Peace is not at hand, at least not as Americans define it. Yet peace has been breaking out all over.

For those whose vote for Barack Obama was driven by their desire to remove U.S. troops from Iraq, the year begins with hope that may dim as reality replaces campaign rhetoric and the entanglement takes time to be unknotted before any swift military disengagement is possible. Then Afghanistan begs attention, and Obama has promised to turn the troops in that inhospitable direction.

The lens through which most in the United States view the question of war and peace, security or insecurity, is narrow: Are American servicemen and women at risk? Do terrorists have us perilously close in their sights? Is the television constantly beaming violent and repellent images — the Israeli assault on Gaza, the slaughter in Mumbai, modern-day pirates off the coast of Africa? Media imagery and American myopia rarely allow a broader look.

The surprise of a larger perspective is that the number of armed conflicts around the world has declined dramatically since the early 1990s. The end of the Cold War brought an end to the proxy wars fought by states that came within the sphere of influence of either the U.S. or the Soviet Union. The wars were waged with heavy armaments and high technology the superpowers freely supplied to their surrogates. The lives lost in them far exceed the historically low number of deaths we’ve seen in the regional and ethnic conflicts that have broken out since.

The wars of liberation from colonial powers also ended, another milestone that has — incongruously as it may seem in the glare of today’s headlines — put the world on a path to less death and destruction, not more. The 1990s, according to the Canada-based Human Security Report, was the least deadly decade since World War II. Since then the relative calm has held, according to Nick Grono, deputy president of the International Crisis Group, which studies global conflicts.

Among the ways to count our blessings is to acknowledge a startling transformation in the world’s military posture. Other than U.S. troops, the largest number of uniformed military personnel now deployed around the world are United Nations peacekeeping forces. The U.N. currently deploys about 90,000 uniformed personnel, with most units sent to quell violence stemming from regional conflicts in Africa.

“These missions have huge flaws, but they still make a difference,” Grono says. “It’s very active and out there,” he says of the U.N. “Of course, it’s active and out there in places where the major Western countries don’t want to be.”

The ethnic hatreds and territorial disputes that propel today’s violence are still responsible for great suffering and humanitarian crises. They are the sort of conflicts that could easily worsen with the global financial crisis, as impoverished nations find it ever more difficult to finance basic infrastructure and government services. Climate change holds the possibility of a vast migration from regions in which farming or other pillars of rural life become impossible to sustain. Such an upheaval is itself a security threat; it cannot be addressed by moving divisions of soldiers and tanks in its direction. “Poverty and declining growth lead to increasing conflict,” Grono says.

Burned by the tragic misadventure in Iraq and now burdened with a domestic economy that is the worst in at least three decades, Americans for the most part do not wish to encumber the United States with troubles in far-off lands. One purpose in electing Obama, after all, was to extricate ourselves from the historic blunders committed by President George W. Bush.

Yet even Bush came to realize, however slowly, that poverty, disease, political desperation and the disintegration of civic life — more than an expansionist impulse of a great power — are among the roots of today’s violence. In the unfortunate jargon we have come to learn since 9/11, these are the elements that can combine to create “failed states” — the lawless breeding grounds for terrorists.

As the year turns, we have earned through a stunning election the right to believe that the United States will conduct itself with less swagger and a good deal more common sense. Yet one lesson of history is that the world can improve without us. It holds the promise of doing better, still, with the United States engaged as an agent not only for peace but for justice that can be its midwife.

Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at)washpost.com.

© 2009, Washington Post Writers Group

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