Greenpeace has more clout than Austria

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ASPEN, COLORADO - They believe at the Aspen Institute that they changed the course of history. Three years ago Saddam Hussein had just invaded Kuwait and President George Bush gave a briefing here, denouncing the invasion, but giving no indication of what the Americans might do about it. He then spent an hour chatting with Margaret Thatcher, who was also attending the conference, reappeared and gave another briefing in quite a different tone, in effect committing the US to heaving Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. They believe here that she handbagged him into the Gulf War.

The theme of one of the main seminars here this summer is not war but peace. A somewhat less distinguished group than the Bush/Thatcher alliance (though chaired by a former US defence secretary) is discussing 'International Peace and Security in a New World System'. Translated, this means 'Now that we are no longer frightened of the Russians, who should we be sufficiently worried about to justify four days of talks at the most glitzy of US resorts?'

Two main themes have emerged. One is that the threats will be much more diverse, much less predictable, and that there is not much point in planning for them. The other is that the main source of authority in the world, the nation state, has become much less able to control what happens within its borders. It has lost power not only upwards, to the international money markets or the European Commission, for example, but also downwards, to non-governmental organisations like environmental or regional interest groups.

In the Cold War era the threat to peace was obvious. Countries lined up behind one superpower or the other and there was an immense amount of detailed planning for situations that everyone hoped would never occur. Now the world is much less predictable.

Moreover, where the flashpoints are civil wars, as in Bosnia, Somalia, Sudan or Algeria, it is hard for the rest of the world to decide how to react. One year's civil war may be next year's wider conflict.

The crystal balls in Aspen are not necessarily clearer than those elsewhere, but at least attempts are being made to classify the threats. Some are clearly economic, others environmental, still others ethnic. To catalogue problems is not to solve them, but it is a start.

At the top of the list of economic tensions come those provoked by big political change. Success can be as unsettling as failure. The more successful China is in transforming itself into a market economy, for example, the greater the tension between it, Japan, and the newly industrialised countries in South-east Asia. China will challenge these countries in their main export markets, and will naturally want to wield greater political power as well.

Failure creates tensions too. The less successful Germany is in transforming the former East German economy, the more difficulty it will have in coping with its immigrant population. If people feel poorer, they are liable to seek scapegoats.

Environmental threats are quite specific: fights over natural resources and the probability of a nuclear accident. On a long view, global warming may be a threat to world security (and particularly to the security of low-lying countries like Bangladesh or the Maldives) but countries will not go to war over it. Countries have, however, gone to war over oil and might do so over water or mineral rights.

Meanwhile, badly-maintained nuclear reactors in the former Soviet Union and its satellites do present a threat to world security, for they could affect millions of people far beyond the borders of a country where an accident occurs.

Rapid population growth is clearly a global threat, in the sense that it not only impoverishes countries but creates pressure for migration. As one of the papers prepared for this conference points out, the juxtaposition of Europe and Africa is unique in history: the world's oldest and richest countries sit next to its youngest and indubitably its poorest. A serious concern is that people in rich countries will be prepared to sacrifice their civil liberties to keep migrants out.

As for ethnic tensions, one of the main issues here concerns what is acceptable (or at least accepted) behaviour. The tacit acceptance of 'ethnic cleansing' in the former Yugoslavia gives a dreadful signal to other ethnic groups that feel they have old scores to settle.

It is tough for people in government, when faced with a new set of problems, to realise that their own authority has been cut back. The nation state remains the main source of power - the main way things get done - yet the people who run countries feel less powerful, for a number of rational reasons. Some are economic. The more trade and foreign investment tie countries together, the less freedom any individual country has to make its own policy. The same sources that have brought great prosperity to much of the world have also reduced the power of governments. Authoritarian countries tend to be poor.

But it is not just economics that weakens the extent to which states control what happens within their borders. Technological change crosses national boundaries and environmental issues can be global rather than national. The result is that international organisations, of which Greenpeace is a good example, have increased their power at the expense of nation states. Greenpeace has a greater influence on world policy than, say, the government of Austria. In the US, environmental organisations collect several times as much in subscriptions as do either of the main political parties.

The world media, too, have increased in relative power, though more by mobilising public opinion and giving it a voice than by any direct action. The availability of information has had the effect of making ordinary people more powerful and elites less so. Many people here think that the West would never have intervened in Somalia or Bosnia had the television cameras not gone in first.

The trouble is that while it may be more difficult for governments to get things done, they are still the only organisations that can take positive actions in certain areas. Whatever one thinks of the way in which the US manipulates the UN, the fact remains that the UN is most effective when it has clear support from major countries. And whatever one thinks of Greenpeace, it is a body with a narrow agenda that acts almost entirely by putting pressure on governments. It has no executive authority of its own.

Clearly, power in the post- Cold War world is going to be much more diffuse. There may still be one superpower, but the US will not take the problems of the entire world on to its back even if the rest of the world wanted it to. On reflection, the really extraordinary thing is that, for all the planning that took place during the Cold War, no one actually thought what the world would be like if the West won.