AMERICANS SEEM to have less appetite for war than before. It took the best part of a decade for public opinion to swing firmly against the Vietnam War. This time, in Iraq, it has taken barely three years. Critics may like to make out that America is a warrior nation with an urge to dominate the world. But although from time to time martial figures do push themselves through to the seats of power, they seem unable to carry the public with them for long. It looks likely that in the next general election, Americans will vote for a candidate who stands against overseas adventurism. Those who are trying to erect a case for defanging a putative nuclear Iran by force will not succeed. Nor will those who want to up the ante with China.
Of course nothing is simple when it comes to matters of war and peace. Edward Luttwak, writing in Foreign Affairs a few years ago, argued that ''An unpleasant truth often overlooked is that although war is a great evil, it does have a great virtue: It can resolve political conflicts and lead to peace." World War II is Everyman's exemplar of this. But World War I, the more important geopolitically of the two great wars, was the reverse. Without the tragic mistakes of statecraft that preceded it, allowing Europe to drift into massive carnage, there would have been no Great Depression, no rise of Hitler, no consolidation of the autocracy of Stalin, no Second World War, no unilateral development of the nuclear bomb and its use on Japan, and no Cold War.
The tragedy of war or violence is not that sometimes it does not have positive outcomes. It is that the same goals could have been met without war if the protagonists had been more farsighted and more prepared to be patient and creative in their diplomacy and less bellicose in their confrontation.
The war in Iraq has become a living example of how not to use the blunt instrument of armed might. At the same time, its fire and smoke are obscuring many positive trends all over the world. For the 10th successive year, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute has reported that the number of wars has fallen over the last 12 months. The New York-based Freedom House reported this month that the spread of democracy and the respect for human rights continues on its upward trajectory. This year was one of the most successful years for freedom since 1972.
The hype of a portion of the political class, constantly impressing upon us the need for combat if our precious freedoms are not to be undermined, too often pulls the wool over our eyes. Islamic terrorism is the present case in point. The renunciation of violence that was declared in 2003 from their jail cells by the leaders of Egypt's militant Islamic group, Al-Gamaa al-Islamiyya, was only barely reported and commentated on at the time, but it demonstrated how terrorism can be defeated by solid police work. And every time there is a bombing or racial disturbance in Europe, we get fired up by warnings about the danger of militant Islam. Yet, following the Madrid bombing, Elaine Sciolino reported in the International Herald Tribune that senior European counterterrorism officials were saying that ''the movement of young men from Europe to Iraq has not come close to the levels seen in the 1980s, when at least 10,000 men traveled to Afghanistan to fight against the Soviet occupation." In 1980, not only did that not worry us, but it pleased the authorities.
Pull the wool aside and what can we see? Michael Mandelbaum in the journal of London's International Institute for Strategic Studies notes: ''The practice of war, once the prerogative of the strong, instead is increasingly the tactic of the weak." Most wars these days are conducted by and within the poorest of the world's nations. ''The great chess game of international politics is finished, or at least suspended," he writes. ''A pawn is just a pawn, not a sentry standing guard against an attack on a king."
If only we could recognize this, we could start to become more creative in our tactics. The Washington correspondent of the Financial Times reported earlier this year that exiled Iranian activists are studying and training in the techniques of nonviolent conflict. They are learning from the same group that contributed to the success of movements for change in Serbia, Georgia, and Ukraine. This is how it should go. Then the work of building a more peaceful world can continue for another year.
Jonathan Powers is a columnist based in London.