TAKE a moment out at this turn of the year to look around the world and you will discover that the difference between now and a year ago is truly remarkable. Peace is by no means universal. There are still horrible examples of unnecessary famine, misery, war, and brutality. But there is immensely less war and danger of war than there was a year ago.
The longest and bloodiest local war since Vietnam was in Afghanistan. A year ago it was at full ferocity, with the tide of battle beginning to go against the Soviet forces. They had been there among the Afghans since their sudden invasion at Christmas time in 1979.
At this Christmas season the Soviet Embassy was sending dependent women and children home. Other embassies were doing the same. Members of the puppet Najibullah regime were filling every plane that took off for India. The expectation was general in Kabul that the end of the Soviet venture in Afghanistan is near.
The second biggest and bloodiest war of a year ago was in the Gulf, where Iraqi Arabs and Iranian Persians were brutalizing each other in every possible manner. There is no longer shooting between the two countries. The Iranian government is still, at latest reports, killing its dissident people by thousands. There is still no formal peace treaty. But the fighting along the frontier is finished.
The third ugliest and bloodiest war of a year ago was in Angola, where some 50,000 Cuban soldiers, paid by Moscow, were fighting an equal number of South Africans. The local civil war which drew in the outsiders goes on. But the South African troops, mostly white, have pulled out of Angola into their base camps in neighboring Namibia. And the Cuban troops, who recently got the best of the South Africans in a major encounter, have also returned to base camps.
Residual fighting goes on between Angolan government troops and the rebels led by Jonas Savimbi, who has been receiving United States arms and aid. But it is reported to be on a diminished scale. Negotiations are going on toward some sort of accommodation between government and rebel forces. Angola is no longer the scene of an international war.
A year ago there was still a lot of bitter fighting in the jungles of Nicaragua. That is all but over. The majority of the contras have long since moved back into their base camps in Honduras. A few scattered bands still operate inside Nicaragua, but are no longer capable of taking or holding towns of any size.
Last week the head of the governing regime in Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega, received a New York Times reporter and gave him an interview which was an obvious olive branch for US President-elect George Bush. Mr. Ortega said he is preparing a ``peace proposal'' for Mr. Bush. He said that a peace agreement with the US would be followed by more democracy for Nicaraguans.
Perhaps most important was an admission by Ortega of why he would like peace with Washington. He told his interviewer that he is working on a new economic plan. He is worried about his country's economy. He had expected the inflation rate this year to be only 1,500 percent. It was actually 2,000 percent.
Nicaragua's economy would not be running an inflation rate like that and the people would not be complaining of near starvation if the Soviet Union cared about Ortega and his Sandinista movement. The entire population of Nicaragua is only about 3.5 million. The USSR has its own economic problems, but it could easily relieve Nicaraguan economic troubles - if it cared enough.
Ortega is looking hopefully toward Washington, but not because of pressure from the contras. Their claws have been clipped long since by the US Congress. He has been abandoned by Moscow for the obvious reason that Moscow cares more about good relations with the US than about turning Nicaragua into a client and satellite in Central America.
Add to the above that the Soviets have reduced their troops along their border with China and have promised to do the same along their border with Western Europe. And the Vietnamese have begun to take some of their troops out of Cambodia.
There is still civil war and misery and starvation in Ethiopia and Somalia and the Sudan. Israel is still killing Arab children on the West Bank. But four big wars are over or almost over. This is a much quieter world than it was only a short year ago. A personal note: This will be my last Opinion Page column in this series. I shall be spending most of my time in coming months on book writing.