Search for an optimist*

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(HOST) Commentator Olin Robison says that finding anyone in the International community right now to express optimism about the conflict in the Middle East is a little like the philosopher Diogenes* looking for an honest man – the search may be in vain.

(ROBISON) The International Institute for Strategic Studies held its annual “Global Strategic Review” a few days ago in Geneva. I was there primarily to sit and listen to what the Big Thinkers are saying these days about global distribution of power, and I was also there in what proved to be a vain search for optimism on the international front. The Big Thinkers are wrong just about as often as the rest of us, but it is intellectually provocative nonetheless.

Not surprisingly, the subject of the United States in the Middle East dominated the discussions this year, along with protracted talk about terrorism and so-called asymmetrical or irregular warfare. And, as always, there was much debate about what in the current situation is really new and what isn’t.

The Patron Saint of this organization is the exceedingly insightful Sir Michael Howard, longtime Fellow of All Souls College at Oxford. All Souls is as close to a Holy of Holies as exists in the academic world. It is an academic’s dream – which is to say, no students; only faculty, who are known as Fellows.

Sir Michael is without doubt one of the brightest human beings on the planet, and, though he is now well into his eighties, the intellect is undimmed.

He is the person who wrote a few years ago a short, dense, and insightful book entitled “The Invention of Peace.” His premise in the book is that societies everywhere have always throughout history occupied themselves – preparing for the next war. The idea that peace is the norm and warfare the aberration is, says Sir Michael, a very modern idea. It is the sort of idea which, once one hears it, the impulse is to say, “Sure.” But few of us would have come up with it unassisted.

There was a lot of talk in Geneva about the ways in which the terrain today is different from phenomena of the same name earlier. To the degree that there was any consensus at all, it seemed to be that the main difference today is that the terrorism is global in its ambitions rather than local or national.

Sir Michael also a few years ago rather famously said that one of the things we know about wars is that they all sooner or later end. There is considerable difference of opinion as to whether this dictum can be expected to apply today.

Frankly, I heard nothing whatsoever in Geneva to make me more optimistic about anything. What a pity.

There was a broad consensus held by people from all parts of the world that the United States has gotten itself into a terrible bind in Iraq and that there really isn’t any graceful way out. I was up early and late during these meetings, and I did not hear a single optimistic statement about the current mess. Not one; neither from the military types nor from the civilians.

I heard no dissent at all from the general view that there is more to come; that warfare is as much with us today as ever; and, though warfare between states may now be less frequent, the so-called “non-state actors” will, for the foreseeable future, fill that void.

Olin Robison is past president of both the Salzburg Seminar and Middlebury College. He now lives in Shelburne.

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