The Transformation of War and Peace
The Transformation of War and Peace
Op-Ed / Global 4 minutes

The Transformation of War and Peace

Can we learn from past wars to prevent future ones? Or is the past a treacherous guide? What features dominate today’s international peace and security landscape and how do they compare with those of a century ago? I will highlight three: a sense, perhaps misguided, that major instability in the West is unimaginable; a transformation in the nature of warfare; and a radically changed geostrategic context.

First, many in the West cannot imagine war in their own countries, partly because of the long stretch of peace we have enjoyed. European powers, for example, have not fought each other for 72 years—a period outstripping even the 44 years of peace preceding the First World War. This partly explains the trauma of terrorist attacks on Western public opinion. They do not inflict anything like the full pain of war, but their immediacy brings the conflicts of faraway places uncomfortably close to home.

The seeming remoteness of wars abroad, mirroring to some degree the colonial wars of the pre-1914 period, is further widened by the professionalization of the armies of the West today. This helps explain why Western politicians slip so easily into the language of war. Without conscription, war in fact directly impacts only very small segments of their societies.

Second, the nature of war has changed, with few parallels to wars of the previous century. Most wars are now civil wars, within states rather than between them, even if many of these same conflicts draw in outside powers. Non-state actors are among the main protagonists. Regional and even global powers influence or support—but rarely fully control—those fighting on the ground. The reality of this new type of war is painfully evident, for example, in Syria. Furthermore, some armed groups espouse radical and intolerant ideologies or transnational goals that are hard to accommodate in political settlements.

A definite separation between war and peace no longer exists. Many crises have no clear beginnings and no definitive ends. The world’s most fragile countries are caught in cycles of instability, in which outbreaks of major fighting are interspersed with low-intensity violence and lawlessness. The U.S. itself has been fighting an open-ended war against al-Qaeda and its affiliates since 2001.

Today, only rarely is war ever “declared.” The United Nations Charter, forged in the aftermath of World War II, limits the use of force—without a formal Security Council authorization—to self-defense. Self-defense is clear enough when troops cross a border. But what does “self-defense” mean when it comes to covert operations, unclaimed cyber attacks, “hybrid warfare,” or a terrorist strike launched from a failed state?

Last, these changes are occurring in a geostrategic environment that has changed dramatically, even within the past decade. A century ago, Europe was the epicenter of the world and it was the main theater of war. Today, a more diverse group of powers have emerged, each of which is building their own military capacities and pursuing their own rivalries. The regional confrontation between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Tensions between China, Japan, and other Asian powers over maritime areas. The potentially explosive Pakistan-India rivalry. Geopolitical jockeying in Africa. These are all are cases in point.

Nor is the world ordered by a single geostrategic confrontation, as it was during the Cold War. The U.S., with its economic and military muscle and web of alliances, remains preeminent, yet the overall picture is more complex. In some ways, the trends should move us toward greater peace, as exchanges of trade, capital, and people connect countries more profoundly than ever before. However, power today is diffuse and it is shifting—mostly eastwards and southwards—in a manner that may prove as destabilizing as were the power shifts that came before the eruption of World War I.

Mounting friction between the big powers, particularly between Russia and the West, is perhaps the most perilous of all threats to the world—made all the more so by any lack of agreement on the status quo and how to change it. Russia sees the order that emerged from the Soviet Union’s collapse as an unacceptable rejection of its great power status. The West sees Russia as revisionist. These tensions obstruct the work of the U.N. Security Council, whose dysfunction risks precipitating a crisis in global governance. This means that any local conflict, particularly in geostrategic areas like Ukraine or Syria, can provoke a dangerous escalation.

What does this gloomy picture mean for civil society groups working on building and sustaining peace?

Understanding conflict remains the starting point to resolving conflict. Field-based analysis has never been more vital: examining local dynamics and exploring the perspectives of all parties, including those perpetrating the violence and those who are suffering. Local analysis must now be paired with a good grasp of the roles of both the regional players and the big powers. Although fragmentation complicates diplomacy, it can present opportunities for creative partnerships. Only framework diplomacy, requiring different configurations for different conflicts and an intricate understanding of the interests and motives of all of the parties involved, stands any hope of ending the crises facing the world today.

Perhaps most importantly, we should persist in pressing those with power to do the right thing. War is never preordained. It is always a man-made disaster. In today’s complex world, our compass must remain the commitment to the victims of war and to averting future tragedies. There is no excuse for ignorance and indifference.

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