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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A World of Forgotten Wars




When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, pundits and policy-makers spoke of the dawning of a new era in which conflict would be the exception rather than the rule. But 11 years later, the world is still at war.


There are now 33 major conflicts underway worldwide. You may have heard about the wars in Chechnya, Colombia and the Congo, but you probably haven't heard much about the equally brutal conflicts occurring in Sierra Leone, Sri Lanka and Sudan. It's time to start paying closer attention to these far-off conflicts.


The end of the Cold War has made it less likely that there will be a nuclear war between the superpowers, but it has done little to stem the spread of local and regional wars. During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union fueled regional wars by backing their local proxies with troops or weaponry, but they also engaged in diplomatic efforts to limit the spread of these conflicts. By contrast, the new world of war involves a bewildering array of conflicts over territory, resources and ethnic and national identity in which it's hard to tell the good guys from the bad.


A case in point is the war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has described as "Africa's first world war.'' The conflict involves the armies of seven sovereign nations plus a dozen or more militias and paramilitary groups.


The Congo is the latest in a long series of bloody conflicts that have punctuated the past decade, from Iraq to Somalia, Kosovo to Chechnya. What is fueling these new wars, and why hasn't the international community come up with better ways to prevent them?


Contrary to the widely held view that the bubbling up of ancient ethnic hatreds or "settling old scores'' is the key driver behind contemporary conflicts, the Canadian research group Project Ploughshares has argued that "behind ethnic or national identity struggles are basic economic and social grievances. ... Countries at the bottom half of the United Nations human-development index are almost three times as likely to fall into war as countries at the top half of the index.'' Globalization has enriched many corporations, individuals and communities, but it has also left large parts of the Third World in conditions of desperate poverty in which the business of war - from the plunder of resources to the profits of gunrunning - has become a means of survival for many individuals and groups.


The ready availability of inexpensive but deadly weaponry - from rifles and machine guns to light trucks and rocket launchers - is another factor in the spread of ethnic and territorial conflicts.


Last but not least, the United States and the world's other major powers have invested far too much in preparing for war and far too little in preventing conflict. When the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe was monitoring a cease-fire in Kosovo in late 1998 and early 1999, its entire annual budget for conflict prevention was just $2 million. That's the equivalent of just two of the hundreds of cruise missiles that were rained down on the former Yugoslavia by U.S. and NATO forces when the OSCE-monitored cease-fire broke down.


If a new approach to preventing conflict is to emerge, the leadership will have to come from nongovernmental organizations and the governments of middle powers - such as Canada and the Scandinavian countries - that are not mired in the institutional and intellectual frameworks of the Cold War.


It was precisely this kind of coalition that brought about the creation of an international treaty to ban the export, production and use of antipersonnel land mines, which has now been ratified by a majority of the world's nations despite the opposition of such major powers as the United States and Russia. A similar coalition is now pressing for strict limits on the spread of the guns, ammunition and other small arms that are the weapons of choice on today's most deadly battlefields.


As we embark in a new century, the U.S. government should put more of its resources into efforts to prevent conflict using innovative approaches to conflict prevention and peacekeeping, rather than fueling conflicts through arms sales and military-training programs.


If not, the violence of today's "forgotten wars'' could be just the beginning of a new, more violent era in international affairs that will have devastating human and economic costs for people in every corner of the globe.


William D. Hartung and Frida Berrigan are the president's fellow and senior research associate, respectively, at the World Policy Institute at the New School in New York. They originally contributed this comment to The Hartford Courant.


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