When it comes to peace, humanity seems more like the proverbial slow snail than the quick-footed jack rabbit. So as the old year fades and we get the traditional urge to take stock, objectivity prompts a good measure of modesty. The gains made in 1981 toward stilling the storms of conflict may seem small indeed. Ireland, Palestine, Afghanistan, Poland, Iran, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Kampuchea - these are but the most obvious instances of lingering failure to use the instruments of diplomacy rather than armed force to achieve peace.
Yet 1981 had some brighter spots, too. We are impressed, above all, by the fact that East and West are back to the drawing board trying to bring the nuclear weapons race under control. This looked most unlikely as the year opened. Not unexpectedly, arms negotiations were put on ice as the new American President set about demonstrating a tougher US posture toward the Soviet Union and launching a massive buildup of US weaponry. Western Europe fussed and fumed but accepted the hiatus in diplomacy that always seems to accompany the advent of a new administration in Washington.
But, also not unexpectedly, President Reagan (like his predecessors) is opting for rational, practical policies abroad. He was, to be sure, prodded toward arms control talks by the NATO allies as well as by mounting antinuclear demonstrations in Western Europe. But, given his pragamatic bent of mind, he no doubt has concluded that a solid arms control agreement with Moscow will enhance the West's security as much as bolstering NATO defenses. Significantly, even the dismaying events in Poland have not upset the Geneva talks on reducing theater nuclear arsenals in Central Europe - or dampened talk of a summit meeting with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev in 1982.
Where these arms talks are headed is anyone's guess. Some believe the state of technology today is so advanced that the arms competition already is beyond containing. Such a thought ought to be suppressed, however. If the will to achieve agreement exists, the way will be found. Certainly the secrecy and businesslike tone surrounding the talks in Geneva are signs the two sides are tackling the issues seriously.
It cannot be said too often that checking what seems to be an almost mesmeric buildup of more and more weapons of mass destruction is urgent - not only to release resources sorely needed for productive purposes but to safeguard global stability. Hence the challenge for the West to go on talking with the Russians, whatever the frustrations and temporary setbacks.
Encouraging, too, are the signs of diplomatic restraint and moderation now visible in several areas of potential East-West military confrontation. Even while voicing its moral revulsion at the crackdown in Poland, for instance, the United States has joined West European governments in a careful policy of encouraging a political compromise there. Despite some rather stern rhetoric, President Reagan is also exercising caution in such volatile areas as Central America and Indochina, holding off those in his adminstration who favor more confrontational measures as the way to weaken Soviet positions.
How to deal with the Soviet challenge will remain a paramount concern in the new year. But it can be counted a gain that solutions are seen increasingly to lie not in the resort to military force but in the moral, economic, and political realms. Eliminate the social injustices on which communism feeds and you pull the rug out from under Moscow's adventurism abroad, for beyond arms the discredited Soviet system has nothing to attract the loyalty of others.
The world therefore looks expectantly to the United States, still the most powerful and influential nation, to pursue a vigorous diplomacy in such areas as Namibia and the Middle East. If 1981 saw Washington standing up sternly to Israeli territorial ambitions, 1982 cries out for an innovative Mideast policy which will satisfy legitimate Palestinian aspirations while safeguarding Israel's existence and security. Then the healing of centuries of animosity between Jew and Arab can begin.
Yes, the snail may be slow, but little by little it advances. The year 1981 was the 36th in which the planet Earth as a whole was at peace. That is a record now to be vigorously guarded - and extended.