Why the US cannot keep the peace

For a brief period in the mid-1990s, it really did seem possible to believe that humanity had entered a new and better era. The odious tyrannies of eastern Europe had collapsed; apartheid was over; Israelis and Palestinians had been reconciled on the White House lawn; the peace process in Ulster had been launched. True, new conflicts had begun in Africa; old ones had revived in the Balkans. But four of the biggest stains on 20th-century history seemed likely not to persist into the 21st. And two indeed did not survive. But now the Middle East is again subsumed by violence, and peace in Northern Ireland hangs by a thread. Is there any lesson to be learnt here?

Quite possibly there is, but it is a hard one. Both apartheid and Soviet communism collapsed from within. There were no internationally guaranteed peace accords, no handshakes on White House lawns, no American presidents or British ministers attending all-night conferences and lapping up the photo opportunities. South Africans, Russians, Hungarians, Poles, Czechs and so on did the business themselves. This is not to deny that the outside world made a significant contribution to change, partly through simple moral disapproval, partly through economic pressure. Both the Soviet ruling elite and the Afrikaner nationalists knew not only that they had no friends abroad, but that no honest brokers were available to them either. They had to treat directly with their enemies, or go under. Nobody else would save them. And that is precisely the point. When a peace process is driven by outside forces, as it is in Ulster and Israel, there is no natural end to it, since both sides believe that, if only they can play their cards skilfully enough, they can persuade a third party to use its political, economic and sometimes military weight to their advantage. In other words, the contesting parties never learn the limits of their own strength, never make a realistic assessment of their predicament.

Suppose that the British were to announce their withdrawal from Ulster tomorrow: no troops, no Whitehall rule, no (until there is a settlement) subsidy. Nationalists and unionists would then have to come to some sort of accommodation as to how Ulster should be run. Or perhaps not. Perhaps there would be a bloody civil war resulting in a new partition. But it would be over swiftly.

Much the same applies to the Middle East, an area of the world that has suffered outside meddling (often in the guise of pacification) for more than 2,000 years. The greatest obstacle to a settlement between Israelis and Palestinians is the United States. Israel, a country that has always lived far beyond its means, would be enormously weakened without US support in the form of arms and capital; if the American lifeline were ever to be withdrawn, its intransigence would quickly be moderated. Again, a new partition, resulting in two independent states, would be the probable outcome. As long as the US remains on the scene, however, both sides treat peace initiatives merely as a means to secure more American favours. That is as true of Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority as it is of Ariel Sharon's Israel.

To suggest an immediate British withdrawal from Ulster or American withdrawal from the Middle East is to go well beyond the realms of practical politics, if only because modern public opinion could not tolerate the idea of standing aside from the increased bloodshed that might, in the short term, ensue. But as new and even more complex conflicts develop - particularly in Africa - it is as well to be clear-eyed about it. Outside "peacemakers", however well-meaning, often prolong conflicts beyond their natural life and turn local leaders into squabbling children, who compete for parental favours rather than behave as grown-up politicians. The painful lesson from both the Middle East and Ulster (and, for that matter, the Balkans) is that only those directly involved can devise lasting solutions to ancient hatreds.

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Ulster enters the endgame