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Ending Deadly Conflict: Dream or Delusion?

Keynote Address by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans AC QC, Chancellor, The Australian National University, to 1st International Conference in Violence Studies, ARC  Centre of Excellence for Violence in Culture and History, University of Newcastle, 20 August 2012


As we read each day’s newspapers and look at each night’s television news, think about everything that is going wrong in the world from Syria to Mali, and Afghanistan to the South China Sea and multiple other hot spots as well, and start listing all the impossibly difficult issues with which the Secretary General and the Security Council are currently wrestling, it really is hard to believe that ending deadly conflict once and for all could ever be anything  more than an  impossibly unrealisable dream.

Every month the International Crisis Group, the Brussels based global conflict prevention and resolution organisation which I led for nearly a decade after leaving Australian politics, produces a CrisisWatch bulletin summarizing the state of play in some 70 different situations of actual or potential conflict around the world.  All this year it has had almost nothing but gloom to report, with ‘deteriorating’ situations for the six months from March to August outnumbering ‘improving’ ones ten to one, 43 to 4. It’s hard to believe, again, in all of this, that the world has learned anything very much at all about how to prevent and manage and resolve deadly conflict.

There are other ways of compounding the gloom. There is a great deal of published research which plays into the argument that there is something endemic and irreducible about the human instinct to violence,  for example, the study  summarized in the New York Times not long ago making it clear just how easy it is for violence to rapidly escalate from small beginnings.[1] Measured pressure was applied to volunteers' fingers, and they were then asked to apply precisely the same amount of pressure to their partners, with the partners then responding in turn: the typical response was 40 per cent more force than actually experienced, with the result that within a couple of minutes what began as a game of soft touches quickly moved to moderate pokes and then hard prods. Each partner believed that the other was escalating: neither realized that what was really involved was a neurological quirk by which the pain we receive almost invariably seems worse than that which we inflict.

Then there are the long series of research findings, stretching back over 40 years, summarized in the article in Foreign Policy magazine in 2006 entitled 'Why Hawks Win',[2] which suggest that when it comes to basic psychological impulses, there are built in biases which incline decision makers to make at least four basic errors:

  • First, to exaggerate the evil intentions of adversaries: even when people are aware of the context and possible constraints on another’s behaviour, they tend not to factor that in when assessing the other’s motives, while at the same time assuming that others grasp the constraints on their own behaviour;
  • Second, to be overly optimistic when assessing the case for going to war: a large majority of people not only believe themselves to be smarter, more attractive and more talented than average, which commonly leads them to overestimate their future success; they are also subject to the 'illusion of control', consistently exaggerating the amount of control they have over outcomes important to them, even when these are random or determined by other forces;
  • Third, to be unduly pessimistic when evaluating the chances of peace: there cuts in  a phenomenon described as 'reactive devaluation', the reluctance to accept concessions, on the intuition that they must be worth less simply because the other side has offered them. Scepticism can be, of course, the rational product of past experience, but as often as not this kind of response is largely unconscious and irrational; and
  • Fourth, to be deeply reluctant to cut losses, even when the chances of success are extremely slight, and the risks of further loss by going on are very high: psychologists don’t need a fancy name for this response — it’s just plain old 'wishful thinking' — but it clearly helps many conflicts to endure long beyond the point they should.

It doesn't need much imagination to see how these various factors might conceivably have had more than a little to do with the policy mistakes and roadblocks with which we are all too unhappily familiar in the context of escalating and intractable conflicts like Syria, just as we can see most of them clearly recurring in the conflicts of decades and centuries past.

It certainly requires a considerable feat of optimism to believe that these kinds of reflex reactions buried deep in the human psyche — not to mention all the rest of the mental furniture that plays a part in human conflict, including hatred, intolerance and greed — are ever going to be able to be sufficiently neutralized.


But, and this is the central point of what I want to say this evening, there is something going on out there – an  accumulation of data about what is actually happening in the real world of deadly conflict between and within states – that gives us some real grounds for optimism that hoping for an end once and for all to such conflict might not be a complete delusion.

First, there is the phenomenon that historians are now calling the ‘Long Peace’: the reality that for an unprecedentedly long period in the history of the world there have been no wars at all between the great powers. Steven Pinker, the Harvard psychologist whose brilliant new book I’ll be mentioning more than once in this talk – The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and its Causes (Allen Lane, 2011) – makes the point that the most interesting statistic since 1945 is ‘zero’, because this ‘is the number that applies to an astonishing collection of categories of ward during the two-thirds of a century that has elapsed since the end of the deadliest war of all time,” viz:

  • the number of times that nuclear weapons have been used in conflict;
  • the number of times that the Cold War superpowers fought each other at all on the battlefield;
  • the number of interstate wars that have been fought between countries in Western Europe (interesting when you appreciate that European states started around two conflicts a year since 1400…);
  • the number of interstate wars that have been fought between major developed countries;
  • the number of developed countries that have expanded their territory since the late 1940s by conquering another country; and
  • the number of internationally recognised states that have gone out of existence through conquest.

We can quibble about some of the details – for example whether to treat South Vietnam as a country which disappeared through conquest, and whether to count the Soviet Union in Hungary in 1956 and Russia in Georgia in 2008 as European wars – but the overall account is unarguable.

The second set of statistics relate to the kind of violence between states, of any kind anywhere in the world, and within states, that is not covered by the ‘Long Peace’ description, and what Pinker and others are now describing as the ‘New Peace’. The key figures here were originally assembled from a variety of sources by the Human Security Report Project ­ - a team of scholars in Canada working under the direction of Professor Andrew Mack (who I used to work with closely when I was Foreign Minister and he was head of the Peace Research Centre at ANU before moving to a key advisory role with Secretary-General Kofi Annan at the UN).

What those figures demonstrate, quite contrary to conventional wisdom, and perhaps to the instincts of all of us who think we follow international news pretty closely, is that there has been in fact a very significant trend decline — after a high point in the late 1980s and very early 1990s — in the number of wars taking place, both between and within states, in the number of genocidal and other mass atrocities, and the number of people dying violent deaths as a result of them. There has something of a resurgence since 2004 in what the statisticians (if not humanists) would call ‘minor armed conflicts’ – associated with an increase in Islamist political violence – but in the case of  what are described as ‘serious’ conflicts  or wars (defined as conflicts with 1000 or more battle deaths in a year),  and in the case of political mass murders (of the kind we associate with Cambodia and Rwanda), the trend  decline since the early 1990s has continued to be an extraordinary 80 per cent.   

Associated with that has been an even more striking decrease in the number of battle deaths. Whereas most years from the 1940s through to the 1990s had over 100,000 such reported deaths — and sometimes as many as 500,000 — the average for the first years of this new century has been more like 20,000. Of course violent battle deaths are only a small part of the whole story of the misery of war: 90 per cent or more of war-related deaths are indirect, due to disease and malnutrition rather than direct violence, as we have seen, for example, in the Congo and Darfur. But the trend decline in battle deaths is significant, and highly encouraging.


The crucial question, of course, is why is this happening. Is it just a statistical quirk from which deadly business is bound to resume as usual sooner or later? Or are there real causal factors which can be identified which, between them, can give us some real confidence that, despite all the ups and downs and individual crises and conflicts that continue to haunt us, the world has actually passed a turning point, and really is getting safer and saner?
Institutional Developments.  To focus first on the ‘New Peace’ phenomenon – the evident dramatic decline in conflict generally between and within states over the last twenty years – a number of factors have manifestly contributed, including the end of the era of colonialism, which generated two-thirds or more of all wars from the 1950s to the 1980s; and of course the end of the Cold War, which meant no more proxy wars being fuelled by Washington or Moscow, and also the end of the road for a number of authoritarian governments propped up by each side who had been provoking internal resistance.

But, as argued by Andrew Mack and his team, the best explanation is the one that stares us in the face, even if a great many don't want to acknowledge it. And that is the huge upsurge in activity in conflict prevention, conflict management, negotiated peacemaking and post-conflict peacebuilding activity that has occurred over the last decade and a half. Most of that  has been spearheaded by the much maligned UN, although there has been a lot of additional input from governments and other organizations, including — if you’ll forgive me saying so — my own International Crisis Group, which from very small beginnings in 1995 has become a major source of information and advice on all these matters.

We are doing better at diplomatic peacemaking, with successes from Cambodia to the Balkans to Northern Ireland to West Africa to Nepal and Aceh well outnumbering in recent years what remain so far the failures, e.g in Sri Lanka and Darfur, and now Syria. In the Cold War years, by contrast, more wars were decided on the battlefield than ended in negotiation.

We are becoming ever more professional at peacekeeping, The Security Council currently mandates twenty nine peacekeeping and political missions around the world with over 100,000 troops and police deployed. And we are certainly now doing much better at post-conflict peacebuilding, having finally learned — after the horrendous experiences of Angola, Rwanda, Afghanistan and Haiti — that the best single predictor of future conflict is past conflict in the same place, and that there is an absolutely critical need to put in sustained resources and commitment during the years that follow peace agreements to stop the whole horrible cycle of violence starting again.

The Rand Corporation — that quintessential U.S. institution, which you would not expect to have any great enthusiasm for the multilateral system — told us in a recent report that, for all that has gone wrong from time to time, the UN actually manages these kinds of transitional operations much better than the U.S. And it certainly does it infinitely more cheaply, with the current cost of those 100,000 plus peacekeepers being around $8 billion a year, as compared with the $125 billion a year which has been the average cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan war-fighting, peacekeeping and peacebuilding operations over the last decade

There has been another major institutional development over the last twenty years which has changed the dynamics in favour of peace, viz. the emergence of an effective system of international criminal law, designed to overcome the sense of impunity from justice that so many warmongers and perpetrators of mass atrocity crimes have enjoyed for so long. For a start a number of specialist national courts have been created with international assistance, like the Special Court for Sierra Leone which has now convicted and imprisoned Charles Taylor, and the Cambodian tribunal now trying three of the most senior Khmer Rouge cadres still alive (including Khieu Samphan, one of my key interlocutors when I was negotiating the Cambodia peace process in the late 1980s). There has been the establishment (following the example of the International Military Tribunal set up Nuremberg in 1945) of specialist tribunals to deal with war crimes committed in specific conflicts – in particular for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.

And, by far most importantly, there has been the establishment by treaty, the Rome Statute of 1998, of the International Criminal Court — setting up a permanent court to hear cases of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes, with no time limitation on its ability to prosecute. The ICC has jurisdiction where a crime is alleged to have taken place on the territory of a state party to the statute, where the accused is a national of a state party, where a country has specifically accepted the ICC’s jurisdiction, and where a case has been referred to the ICC by the UN Security Council or by a state party. While there has been some criticism of, among other things, the slow pace at which many of these proceedings have moved, all these courts have now delivered convictions, and the message is certainly getting out there to warlords and warmongers that things aren’t what they used to be.

When we turn to the ‘Long Peace’ between the great powers, the explanation with which we are all most familiar is that this has really been a ‘Nuclear Peace’, the product of the balance of nuclear terror between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. While it is hard to argue that nuclear deterrence played no part at all in keeping the peace – at the very least it must have made policymakers more cautious ­­– there is good reason to think its role has been exaggerated. Arguments in this respect that have been made by Steven Pinker (p.268 ff and others) include these:

  • Supremely destructive weapons haven’t stopped war in the past: chemical weapons and bacteriological weapons were well known before 1939;
  • The wars that did take place during the this period, since the end of World War II, often had a non-nuclear force provoking, or failing to surrender to, a nuclear one (as with North Korea, Vietnam and Iraq against the U.S., Vietnam against China, Afghanistan against the Soviet Union, and Argentina against the U.K), showing that possession of nuclear weapons isn’t necessarily a deterrent; and
  • Simpler, and in some ways more interesting for the purposes of our topic this evening: what stopped the great powers from fighting each other was, more than anything else, a realisation – after the experience of World War II and in the light of all the rapid technological advances that followed it – that the damage that would be inflicted by a conventional war would be unbelievably and unacceptably horrific.

What can be said is that multiple institutional developments did play a part in keeping the situation between the great powers under at least some kind of control, as the realisation dawned from the 1960s onward that, however unthinkable nuclear war might be, so long as nuclear weapons existed, there was a real risk of them being used, if not by cold, deliberate design, then by accident or misjudgement. More specifically there were these perceptions:

  • There was a risk that ‘rational actors’ on whom the whole system of mutual deterrence was constructed, might not be so rational when it came to a real-time crisis;
  • There was a risk of system error and breakdown (much heightened now by the sophistication of cyber weapons), with harmless events being read as threatening (as for example in 1995, when Russia’s President Yeltsin was told that a Norwegian scientific rocket launch was in fact an incoming U.S. nuclear missile to which he should immediately retaliate: thankfully he didn't believe his advisers…);
  • There was a risk that new technical developments would make the old calculations redundant, in particular that ballistic missile defence systems would be developed that would destroy, unless he fired first, the adversary’s capacity for effective retaliation (ie. the ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’ – aptly abbreviated as MAD – so central to deterrence theory that ) – and thus be extremely destabilizing; and
  • There was a risk that multiple new players would, as time wore on, acquire nuclear weapons , and be likely to have command and control systems less well developed than the far-from-failsafe U.S. and Soviet ones, and multiplying the danger accordingly.

All these considerations led to an immense effort being made, from the 1960s on, to develop at least some formal arms control measures, and these have certainly played their part, notably SALT I and II, the Partial Test Ban Treaty, the ABM Treaty, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treat, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and most recently the START Treaty.

Normative Developments. It is strongly arguable that, at least so far as the Long Peace between the great powers is concerned, the various institutional developments I have mentioned have been less influential than normative developments, viz. changes in mindsets, the way in which we think about these issues.

In the case of nuclear weapons it is evident that, at least since the early 1950s – when it began to sink in that their destructive capacity really was infinitely greater than anything previously seen – there has been something describable as a taboo on their use by any country thinking of itself, and wanting to be thought of, as in any way civilised. Presidents Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy rejected military advice to use nuclear weapons in the Korean War, the Taiwan Straits crisis, and the Cuban missile crisis, and the force of the taboo has if anything since grown.[3]
More generally, a credible argument can now be made that the decades since the end of World War II have seen the effective disappearance –  after many centuries of flourishing life – of what the French call bellicisme, the ideology seeing virtue and nobility in war.Steven Pinker (p.291) puts it this way:

Norms among the influential constituencies in developed countries may have evolved to incorporate the conviction that war is inherently immoral because of its costs to human well-being, and that it can be justified only on the rare occasions when it is certain to prevent even greater costs to human well-being. If so, interstate war among developed countries would be going the way of customs such as slavery, serfdom, breaking on the wheel, disembowelling, bear-baiting, cat-burning, heretic-burning, witch-drowning, thief-hanging, public executions, the display of rotting corpses on gibbets, duelling, debtors prisons, flogging, keelhauling and other practices that passed from unexceptionable to controversial to immoral to unthinkable…

Maybe that’s all much too optimistic a reading of where the world is at. But it’s certainly worth thinking about.

Moving again from the Long Peace to the New Peace – the striking decline in both interstate and intrastate conflict all over the world in the last twenty years – there has been one spectacular normative development which I can’t resist the temptation to say something about because it’s an issue with which I have been closely personally involved since I left Australian politics. This is the dramatic change in the way the world is now thinking and acting about mass atrocity crimes – genocide, ethnic cleansing and other major crimes against humanity and war crimes.

Just a decade or so ago, the international response to these crimes was a consensus-free zone.  For all the ‘never again’ rhetoric and human rights conventions launched with both fanfare and sincerity after World War II, an unholy mess was made of dealing with every major man-made human catastrophe from Cambodia in the 1970s to Rwanda and the Balkans in the 1990s.

Effective action was stymied, above all, by the bitter conceptual divide between those, largely in the global North, who rallied to the banner of “humanitarian intervention” or the “the right to intervene”, and those, largely in the global South, who – conscious of their fragility and remembering too well the ‘civilizing missions’ of the former colonial powers – argued that state sovereignty was absolute, and internal events none of the rest of the world’s business.

It was to bridge this gulf that that the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) concept was launched by the Canadian-sponsored Commission I co-chaired in 2001 – and, in one of the fastest ever global take-ups of a new idea – endorsed unanimously by more than 150 heads of state and government at the 2005 UN World Summit.  Its acceptance was built on three foundations.

First, using language which was inherently less confrontational – emphasizing no-one’s ‘right’ but everyone’s ‘responsibility’, and with the focus on action ‘to protect’ rather than ‘to intervene”.  Second, making clear that the primary responsibility to protect people at risk was that of the state itself, not outsiders. And third, being about a lot more than coercive military intervention. Whereas the choices under ‘humanitarian intervention’ boiled down to either sending in the Marines or doing nothing, those under R2P are nuanced and multi-dimensional: start with preventive activity of all kinds; when that fails move to persuasion; then to non-military forms of coercion like sanctions; and only as an absolute last resort think of military action.

Since 2005, moving from rhetoric to effective practice has had its difficulties, and plenty remain, as I’ll come back to. But, step by step, the new Responsibility to Protect norm has been gaining traction, and 2011 is the year in which it really came of age, with the Security Council’s invocation and sharp-end application of it in response to the crises in both Cote d’Ivoire and Libya. 

The Libyan intervention became controversial, and bitter disagreement about how the UN mandate was exercised by the NATO-led coalition has led to paralysis over Syria.  But it unquestionably worked – certainly in preventing a major massacre in Benghazi, and arguably in preventing many more civilian casualties elsewhere than would otherwise have been the case. If the response had been anything like as timely and robust in the 1990s, the 8000 murdered in Srebrenica and 800,000 in Rwanda would still be alive today.

Major UN General Assembly debates, most recently and importantly even in the aftermath of the Libya controversy last year, have shown overwhelming commitment to the fundamental principles of R2P.  As Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon put it last September: ‘Our debates are about how, not whether, to implement the Responsibility to Protect. No government questions the principle’.  


For all of this better news, there is absolutely no room for complacency. There is a long list of things we need to do to further strengthen international institutions and norms in support of sustainable  peace, and let me start bringing this talk to a close by identifying, without in any way pretending to be exhaustive, what I would regard as four major priorities in this respect.

Re-establishing Consensus on R2P. First, there is a critical need to re-establish consensus, at the highest Security Council level, about the way in which we react to the worst and most urgent mass atrocity crimes. It would be a tragedy if the consensus which did exist in February and March last year in support of intervention in Cote d’Ivoire proved not to be a new benchmark for the application of R2P in hard cases in the future, but the high-water mark for the new doctrine, from which the tide will now recede, with the paralysis over Syria being the real signpost for the future.

In this respect a way forward does seem to open up, in an initiative from Brazil – one of the countries most critical of the claimed overreach by the Western powers in applying the Libyan mandate, and most contributing (along with Russia and China) to the paralysis over Syria.   Brazil’s Foreign Minister (who has asked to meet me in Rio next week to discuss this) has been arguing for some months that the R2P concept, as it has evolved so far, needs not overthrowing but rather supplementing by a complementary set of principles and procedures  which he has labelled ‘responsibility while protecting’ (‘RWP’). Its two key proposals are for a set of criteria to be fully debated and taken into account before the Security Council mandates any use of military force, and for some kind of enhanced monitoring and review processes which would enable such mandates to be seriously debated by all Council members during their implementation phase.

The initial reaction to the Brazilian RWP proposal by the U.S., UK and France was dismissive – ‘these countries would want all those delaying and spoiling options, wouldn’t they’ – but has begun to soften, as it must.  If an un-vetoed majority vote is ever going to be secured again for tough action in a hard mass atrocity case, even action falling considerably short of military action, the issues at the heart of the backlash that has accompanied the implementation of the Libyan mandate – simply have to be taken seriously.  

Criteria for the Use of Force. The reference by Brazil to criteria for determining whether and when military action is appropriate in R2P cases, raises the larger question of when it is ever right to fight.  My own view has long been that one can’t be absolutist about this, and there are cases  – in particular responding to cross-border aggression, acting in self-defence,  and reacting to the most extreme mass atrocity – where coercive military force may simply be unavoidable, but that it should only ever be contemplated where some clear criteria can be satisfied.

Five such criteria, or guidelines, have emerged clearly from the debate in the UN and elsewhere over the last decade, but none of them have yet been formally embraced by the Security Council, General Assembly or anyone else. They are:

  • First, seriousness of risk: is the threatened harm of such a kind and scale as to justify prima facie the use of force?
  • Second, primary purpose: is the use of force primarily to halt or avert the threat in question, whatever secondary motives might be in play for different states?
  • Third, last resort: has every non-military option been fully explored and the judgment reasonably made that nothing less than military force could halt or avert the harm in question?
  • Fourth, proportionality: are the scale, duration, and intensity of the proposed military action the minimum necessary to meet the threat?
  • Fifth, what will often be the hardest legitimacy test to satisfy, balance of consequences: will those at risk ultimately be better or worse off, and the scale of suffering greater or less? 

The adoption, formally or informally, of such criteria could clearly not guarantee consensus in any particular case, but by requiring systematic attention to all the relevant issues – which simply does not happen at the moment – would hopefully make the achievement of consensus much more likely. If such criteria were able to be agreed, and applied with some rigour and consistency to new situations as they arise, it should be a lot easier to avoid the “slippery slide” argument which has contributed to the Security Council paralysis on Syria, making some countries unwilling to even foreshadow non-military measures like targeted sanctions or ICC investigation because of their concern that military coercion would be the inevitable next step if lesser measures failed.

Closer attention to these guidelines might also make for a lot less casual talk than we are presently hearing out of certain quarters in the U.S. and Israel about the virtue of a pre-emptive strike against Iran because of the possibility that it may acquire nuclear weapons in the future: my own view is that any such strike at this stage would be very wrongheaded indeed, certain to cause far more harm than good.

Eliminating Nuclear Threats. This raises directly my third big priority: taking far more effective action than the world has so far to eliminate the risks associated with the use and misuse of nuclear weapons, of which there are still 23,000 in existence, with a destructive capacity equivalent to 150,000 Hiroshima sized bombs.  Nuclear weapons are, simply, the most indiscriminately inhumane weapons ever invented and the only ones capable of destroying life on this planet as we know it. There is only one other global policy issue remotely comparable in terms of its impact on planetary survivability, and that is climate change: but nuclear bombs can kill us a lot faster than CO2. And for all the reasons I have already mentioned we simply can’t assume they will never be used – that rationality will always prevail over system error, human error, and human misjudgement. It won’t, and it’s sheer dumb luck – no more than that – that we have survived since 1945 without a nuclear weapon catastrophe.

After an initial burst of activity and optimism associated with  the election of President Obama – genuinely committed intellectually and emotionally to ultimately achieving  a world without  nuclear weapons – all the key players have moved back into sleepwalking mode. The message that must go out to the world’s policymakers – and Australia, with its long record of policy innovation and leadership on nuclear and other weapons-of-mass-destruction issues, has an important continuing international role here –  is that they simply have to get serious about eliminating the whole range of risks associated with nuclear weapons and civil nuclear energy. Nuclear disarmament, non-proliferation, counter-terrorism, and civil nuclear-energy risk reduction are inextricably connected, and they call for sustained commitment around a comprehensive agenda, along the lines mapped out in the report three years ago of the Australian-initiated International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament which I co-chaired.

Embracing Cooperative Security. The biggest priority of all – and I can’t do more now than sketch this with a very broad brush – must be to embed once and for all into the consciousness of the world’s policymakers that there is simply no substitute for totally embracing a cooperative approach to maintaining global peace and security.

It is simply not possible to respond effectively to security threats, whether global or regional or in many cases even local, and whether they come from state or non-state actors, without effective international cooperation, whether on early warning and intelligence, effective preventive strategies, conflict management and response strategies, or post conflict reconstruction. There are limits to any country’s capacity, even the US’s, to do anything without allies, friends or supporters, or by extension, working through international and intergovernmental institutions, starting with the UN Security Council. It’s in every country’s national interest, not just small or medium sized countries like our own, to operate in a rule-based rather than raw power-based international order. And it’s in no country’s interest to try to achieve or maintain a position of unrivalled regional or global dominance.

One of the best expressions I’ve ever heard of this point of view was – and it assumes particular significance with the arm-wrestling now becoming so manifest between the U.S. and a very confident and rapidly rising China – a statement by Bill Clinton at a private function I attended just over a decade ago, after he had left the Presidency and acquired all the wisdom that comes with hindsight and removal from the daily front-line:

The U.S. has two choices about how we use the great and overwhelming military and economic power we now possess. We can try to use it to stay top dog on the global block in perpetuity. Or [and it was perfectly clear that this was his preference] we can use it to try to create a world in which we will be comfortable living when we are no longer top dog on the global block.


That brings me to the very last point I want to make. If a world without major deadly conflict is ever to be a realisable dream – and I hope by now that I’ve made it abundantly clear to you that it’s not only the ignorant, naïve or demented who can be optimistic about that  – there is absolutely no substitute for good leadership, nationally and globally.

The kind of leadership I’m talking about is what we can all recognize when we see it, and lament it when it goes missing. It’s leadership that recognizes the big turning points in national or global history, and makes the right calls, and delivers the right responses – as Roosevelt did in the 30s, or Truman and Marshall after World War II; or as Dag Hammarskjold did in inventing peacekeeping and keeping the UN flame at least partially burning during the worst of the Cold War years; or as Gorbachev did in Russia, seeing the impossibility of sustaining the Cold War, or as Deng Xiao Ping did in China, at least in setting a wholly new economic course for the country in the chaotic and desolate aftermath of Mao; or as George Bush Senior did in leading, through the UN, the unequivocal response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1991, the first big post-Cold War test of the system of international order.

It’s the kind of towering moral and political leadership showed, above all perhaps, by Nelson Mandela in South Africa’s transition, completely avoiding – with crucial support, it should be acknowledged, from another leader, in FW de Klerk, who came to understand, late but not too late, what the moment demanded – what just about everyone feared would be an unavoidable racial bloodbath.

We know all too well that when it comes to this crucial ingredient of leadership, there is an awful lot of pure chance in play. So much does seem to depend just on the luck of the draw: whether at a time of fragility and transition a country finds itself with a Mandela or a Milosevic or a Mugabe; an Ataturk or an Assad; a Rabin who can see and seize the moment, and change course, or a Netanyahu who is never likely to. Despite all our best efforts, that has always been so, and I suspect it always will be. Looking around the world at those individuals who currently matter most, we just have to express the fervent hope that even if leaders are not always born, and only on very rare occasions are elected, they can at least on occasion be made.

[1] Daniel Gilbert, 'He Who Cast the First Stone Probably Didn't', New York Times, 24 July 2006

[2] Daniel Kahneman & Jonathan Renshon, 'Why Hawks Win', Foreign Policy, January-February 2007

[3] ICNND Report, para 6.26. Note 6.13 ‘The irony is that deterrence may remain notionally effective against those who least need to be deterred from breaching international security, while being least effective against those – like nuclear terrorists—who most need to be’.