We kept the peace so far, but now all bets are off
Some conflicts leave relatively small footprints; others cause ripples in the space-time continuum.
Small wars like the ones America launched against Panama and Belize, for instance, have long been forgotten. Fought against poorly armed foes for territorial aims, they count for little in terms of history. The survivors may mourn the dead, but in the context of history, they are soon erased from memory.
However, the two world wars of the last century that caused around 67 million deaths were on another scale altogether. The slaughter was of an unimaginable magnitude, and in comparison, the death toll in today’s conflicts are tiny.
Then there were the two ideological wars on the Korean Peninsula and in Vietnam. Although often perceived as conflicts between communism and capitalism, they were actually wars against Western imperialism. Poorly armed soldiers and guerrillas defeated vastly more powerful American forces. Both were exceedingly bloody affairs, and no quarters were asked or given.
The Second World War was a game-changer in that it gave rise to a whole set of international institutions that would minimise the chances of future armed conflicts. The United Nations, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, WHO, FAO, and a host of others sprang into being.
For nearly 50 years, this international consensus held, and apart from the occasional outbreak of hostilities, the Security Council managed to keep the peace.
Although it has been much criticised, the fact remains that without it, the world would have been a far more warlike place. And the ancillary institutions of the UN have done much to alleviate human suffering.
But 9/11 has changed the precarious world balance. With the free for all triggered by the US-led coalition into the invasion of Afghanistan, a pattern of kinetic force against lightly armed fighters was set. Even the Iraqi forces, for all of Saddam Hussein’s bluster, were no match for the mighty American juggernaut.
Syria has been shattered by a combination of jihadists backed by Saudi-led financiers who wanted to topple Bashar al-Assad. The fact that he is till standing is due entirely to the support his forces have received from Russia and Iran’s Revolutionary Forces. Now Donald Trump has seen that there are few options to a long-drawn-out war, and has decided to pull out. Most would call it a defeat.
Thus, the Americans are no longer masters of all they survey: they have been joined at the top by China and Russia. True, they outspend the rest of the world by a huge margin when it comes to military expenditure, but as recent history shows, the political will to fight a long war is often lacking.
As an Afghan is supposed to have said: “They have the clocks; we have the time.”
And so it has proved. Nearly 20 years of bitter fighting against the Afghan Taliban have ended in a stalemate leading to the US virtually begging for a ceasefire. When a superpower asks for peace, it is a sure sign of defeat. But the Taliban won’t allow the Americans to quit easily.
The phenomenon of the non-state fighter is relatively new. Perhaps the Tamil Tigers were the first to organise themselves into a trained force, and use suicide bombers as deadly weapons of war. Others soon followed. Initially, Western forces were baffled by these tactics and floundered on the battlefield.
At the other extreme of the spectrum, we have American research labs pushing out a range of the most sophisticated weapons known to man. Drones themselves are transformative, However, their relatively low cost makes them available to developing countries the way high-end jets don’t.
As the nature of warfare changes, so does the nature of diplomacy. A Security Council resolution is no longer needed to start a war, as we saw in Iraq.
A civil war can be triggered in Syria, again without the Security Council’s blessings. Libya’s dictator can be toppled and killed with just a ‘no-fly-resolution’ to interdict Libyan planes attacking rebels. But these new rules — or lack of them — are restricted to the powerful. However, smaller states are learning these lessons: non-state actors are joining the fray when they have a grudge or an edge. Israel is a prime example of how UNSC resolutions can be flouted at will as long as you have a superpower to veto even a mildly hostile veto against your illegal occupation and your persecution of the Palestinians.
So what kind of world will our grandchildren grow up in? Ours was relatively peaceful, but I fear theirs will be more full of fear and fire. While we have refrained from using atomic weapons in anger thus far, let’s not forget just how stupid we can be as a race.
If anything, the Americans and the Russians have pulled out of painfully negotiated nuclear agreements. China is reported to be expanding its atomic arsenal. North Korea is bent on building yet more nuclear warheads. Where will it all stop?
By arrangement with Dawn