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Jonathan Power: Absolutely Nothing in the News

The serious newspapers I read used to take me an hour to get through. These days it is fifteen minutes. Nothing much is happening, at least in foreign affairs. Iraq has all but disappeared from the front page. Afghanistan and Pakistan still remain; but even so, investors continue to up their investments in Pakistan, presumably judging that the conflict is over-hyped. The argument with Iran over whether it is building nuclear weapons drags on, despite the forgotten report of the CIA two years ago that found that it probably was not. (Not to mention that the West and Russia look a bit silly when they turn a blind eye to Brazil for doing exactly the same as Iran.) More recently there's Iran’s suggestion that it might ship some of its used uranium to Russia to be converted into fuel to provide medical isotopes, or else to import from Europe enriched uranium instead of manufacturing its own. So this conflict should now be relatively easy to wrap up. What else is there? Georgia is out of the picture; Chechnya was long ago. The Russians and the Americans sweet talk each other. Now that Washington has decided to abandon its ill-judged anti-missile system in Eastern Europe, the Russians have switched off their angst and are happily agreeing to the first major nuclear arms cuts in nearly a decade. China is now part of the “system.” The priorities are economic growth, dealing with financial imbalances, and, unfortunately, keeping the lid on dissent at home. It has made peaceful settlements of its border disputes with Laos, Russia, Vietnam, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan and is working on its age old dispute of border demarcation with India. Its bitter clash with Taiwan, which commentators once called the most explosive issue on the map, is now quiescent. Japan and China are finally getting on fine. Add to this that India’s reflexive anti-Americanism is dead and buried—thanks to President George W. Bush’s decision to lift the embargo on nuclear materials. North Korea is isolated, even from its old mentor China. Who on earth is it going to use its two or three nuclear weapons against? Most of Africa has taken a big hit from the economic crisis. But unlike past crises it hasn’t gone under. It should soon return to its pre-crisis, rapid economic growth of over 5 percent—it could even surpass 8 percent in a number of cases, including once poorly run Nigeria, the continent’s most populous state. This week Nigeria announced it is taking another big step toward solving the insurgency in its Niger Delta oil-producing region. Having recently secured an effective truce, President Umaru Yar ‘Adua has decided he wants to give back 10 percent of oil revenues to the people and villages of the Delta. Presumably he will use the mechanism of the mobile phone, which is further ahead in its applications to send individuals money by phone in Africa than in the West. Over the last five years, Africa too has seen its perennial conflicts dwindle to almost zero. There are still serious skirmishes in the Congo, Sudan and Somalia, but military observers no longer label these as wars. Worldwide, the number of war of self-determination has dropped dramatically. The strife between Israel and Palestine remains the world’s most potent conflict. But even there hopes have been raised by President Barack Obama’s clever speech in Cairo. Only a dyed-in-the-wool pessimist would doubt that when Obama puts his shoulder to the wheel—once he has secured the passing of the domestic health care reform bill—the standoff will rapidly move toward at least an interim settlement. For the first time in history, a not-insignificant number of states have been free from war for the best part of two centuries. In Europe, there's Sweden and Switzerland, despite long traditions of warfare in both countries. Several Latin American states, such as Venezuela, Colombia, Costa Rica and Brazil have now lived a century without war. Indeed, entire regions of our planet have escaped internal war for over a century. Canada, Mexico, and the United States don’t even maintain troops on each other’s borders. And of course, there have been the momentous changes in Europe, the source of most of the great wars of the last two centuries. No one else has done what the Europeans have accomplished—emerge from two devastating wars and build a whole continent of peace. Moreover, it was not so long ago, 1942 to be precise, when only four countries in Europe were electoral democracies—Sweden, Ireland, Britain and Switzerland. Unquestionably, the present peace is built more securely than was the balance of power that kept the peace for most of the 19th and the early 20th centuries. No one person, country or movement can claim credit for this. But certainly Barack Obama has pushed peace forward another good step. After the insouciance of Bill Clinton and the aggressiveness of George W. Bush, he has introduced a new serious tone into the job of worldwide peacemaking. There was everything right in awarding him the Nobel Peace Prize. He has a good chance of delivering on his promise. But that also depends on him winding down the self-defeating war in Afghanistan as soon as possible. Jonathan Power is a syndicated columnist and a contributing editor of Prospect magazine in London. His most recent book is Conundrums of Humanity (Martinus Nijhoff, 2007).

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