Major Power Rivalry and Multilateral Conflict Management
Major Power Rivalry and Multilateral Conflict Management
Op-Ed / Multilateral Diplomacy 4 minutes

Major Power Rivalry and Multilateral Conflict Management


An era of international conflict management appears to be at an end.[fn]In this paper “international conflict management” refers to the range of activities involved in cooperative efforts to address regional conflicts and civil wars, including mediation, peace operations, and other military deployments, humanitarian assistance, and related tools.Hide Footnote  In the three decades since the conclusion of the Cold War, the United States, its allies, and multilateral organizations such as the United Nations have devoted considerable political, military, and financial resources to mediating regional conflicts and civil wars and rebuilding fragile states. In a period of muted major power tensions and relatively rare classic interstate wars, the United States was able to focus on intrastate conflicts—those within states—and the attendant risks of regional instability and transnational terrorism. Despite disputes such as that over Iraq, the United States often worked through the UN Security Council and looked for common ground with China and Russia over conflict management. Now, with the return of major power competition, strategic priorities are changing. For policymakers in Washington, the contest with Beijing provides the framework for the years ahead, demanding a reorientation of U.S. resources away from conflict management and toward countering Beijing and limiting Moscow’s ambitions.

This new strategic focus has been all too obvious in discussions of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, which many U.S. officials and commentators have justified in terms of a pivot to China.[fn]See for example “Turning From Afghanistan, the U.S. Sets Focus on China,” AFP, September 1, 2021.Hide Footnote  The rapid collapse of the Kabul government also inspired a wave of retrospective criticism of American nation-building in Afghanistan, with wider implications for future U.S. involvement in managing civil wars and regional conflicts. For some critics, this crisis demonstrated that many of the policy tools the United States has applied to fragile states—from international stabilization forces to development aid—are inherently flawed.[fn]See for examples Josh Hammer, “Afghanistan’s Big Lesson: No More Nation-Building Ever Again,” New York Post, August 22, 2021; and Simon Jenkins, “The West’s NationBuilding Fantasy Is to Blame for the Mess in Afghanistan,” Guardian, August 20, 2021.Hide Footnote  This is overstated. Numerous studies have shown that many peacemaking and peacekeeping efforts have succeeded in creating stability and saving lives since the end of the Cold War.[fn]James D. Fearon, “Civil War and the Current International System,” Daedalus 146, no. 4 (2017): 25–26.Hide Footnote  But it will be hard for policymakers to shake off memories of Afghanistan.

For some U.S. national security analysts, weak states and regional conflicts now look like a costly distraction and, worse, entirely irrelevant in the context of competition with China and Russia, meriting little U.S. attention.[fn]Benjamin Wallace-Wells, “Will the Next American War Be With China?,” New Yorker, August 19, 2021.Hide Footnote  Others, influenced by Russia’s involvement in Syria and Ukraine, see these secondary conflicts as theaters for proxy wars similar to those that ravaged the Third World during the Cold War.[fn]Frank Hoffman and Andrew Orner, “The Return of Great-Power Proxy Wars,” War on the Rocks, September 2, 2021.Hide Footnote  By this logic, Washington and its allies will need to continue to participate in these conflicts, but primarily for the sake of weakening Beijing’s or Moscow’s allies rather than constructing sustainable peace. A third school of thought emphasizes that unstable states and violent regions continue to offer sanctuaries for terrorist organizations—as well as breeding grounds for other threats, such as organized crime networks and future pandemics—and the United States will still need to address these potential dangers, while avoiding the trap of heavy-duty nation-building.[fn]Kabir Teneja and Mohammed Sinan Siyech, “Terrorism in South Asia After the Fall of Afghanistan,” War on the Rocks, August 23, 2021.Hide Footnote

Despite their differences, these arguments lead to common conclusions about the future of international conflict management. One is that the political space for the United States and its allies to collaborate with China and Russia on preventing and resolving conflicts will shrink, with all three powers likely to take a zero-sum approach to emerging conflicts (many commentaries on events in Afghanistan have taken such a stance and scored the U.S. withdrawal as a win for China).[fn]See Andrew Scobell, “China and the U.S. Exit From Afghanistan: Not a Zero-Sum Game,” U.S. Institute of Peace, September 22, 2021.Hide Footnote  The second conclusion is that the major powers are unlikely to find much common ground through multilateral mechanisms that are meant to facilitate such cooperation over these conflicts, such as the UN Security Council. The third is that, even if the major powers can agree on the need to deal with civil or regional wars, they will not want to invest in deploying large, drawn-out peacekeeping or stabilization missions with bold state-building mandates. If all these arguments are correct, the era of international conflict management that followed the end of the Cold War is truly over, and the international mechanisms that made it possible—including the United Nations and other international organizations—will drift into irrelevance.

Yet a more optimistic, if still quite bleak, outlook for international conflict management efforts is possible, one that advocates for some degree of major power cooperation in an era of geopolitical rivalries. (From here on, the United States, China, and Russia are considered “the major powers” despite huge differences in their capacities.) And the multilateral conflict management mechanisms and institutions that the United States and other powers built up after the Cold War, including the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), continue to be relevant. These institutions still have a role to play in limiting and mitigating major power competition in acute crises and providing frameworks for limited but useful cooperation elsewhere.

From Major Power Rivalry and Multilateral Conflict Management by Richard Gowan. Copyright © 2021 by the Council on Foreign Relations Press. Reprinted with permission.

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