The number of examples around the world is growing by the week. With Iran’s face-off with the United States and its allies, what began as a diplomatic spat swiftly escalated to attacks on oil tankers and the shootdown of a U.S. drone, and came alarmingly close to all-out military action. What exactly was happening behind the scenes, however, remains both unclear and the subject of intense argument. It offers a potentially alarming model for any future high-intensity confrontation with Russia, China or both, pointing to an era where ever more players embrace tearing up the rule book and risking - or at worst, even embracing – bloody mayhem.
In Syria, Yemen, Ukraine, and to a lesser extent in Libya and beyond, these calculations and their resulting proxy wars have already killed hundreds of thousands. Elsewhere, particularly in the Western world, the contests have been largely bloodless. Getting to the bottom of what is really going on, however, is more difficult. Indeed, many of those involved are clearly embracing and taking advantage of that dynamic and its resulting confusion.
Recent attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf are a case in point. While the United States unambiguously blamed Iran, specifically its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, others - including America’s European allies – are openly more sceptical. One theory doing the rounds in the Middle East is that the attacks were conducted by rogue hardline elements within Iran, keen to provoke U.S. military action they believed would help them politically against their rivals.
In the case of the leaked diplomatic telegrams from British DC ambassador Kim Darroch, there is widespread speculation they may be linked to the battle to become prime minister. Former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, rumour has it, wanted a change of ambassador to bring in a more pro-Brexit voice.
If someone within government circles leaked the telegrams, they are responsible for both significantly damaging the UK-U.S. “special relationship” and a hugely serious breach of the Official Secrets Act. For now, there seems little clarity on the source. Current Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, Johnson’s sole remaining rival in the Conservative leadership race, said this week there was no particular evidence a foreign state was responsible either.
Such action would, admittedly, fit the Kremlin playbook. Moscow’s hand has been suspected in a host of high-profile hacks and leaks in recent years, from Hillary Clinton’s emails to those of French President Emmanuel Macron. The latter’s team, it later emerged, had been expecting such activity and had laced their email servers with false information and data. Going back almost a decade, those doing business in the former Soviet Union have become used to current or former security operatives using a range of espionage techniques to extract information, undermine rivals and negotiating partners, and achieve leverage.
But it isn’t just the Russians – or at least, it almost certainly isn’t. In Austria, the political fallout is still continuing from the lurid, still largely unexplained saga of the Ibiza Affair.
On May 17, two German newspapers published details of a video conversation recorded in an Ibiza villa featuring Austrian vice Chancellor and head of the far right Freedom Party Heinz-Christian Strache. It showed him talking to an unidentified woman falsely claiming to be a leading Russian oligarch’s niece pledging funding and looking to purchase one of Austria’s leading tabloids. While Strache ultimately became suspicious and ended the meeting, the footage was damning enough to force his resignation, ushering in new elections later this year.
Who was behind the sting remains a subject of closely guarded speculation – in Austria, many will not even voice their suspicions, a sign of a wider political environment of paranoia. Last year, Austrian police apparently acting on orders of the Freedom Party government raided the country’s own intelligence agency. Exactly where loyalties truly lie is almost impossible to determine – many in Austria will not even speculate off the record on who was behind the Ibiza recording.
More broadly this alarming rise in Machiavellian ambiguity risks being a disaster for democracies. Without doubt, it feeds into just the kind of conspiracy theories the far right, Kremlin and other spoilers thrive on, and that the international level it dramatically raises the risks of miscalculation.
With their own more ruthless traditions, autocratic states like Russia, China and Iran - and their leaders in particular – are scarcely less paranoid. All three have made it clear to varying degrees they see the hand of the West in domestic dissent at home, and as discontent such as that in Hong Kong escalates, such worries may get worse.
Honest, open diplomatic channels - both between nuclear nations and domestic political factions - offer almost the only hope of keeping such strains under control. That process has been made all the harder by leaks such as that this week, which risks deterring British diplomats from honestly speaking truth to power. Such distractions also make tackling the enormous problems of the era – inequality, technological change, climate and other threats - all but impossible.
Clearly, there is no shortage of forces that believe that kind of chaos serves their interests. In the short term, they may be right. In the longer run, however, they may find that they suffer the consequences just as harshly as the rest of us.
Peter Apps is a writer on international affairs, localisation, conflict and other issues. He is the founder and executive director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century; PS21, a non-national, non-partisan, non-ideological think tank. Paralysed by a war-zone car crash in 2006, he also blogs about his disability and other topics. He was previously a reporter for Reuters and continues to be paid by Thomson Reuters. Since 2016, he has been a member of the British Army Reserve and the UK Labour Party, and is an active fundraiser for the party. (Editing by Giles Elgood)
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