Top Stories from the Editorial/Opinion pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Tuesday, April 14, 1998

East Asians, Too, Should Note the Anglo-Irish Way to Peace

By Gerald Segal International Herald Tribune
LONDON - The Asia-Europe summit that ended on April 4 in London was dominated by expressions of European concern for Asian woes. Little attention was paid to the most intense discussions at the summit - those between the British and Irish prime ministers as they coordinated positions on the peace deal for Northern Ireland that was finally concluded last Friday.

 Asian leaders might have paid more attention, for the deal has some of the hallmarks of Asia's supposedly distinctive forms of conflict resolution.

 The Anglo-Irish conflict, like most others, is seen by its protagonists as unique. Yet no conflict is fully unique, and there is usually something useful to be learned by watching how others negotiate. Asians will be intrigued by the ''Asianness'' of key parts of the Anglo-Irish deal.

 East Asians are constantly trumpeting the virtues of their informal diplomacy designed to change long-term attitudes rather than reach intricate legal accords. The Anglo-Irish agreement certainly falls into the category of ambiguous accords. Its terms are so vague that each side can interpret it liberally and still believe that the force of history is on its side.

 East Asians will also recognize the virtue of a deal negotiated with intense informality, behind closed doors and with senior leaders using their very personal styles to reach agreement.

 The accord may have more than 60 pages, but it was the personalities, especially of the prime ministers, that made the deal possible. The protagonists will count on the personal commitments of the leaders to ensure that it works in the long term. The agreement was the result of what East Asians call the rule of men, not the rule of law.

 Although there was no external power that imposed a deal, there was a very useful role for external facilitators and mediators. East Asians and others might learn from this. By common consent, former U.S. Senator George Mitchell played a pivotal role, and his Canadian assistant, General Jean de Chastelain, was a valuable go-between. 

As East Asians contemplate the value of the ''good offices'' of the chairman of the ASEAN Regional Forum in preventive diplomacy, there is something to be learned here. Those who claim that the need to base any agreement on the comfortable consent of the parties should now see how the good offices of a sensitive chairman can make an accord more achievable.

 There is also something useful to be learned from the careful ways in which cross-border arrangements are being established for narrow technical issues, such as fisheries. The idea is to build confidence by doing small-scale practical things.

 As East Asians consider whether the Regional Forum should undertake serious confidence-building measures to help buttress stability and security, they should study the Northern Ireland precedent. Slow but steady institutionalization of diplomacy that constantly stretches the limits of agreement clearly has its virtues. 

Participants in other conflicts might also reflect that the Northern Ireland agreement shows that democracies can make peace. The presence of men of violence does not require authoritarian rulers to impose peace.

 Nor does all the violence need to stop before the negotiators can agree. (Jerusalem, take note.) One of the implicit strengths of the Irish deal is the recognition that true peace will take generations to build, and that in the meantime some violence is likely.

 The problems of Korea, Cambodia, the South China Sea and China-Taiwan relations are obviously very different from Northern Ireland. There may be more appropriate lessons for the combatants in the Arab-Israeli dispute, and especially in the Cyprus problem.

 But the fact that so much progress has been made in a centuries-old conflict in a remote corner of northern Europe should be encouraging to those seeking solutions to their supposedly unique and intractable troubles.

 The writer is director of studies at the International Institute for Strategic Studies and director of Britain's Pacific Asia Program. He contributed this comment to the Herald Tribune.