Preparing for Peace

The ending of the Cold War has transformed the nature of conflict
and opened new opportunities for peace

One of the articles in Toward A Sustainable World Order (IC#36)
Originally published in Fall 1993 on page 48
Copyright (c)1993, 1996 by Context Institute

With the Cold War now behind us, how can we make and keep the peace? With regional conflicts taking the place of superpower tensions, how must our efforts change to meet new challenges? Are there lessons and examples from which we can build and learn?

Providing some answers is Michael Renner, a senior researcher at the Worldwatch Institute, where he studies and writes about the link between environmental and peace issues. This article was adapted, with permission, from Worldwatch Paper #114, "Critical Juncture: The Future of Peacekeeping," published in May 1993.

In the three years since the formal end of the Cold War, the world has been rocked by a series of events as unexpectedly momentous as the East-West conflict itself: the 1991 Gulf War, the collapse of Somalia, the brutalization of Bosnia, and many others. The international community is faced with a wave of new conflicts even as it inherits from the previous era such formidable challenges as slashing the accumulated stocks of weapons and preventing the further spread of weapons of mass destruction.

Seen individually, these events pose some perplexing regional problems. Taken together, however, they amount to nothing less than an epochal watershed: a time that future historians may describe as the moment when humanity seized – or failed to seize – the opportunity to replace obsolescent mechanisms for resolving human conflict.

The traditional rule for regulating conflict and providing security was expressed by the ancient Roman maxim, si vis pacem, para bellum: If you want peace, prepare for war. This has been a guiding principle of nations for some 2,000 years, and it has rarely been questioned. The vast bulk of all preparation for war during these 20 centuries has been concentrated in this century. By the ancient logic then, the 20th century should also have produced the most stable peace.

Yet, the result has been the opposite: devising ever more ingenious weapons, governments have acquired an unprecedented ability to destroy but little capacity to defend. The 20th century has produced 75 percent of all war deaths inflicted since the rise of Rome.

A new principle of conflict resolution is therefore warranted: If you want peace, prepare for peace. Unless the world consciously replaces the ancient doctrine with a new and more effective kind of collective security, the post-Cold War conflicts may take on a dangerous momentum of their own.

Indeed, the international community already is edging toward a greater reliance on the promise of "collective security," in recognition of the fact that in a world of increasingly interconnected economies and communications, fortress-based forms of security are becoming more and more anachronistic.

But the contours of a collective security system are emerging less by design than by ad hoc responses to crises around the globe. The United Nations’ moves toward an alternative security system have been tentative, inconsistent, and often lacking in teeth. And the UN’s efforts have been undermined by lack of agreement on what its powers should be, underfunded by a refusal of key members to pay all their dues, and overwhelmed by demands for services it is not fully prepared to render.


Far from gaining a new stability from the breaking up of the Soviet Union, the world is being torn by contradictory trends toward globalization and fragmentation and by conflicts left unresolved during the Cold War.

  • On one hand, the world is being pulled together by international trade, investment, travel, and communications. On the other, it is being rocked by the reassertion of local identities and – in fearful reaction – by the rise of xenophobic and exclusivist movements.

  • The Cold War era left enough weapons stocked up around the world to keep conflicts raging for many years to come.

  • The new era has unleashed a rash of new hostilities, many of which were previously suppressed or otherwise held in check because that was what the superpowers considered to be in their interest.

  • Many conflicts "internal" to contemporary nations are in part the legacy of imperial rule. People of the same culture, language and ethnicity often found themselves separated by international borders, and grouped with people of other backgrounds and origins, irrespective of whether they had previously coexisted peacefully, been at odds, or had no significant contacts at all.

  • Given severe economic underdevelopment and undemocratic, often repressive, patterns of governance, the competition for resources and power among ethnic groups and other contenders is intense. Exacerbating these explosive conditions are the growing pressures of population growth, resource depletion, and environmental degradation.

  • The widespread availability of arms and the lack of an alternative, non-violent system for the settlement of conflicts virtually invite recourse to coercive means.

If, in this setting, war is to lose its legitimacy as an acceptable instrument in the conduct of human affairs, the still feeble norms against the use of force need to be reinforced, and global institutions that can promote peaceful conflict resolution need to be bolstered.


Among the key components of an alternative system are a shift from offensive weapons and strategies to ones that can defend but not attack, and a strengthening of international peacekeeping and peacemaking capacities.

In the kind of collective security system needed, unlike the ad hoc one which now exists, priority would be given to enabling observers to identify potential crises and to preventing disputes from escalating into armed conflicts. The United Nations would be given a greatly strengthened capacity, where conflicts do erupt, to deal with them through reconciliation efforts, in addition to its traditional peacekeeping activities. It would also have the power to enforce the terms of cease-fire and peace agreements. And, it would have the capability to help with establishing conditions that prevent the resumption of violent conflict.

With his June 1992 report to the UN Security Council, An Agenda for Peace, Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali seized the initiative for strengthening UN peacekeeping and peacemaking. At the core of his report is a call for member states to make available, on a standby basis, contingents of their armed forces for both peacekeeping and cease-fire enforcement purposes. Boutros-Ghali further emphasizes the importance of preventive diplomacy.

The report, however, as one commentator gently put it, is "written with an acute sense of the limits of the possible." Boutros-Ghali’s ideas make for a good beginning, but they do not provide the framework for a reform of the magnitude required in the long run.

For example, the UN can make fuller use of conflict resolution techniques. Throughout the organization’s existence, the secretaries-general have offered their help in personally mediating disputes – as they did in the Afghanistan and Iran-Iraq wars. These interventions are often high-profile, last-ditch efforts to avert the outbreak of hostilities, or to halt fighting where it has already begun. But more routine, low-key efforts could help to defuse tensions and resolve disputes at an earlier stage, long before violent conflict is imminent.

If an early warning alert or the conclusions of a fact-finding mission warrant it, the UN could decide on the preventive deployment of observers or lightly armed peacekeepers. Monitors could be dispatched to areas where tensions exist but are still sufficiently far from turning violent, while peacekeepers could be sent where violence seems more imminent. For instance, the Security Council recently decided to station a small UN observer force in the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia.

It also would be useful to explore the possibilities for vesting greater authority in the secretary-general (albeit within clearly defined parameters), because the Council may not always be willing or able to act in a timely manner. The secretary-general, for instance, could be given the power to send unarmed observers to any international border at any time, and perhaps to any area where heightened tensions threaten to explode.

Above and beyond these less-sweeping reforms, a permanent peacekeeping force under direct UN authority should be created. Unlike an army, such a force would be neither equipped nor mandated to use force. Its impartiality – and therefore its acceptability – could be emphasized by directly recruiting, from a broad variety of countries, individuals whose loyalty to the UN is not in question, rather than forces drawn from sometimes reluctant governments.

Whether a future UN peace force is permanent or standby, its officers will need to have at least some knowledge of the history, politics, culture, and language of the countries and regions they serve in. Even more importantly, they need skills in negotiation and conflict mediation. Systematic training, therefore, is critical.


The Bosnian tragedy, in particular, has led to an impassioned debate about the pros and cons of intervention. Most Western governments and the leaders of their militaries have decided that no "strategic" interest is at stake, and therefore have little appetite for getting drawn into what they fear may be a quagmire. But a chorus of commentators has argued for military intervention, denouncing the international community’s passivity toward the horror of mass killings, rapes, and "ethnic cleansing."

On the other side, however, are those who feel that the use of force does not solve underlying problems, and instead of constraining violence may encourage even more of it. The debate is emblematic of the new uncertainties stirred up by the end of the Cold War. It has deeply divided government officials, policy analysts, and even the peace movement.

Humanity is faced with an anguishing dilemma. Continued reliance on military means – even by the UN on behalf of the world community – inevitably re-legitimizes the use of violence for political ends. Realistically, a "just war" still kills and maims not only the perpetrators of barbaric acts but innocent people as well. Yet when the world community stands by, letting innocents be slaughtered, it in ef-fect endorses political change by violent means and sets a dangerous precedent.

More than 30 years ago, Adlai Stevenson explained in a speech at the United Nations: "We do not hold the vision of a world without conflict. We do hold the vision of a world without war – and this inevitably requires an alternative system for coping with conflict." Strengthening the UN’s capability would go a long way toward responding to Stevenson’s challenge.

The most sensible solution is to establish a two-tiered UN force. The first tier would consist of a permanent, directly recruited and specially trained peacekeeping force that adheres to the principle of nonviolence. The second tier would be composed of more militarily capable standby units to deter aggression and to enforce cease-fire agreements, if necessary, by disarming and demobilizing warring factions. In most cases, the second tier would function as a backup, mobilized only if peacekeeping units faced severe challenges to their authority. Where an act of aggression seems imminent, it could serve as a first recourse.

The question facing the international community now is whether a strengthened UN peacekeeping system can offer a workable and affordable alternative to the use of force by national governments and their adversaries. The answer can be found in the two types of conflict the UN now faces – and that any successful security system will have to cope with: transborder attacks like Iraq’s 1991 invasion of Kuwait and civil wars like that now raging in the former Yugoslavia.

In Kuwait, there is good reason to conclude that the conflict would have taken a different course had the UN’s capabilities already been strengthened as proposed here. Once Iraqi troops began assembling near the border, the UN could have quickly dispatched a peacekeeping force. In Bosnia, any last hope of dissuasion by the UN was extinguished when the Security Council discussed, but did not send, a proposed large peacekeeping force prior to the outbreak of hostilities.

The international community will need to learn – by trial and error, at first – how to employ the tools of preventive diplomacy and peacemaking effectively. The UN’s current large-scale efforts in Cambodia, Somalia, and the former Yugoslavia could turn out to be crucial tests – watershed events in the long history of human conflict.

The perception that national interests collide with a strengthened United Nations may still preclude rapid reform. Yet in region after region, the dangers of reverting to violence as a means of settling differences are becoming clear. The question is whether the nations of the world are prepared to transform the United Nations from a peacekeeper of last resort to a peacemaker of first, and routine, recourse.

That human history is riddled, and even largely defined, by patterns of violent conflict leads many people to assume that war is part of human nature and is therefore unavoidable. Yet, at the same time that humans have strived to perfect technologies of destruction, they have also struggled to define acceptable behavior during war and – more recently, and haltingly, but with growing confidence – to establish norms against the use of violence.

Just because war is a social institution does not mean it is inevitable: created by us, it can also be abolished by us.



The $8.3 billion that the United Nations spent on peacekeeping from 1948 to 1992 is less than three one-hundredths of one percent of the roughly $30 trillion devoted to traditional military purposes over the same period.

With operations growing in both number and size, annual UN peacekeeping outlays have risen from $233 million in 1987 to some $1.4 billion in 1992 – still only about as much as the US Air Force spent that year to purchase 48 F-16 jet fighters.

– MR



Curiously enough, peacekeeping – as presently practiced by the UN "Blue Helmets" – is an accident of history. Originally, the Security Council was to have had, on call, a full-strength armed force assembled from national armies of member states, for "maintaining international peace and security."

But the Cold War rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union deadlocked the Security Council over the issue. An improvised alternative – peacekeeping with no combat capability – arose in its place. "The vision of the United Nations was downsized from world police to world volunteer fire brigade," says Jeff Laurenti of the private United Nations Association of the United States.

Improvisation turned this weakness into a virtue, however. Instead of enforcing the will of the Security Council by simply becoming another combatant trying to outgun any opponent, the UN found that it could succeed by adhering to nonviolent principles.

This non-aggressive approach was adopted as a general policy, with peacekeeping troops using their light weapons only in self-defense. Another crucial element in marshaling support for its efforts has been the UN’s reputation for impartiality, its being an "honest broker."

In the first four decades of UN peacekeeping, only 14 operations were undertaken. The past five years, however, have witnessed as many new operations as the previous four decades – including the three largest ever undertaken, in Cambodia, Yugoslavia, and Somalia.

For many years, peacekeeping operations focused narrowly on conflict containment – monitoring borders and buffer zones after cease-fires were signed, as happened on the Golan Heights between Israel and Syria. But since the late 1980s, missions have become far more complex and ambitious – supervising the disarming or disbanding of armed factions, establishing protected areas, monitoring elections and human rights records, and repatriating refugees.

While the peacekeeping role evolved mainly in response to conflicts between nations, the UN now finds itself increasingly drawn into mediating internal conflicts as well. And the traditional distinction between internal and international affairs is becoming increasingly blurred. Not only are outside powers often drawn into the conflict because they want to affect the political outcome, but ever larger streams of refugees threaten to destabilize neighboring countries, and today’s far greater economic interdependence means that the fighting may have more pronounced effects in other nations.

The rapidly rising demand for the UN’s services suggests that on the whole, UN peacekeeping has been fairly successful. It was the peacekeepers, for example, who verified the withdrawal of foreign troops from Angola and Namibia; and who facilitated the peaceful political transition in Nicaragua. Among the current operations, however, at least a few – in Angola, Cambodia, and the former Yugoslavia – have encountered protracted difficulties, reflecting fundamental weaknesses in the peacekeeping forces as now constituted.

Preventing the eruption of disputes into full-scale hostilities is by no means an easy task, but its difficulties pale beside those of ending them once large-scale bloodshed has occurred and antipathies have been aroused and unleashed. Early recognition and defusion of emerging crises is crucial to resolving conflicts peacefully, but the UN still lacks appropriate tools and mechanisms.

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