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Conflict in the 21st century

Presentation by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans AC QC to Global Change Scholars Program Seminar, Global Change Institute, University of Queensland, Brisbane, 8 August 2017

When it comes to geopolitics and the potential for conflict there is always a market for gloom, and plenty to feed it in recent times. There is catastrophe and disarray in the wider Middle East; concern about Chinese territorial assertiveness in East Asia, and again recently in the Himalayas against India; anxiety about North Korea’s rapidly growing nuclear weapons capability; acute suspicion among Central and East Europeans of Russia’s intentions after its incursion into Georgia, annexation of Crimea, and active support for the militias now destabilizing Eastern Ukraine; violence and fragility in a number of parts of Africa; and recurring tension between India and Pakistan, which could rapidly be ignited by another Mumbai-type terrorist incident.

Cyberspace has emerged as a crucial new vector through which states, directly or through non-state proxies, can surreptitiously destabilize and damage potential adversaries. There is widespread fear that climate change will become an ever-growing threat multiplier, with diminishing access to water, land or returns on the use of land increasing competition for resources and leading to deadly conflict. And, despite the recent negotiation of a new Nuclear Weapons Prohibition Treaty by 122 UN member states, the dream of eliminating nuclear weapons, the use of which could turn even a limited regional exchange into a global catastrophe, seems as far away as ever,

But looking at the trends behind the daily headlines, how badly are we really doing? The answer is not as well as we would ideally like, but not as badly as most people instinctively think.

The Good News. The first piece of good news comes if one looks from the perspective of the ages at violence in all its forms – not just war between and within states, but all the ways in which humans have inflicted violence on each other or culturally accepted it. And here, over the course of the centuries, there has been an unequivocal decline: what we might label ‘Pinker’s Peace’ in deference to the scholar who documented it, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker in his brilliant 2011 historical overview, The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and its Causes. As he puts it, ‘customs such as slavery, serfdom, breaking on the wheel, disembowelling, bear-baiting, cat-burning, heretic-burning, witch-drowning, thief-hanging, public executions, the display of rotting corpses on gibbets, duelling, debtors prisons, flogging, keelhauling and other practices [have] passed from unexceptionable to controversial to immoral to unthinkable’. Importantly, there is plenty of data confirming – if one looks at the overall global picture, without being too diverted by particular localised spikes like drug-related murders in Mexico, executions in Iran, or crackdowns on gays in parts of Africa – that this evolution is continuing, with dramatic declines worldwide in homicides, state executions, and at least of violence (if not discrimination) against women, children and lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people.

A second piece of good news is that we have seen since the start of this new century a really serious international effort to tackle the age-old problem of mass atrocity crimes – genocide, and other crimes against humanity and major war crimes – occurring behind sovereign state walls, which for far too long were regarded by far too many members of the international community as no-one else’s business. The unanimous embrace of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) norm by the UN General Assembly following the 2005 World Summit was a real breakthrough, recognizing as it did that all states have a responsibility to protect their own populations from such crimes; that others in the international community have a responsibility to assist them in doing so; and that when a state is manifestly failing its own people, there is a collective responsibility to act in a timely and decisive manner to redress the situation, including if necessary – and supported by the Security Council – with the use of military force.

While there was always going to be a gap between aspiration and reality, looking back at what has been achieved more than a decade later, it is evident that the embrace of R2P has worked some real change. Its record as an effective reactive mechanism, to stop the commission of crimes under way, has been at best mixed – successful in Kenya in 2008, Cote d’Ivoire, and initially in Libya in 2011, but making no impact at all in cases like Sri Lanka in 2009, or most catastrophically, Syria since 2011.But no state seriously now contests the basic normative principles just mentioned; there has been significant institutional change, as states and intergovernmental organisations have developed structures and processes to respond these challenges (with the work of Alex Bellamy and Tim Dunne and their team at the Asia-Pacific Centre for R2P here at UQ making an important contribution in this respect) ; and there has been effective preventive action taken under R2P auspices in a number of states to stop atrocities breaking out or recurring. R2P remains work in progress, but the progress so far has been unquestionably positive

The third piece of good news is the continuation of what historians now call the ‘Long Peace’ – the unprecedentedly long period in which there have been no wars at all between the great or major powers. Since 1945, not only did the long feared direct confrontation between the United States and Soviet Union never erupt, but no interstate wars at all have been fought between major developed countries, nor have there been any such wars in Western Europe – in contrast to the average, on one estimate, of around two new conflicts a year of varying severity in Europe for the previous six centuries. I believe that the best explanation for this is that the mindsets of policymakers have finally adjusted to reality. A very credible argument can be made that the decades since the end of World War II have seen the effective disappearance – after many centuries of flourishing life – of what the French call bellicisme, the ideology seeing virtue and nobility in war, and its replacement by the perception that, with today’s technology, the damage inflicted by any war would be unbelievably horrific, and far outweighing, in today’s economically interdependent world, any conceivable benefit to be derived.

The more familiar, and sceptical, explanation of the Long Peace is that, rather than anything to do with human nature, evolving or otherwise, it has really been a ‘Nuclear Peace’, the product of the balance of nuclear terror between the United States and the Soviet Union through the Cold War – and a balance maintained since then between other potential pairs of belligerents, including India and Pakistan, India and China, and China and the United States. But while it is hard to argue that nuclear weapons have played no part at all in keeping the peace – no doubt they do make policymakers a little more cautious than they might otherwise be ¬¬– there are ample reasons, to think that the role of nuclear deterrence has been hugely exaggerated: that in fact they are at best of minimal, and at worst of zero, utility in maintaining stable peace, whether the context be deterring war between the major powers, or deterring large scale conventional attacks against anyone, including guaranteeing smaller states that they won’t be attacked by larger predators.

The core issue is that there is not only a profound international normative taboo against the deliberate use of nuclear weapons, at least in circumstances where the very survival of the state is not immediately in jeopardy. There is also a universal understanding that the deliberate first use of nuclear weapons is an incredibly risky enterprise – guaranteed to be not only homicidal but suicidal. Psychological comfort-blankets they may continue to be, but weapons which everybody understands are just not useable in practice cannot, rationally speaking, be much of a deterrent. And that goes for North Korea just as much as it does for the United States and those like Australia who like to think they are sheltering under its nuclear umbrella. They certainly haven’t stopped a long list of cases where non-nuclear powers have either directly attacked nuclear powers, or have not been deterred by the prospect of their intervention: think of the Korea, Vietnam, Yom Kippur, Falklands, two Afghanistan and first Gulf wars.

The fourth and remaining piece of – generally – good news is what is now generally described as the ‘New Peace’ phenomenon, first publicised by Andrew Mack and his Canadian colleagues in their series of Human Security Reports, utilising the excellent database of the Uppsala Conflict Data Program. His figures up to around 2010 demonstrated, quite contrary to common perception, that over the two decades following the end of the Cold War, major wars and episodes of mass violence worldwide had become much less frequent and deadly. After a high point in the late 1980s and very early 1990s, there had been a decline of well over 50 per cent in the number of major conflicts (defined as those entailing 1,000 or more battle deaths a year) both between and within states, in the number of genocidal and other mass atrocities, and in the number of people killed as a result of them. Interstate wars had almost completely disappeared, and civil wars were generating, overall, many fewer casualties. The bigger story had simply been concealed, as ever, by the media’s daily preoccupation with current bloodshed: if it bleeds, it leads.

A number of factors seem to have contributed to the New Peace, including the end of the era of colonialism, which generated two-thirds or more of all wars from the 1950s to the 1980s; the end of the Cold War itself, which meant no more proxy wars being fuelled by Washington or Moscow, and also, eventually, the end of the road for a number of authoritarian governments propped up by each side who had been provoking internal resistance; reductions in global poverty (reducing the motivation for and increasing the opportunity costs of joining rebellions, and increasing state capacity to respond to them); the success of non-violent resistance in a number of countries (every struggle that is so resolved does not enter the conflict database); and the increasing normative weight of the responsibility to protect principle, unanimously embraced by the UN General Assembly in 2005, which is changing the way the world thinks and talks about mass atrocities, even if this does not always translate into effective action.

But the best explanation of how and why this has happened seems to be institutional more than political, economic or normative: the huge upsurge in conflict prevention and resolution activity that occurred after the end of the Cold War. While by no means everything went right, we were doing a lot better at diplomatic peacemaking, were becoming ever more professional at peacekeeping, and doing much better at post-conflict peacebuilding. Some of that effort has come from input from individual governments and some major civil society organisations, including – I think it might be fair to say – my own International Crisis Group; some of it from regional organizations like ECOWAS, on whose shoulders, in most observers’ thinking, ever more of this activity is going to have to depend in future, but the great majority of that peace effort has been spearheaded since the end of the Cold War by the much-maligned United Nations.

For all the political divisions that roil the Security Council and General Assembly from time to time, for all the reality that the structure of the Council reflects the world of the mid-20th century rather than that of the 21st, and for all the endlessly recurring problem of finding the resources needed to make delivery match demands and expectations (now alarmingly real again with the hostility of the Trump administration toward meeting its traditional commitments), the UN goes on being the indispensable global peace and security organisation, which if it ever fell apart would have to be re-invented. We just have to keep a realistic sense of the art of the possible, remembering always the words of Dag Hammarskjold that ‘the UN was created not to bring us to heaven but to save us from hell’

The Bad News. Against all this, there is some obviously bad news. The great New Peace gains since 1989-90 have been reversed in recent years, to the extent that annual battle deaths since 2011-12 have been exceeding those of the last years of the Cold War. Overwhelmingly this is due to the carnage in Syria, and the more general challenge to peace posed by Islamist extremism. There has been a re-emergence, within and across state boundaries, and on a scale not seen for centuries, of a new breed of conflict: extreme violence driven by non-state actors motivated by religious ideology. Starting with al-Qaeda and its offshoots and imitators in Africa and Asia, this has been now given most alarming expression with the emergence of the Islamic State (IS), or Da’esh - its leadership focused on Syria and Iraq, but finding supporters elsewhere, like Boko Haram in West Africa and a number of jihadi groups in North Africa and South East Asia.

The strategies and tools working elsewhere to date have had little or no traction in this context, and all of us have needed to go back to the drawing board. The enormous problem faced by policymakers in confronting actors like Da’esh and Boko Haram - and al-Qaeda before them - is that none of them now are behaving in a way that makes them remotely susceptible to the toolbox of diplomatic and other peacemaking and peacekeeping measures, both non-coercive and coercive, which have very often made the achievement of sustainable peace settlements possible in other contexts. Moreover, military action – while this shows signs now of ultimately proving successful in Iraq and Syria – runs great risks of being counterproductive when primarily conducted by Western forces. Mounting any kind of open-ended military ‘war on terrorism’ anywhere in the Middle East, almost inevitably involving collateral civilian casualties, is bound to be portrayed as foreign crusaders mounting yet another ‘war on Islam’ – which can easily lead to jihadis being replaced by new recruits as fast, or faster, than they can be killed.

Countering violent Islamist extremism is ultimately going to have to be much more about strong international cooperation on intelligence and policing, and winning relevant community support at home, than winning military battles abroad. It is also about recognising, as a number of Western governments remain reluctant to do, that there are some genuinely political, as distinct from pathological, reasons, why jihadi extremists find it so easy to recruit both throughout the Middle East and in the diaspora. They include the radicalising perceptions that the United States-led West continues to prop up authoritarians and dictators totally indifferent to their own citizens’ rights, and that it continues to be indefensibly one-sided in its approach to the Israel-Palestine problem. It is difficult to imagine any fundamental change in this new threat environment without at least a major change of tone in the way in which the West presents itself in the Islamic world. But it will not be easy to alter the policy of the United States and those who sail with it in these respects, not least with Donald Trump now installed as US president and doing nothing to dispel the perception as each month goes by that – as I have said elsewhere – this is the least informed, most underprepared, ethically challenged and psychologically equipped person to ever hold that office.

Staying Optimistic. One consolation in the turn of events since 2011-12 is that the only kinds of conflict running seriously against the Long Peace and New Peace trend-lines are those in which Islamist extremists are at least one of the parties: as Steven Pinker has recently put it, ‘the good news is that this is the only bad news’. If one sets aside all those cases, the story remains basically the good news one described above. While China’s assertiveness in its neighbouring waters, and particularly Putin’s overt aggression in Ukraine, have jangled nerves, war between any of the great or major powers remains essentially unthinkable, as does nuclear war initiated deliberately (as distinct from accidentally) by anyone. Interstate wars generally – a staple of history for centuries – show no signs of resurgence. Moreover, in the case of civil wars we tend to take little notice of the many that have ended quietly in recent years, and to forget those of the past that had massive death tolls.

But what about the prospect of ‘resource wars’ in the future, particularly if global warming is not brought under control? It is easy enough to identify, as many have, highly credible causal connections between climate-change and new security problems, with climate impacts generating wholly new tensions, or intensifying existing societal fault lines and operating as a "threat multiplier" in already fragile regions. There are three connections in particular which seem plausible. First, diminishing access to water, land, or returns on the use of land could increase competition for resources and in turn lead to violence. Second, the same declining access to resources could cause people to move in mass numbers – "environmental refugees" – potentially destabilising neighbouring areas (and also, if such migration extended further afield, generating tensions with the global North). And third, increased climate variability – in the form of drought, flooding, or cyclones – could produce economic shocks, reducing employment opportunities and increasing recruitment to armed groups, in turn increasing the capacity of those groups to wage war.

More generally, we certainly know from experience that natural resources can play a major role in conflict situations. Political radicalisation, internal violence and inter-state tension are some of the visible outcomes of the ‘resource curse’ – where energy and minerals-rich countries either lose the wider benefit of their incomes through exchange rate effects, or waste them outright through corruption or misallocation, failing to diversify their economies, educate their people and develop effective and accountable institutions. Conversely, frustration stemming from chronic resource shortage can serve as an important impetus to take up arms.

But in looking to the reality of today's conflicts, and tomorrow's likely ones, identifiable environmental factors invariably interact with multiple other variables – the all too familiar issues of poor government, failures in leadership, ethnic tension and inequitable systems for distributing resources that together drive some of today’s most violent and intractable wars – making it difficult to judge how environmental stress will affect a particular situation. Further complicating any attempt to leap into confident predictions about the impact of climate in generating conflict, is the growing body of work stressing the potential climate change may actually have for generating intra- and inter-state collaboration – in other words, conflict prevention. Water is an important example. While its distribution has certainly often generated tension between states historically, water scarcity has more often worked to favour cooperation between them.

All this makes for a need for caution in any talk about future ‘resource wars’. Environmental stress can form an important backdrop to future violence, reduce opportunities and avenues for conflict resolution and fuel long-term patterns of instability. But it is rarely sufficient in itself to explain large-scale violence, and it may even lead to cooperative outcomes where we least expect it. The crisis in Darfur, violence in the oil-rich Niger Delta, ongoing tensions over access to water in Central Asia all have had a clear environmental dimension – but we must not lose sight of the specific and political causes of violence that fuel instability and sadly will likely continue to in the future. The bottom line is that every conflict has its own dynamic, and there is no substitute for understanding all the factors at work in each particular case. If there is reason to believe that we are getting better at handling conflict generally, there is no particular ground for thinking that resource-related issues will make these situations any more difficult or complex to resolve than they are already.

Of course we cannot in practice simply set aside the particular problem, which seems destined to be with us for a good while yet, of Islamist-driven conflicts: although, with intelligent policy and good international cooperation, they can be contained and ultimately suppressed. The catastrophic conflict in Syria is a special case requiring a special solution. Killings by Da’esh and other jihadi groups have been only a relatively small component of the death toll in what remains fundamentally a conflict between the Assad regime and the militias opposing it – a terrible traditional civil war and, with external players fully engaged as they are on both sides, a civil war of the most intractable traditional kind. Peace still now seems hopelessly distant, but with Russia’s interventions making outright military victory against the Assad regime ever more out of reach, it is being increasingly accepted in the West that, like it or not – and I don’t, any diplomatic solution is going to have to involve at least some kind of transitional role for President Assad.

Deeply sobering as these recent developments have been, I still remain essentially optimistic that, when it comes to deadly conflict, we will not plunge back into the abyss. The world of conflict prevention and resolution never stands still. Both new thinking, and the adaptation of old thinking to new circumstances, is constantly necessary. With the appearance of violent religious extremism as an alarming new conflict driver in the Middle East and elsewhere, things are no longer what they used to be. But then again, they never really were.

The crucial point is that in foreign policy, as in life itself, outlooks can be self-reinforcing. Pessimists see conflict of one kind or another as more or less inevitable, and adopt a highly wary and competitive approach to the conduct of international relations. But for optimists of all stripes and colours, what matters rather is believing in and nurturing the instinct of cooperation in the hope, and expectation, that decent human values will ultimately prevail. And that is where I come out. If we want to change the world for the better, we must not only keep on coming up with creative new solutions to particular problems, but start by believing that change is possible.