Bloomberg: War is on the rise everywhere

    WORLD  11 December 2023 - 11:07

    Bloomberg has published an article arguing that there are 183 regional and local conflicts underway in 2023, the highest number in three decades. Caliber.Az reprints the article.

    “It’ll all be over by Christmas” has become one of the most derided prophesies in history. It was made by wiseacres in London, Paris, Berlin, St. Petersburg and elsewhere in Europe as the First World War exploded in August 1914. These misguided optimists founded their projection on recent experience: Europe had suffered no long, big conflicts since the fall of Napoleon a century earlier.

    Yet as everybody knows today, far from being over before Santa Claus called, the terrible struggle that began with Austria’s invasion of Serbia lasted four years and killed around 20 million people before the 1918 armistice.

    This week, the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London published the latest edition of its authoritative annual Armed Conflict Survey, and it’s not predicting much peace for the holidays. It paints a grim picture of rising violence in in many regions, of wars chronically resistant to broking of peace. The survey — which addresses regional conflicts rather than the superpower confrontation between China, Russia, the US and its allies — documents 183 conflicts for 2023, the highest number in three decades.

    It highlights “intractability as the defining feature of the contemporary global conflict landscape.” Nonstate armed groups, of which Hamas in Gaza is only the most immediately conspicuous, play a baleful role. In many places these forces are supported by disruptive major powers, notably Russia and Iran.

    Although the world is not immediately threatened by a great war, such as those of 1914-18 and 1939-45, tensions are rising, especially between the US and China. I would identify an issue that seems to me, as a historian, especially important and dangerous. One of the primary reasons Europe went to war in 1914 is that none of the big players were as frightened as they should have been, of conflict as a supreme human catastrophe. After a century in which the continent had experienced only limited wars, from which Prussia had been an especially conspicuous profiteer, too many statesmen viewed war as a usable instrument of policy, which proved a catastrophic misjudgment.

    Today, we see Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, sharing this delusion. His lunges into Georgia in 2008, Crimea in 2014 and now mainland Ukraine argue a reckless embrace of the risks of interstate violence. He is confident, and becoming more so as American and European popular support for Ukraine weakens, that he and his people are tougher than us decadent Westerners.

    The IISS survey concludes that any prospect of a resolution of the struggle must hinge on Kyiv “obtaining security guarantees that ensure Ukraine’s future territorial integrity against external aggression.”

    Meanwhile, we still do not know how far China’s president, Xi Jinping, is prepared to extend his own aggression in the South China Sea, above all toward Taiwan. And the danger persists that Israel’s devastation of Gaza, following Hamas’s appalling atrocities of Oct. 7, will precipitate a wider struggle in the Middle East.

    There are border clashes worldwide, of which Russia’s attempt to overwhelm Ukraine is only the most devastating. Azerbaijan has seized the Nagorno-Karabakh region, precipitating the flight of more than 100,000 of its Armenian inhabitants. Tensions persist between Russia and Georgia, and are worse than in ever in modern times between Algeria and Morocco. In Pakistan, domestic terrorism has escalated, and stresses in relations with India’s anti-Muslim government are running dangerously high.

    Meanwhile, the IISS reports: “The accelerating climate crisis continues to act as a multiplier of both root causes of conflict and institutional weaknesses in fragile countries.”

    The intensity of conflict has risen year on year, with fatalities increasing by 14% and violent events by 28% in the latest survey. The authors describe a world “dominated by increasingly intractable conflicts and armed violence amid a proliferation of actors, complex and overlapping motives, global influences and accelerating climate change.”

    The International Committee of the Red Cross catalogues 459 armed groups whose activities provoke humanitarian concerns, with 195 million people living under their full or partial control. Four-fifths of these groups possess sufficient local or regional dominance to levy taxes and provide some measure of public services. The writ of recognized national governments does not extend over significant areas of the global landmass.

    The increasingly assertive policies of authoritarian states — notably China, Russia, Iran, Turkey and the Gulf states — “is one of the main causes of the demise of traditional conflict-resolution and peacemaking processes …. These powers often prop up authoritarian regimes and disregard fundamental principles of international humanitarian law.”

    Complicating things, “the divide between Russia and Western powers has become unbridgeable and securing allies has become a strategic imperative.” In other words, the democracies feel increasingly obliged to seek friends wherever they can find them, ignoring — for instance — the ghastly cruelties institutionalized in Saudi Arabia.

    In the Americas, most conflicts are driven by criminal rivalries, especially related to the drug trade. Criminal groups are exercising ever more power vis-à-vis the state in many nations of South and Central America. The so-called war on drugs being waged by many governments for decades is making little impact on either production or supply chains. In many places, says the IISS, it has merely provoked criminal groups to arm themselves with ever-deadlier weapons, mostly smuggled from the US where they are readily accessible.

    The scale of violence in Mexico, especially, is terrifying. On June 26, 2022, heavily armed gangsters attacked a group of 10 policemen near the town of Colombia on the US border, killing six and wounding two. Two months later, organized crime groups staged orchestrated attacks on security forces in five different Mexican states. In significant areas of that vast country, the rule of law is non-existent.

    In Eurasia, many conflicts are driven by territorial disputes lingering from the breakup of the Soviet Union, and above all by Moscow’s refusal to accept the consequences — the right of neighboring states to sovereignty and independence. “The Russia-Ukraine war,” says the IISS, “is reshaping the regional and global security and economic order.”

    In Syria, Russia’s intervention since 2015 has secured the survival of its murderous tyrant Bashar al-Assad, who has clambered over a mountain of corpses to secure recognition from many prominent Arab states. Iraq is still riven by its Sunni-Shiite Muslim divide.

    The IISS survey was compiled before the murderous events in Israel two months ago and what has followed, but it records rising tensions driven by extremists on both sides there, including the armed settler movement in the West Bank: “These new cycles of violence in Israel and the occupied territories are prompting speculation of a new intifada.”

    Ukraine remains, unsurprisingly, the most violent place on the planet, but Syria, Brazil, Myanmar, Mexico and Iraq are also riven. In Nigeria, more than 10,000 people died by violence, mostly at the hands of jihadists, and over 9,000 in Somalia. The numbers of refugees displaced by war are stunning: more than six million in Syria, five million in Afghanistan, a million in Myanmar.

    As for forces to contain or suppress violence, over 70,000 personnel wear the blue berets of the United Nations in conflict zones, mostly in Africa and the Middle East, notably South Sudan and Central African Republic. They have also been deployed for decades in Cyprus and Southern Lebanon. Total UN deployments peaked at 100,000 between 2014-17.

    Yet former Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon complained in 2014 that some peacekeepers were stationed “where there is no peace to keep.” In Mali, jihadists have killed 300 UN personnel over a decade. Amid acute new geopolitical tensions between the major powers, the UN’s influence has shriveled. In the UN Security Council, China, Russia and the US repeatedly veto each other’s declared purposes, or at least cause each other to abandon any prospect of securing a mandate in a given situation, most conspicuously Ukraine.

    The authoritarian states absolutely reject the doctrine that the UN has a right to intervene in states where human rights are being flouted. Russian mercenaries have participated in massacres of civilians in Mali, where pressure from Moscow and Beijing is precipitating UN withdrawal by the end of this month.

    In Africa, there is increasing pressure for peacekeeping and stabilization roles to be filled by African Union personnel, who are merely funded by the UN. Unless or until superpower tensions become less dominant in geopolitics — an unlikely development — the UN’s ability to intervene effectively in conflicts will continue to decline.

    Partly in consequence of this intractability, armed struggles are becoming longer. Iskander Rehman, a fellow of the Henry Kissinger Center at Johns Hopkins University, has just published a book arguing that the US and its allies must stop making policy and strategy on the assumption that future wars will be short. He writes: “Chinese and American operational preferences are remarkably similar — both put a premium on striking first and controlling the initiative.”

    He believes this will not prove viable in the future; that the immense economic heft of China and the US would cause conflict between them to be protracted for many months, perhaps years and even decades. This makes it necessary for the West to build strategic stocks of weapons and munitions on a scale currently unimagined by planners.

    The Ukraine experience makes a good case that Rehman, whose research has been supported by the Pentagon’s immensely influential Office of Net Assessment, is right. The current US mindset seems to confuse planning to win a mere battle or limited campaign with the demands of protracted conflict. The author quotes a French history of the 14th century Hundred Years’ War between Britain and France, which he believes offers a template for 21st century superpower conflict. Temporary truces or even peace treaties between the rival monarchies merely “provided an opportunity for the protagonists to regain their breath” — to rearm for the next round of war.

    Rehman’s book, unappetizingly entitled Planning for Protraction, argues that if the West — which means principally the US — is to deter war, above all in Asia, “it will need to launch a once-in-a-generation construction and procurement effort, all the while encouraging the even more industrially atrophied allies in Europe and Asia to do the same.”

    I am convinced that Rehman is right. I am nonetheless skeptical that what he urges is going to happen, because the political will is absent. He warns of the dangers posed by the pusillanimity of allies. Even more, he fears that US domestic politics, promoting dysfunction and threatening paralysis in Washington, will weaken America’s ability to act effectively as leader of the West, the role it has fulfilled so impressively for 70 years.

    The message from both Rehman’s book and the latest IISS survey is essentially the same, although a gloomy one: We should stop planning the defense of the West on the assumption that any of the threats that face us will be over by Christmas.


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