War and peace, the story of mankind

Independent Decade
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Over the first 10 years of The Independent we have seen the most dramatic change in the way we look at war and peace since the Napoleonic Wars and the most fundamental shift in attitudes to national sovereignty since 1648. The turning point came in 1991. The bankruptcy of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union, lead to the end of the Cold War and the break- up of the communist empire. And it has happened under unprecedented media scrutiny.

Ten years ago, the Cold War was at its height. So was armed conflict. We had reached the top of the gradient, in terms of the numbers of wars, and their potential destructiveness. In the last decade - for the first time since Napoleon - we have been going downhill.

Nobody would have guessed ten years ago that 3,500 British troops would be using a training area in Poland, or that a 1,200-strong brigade of Russian paratroops would be keeping the peace in Bosnia, as one of the units under command of a US general.

Nor, for that matter, would anyone have imagined the prospect of a largely united international community taking on a Middle Eastern dictator armed with ballistic missiles and chemical weapons, and winning in textbook fashion - one of the most spectacular military victories of all time.

At the core of these changes has been the break-up of the Warsaw Pact in 1990 and the Soviet Union in 1991 - which spelt the end of the Cold War. Only now that East-West tensions have been relaxed has it become apparent how close we were to the Third World War.

When Germany was reunited the Bundeswehr found hundreds of East German vehicles in their bases full of fuel, ready to roll. And until the mid- 1980s the Soviet General Staff was still trying to plan for winning a nuclear war - an impossible task.

In desperation, both sides sought ways of limiting the damage from Armageddon: the US with the Star Wars initiative of 1983, the Russians by planning to win quickly using conventional forces before Nato could take the decision to use nuclear weapons. Only in 1986 did they really see sense, and begin dismantling their machinery for fighting total war.

The reversal of the race to nuclear Armageddon was remarkable. In 1987 the US and Soviet Union signed the Intermediate Nuclear Force (INF) Treaty, resulting in the destruction and withdrawal of Soviet SS20s and US ground- launched cruise missiles.

It was followed by the Strategic Arms Reduction agreement and the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty, which slashed the amount of weaponry between the Atlantic and the Urals.

There are grounds for hope that the most powerful states have renounced war against their equals as an act of politics - ending a period of nearly 200 years since Clausewitz began to codify the aims of international conflict and its tendency to become more extreme.

But at the same time technology has given the Western powers the ability to use a big stick against lesser fry with impunity. The US would never have attacked Iraq at the end of August if only primitive tools had been available, putting significant numbers of US troops and pilots at risk.

The last decade has seen increased reliance on remotely controlled, high technology weapons able to hit accurately, eliminating or significantly reducing the risk of casualties to the side delivering them.

But this trend could be dangerous, inducing those unfamiliar with war's horrors to undertake it too lightly. The end of the Cold War stand-off, combined with increased reliance on high technology brought another revolution: the demise, after 200 years of conscript armies.

Internal conflict, and disorder appear to be on the increase. This year's authoritative yearbook from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute noted that for the first time all the major armed conflicts in progress - 30 of them in 1995 - were internal.

The ending of superpower confrontation, and the risk of setting off the Third World War, also permitted the biggest change of all: a new readiness to intervene in other people's wars.

The watershed came in 1991. The Gulf war Allies were unwilling to move deep into southern Iraq, for fear of becoming trapped in Iraq's internal affairs. Yet only a month later, they moved into northern Iraq, to protect the Kurds.

But as the former UN Secretary-General, Javier Perez de Cuellar, said in 1991, just after the decision to move in: "We are clearly witnessing what is probably an irresistible shift in public attitudes towards the belief that the defence of the oppressed in the name of morality should prevail over frontiers and legal documents".

The shift in attitudes was partly driven by the media, leading to the widespread cry "something must be done". Not only did we report the changes in international security in the last decade: we contributed to them.

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