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The live online debate with Paul Rogers was held on Sunday, February 28.

Here is a transcript of that debate, based upon the article below.

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History teaches us we must think the unthinkable. Should we abandon faith in peace and prepare for World War III?

By Paul Rogers

No one will forget the scenes of elation as the Berlin Wall came down. At the moment of its destruction, the world's most potent emblem of division and mistrust became its most powerful symbol of unity and hope. Twenty years earlier, in the 1960s, young people across the Western world had passed the marijuana, put flowers in their hair and sung of peace, love and the brotherhood of man. Could it be, against all the odds, that the naive idealism of the Woodstock generation was becoming the new realpolitik?

Alas, it could not. When historians look back on the second half of the 20th century they will not characterise it as a peaceful age. More than 120 wars were fought, killing 25m people and maiming 75m more. Conflicts in Afghanistan, Vietnam, Korea and the Horn of Africa killed more than a million each, and long-running disputes in the Middle East and India-Pakistan saw decades of crisis broken only by bitter wars.

For much of the time, before the Wall came down, we risked even worse: an East-West nuclear conflict that would have devastated the world. At its height, the cold war cost $800 billion in military spending each year. It required the building of 60,000 nuclear weapons, directly involved most of the world's industrial powers and cast its shadow over much of the world.

As the archives are opened and elderly participants speak at last with candour, it becomes clear just how close, and how often, we came to the brink: the Sino-American confrontation of 1955; Cuba in 1962; the Yom Kippur/Ramadan war of 1973; and the Able Archer crisis of 1983, when the Soviet leadership believed a US military exercise in Europe was a cover for intended nuclear attack.

The conduct of the cold war is an important marker for the future, not least because it shows how difficult it is for people and governments to stand back from their immediate interests and recognise the wider idiocies of their behaviour. As it was in the past, so it could be in the future. There is a seemingly insatiable need to find new enemies to replace the Russian Bear.

Throughout the cold war there were remarkable developments in technology - nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, fuel-air explosives, missiles and bombers. This effort not only continues but is proliferating across the world, a kind of "force leveller" that makes it difficult for powerful states either to maintain security or to protect their interests.

After the Iron Curtain fell, the brief hope for a more peaceful world order became a receding dream. The 1990s have seen major conflicts in Africa, Europe and the Gulf, together with dirty and costly wars in at least 30 other places.

Can this capacity for conflict be overcome? Can the first half of the 21st century introduce an era of more civilised and constructive interaction? Maybe so, but not unless the likely parameters of future conflict are recognised. Two of them may prove fundamental: the rich-poor divide and global environmental constraints.

In the past 25 years the richest fifth of the world's population has seen its share of the planet's wealth grow from 69% to more than 80%, while everyone else has been squeezed.

With the economic downturn spreading across the southern hemisphere, all the indications are that demographic trends will widen the gap. While the numbers of people experiencing absolute poverty and malnutrition remain much the same, there is a rapid increase in those excluded from the progress of the world's elite. At the same time, education and communications make it easier for people to understand their predicament, raising the prospect of a revolution driven by unfulfilled expectations.

It might be argued that these problems are temporary, that the economic downturn will be brief and that economic growth will ensure adequacy, if not plenty, for all. This is deeply unrealistic. It neither reflects the experience of the past half century nor recognises the problems of environmental degradation.

Since the mid-1980s we have begun to recognise that human activity can damage the global ecosystem. The regional problems of pollution, desertification and resource depletion have become more serious, and it is now accepted that damage to the ozone layer is just a marker for the fundamental problem of climate change.

Of all the expected effects of such change, one stands out as crucial: the probability that rainfall patterns will alter dramatically across much of the world, especially in the tropical regions where most of humanity is still supported by small-scale agriculture. If, as expected, the ecological carrying capacity of the land itself declines, then the implications for human wellbeing are profound.

Overall, the trend is towards an economically polarised yet environmentally constrained world - factors which, along with the military legacy of the cold war, are likely to determine the nature and extent of conflict over the next half century.

On present trends this will include an era of protracted environmental conflict, especially over resources such as oil, water, land and minerals. We can also expect a rise in migratory pressures as people flee environmental decline and poverty. Perhaps most fundamental is the risk of a violent reaction from the dispossessed majority as they seek to escape marginalisation.

None of this is new: the Gulf war was essentially about resources, "economic migrants" are already seen as a security threat and rebellions and insurgencies affect many countries. During last year's turmoil in Indonesia, a BBC reporter described the crowds "rising out of the Jakarta slums to loot the shopping malls of the rich", while across the world, cities experience a surge in crime as elites retreat into protected suburbs.

What is new is the probable extent and intensity of our insecurity. As the geographer Edwin Brooks remarked, the prospect is of a "crowded, glowering planet of massive inequalities of wealth, buttressed by stark force yet endlessly threatened by desperate people". The threat is not so much the 1980s fear of a third world war but more of a slide into endemic instability and conflict, stemming from an unjust and unsustainable global system.

The perhaps inevitable response is for the wealthy and powerful minorities, especially in Europe and North America, to seek to maintain control - to keep the lid on threats to their security. This is certainly the most persistent trend in military thinking, with its emphasis on long-range power projection using cruise missiles and stealth bombers and the future development of hypersonic strike aircraft, space-based lasers and even specialised weapons for fighting "small nuclear wars in far-off places".

It will not work, not least because the proliferation of military technologies is spreading the power of retaliation. Cruise missiles and space-based lasers may be able to hit any place on Earth, but what is the point if a paramilitary group can attack a city with nerve gas or a bioweapon? If the World Trade Centre bomb had worked as intended, 30,000 people would have died - the costliest act of war since Nagasaki.

Keeping the lid on global insecurity is essentially self-defeating. "Liddism" is no answer when the real requirement is to respond to the causes of instability. Over these next 50 years we will probably come to recognise that a more effective route to a stable world will come from justice and co-operation, not from the control of dissent. That may only become apparent as insecurity rises and conflicts increase. The test of the next half century will be whether a more peaceful approach can be embraced before current policies are shown to be unsustainable and deeply damaging to the human condition.

Paul Rogers is Professor of Peace Studies at Bradford University

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