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Is force essential to peace?

In this season of "peace on earth" and against the backdrop of the bombing of Iraq, it is relevant to ask: Can peace come only through the use of force?

Wars, whether international or civil, represent the ultimate failure of conflict resolution. Yet, as events in 1998 show, force is clearly a factor leading to peace negotiations.

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In Cambodia in November, internal peace and a compromise between rivals for power came only after military defeats of the Khmer Rouge and of Prince Norodom Ranariddh's supporters.

An agreement with Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic regarding Kosovo in October has, for the present, ended the worst of the killing. As in Bosnia in 1994, a fragile peace came only after a credible NATO threat of force.

Fears of a revival of terrorism played a role in reconciling Catholics and Protestants in the Good Friday accord in Northern Ireland. But implementation is slowed by a continuing dispute over the unwillingness of the two sides to give up the weapons of force.

Violent actions on both sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have created pressures to advance the peace process. Ending terrorism was a key objective of November's Wye Plantation agreement. The prospect of ending "the last and longest-running source of international armed conflict in the Western Hemisphere" led Peru and Ecuador to reach a border settlement in October.

But ending the killing is sometimes the easiest part.

Except for the Peru-Ecuador agreement, in few of the cases listed has the story ended. Although force or the threat of force may have brought adversaries to the table, the basic issues of each conflict still needed to be resolved through negotiation. The political courage to make hard decisions that had eluded leaders for years is still required.

Despite international efforts, in many other crisis areas parties have not been brought to the table - or, if they have, they have failed to reach agreement.

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Ego, ambition, pride, fear, and the belief that victory may still come all stand in the way of reconciliation or surrender. In Africa, 16 out of 45 countries on the continent are involved in either civil or international conflict. Efforts at peace are hampered by at least four factors:

* The proliferation of arms and the profitability of the arms trade create a constant encouragement to war. The annual arms survey of the Congressional Research Service in 1997 showed that the world's arms market had expanded for the first time in many years. Eighty-five percent of nations in receipt of US weapons are undemocratic countries in the developing world - many in Africa. In July, the US and 20 other countries met in Oslo to create a global campaign to control the small arms that fuel conflict, but much of the large trade is clandestine, so the prospects of official curbs provide little hope.

* In Africa, especially, the riches of the continent - particularly diamonds and oil - provide both the incentive and rewards of conflict. The deBeers company, which controls the world's diamond trade, reports that never has the illegal market in precious stones been more active.

* Force, for whatever purpose, has costs. Wars breed more wars as deprivations against ethnic groups lead to demands for revenge and to endless circles of killing.

* Because of internal divisions and lack of significant support, the international machinery, whether the United Nations or regional organizations, are less and less able to exert diplomatic pressure.

Informal efforts and citizen diplomacy, as valuable as they have been in peacemaking efforts, cannot totally fill the gap.

Tragically and ironically, force seems often a necessary prelude to peace, but only if its use is followed by genuine diplomatic efforts at true reconciliation. If that is not the case, the bitter cycle of violence continues.

* David D. Newsom, a former ambassador and undersecretary of state for political affairs, lives in Charlottesville, Va.

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