Superpowers in Eclipse, but Will Lesser Ones Do Worse?

Jonathan Power writes a column for the International Herald Tribune.

Day by day, peace edges closer in Namibia. Namibian refugees from neighboring Angola are being repatriated. The U.N.-supervised elections look as if they are on course for Nov. 1. Problems that could have been dangerously overwhelming, like the illegal incursion in April of guerrilla troops from Angola into Namibia, were dealt with expeditiously by Soviet and American diplomats working hand-in-glove to persuade the antagonists to end the fighting.

Is this how it's going to be from now on--joint Soviet-American fire brigades to quench every conflagration and joint Moscow-Washington medicine men to pour balm on every ailment?

Probably yes, but hold on a minute! We need a sense of perspective. Certainly, there will be a lot more of this in the future. But to assume it can always be the pattern is to believe that the world is a simpler place than it is. It's also to overlook just how much progress the superpowers made in the years before the Gorbachev-induced period of enhanced peacemaking. The truth is that there had long been more confluence of purpose between the superpowers than met the eye in trouble- spot headlines.

Despite all the foul words spoken between the two and all the dastardly deeds done, over the years the superpowers have successfully overseen the transfer of power during decolonization without major systemic instability. They then provided the developing countries with a margin for maneuvering, influence and security they might otherwise lack.

The superpowers also have refrained, for the most part, from intervening unilaterally in one another's sphere of influence. They've sought to avoid the confrontation of their own armed forces. They've worked to restrain allies and associates. And they've held back from direct intervention in a number of conflicts outside the established sphere of influence of either, where clear intervention by one could only spark intervention by the other, as in the Congo civil war in 1960-62, the Nigerian/Biafran civil war in 1967-70 and the Indo-Pakistan conflict in 1971.

Apart from Cuba and the ambiguous situation of Vietnam, this is how it has been during most of the postwar period.

While the superpowers have been working out their own modus vivendi, the rest of the world has not stood still. Where once the superpowers could have brought their influence, benign or not so benign, to bear, now they no longer have such a weak and willing world to deal with. World politics is becoming more decentralized. A significant number of Third World nations are becoming more economically powerful and more able to sustain large and sophisticated military establishments of their own. These countries can either build the weapons themselves or import from sources other than their traditional suppliers in Europe and North America--from China, Brazil, Argentina and South Korea. This gives them a great deal more elbow room to make their own political decisions.

While the superpower relationship will be of increasing importance in working to diffuse and contain crises and wars, it is expecting too much to think that just because of their own relative harmony they can impose some glorious peace on an attentive world.

The superpowers, working together as they are in Namibia, Cambodia and Ethiopia, can certainly produce great dividends. And as they learn to work to more effect the machinery of the U.N. Security Council, they will contribute even more.

But at the same time, more responsibility is falling on the shoulders of a second rung of powerful states--Japan, China, India, Nigeria, Egypt, Venezuela and the European Community.

We've seen some of this in the last year--India with its peacekeeping force in Sri Lanka, and Japan helping to pay for a significant portion of the U.N. peacekeeping operation in the Persian Gulf and offering to pay for one in Cambodia.

An exceptional period of superpower dominance is over. Other countries have to develop the same kind of discipline and sense of order that the superpowers were compelled to acquire the hard way. The newcomers are not used to putting into a global perspective such matters as the dangers of the use of chemical weapons or the proliferation of nuclear weapons and missile technology. But they must learn--and quickly, too.

Third World conflicts will continue. They could even increase. For the past 20 years, in the first light of independence, they have been primarily civil wars. But if the European experience is anything to go by, they'll graduate to extraterritorial wars. Sharam Chuba, the influental director of research and security studies at the Institute of International Studies in Geneva, predicts that "coalitions will form and re-form as states work out their place in the local heirarchy and test and shape regional balances of power."

There is more peace in the world than there has been for a generation. But it should not lull us into ignoring that we are in a period of great transition. The superpowers can no longer manage it alone. Moscow and Washington, having replaced the weakness of emnity with the strength of collaboration, still have much to learn about the management of world order. Ironically in this time of peace, that could become both more difficult and more hazardous.

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