The Changing Nature of War and Diplomacy
SOME conflicts leave relatively small footprints;
others cause ripples in the space-time continuum.
Small wars like the ones America launched against Panama
and Belize, for instance, have long been forgotten. Fought against poorly armed
foes for territorial aims, they count for little in terms of history. The
survivors may mourn the dead, but in the context of history, they are soon
erased from memory.
However, the two world wars of the last century that
caused around 67 million deaths were on another scale altogether. The slaughter
was of an unimaginable magnitude, and in comparison, the death toll in today's
conflicts are tiny.
Then there were the two ideological wars on the Korean
Peninsula and in Vietnam. Although often perceived as conflicts between
communism and capitalism, they were actually wars against Western imperialism.
Poorly armed soldiers and guerrillas defeated vastly more powerful American
forces. Both were exceedingly bloody affairs, and no quarters were asked or
The Second World War was a game-changer in that it gave
rise to a whole set of international institutions that would minimise the chances
of future armed conflicts. The United Nations, the United Nations Educational,
Scientific and Cultural Organisation, WHO, FAO, and a host of others sprang
For nearly 50 years, this international consensus held,
and apart from the occasional outbreak of hostilities, the Security Council
managed to keep the peace. Although it has been much criticised, the fact
remains that without it, the world would have been a far more warlike place.
And the ancillary institutions of the UN have done much to alleviate human
But 9/11 has changed the precarious world balance. With
the free for all triggered by the US-led coalition into the invasion of
Afghanistan, a pattern of kinetic force against lightly armed fighters was set.
Even the Iraqi forces, for all of Saddam Hussein's bluster, were no match for
the mighty American juggernaut.
Syria has been shattered by a combination of jihadists
backed by Saudi-led financiers who wanted to topple Bashar al-Assad. The fact
that he is till standing is due entirely to the support his forces have
received from Russia and Iran's Revolutionary Forces. Now Donald Trump has seen
that there are few options to a long-drawn-out war, and has decided to pull
out. Most would call it a defeat.
Thus, the Americans are no longer masters of all they
survey: they have been joined at the top by China and Russia. True, they
outspend the rest of the world by a huge margin when it comes to military
expenditure, but as recent history shows, the political will to fight a long war
is often lacking. As an Afghan is supposed to have said: "They have the clocks;
we have the time."
And so it has proved. Nearly 20 years of bitter fighting
against the Afghan Taliban have ended in a stalemate leading to the US
virtually begging for a ceasefire. When a superpower asks for peace, it is a
sure sign of defeat. But the Taliban won't allow the Americans to quit easily.
The phenomenon of the non-state fighter is relatively
new. Perhaps the Tamil Tigers were the first to organise themselves into a
trained force, and use suicide bombers as deadly weapons of war. Others soon
followed. Initially, Western forces were baffled by these tactics and
floundered on the battlefield.
At the other extreme of the spectrum, we have American
research labs pushing out a range of the most sophisticated weapons known to
man. Drones themselves are transformative, However, their relatively low cost
makes them available to developing countries the way high-end jets don't.
As the nature of warfare changes, so does the nature of
diplomacy. A Security Council resolution is no longer needed to start a war, as
we saw in Iraq. A civil war can be triggered in Syria, again without the
Security Council's blessings. Libya's dictator can be toppled and killed with
just a 'no-fly-resolution' to interdict Libyan planes attacking rebels.
But these new rules - or lack of them - are restricted
to the powerful. However, smaller states are learning these lessons: non-state
actors are joining the fray when they have a grudge or an edge. Israel is a
prime example of how UNSC resolutions can be flouted at will as long as you
have a superpower to veto even a mildly hostile veto against your illegal
occupation and your persecution of the Palestinians.
So what kind of world will our grandchildren grow up in?
Ours was relatively peaceful, but I fear theirs will be more full of fear and
fire. While we have refrained from using atomic weapons in anger thus far,
let's not forget just how stupid we can be as a race.
anything, the Americans and the Russians have pulled out of painfully
negotiated nuclear agreements. China is reported to be expanding its atomic
arsenal. North Korea is bent on building yet more nuclear warheads. Where will
it all stop?