Hopes were dashed again in Kenya on Tuesday as former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan suspended mediation talks between presidential rivals Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga. The power-sharing agreement that appeared within reach last week is proving elusive, and it's not hard to understand why. Kenya's elections, like those in many other developing democracies, can be an effective mechanism for imposing majority rule. But that doesn't necessarily translate into equitable divisions of power, wealth, economic opportunity or natural resources. Elections have destabilized such countries as Ivory Coast, Pakistan and Ethiopia, and the Palestinian territories. In Kenya, they have historically been winner-seizes-all contests that have been marred by violence and have left an increasingly bitter taste in the hungry mouths of the losers.
In the short term, U.S., U.N. and European diplomats need to set a date for talks to resume and, behind the scenes, start bullying the intransigent Kenyan politicians into a deal. The U.S. has limited leverage; it gives Kenya more than $600 million a year in aid, but most goes to HIV/AIDS and food programs that must not be turned into political bargaining chips. U.S. military aid has helped Kenyan counter-terrorism cooperation, which the Bush administration won't want to jeopardize. But the U.N. could begin discussing travel or financial sanctions against Kibaki or Odinga if either insists on dragging his country into an ethnic blood bath. Such threats must be accompanied by the promises of tangible development aid as a reward for a tangible agreement to share power. Only a leader who knows that compromise will enable him to deliver something to his bloodied followers can compromise without losing face.
Yet even if a peace deal can be struck, Kenya will not easily be put back together. The Times has reported that voluntary "ethnic cleansing" continues, as those who have suffered or witnessed ethnic violence seek haven among their own kind. As the traumatized peoples of Rwanda and elsewhere have learned, once the evil genie of genocide is loosed, hatred, grief and mistrust cannot be put back into the bottle. Kenya's lesson is that closely fought elections in fragile states are inherently volatile, and that violence is far easier and cheaper to prevent than to quell. The donor-fatigued international community has neither the will nor the money to take on the rebuilding of yet more failed states. Preventive diplomacy -- and preventive development, aimed at easing corruption, inequality and ethnic tensions -- require our attention, now more than ever.