President Biden has just declared the end of America’s longest war, with the withdrawal of the remaining 2,500 US troops from Afghanistan by September 11. However, in echoes of Obama’s overhasty 2011 retreat from Iraq, experts warn that a resurgent Taliban could rapidly demolish weak Afghan state institutions, threatening a new phase of the conflict. This would have destabilizing consequences for Central Asia, and risk Afghanistan again becoming a breeding ground for global terrorism.
Meanwhile, Israeli military experts believe it’s only a matter of time before they’re forced to go on the offensive against Iran and its proxies, either across the Lebanon/Syria border, or via a major operation to destroy Iran’s nuclear capacity. A lower-level version of this conflict is already underway, with both sides attacking each other’s shipping, and Israel staging clandestine attacks against Iranian nuclear and military installations, along with strikes against Iran-linked sites in conflict-wracked Syria.
The Middle East is as volatile as ever, with Iran via the Houthis launching armed drone and missile strikes against Saudi Arabia almost every day. Chronic Iranian interference in Lebanon and Iraq has likewise brought these states to the cliff-edge of civil conflict, after months of political dysfunction and economic turmoil.
In addition to instability in Libya and other parts of North Africa, vast regions of sub-Saharan Africa are plagued by Islamist insurgencies that threaten to topple weak regimes and carve out terrorist empires throughout vast transcontinental ungoverned spaces. Terrifying recent events in Mozambique, where Daesh-affiliated militants invaded towns and perpetrated massacres and abductions, illustrate how rapidly the security situation can disintegrate.
Much of Latin America is plagued by sky-high murder rates, due to warring narcotics cartels with private armies capable of outgunning fragile governments. Resulting northern-bound waves of migration from these war zones are having a corrosive impact on US domestic politics, just as high levels of migration from disintegrating states throughout Africa and Asia have emboldened the far-right fringes of European politics.
Ethiopia has recently witnessed mass atrocities, with accusations of systematic rape used as a weapon of war. Meanwhile, the anarchic situation in Myanmar is grimly reminiscent of the early days of the Syria conflict, with hundreds of protesters callously murdered by a military regime with no concept of compromise.
Vladimir Putin’s readiness to countenance a war of annexation against Ukraine, and Chinese threats against Taiwan and islands in the South China Sea, illustrate how far matters have deteriorated since the 1990s, when international law and conflict-resolution mechanisms appeared to be in the ascendancy. Interactions between India and China have also become increasingly belligerent.
Other than sanctions, the Western world has scant political will to counter major acts of aggression. Limp-wristed statements of condemnation and attempts to appease Chinese and Russian aggression may hasten trends back toward Cold War. This would be a very different kind of conflict from that of the 1980s, with cyberwarfare being a major component, along with an all too familiar race for nuclear supremacy and build-ups of conventional arsenals, while challenging each other via proxy battlefields.
None of these scenarios is necessary or inevitable. Economists argue that all nations benefit when they peaceably increase trade and remove barriers. It’s relatively straightforward to envisage definitive formulas for stability in fragmented nations such as Libya, Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan, if major powers cooperate in muscular peace efforts.
The fundamental obstacle comes with egotistical politicians such as Putin, Erdogan, Khamenei and Xi, whose efforts to consolidate personal power have become hitched to expansionist overseas agendas — a vicious circle where autocracy and militarism become mutually reinforcing. In the cases of Tehran in Lebanon, Moscow in Libya, and Beijing in Myanmar, these powers relish their ability to wield weaker states as negotiating cards, holding the fate of entire nations hostage to their own cynical interests.
The recipe for escaping this trap is thus not a rush back into Cold War, but intensified efforts by Western nations and allies to revive the rules-based system, and re-empowering conflict resolution institutions, imposing far more stringent consequences for aggression. In terms of economic and military might, Western nations still massively outstrip emergent Asian powers. They must translate this disproportionate power into reinvigorated diplomatic influence.
While many Western nations have increased military expenditure, in Britain, America and other European nations diplomatic and development spending has been slashed. This emasculation of Western soft power is a catastrophic mistake.
I would argue that there is a direct relationship between the worldwide epidemic of failing states and the West’s failure to properly invest in global development and diplomacy or offer assertive support for human rights and accountable governance. Dollar for dollar, spending on developmental support for fragile states can be ten times as effective as spending on military deterrents when it comes to enhancing international stability.
Nevertheless, pariah states will only refrain from military aggression when physical deterrents exist. Hence the need for entities such as NATO, which must be willing to forcibly deter aggression on Europe’s far-eastern fringes in order to prevent the cancer-like contagion of instability and anti-democratic tendencies spreading to the heart of Europe.
Similarly, Western distaste for maintaining small overseas forces in locations such as Africa, Syria and Afghanistan ignores the disproportionate role these missions play in reinforcing local administrations, training security forces, and combating terrorism.
The elephant in the room is that, while conflicts threaten some of us, environmental catastrophe threatens us all: Global warming, rising sea-levels, atmospheric pollution, desertification, and the wholesale destruction of ecosystems.
As long as mankind continues behaving like warring tribes, we have no prospects of uniting to confront threats that could wipe us out as a species. We live in a truly wonderful world. Let’s not expend our energies trying to destroy it.
- Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.
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