Saturday 28 June 2014

Threat of world war behind us? Think again

By Michael Vatikiotis, Published The Straits Times 27 Jun 2014

FOR some years now the world has been told that war is a thing of the past.

Numbers have been deployed to measure the reduction in war deaths, papers written about the shifting shape of conflict, and while the world is still a messy place, we have all been assured that the old threat of clashing powers leading to world war and nuclear annihilation is behind us.

Not quite. Like the situation a century ago, it all seems to be about the redrawing of maps and the reordering of states.

And just as then people imagined that local trouble would stay that way, the potential for larger conflagration is largely ignored. Sleepwalkers, as the writer Christopher Clark described European nations in 1914.

The major powers today are just as oblivious, it seems, to the risk of wider conflict growing out of the Middle East.

The sudden dissolution of the old boundaries drawn by the great powers a century ago is allowing once localised insurgencies to acquire the capacity to occupy territory and threaten the integrity of established states.

Thus, the Sunni insurgents of western Iraq are connected to the sprawling civil war in Syria, with all its fanatical and communal hues.

And this has, in turn, allowed the Kurds to carve out their proto-state with alacrity. This risks opening a path for new-age Persian adventurism, bringing the threat of Israeli use of nuclear weapons one small step closer to reality.

Western aversion to intervention in this throw-back to the geopolitics of antiquity will be tested.

Diverted attention, at least, leaves East Asia in a state of un-moderated rivalry and tension. China's abandonment of its peaceful rise is manifested through a bold assertion of territorial claims in the South China Sea. In response, Japan may throw off the constitutional constraints on its armed forces that have been in place since the Pacific War.

At the same time, a more reactionary majority government in India is aiming to tweak the dragon's tail in the Himalayas.

Rising temperatures in the Middle East and East Asia severely limit the capacity of the United States and Europe to address Russian expansionism in Central Asia. There is almost nothing stopping Russia's slow annexation of east Ukraine, which will inevitably embolden President Vladimir Putin to roll out his grand design for a greater Russia.

All this inevitably means there will be no respite from the untamed tribal marches of Pakistan and Afghanistan. They will continue to provide a crucible for the forging of battle-hardened militants.

And the latter will make their way into the ranks of the new Islamic armies, pillaging and murdering their way across the old crusader battle fields of greater Syria and Iraq. No surprise, then, that the number of refugees globally now exceeds 50 million people - higher than in the immediate aftermath of World War II.

This grim tapestry of conflict signals a revival of great power rivalry and interstate conflict that existing multilateral bodies like the United Nations are profoundly ill-equipped to manage.

Allowing the war in Syria to escalate and spill over into Iraq because of intractable differences between Iran, Saudi Arabia, Russia and the US amounts to a failure of diplomacy, which collective action by the UN Security Council is powerless to fix.

A hundred years ago, in the absence of an effective collective will to manage conflict, the shots fired by a Serbian nationalist on a sunny street in Sarajevo in June 1914 led to the Great War.

The European powers grappled with the random impact of fanatical acts of anarchy by groups such as The Black Hand in the first decade of the 20th century just as they do with today's Islamic extremists in the first decade of the 21st.

But today's Al-Qaeda and ISIS - Islamic State in Iraq and Syria - are more threatening. They can weaken states and draw larger powers into conflict. Accidents will happen, and we should all be vigilant.

Ideally, the world needs an inspiring vision and the leadership to implement it. The aftermath of both world wars saw this happen. Versailles and Yalta were forged by necessity.

But after almost 70 years of peace, the vital sinews needed to power collective action have atrophied.

The world has become a fractured place, seemingly brought closer by trade and technology, but in reality atomised and therefore powerless. It cannot address critical global challenges like the environment, or even make progress on something as pernicious as sexual slavery.

That's why the optimistic statistics of conflict are misleading. We may not be killing one another on the same scale that we did in the previous century, but we may be poised for something approaching the same catastrophic level of disruption.

We need to bury our selfish preoccupations and act together, really act.

The writer, who lives in Singapore, is the Asia regional director of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, a Geneva-based peacemaking organisation.

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