The Long Road to Peace
The Long Road to Peace
Trump, Biden and the Future of U.S. Multilateralism
Trump, Biden and the Future of U.S. Multilateralism
Op-Ed / Global 7 minutes

The Long Road to Peace

In today's networked multipolar world the West still seeks the right strategy

Three long-term trends are redefining conflict and security: the redistribution of power, the world’s increasing physical and informational connectivity, and the resulting decline of the state as the centerpiece of the international system. The first moves us away from the post-Cold War world. The last two have more radical implications: they challenge the role of states and intergovernmental organizations as the building blocks of global order.

All three will shape the conflicts of 2015, and all three present immediate challenges to Western powers. International cooperation has never been as important, but today’s conflicts demand an engagement that is both more modest and more imaginative than in the past. This is not an easy combination.

The redistribution of power has been abundantly documented, but its implications are not yet clear. The United States is less overwhelmingly dominant, except in its military capacity, but it is also less willing to use the force it has. In most crises, in any event, the utility of its force is doubtful. Europe moves frustratingly slowly and has failed to become a strategic actor (though one should not discount its raw potential to become one).

Both, too, have been undermined by the travails and inequities of their economic systems – no longer seen as unparalleled role models; and by the legal and moral excesses of their post-9/11 posture. The West has failed, to date, to effectively counter the perception that its international stance is motivated solely by a desire to maintain its political, economic and military supremacy.

Meanwhile, Russia, China, India and Japan are increasingly assertive in their immediate regions. And a set of middle powers plays an ever more influential, even dominant, role in their own neighborhoods, sometimes for better but often for worse, as ensuing local rivalries make conflict resolution that much more difficult. Perhaps most grave, in a growing expanse of territories, mostly across parts of Africa, the Middle East and South Asia, the writ of the state is weak, sometimes even non-existent.

It has become fashionable to talk about the “return of geopolitics.” But more significant is that this redistribution – or, perhaps better, diffusion – of power makes geopolitics, as traditionally understood, obsolete. Today’s world with its multiple players, some with global reach but weak commitments, some with only regional clout, but strong interests, does not function like the world once dominated by Europe, or that of the Cold War, or even that of the immediate post-Cold War period, in which – many thought – only a handful of powers really mattered. States can work together on some issues while contesting others, allowing for a much more flexible, but also less predictable world. The co-operation between Russia and Western countries on the Iran nuclear issue, even as they compete in Ukraine and Syria, is a case in point.

The second trend is the world’s increased connectivity. The emergence of terrorism as a global concern is a stark illustration. Terrorism is nothing new; it is a centuries old tactical response to an asymmetric distribution of power. What is new is the global impact of some terrorist acts. This reflects the physical connectivity of the 21st century, as exemplified in the profound transformation of civil aviation since 9/11, or the growing threat of cyber warfare in digital economies.

It also reflects unprecedented information connectivity: an impact-multiplier that creates recognition, whether for a fast-food chain, a running shoe or Jihadism. And just as global commercial franchises buy local businesses to establish a presence, the Jihadist franchises exploit and boost local conflicts, whether in the Sahel, northern Kenya, or Syria. Often pressure is bottom-up: local groups seek the franchise because it offers easy access to money, weapons and recruits.

Connectivity is also a recruitment tool. The global impact of terrorist actions attracts lost souls seduced by the publicity given to their acts. Extreme violence becomes both tactic and strategy, an end unto itself. It is packaged as Jihadism not because Islam has much to do with it, but because Islam provides a convenient marker, a readily recognizable totem around which to gather in resistance to real or perceived injustice.

Also, as yet there is no good counter-narrative in the Sunni world to win over the alienated: liberal democracy has lost its appeal; the often remote secular or religious autocrats offer little to most young men; and moderate political Islam has also come unstuck – most dramatically in Egypt. The relatively high proportion of converts among French Jihadists (more than 20 percent) is also revealing.

In such a connected world, retrenchment is not possible. No border force, no “homeland” security can safeguard islands of peace and stability in an ocean of turmoil as isolationists would have it. The flow of people can never be fully controlled, nor can the flow of ideas, at least not in a free society. Outside threats will have their echo in homegrown terrorism. There is no choice but to engage. The question is: How?

Sharing intelligence, coordinating efforts to weaken international terrorist connections is necessary, but cannot replace local and regional conflict resolution, and cannot take place oblivious to how others might view those actions. Empathy, clarity and consistency of exposition, and adherence to minimum norms are much needed.

Neglecting that and focusing exclusively on military operations can help terrorist groups increase their influence by aggravating the conditions that gave rise to them in the first place. Assessing the strategic impact of targeted military actions is vital: they may achieve tactical results at the expense of strategic success. In Syria and Iraq, airstrikes and support to Kurdish and Shia fighters may have degraded the Islamic State’s capacities, but have also strengthened the narrative of Sunni victimization at the hands of Western powers and their allies.

The third trend is the decline of the state as the critical actor of the international system – the disintermediation of politics. The end of the Cold War showed some positive consequences of that decline: individuals’ rights trumped the power of repressive states; human security sat alongside state security, at least in principle. The Arab Spring seemed initially another vindication of that new power, as a ground-swell of largely unorganized individual protests spread and toppled dictatorships.

Although in some cases, like Egypt, the state has since fought back, it has often done so in a way that excludes large segments of the population and thus stores up problems for later. The negative consequences of the disempowerment and decline of the institutions through which individual lives acquire a collective dimension, in particular formal state institutions, and the resulting decline in state-society relations are now more visible.

In the world’s most troubled regions, particularly across parts of Africa and the Middle East, states – often those that had either been propped up by Cold War rivalries or benefitted from the fresh legitimacy of decolonization – are now struggling. Many are chronically weak, at war, collapsed or facing cycles of low-intensity violence. Even those that appear reasonably strong are often, to varying degrees, rather brittle.

In these regions, international actors and national reformers alike can aspire to forge inclusive, accountable and resilient states, but they face a familiar question: “What is good enough?” Can leaders in those states that appear reasonably strong be nudged into doing enough to make collapse less likely? – at a minimum widening their support base and patronage networks or, more optimistically, improving governance. And can those states that have collapsed regain a share of power and resources to keep enough people happy to create at least some short-term stability, and hope over time for improvements in governance? Such ends appear modest. But in practice they will be hard won.

As many states weaken, the relative power of non-state actors – both legitimate like corporations and illegitimate like criminal networks – keeps growing. Implications are wide-ranging. The distinction between domestic and international affairs is blurred because domestic fragility, whether in industrialized Ukraine or the developing Democratic Republic of Congo or South Sudan, creates opportunities for foreign meddling. The distinction between crime and politics is also fading: profits from trafficking not only corrupt officials and hollow out institutions, but also support terrorists, mafias and insurgencies from the Sahel to Eastern Europe and Latin America.

In such a fluid and amorphous context, wars are more intractable. Political programs no longer structure conflicts; the risk of political fragmentation increases, as political, criminal and personal agendas mix together. The longer a war lasts, the more armed groups proliferate, as observed in Somalia, South Sudan or Syria. Ending armed conflict becomes ever harder, not only because of the number of actors who need to be included in a peace process, but also because political goals are elusive and protagonists on all sides share an interest in prolonging the fighting. It keeps the state weak, and they have adapted to a war economy that enhances their own power and ability to loot resources. Sadly most of the deadly conflicts of 2014 look set to continue.

No overarching concept can capture the diversity and complexity of conflict in 2015. Disenfranchisement and local grievances can have an increasingly global impact. They are transforming the geopolitical landscape, which in turn changes the nature of local conflicts. The connections between local grievances and the global strategic theater also make the world of 2015 a more dangerous and less predictable place: strategic surprise is the new normal, as neglected local conflicts may suddenly acquire a global dimension. Russia, China and emerging middle powers will continue to build up their militaries, but new threats resulting from the weakness of many states are likely to be even more pressing.

This is no reason for Western powers to abandon efforts for cooperative management of international security – in fact they are more vital now than ever. But those efforts must be more humble: proportionate to the limited international consensus on interventions and to the international community’s limited capacity to effectively stabilize countries in crisis. They must also be more imaginative: first and foremost looking outside traditional centers of power, but also working creatively outside traditional alliances and seeking support for efforts to end conflicts even in what may seem unlikely quarters.

After a decade and a half of interventionism, whether US-led or UN-led, and increasing disagreement on what constitutes legitimate engagement, the temptation exists for the West to adopt a minimalist approach to foreign relations. That would be as wrong as the previous maximalist posture. 2015 could bring in a new equilibrium, if a focus on the political foundations of stabilization leads to a limited but broad consensus on peace and security: less military interventionism, more politics, smarter diplomacy, more collective action, and more modest ambitions.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.