Meeting the Challenge of War
Meeting the Challenge of War
Updates from the UN General Assembly 2023
Updates from the UN General Assembly 2023
Op-Ed / Global 18 minutes

Meeting the Challenge of War

Security issues dominated Davos 2003. The prospect of war with Iraq, and its implications for the global economy and the stability of the international security order, overshadowed every discussion. There was anxiety that an assault on Baghdad, and even more the continuing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, would fuel even deadlier global terrorism. There was concern about the continuing prevalence of wars within states in many regions. There was despondency - with North Korea the immediate focal point -about the resurging proliferation and potential use of weapons of mass destruction. There were doubts about the international community’s capacity to prevent and resolve conflict. And, deeply discomfiting for American participants, there was much sharp questioning of the way the United States has been choosing to exercise its colossal and unrivalled power.

The unified front that the world presented in the wake of 11 September strikes has been strained in the year since by the hard realities of shaping an operational and broader strategic response to the security problems those attacks so rawly exposed. Trust by publics in the capacity of governments and international institutions to get things right, and by governments in each other, has been in short supply. Given shared strategic interests – particularly within the transatlantic community – there is no reason that a new strategic consensus cannot emerge. But for that to happen, the international community will need to both conduct a clear-eyed analysis of the security challenges it faces and reach a basic understanding as to the most effective and intelligent means it possesses to respond to common threats and shared opportunities. The discussions at Davos 2003 did much to clarify these issues.

The Challenge of War Between States

Any complacency that wars between states were a thing of the past has been swept away by the prospect of a U.S.-led confrontation with Iraq. But the fragile standoff between India and Pakistan, with the continued high risk of nuclear miscalculation by one side or the other, has also concentrated minds; so too has North Korea’s brinkmanship in recent months. Tensions between many states in Africa remain very close to the surface, and while the Taiwan Strait (a contest interstate in character de facto if not de jure) remains quiet for the moment, it will need much effort to remain so. And there is always the prospect that – as with Bosnia, Rwanda and Kosovo in the last decade, to name only the most obvious cases - a conscience-shocking human security catastrophe will erupt somewhere generating calls for ‘humanitarian intervention’ by external military forces.

All these risks – and above all Washington’s willingness to go it alone in disarming Iraq (made abundantly clear by Secretary of State Powell in his plenary speech at Davos 2003, a powerful message immortalised by the Secretary’s inadvertent reference to the ‘United States Security Council’) - focused close attention on the need to agree again on the basic ground-rules governing the use of military force in a world where the distribution of power remains largely lopsided, with the United States enjoying a position of unique military as well as economic, political and cultural dominance.

There was general acceptance that wars can be just, and especially so wars for human protection purposes – of the kind that the U.S. led in Bosnia and Kosovo (and that the international community should have waged to crush the Rwandan genocide). Nor were doubts expressed about either the legality or legitimacy of the UN Security Council-mandated Gulf War against Iraq for its indefensible invasion of Kuwait. Nor was there any evident sentiment that the U.S. had been wrong to wage punitive war against Afghanistan for the Taliban’s harbouring of Al-Qaeda terrorists – although there was a very strong view that the right to destroy carried with it an obligation to reconstruct, and a widespread concern that the necessary commitment to state-building, here and elsewhere, might not be all it should be.

There was also general acknowledgment, albeit more finely balanced, that a case could be made for states to engage in anticipatory self-defence if the threat of an attack was sufficiently real. But this was accompanied by intense concern about the particular doctrine of pre-emptive defence articulated by the U.S. in its 2002 National Security Strategy - as given its first application to Iraq in the context of the claimed high risk of that state sooner or later making available nuclear, biological or chemical weapons to terrorist organisations. The answer that seemed to satisfy most Davos 2003 participants was that, in the dangerous new world we know we now occupy, it may be legitimate to take pre-emptive or preventive military action against even non-imminent threats -provided the evidence justifying such attack is clear beyond argument and that proper process is followed. The less imminent the danger, the greater the necessity for very hard evidence of threat, and the greater the need for Security Council legitimisation if the whole international security order so painstakingly constructed after 1945 is not to crumble away. What troubled many participants was that the U.S. seemed to be not only unwilling to accept the Security Council’s final authority, but was also either unable or unwilling to produce compelling evidence that Iraq still possessed relevant weapons capability of a kind that would make the exercise of that UN authority much more likely.

The debate on this issue was further sharpened by the perception that the risks of waging war against Iraq were very high – in terms of the use of chemical or biological warfare in retaliation, disruption of oil supply, regional political instability and new momentum for terrorism from within the Arab-Islamic world (with the latter two risks particularly acute if war were to be waged without UN authority). A just war needs not only a just cause to trigger it, but likely consequences that will not be worse than the cure. The case for dealing with Saddam Hussein by a combination of deterrence and inspections-aided containment is one that a great many Davos participants believed could still be made, deeply pessimistic though they were that this would happen.

The Challenge of War Within States

Conflicts within states remain very much the most likely cause of continuing death, destruction, economic dislocation and general human misery. In the last decade, 53 of the 56 major armed conflicts were of this kind – whether driven by grievance, greed, state failure or all of the above. From Colombia to Zimbabwe to Somalia to Macedonia to the Caucasus to Central and South Asia to Indonesia and parts of the South Pacific - and many places in between - there continues to be a very real risk of major conflict breaking out, escalating, recurring or continuing.

But there are grounds for optimism, as became apparent in the discussion of regional issues in a number of Davos 2003 panels and workshops. Over the last year a number of hitherto intractable conflicts have moved a long way toward resolution: Sri Lanka, Aceh, Congo (though serious violence persists in the Kivus) and Sudan to name just the most prominent. Progress has also been made – though peace remains very fragile - in Burundi, Somalia and the Ivory Coast. What is intriguing about these cases is that nearly all of them have been characterised by serious efforts to come to grips with the underlying causes of conflict in each case – most often a sense of political exclusion associated with ethnic identity - and not just to continue blasting away on the battlefield.

By contrast, those conflicts that have defied any move toward resolution in the last year – such as those in Nepal, Kashmir, Chechnya and Colombia - have all been characterised by a continued overwhelming focus on resolution of the issue by force: dealing with the capability of the enemy rather than its motivation. The same is overwhelmingly, and unhappily, true of the Arab-Israeli conflict – although this conflict cannot strictly be characterised as either internal or, until Palestine is recognised, as interstate. The lesson for the international community, here as elsewhere, is that if we are serious about conflict resolution there is no substitute for intelligent policy (focusing on the right issues), effective negotiation (applying time honoured principles and strategies, above all listening carefully and understanding the issue as the other side sees it) and, where appropriate, intelligent external leverage by those governments and international institutions in a position to constructively exercise it.

There is equally no substitute for effective peacebuilding action, with the full support of the international community, in post-conflict environments: what more needs to be done at all levels – bottom up as well as top down - to rebuild the political, economic and social infrastructure of countries and entities like Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kosovo and Rwanda, and in the process prevent the recurrence of war, was a recurring theme during the Forum. Nor can there any slackening in the new momentum behind conflict prevention efforts generally which has been evident internationally in recent years: the causes of conflict are many and varied, as are the strategies - political, legal, economic and military – available to address them in both the long and short term.

The Challenge of Terrorism

The security challenge on which the world has focused most since 11 September 2001 has been not war within states or even between states, but war on states. Terrorism is hardly a new phenomenon – used as it has been as a weapon by the weak against the strong since time immemorial – but the scale, audacity and location of the 911 attacks instantly moved the notion of “asymmetric” security threats from abstraction to alarming reality. The recent ‘soft target’ assaults in Mombasa and Bali have compounded global anxiety. And many fear the worst is yet to come. At least one expert assessment at Davos 2003 put the likelihood of another major terrorist event in the U.S. in the next year at 75 per cent. And we may have to come to terms in the future with casualties measured not just in the thousands, but in the tens or hundreds of thousands or even millions. The possibility of a nuclear device in a delivery van – or even a suitcase – is no longer science fiction.

Terrorism is alarming enough even without weapons of mass destruction being employed. Conventional weapons – or proxy weapons of the 911 kind - can wreak horrifying carnage. And we are becomingly ever more aware, in this ever more technology-dependent, networked age, of what are now being called ‘Weapons of Mass Disruption’. Nightmare scenarios abound, including for example highly strategically focused simultaneous physical attacks on key electrical stations, causing cascading power failure throughout an entire country, even one like the U.S. of continental size. Cyber attacks are feared most of all: one computer-company CEO at Davos estimated that there were now some 19 million people world-wide with the know-how to mount the kind of network attack that could bring any developed country to its knees through the dislocation of public utilities, business and government capacity.

To meet the challenge of terrorism will demand addressing, in the language used above, both capability and motivation. There is no substitute for immediate military and law enforcement action, supported by intelligence and political cooperation, to directly counter those waging terrorist war; but nor is there any alternative but to simultaneously address what are usually described as the ‘root causes’ of terrorism - the political grievances (not least the Palestinian issue, which inflames sentiment throughout the Arab-Islamic world); the perceived humiliations; the economic anxieties; the social and cultural issues that breed discontent. A point made many times at the Forum was that the motivations that matter here are not so much those of individual terrorists, which are often mixed, personal and hard to relate to the more obvious sources of unrest. The point is rather to improve the capacity and will to act of the governments of those countries where terrorists or would-be terrorists are most likely to be found. By presenting a positive vision of international engagement with the Muslim world, and addressing seriously the many sources of grievance in that world, the international community can give the governments of those states some feathers to fly - making active cooperation seem to be more clearly in the national interest and far easier to defend politically.

No grievance in this respect is more important for the West to address than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The point was made repeatedly throughout Davos 2003. There was no belief that either side could win by violence; no perception that the sequential, incremental process of the Oslo agreement any longer had legs; a great deal of sympathy for the argument that the final settlement political issues (borders, Jerusalem and refugees pre-eminent among them) had to now be seriously negotiated if any way out of the present horror is to be found; but no evident confidence in the capacity of the present leaderships of either the Israeli or Palestinian side to generate, without strong international pressure, the necessary momentum. There is broad consensus on what the contours of a final two-state solution should look like, considerable confidence that it could be sold to the exhausted and despairing populations on both sides, and plenty of political will in Europe and among Israel’s neighbours to make it happen. What has been missing has been, critically, the necessary political commitment from the White House. Many Forum participants made clear their view that, as between Iraq and the Arab-Israeli conflict, the U.S. had its priorities wrong.

One further theme ran through the debates on terrorism: ensuring that the war on terrorism is conducted in keeping with international law, and domestic constitutional standards, will be crucial in maintaining broader international support for these efforts. To fail to do so will end a disturbing message to large parts of the world that the Western community practises a distinctly double standard, that its commitment to the rule of law and international human rights standards is more rhetorical than real. In those cases where the U.S., European Union or other actors find international covenants insufficient to guarantee their security, they should actively engage in further revising and strengthening the body of international law rather than seeking to circumvent it.

The Challenge of Weapons of Mass Destruction

The crises in Iraq and North Korea, and the continuing fragile standoff between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan, all ensured that the issue of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons came under scrutiny at Davos 2003, although perhaps not to the extent that the critical importance of the issue deserved. The unhappy reality is that non-proliferation regimes are under considerable stress, with the collapse last year of efforts to introduce a biological weapons inspection regime, the existing chemical weapons inspection regime under financial stress, and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty proving increasingly ineffectual - at least partly because the original nuclear weapons powers have failed to take seriously their obligation under that treaty to commit themselves to the ultimate complete elimination of their nuclear armouries. The nub of the problem is that so long as any state has nuclear weapons, others will want them, and as long as anyone has them there is every chance that they will eventually be used, by accident or design, to catastrophic effect. Double standards, here as elsewhere, are the enemy of good policy.

It is no longer an effective argument, if it ever was, for any state to claim that it needs to retain some nuclear – or chemical or biological – weapons to deter rogue states producing or using them, or making them available to terrorist groups, when the current generation of conventional weapons give all the deterrent or retaliatory muscle that could ever possibly be required. Beyond deterrence, however, much more can be done to make life more difficult for terrorists and those who would supply them. The critical need, as argued by nuclear security specialists in several Forum sessions, is to better secure – particularly in the former Soviet Union - existing nuclear weapons and, above all, large and vulnerable stocks of fissile material: plutonium and highly enriched uranium. What is required, here as elsewhere, is strong international cooperation, and the allocation of the necessary resources to give that cooperation substance.

The Role and Responsibility of Governments

Effective conflict prevention and resolution requires understanding of what is at stake, imagination in crafting solutions, institutions able to translate ideas into action, and above all strong leadership to mobilise the necessary will and resources. It was broadly acknowledged in the course of many sessions at Davos 2003 that supply on all these fronts has been long short of need, and that it is a challenge for every actor on the international stage – international institutions, the business community, civil society organisations, but above all governments - to find ways of bridging the gap.

The U.S. – perhaps inevitably because of its size and current global dominance, but also because of the perceived unilateralist instincts and priorities of the present administration – came in for most of the criticism on offer. And the message was heard: Congressman Rob Portman put it succinctly when asked in a key plenary what he would take back to Washington from this Forum: “The need to listen”. But many American participants gave as good as they got, suggesting that practical solutions to real problems would be more helpful than posturing, and that the heated debate over the role of the United States had often made it all too easy for European and other leaders to avoid hard questions about their own policy choices. For example, while offering stinging criticism of Washington, the European Union and its member states had largely failed to present any credible policy platform for eliminating or limiting weapons of mass destruction; European businesses, uncontrolled by their governments, had often been at the forefront of the export policies that have helped encourage proliferation in this area. Again, while U.S. human rights practices in fighting the war on terrorism had been a lightning rod, European policies on immigration and the treatment of Muslim groups within their own borders deserved equally tough scrutiny.

Some broader themes emerged through the crossfire. If we are to deal more rationally and effectively with deadly conflict in the future, it is necessary is for governments to act comprehensively, cooperatively and above all intelligently. Acting comprehensively means addressing security problems in a way that recognises they are not one-dimensional, and that social, economic and cultural factors can be at least as important as political and military ones in explaining why people, groups and governments act as they do, and in persuading them to act otherwise. Acting cooperatively means recognising that in the real contemporary world, however big a country may be, most international problems are only solvable with the help of others. In the case of security threats it means recognising that acting together rather than in splendid isolation is also what for the most part is required by the UN Charter – the only dominant system of security law that we have, and which we would have to invent if it didn’t exist. Acting intelligently means, in addition, acting preventively before the event – on the basis that nothing is so cost effective in terms of dollars, lives, property destruction and misery; acting productively during the event - not solving one problem by creating others; and acting sustainably after the event - being prepared to devote many resources to post-conflict reconstruction and peacebuilding as to the initial military intervention.

Business has always operated in an environment of risk – commercial risk from the market, legislative and regulatory risk from government, legal risk from the courts, and social risk from ever more active civil society. But risk from conflict or politically motivated violence, at least for developed country businesses, has been until recently largely confined to certain sectors – resources, transport and tourism, insurance, and to those choosing to make risky offshore investments. Post-11 September, as we now know to our cost, everyone can be massively affected by the impact of terrorist or other violence on everything from employee security and recruitment to consumer purchasing, stock market prices, insurance costs and internal security costs . And as the ripple effects from 911 spread ever wider the unease is compounded: the prospect of war with Iraq, and in particular the business impact of its conduct being neither quick nor clean, added profoundly to the mood of uncertainty and pessimism so apparent at Davos 2003.

Part of the frustration is for business in all of this is that it tends to see itself as a passive bystander, a prisoner of events, unable in any way to determine their course. But during the course of Forum discussions it became apparent that there are many contributions the business community, and in particular the major multinationals, can in fact make to the prevention and resolution of conflict, both on the negative side of not contributing to the problems and on the positive side of doing something to directly aid their resolution.

The imperative to “do no harm” has many dimensions. It means not acting in a way that directly or indirectly supports the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, or the illegal distribution of conventional weapons; not trading or investing in circumstances that directly generate revenue for those engaged in illegal armed conflict (e.g. “blood diamonds”); not investing in activities which directly reinforce or perpetuating a grievance-based conflict (e.g. oil in Sudan); avoiding environmentally and socially insensitive resource exploitation, which so often creates grievance-based despair and hostility; and not giving encouragement, whatever the temptation, to corrupt practices that undermine the effectiveness of local governance. All these strictures are, of course, easier to state than to observe in highly competitive commercial environments. One way of making them easier to observe is to support the passage of strong and enforceable regulatory codes, both domestically and internationally, on the principle that relying on the legal obligations of one’s competitors is a little more comforting than relying just on their better instincts. Support for this kind of regulation may be at odds with the traditional instinct of business to reduce government intervention to an absolute minimum, but it is growing, and needs to grow further.

What other positive roles can business play in conflict prevention and resolution? The most obvious, but perhaps most neglected, is for business – individually and through industry aassociations - simply to be a more assertive voice on these issues. Governments, not least in the U.S., are always looking nervously over their shoulder at their key domestic constituencies: and these days global security tensions and crises are business’s business as much as anyone else’s. More specifically, business entities can help by being a voice for intelligent, cost-effective, before-the-event preventive action; by being an active and helpful voice in the building of non-proliferation regimes for weapons of mass destruction, even if that support has commercial implications, as tough chemical and biological inspection regimes certainly do for chemical and pharmaceutical companies; by being prepared to exercise such leverage as they have – not small in many conflict ridden countries – to bring governments and other parties to the negotiating table; and by being prepared, if there is the capacity to do so, to put effort and resources into the rebuilding of shattered post-conflict societies, to help them get on their feet, functioning, consuming and trading again. Investment is often about choices at the margin – this country or that, this safer or that more volatile location within a country, this employment-intensive or that capital-intensive construction method - and it would help if businesses regarded the making of constructive choices on security issues as part of their larger corporate social responsibility.

The bottom line in all of this, for business as for government, is leadership. Deeper underlying currents and causes matter enormously, and must be addressed, but in security issues as elsewhere making a difference, making something happen, depends ultimately on the capacity and will of individuals in key positions. The international community has entered another period of both tremendous turbulence and opportunity. In successfully navigating this strategic environment it will be essential that it be guided by a clear long-term vision for expanding a community of nations sharing essentially the same bedrock human values. Leadership by intelligent and committed individuals in all sectors has always been critical in articulating and implementing this kind of vision, and Davos 2003 played an important and useful role in helping those leaders see more clearly what they have to do.

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