Making Promises You Can’t Keep

David Tucker

September 1, 2000

The United Nations held a Millenium Conference last week to discuss how the organization must change to adapt to the changing world. The 150 assorted Presidents, Kings, Prime Ministers and Despots who attended the gathering in New York finished their work by adopting a resolution that promised “comprehensive and integrated strategies to address the root causes of conflicts, including their economic and social causes.” This is a promise they can’t keep. Trying to keep it will do serious harm.

The first problem with this promise is the assumption upon which it is based. In his remarks at the conference, President Clinton spoke of the “iron link between deprivation, disease and war.” But there is no such link. There is no necessary connection between poverty and disease and war. The First World War occurred among the richest countries on earth, while some of the poorest and most disease ridden stayed at peace. Terrorism flared in the 1960s and 1970s in such wealthy countries as France, Germany and Italy. Typically, in these countries members of the middle or upper middle classes planted the bombs and pulled the triggers.

Sometimes poverty or economic distress is associated with the outbreak of violence but in these cases political factors are just as critical. A painful economic decline gripped Yugoslavia in the 1980s. The insecurity this caused contributed to the violence that has destroyed the country over the last decade. But economic distress would not have produced this violence without the acts of Slobodan Milosevic, Franjo Tudjman and other politicians who cynically or with conviction exploited this distress for nationalist ends. Does anyone doubt that Milosevic, for example, would have found some other way to mobilize Serbs to serve his ambitions if their economic difficulties had not been so handy? How will the United Nations or Mr. Clinton kill off such roots of war as ambition, nationalism or religion?
Let us assume, however, that some wars are caused only by poverty. What can be done about this? Not a great deal. No one knows how to make richer those who are poor. By necessity, people must work and trade. Under the right natural and political circumstances this activity makes people better off. But it is impossible to create the right natural circumstances for economic growth where they do not exist. Only slightly less difficult is the task of getting leaders to adopt good policies because these often limit or threaten their power.

The leaders at the UN made promises they cannot keep, then, because social and economic causes are only a small part of the causes of war and these causes are not within their power to affect.

But the leaders at the UN did something worse than waste their breath and tie up traffic in New York City. Part of their strategy is to use force to make peace even when those who are at war prefer to fight on. To make peace in such circumstances requires putting troops on the ground. These commitments are destined to last a very long time, especially if the intent is to dig up the very roots of war, since those for whom we are making peace would rather fight. Such commitments will exhaust even the richest of nations, diminish the effectiveness of their armies and make their citizens wary of committing troops and resources in those few instances where they might do some good. We have made such commitments now in Bosnia and Kosovo.

Making promises you cannot keep is wrong, especially when it does harm.

David Tucker is an adjunct fellow at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University and an Associate Professor at the United States Naval Postgraduate School.