” and allow the local people to live as they wish. While we might now shrink from imposing a settlement of differences on an unwilling population and forcing that people to accept it, the historical truth is: this approach works, and it works regardless of the political landscape. Currently, with the US spending more on defense than the next 44 powers combined, with 300 million people and the largest economy in history, there is no doubt about the power of the US in unrivalled. Whether the US can muster the will to use this power in a way that will accomplish its goals, is another question.