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When Diplomacy Fails

The war in Yugoslavia may destroy the country’s infrastructure and bring Slobodan Milosevic to his knees, but it has taught us to respect the ingenuity of weaker powers armed mainly with resolve.

We are learning, once again the hard way, that superior military power is often no match for an enemy bent on resisting defeat in unconventional ways. This is the strategy of asymmetric warfare. Jonathan Tucker with the Monterey Institute of International Studies outlines an array of high- and low-tech weapons with the potential to foil superior forces. Weaker opponents can launch chemical, biological, or even nuclear attacks against civilian or military targets or use information warfare to erode the resolve of military leaders and civilian populations, and hackers can disable computer systems necessary for high-tech warfare.

The distaste for killing, or being killed, has sparked a quest for more humane technologies to lessen the lethality of weapons used in warfare and in lesser conflicts such as humanitarian crises, urban warfare, and civilian police actions. While psychological warfare and nerve gas are not new to the battle- field, Nick Lewer with the Centre for Conflict Resolution in the United Kingdom says technological advances in nonlethal weapons have outpaced consensus on the ethics of using such weapons, some of which may inflict "a fate worse than death." The nonlethal arsenal already includes lasers that blind, sticky foams that immobilize victims who may then die from exposure, and psychotropic drugs that may cause irreversible psychic trauma.

While new technologies and strategies change the face of modern warfare, the ghost of nuclear war continues to haunt the world. When India and Pakistan joined the big five with their recent spate of testing of bombs and missiles, the world wondered if this signaled the end of nuclear nonproliferation. M.V. Ramana at Princeton University notes, however, that recent moves by the Clinton administration indicate a lack of candor in its pursuit of nuclear disarmament. While the administration pays lip service to international treaties, it maintains the nuclear arsenal in a state of readiness and is designing a new generation of weapons through a program called Stockpile Stewardship.

The end of the Cold War, and a growing reluctance to commit ground troops either in conventional warfare or in interventions in humanitarian crises, have revived an ancient form of low-tech, undeclared warfare: sanctions. Richard Garfield says the burden of sanctions nearly always falls not on the military nor on the leadership of the offending country, but rather on the weak and the innocent, in particular women and children. As essential food and medicine are denied and a country’s economy crumbles, it’s the civilian population that suffers most, in direct violation of all conventions governing the rules of war.

In fact, it’s not just humanitarian interests that oppose sanctions. The farming and pharmaceutical industries oppose sanctions for strictly utilitarian purposes: sanctions hurt sales of exports. The New York Times reported in late April that growing recognition of the ineffectiveness of sanctions, as well as intense lobbying by agricultural and commodity-trading companies, helped convince the Clinton administration to ease sanctions on nations like Iran, Libya, and Sudan that sponsor terrorists.

Easing of sanctions came too late for Yugoslavia, ravaged by U.S. and NATO air strikes. Ulrich Gottstein with International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War says sanctions contributed to that country’s instability and indirectly fueled the engines of war. But in an ironic twist, now that the country lies in ruins, its population "cleansed," its citizens scattered to the corners of the earth, humanitarian aid is finally arriving.

The disintegration of the Soviet Union left the world with one sole superpower which, even with the combined forces of NATO, cannot quickly disable a vastly inferior Serbian army. Meanwhile, on the home front, Americans were distracted from the war, agonizing over the apparent disintegration of the social order. Infrastructure can be rebuilt. As we’ve learned from the slaughter at Columbine High School, however, it’s not clear whether a frayed social structure can be so easily repaired.

The Editors

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