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Conflict in the 21st century: An Australian perspective

Presentation by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans AC QC to Saud Al-Nasser Al-Sabah Kuwaiti Diplomatic Institute, Kuwait, 10 September 2017

My warmest thanks to Your Excellency Abul-Aziz Al-Shareq, Director-General of the Kuwaiti Diplomatic Institute. It is a pleasure and privilege to have been invited to address the Institute today, just as it was for Australia to join the international coalition freeing Kuwait from Iraqi occupation in 1991. Your hospitality is as warm and generous to me now, visiting as Chancellor of the Australian National University, as was the Foreign Ministry on my last visit some twenty-five years ago – much too long a gap – as Australia’s foreign minister.

I have been asked to address you on a subject preoccupying all of us – how can we avoid this century being as bloody as the last – and to add some thoughts, in that context, on a subject which is at least preoccupying my own country, viz. the particular challenges facing Australian foreign policy.

When it comes to geopolitics and the potential for deadly conflict there is always a market for gloom, and plenty to feed it in recent times right around the world. There is not only catastrophe and disarray here in the wider Middle East, currently focused on, but not confined to, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya. There is 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 (and perhaps even more anxiety about how the United States under President Trump might react to that); 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 continuing to destabilize 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.

But to stand back and look at the trends behind the daily headlines, how badly are we really doing? The answer is - certainly not as well as we would ideally like, but not as badly as most people instinctively think. And when looks at the likely future of deadly conflict in the 21st century, while the years and decades ahead are certainly going to be challenging, there is no reason for us to be drowning in unrelieved pessimism.

The Good News. Let me begin by drawing your attention, from a longer-term perspective, to four pieces of good news. First, if we look, 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: here, over the course of the centuries, there has been an unequivocal decline, superbly documented by the Harvard scholar Steven Pinker in his 2011 historical overview, The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and its Causes. With only a few very lonely exceptions throughout the world customs such as bear-baiting and slavery and witch-drowning and public executions and flogging have, as he puts it, have long since ‘passed from unexceptionable to controversial to immoral to unthinkable’. And 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 seriously 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.

Of course there was always going to be a gap between aspiration and reality – and the current desperate plight of the Rohingya people in Bangladesh is graphic evidence, as has been the terrible carnage in Syria since 2011, that we have much more work to do to banish mass atrocity crimes from the face of the earth. But it is clear that the embrace of R2P has worked some real change, and these crises are not being ignored or seen as nobody else’s business in the way they used to be.

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 for the last six centuries. Of course the Cold War was not cold at all for countries like Korea, Vietnam and Afghanistan caught up in it at one remove, but the point remains that to go, as we have, more than 70 years without any war between the world’s major powers is an unprecedented achievement.

The fourth and remaining piece of what has bee – at least until recently – very 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.

With some exceptions – like the totally justified US-led intervention to drive out Iraq from Kuwait in 1991, and the rather less justified US invasion of Iraq in 2003, well-intentioned but with disastrous consequences – 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.

The Bad News. Against all this, there is some obviously not so good news. First, and most obviously, the ‘New Peace’ has run its course. The 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 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.

Second, there is growing concern that the ‘Long Peace’ may not continue much longer, with the dramatic rise of China creating new stresses with the United States, and much alarmist commentary now being made in that context about the so-called ‘Thucydides Trap’ – the notion that when rising great powers confront established great powers history tells us that violent conflict is, sooner or later, more or less inevitable. Particularly feeding that concern in recent times has been, on one side, the reality that China is rapidly building its military capability; being much more assertive externally, most obviously in the South China Sea; and clearly no longer willing to heed Deng Xiaoping’s injunction that the country should “hide its strength, bide its time, and never take the lead” in international affairs.

And, on the other side, we have a new US President in whose capacity to respond to this challenge with measured, balanced and sure-footed leadership practically nobody in the international community now has any confidence. The US has shown that under administrations with far more prima facie credibility than Trump’s that it is perfectly capable of making terrible mistakes, such as the wars in Vietnam and – I would add, though not all of you might agree – Iraq, and we now have to be ready for American blunders as bad as, or worse than, the past.

Third, the ‘Nuclear Peace’ – the absence of any catastrophic nuclear exchange – which we have managed to enjoy, albeit against the odds, over the last 72 years now seems much more fragile, with many commentators and policymakers now seriously alarmed, particularly in the context of North Korea’s rapid move toward fully nuclear-armed status, at the prospect of nuclear weapons being deliberately launched for the first time since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and with potentially far more destructive capability.

Add to that, fourth, the way in which cyberspace has emerged as a crucial new vector through which states, directly or through non-state proxies, can surreptitiously destabilize and damage potential adversaries; and fifth, the widespread fear of new resources wars 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 you have, on the face of it, plenty of ground for extreme pessimism that we have anywhere to go but down.

Staying Optimistic. My own view is not so pessimistic. Maybe I am just congenitally naïve, but I have always been – throughout my own political and international career – an incorrigible optimist about our capacity to solve public policy problems, both domestic and international – so much so that I have made this phrase the title of my political memoir to be published next month!

As to the New Peace, one small consolation in the turn of events since 2011-12 is that by far the most casualties have come from those conflicts in which the relatively new phenomenon of Islamist extremism has played some part: as Steven Pinker has recently put it, ‘the good news is that this is the only bad news’. Outside Syria and Iraq, and elsewhere in the wider Middle East, the downward trend-line has remained reasonably steady. Now, with Daesh on the verge of military defeat, and the civil conflict in Syria lessening in intensity as the Assad regime slowly gains the upper hand over some of its often equally-violent militia opponents, there is reason to hope that – even if many political conflicts remain, some of them accompanied by significant continuing violence as in Yemen and Libya (and even if, as the recent terrorist attacks in London and elsewhere keep reminding us, we still have a major task still ahead of us in extinguishing religiously motivated terrorism once and for all) – the overall trend-line will resume its shape of broadly declining interstate war and civil war.

To the extent that the world has been broadly successful since the end of the Cold War in curbing this kind of conflict a number of economic, political and normative explanations have been offered, but to me the best explanation of how and why this has happened is institutional: the huge upsurge in activity in conflict prevention and resolution activity that occurred after the end of the Cold War. While of course not everything has gone right, we have done lot better at diplomatic peacemaking, have become ever more professional at peacekeeping, and are 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; and 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 (and we all hope the GCC won’t become an exception in this respect, with its present crisis over Qatar which Kuwait is trying so hard, and professionally, and with such wide international support, to mediate)

But the great majority of that peace effort has been spearheaded since the end of the Cold War by the much-maligned United Nations, and I am delighted to see that Kuwait will for the next two years bringing its wise judgement, and conflict prevention, resolution and alleviation skills, to the Security Council as a non-permanent member. 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’.

As to the Long Peace possibly running its course, with the world’s major powers going to war again, while statesmanship may be in relatively short supply, and the risk of things running off the rails are not trivial, I am not particularly alarmist or pessimistic about an inevitable drift to war. The present geopolitical fault lines are all now pretty clear, and I do not think there is much prospect of ‘sleepwalking’ to war World War I style. For me the crucial factor is that, for all their posturing, the mindsets of policymakers in all the worlds major countries do seem to have finally adjusted to reality, and that they have accepted that waging aggressive war with each other is a totally counterproductive way of advancing national interests. I believe that in the decades since the end of World War II we have seen the effective final 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.

Essentially the same considerations lie behind my reaction to the argument that the Nuclear Peace is now fragile. I simply don't believe that, for all their posturing, any current nuclear-armed state will be the first to deliberately use nuclear weapons. 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. North Korea’s Kim Jong-un might want nuclear weapons as a psychological comfort-blanket – not that he needs anything more to deter an attack on his regime than the ring of deadly artillery he has long arrayed against Seoul – but he knows that if he actually was the first to use them, his country would be turned into a car park and he would be dead.

That said I am not in the slightest bit complacent about the risks posed by nuclear weapons. As all the blue-ribbon international commissions on this issue with which I have been associated have concluded, so long as anyone possesses such weapons they are bound one day to be used, if not by deliberate design, as a result of accident, miscalculation or human or system error – and any such use would be catastrophic for life on this planet as we know it. Given what we now know about how many times the supposedly very sophisticated command and control systems of the US and Soviet Union during the Cold War years were strained by mistakes and false alarms, human error and human idiocy; and given also what we both know, and can guess, about how much more sophisticated and capable cyber offence will be of overcoming cyber defence in the years ahead, that we have survived for over seven decades without a nuclear weapons catastrophe is not a matter of inherent system stability or great statesmanship – just sheer dumb luck. We simply cannot assume that luck will continue, and – though this task looks more daunting now than it has for many years – not rest until we have eliminated from the face of the earth these most indiscriminately inhumane weapons ever invented.

On the question of the risks posed by cyber warfare, there are plenty of ground for concern, as I have just acknowledged in the context of nuclear weapons. About the only grounds for optimism regarding the use of cyber weaponry in the future is that it has now become apparent to policymakers on all sides that there is a huge degree of mutual vulnerability to paralysing attacks on electricity and water supply systems and just about every other component of modern life, and that to initiate major attacks of this kind would be to guarantee instant and devastating retaliation – mutually assured destruction, in the parlance of the Cold War nuclear age.

Finally, as to the likelihood of resource wars in the future, there are many destructive scenarios that we can envisage, especially if global warming is not brought under control. 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 factors alone will affect a particular situation. Further complicating the analysis is a 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.

The bottom line for me, right across the spectrum of the issues I have discussed, is that nowhere is conflict inevitable; and that there is no present or foreseeable conflict issue anywhere – even the Israeli-Palestine conflict which has troubled so many of us for so long – that is not capable of solution, or at least de-fusing, if only the parties have the necessary political will to cooperate.

A crucial point for me 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.

Australia’s Foreign Policy Challenges. That is certainly the approach that I brought, when I was Foreign Minister from 1988-96 to the conduct of Australian foreign policy, about the future of which you have asked me to say a few words before I conclude.

You may think that we enjoy the luxury of a geographical location which puts us, unlike Kuwait, very far away from the world’s most volatile and dangerous reasons. But remember that we are a resource-rich country, currently the world’s 12th biggest economy, in a location which strategically straddles the Pacific and Indian Oceans, which has been the target of attack by a major Asian power in the past – by Japan in World War II – and which has just 24 million people to defend a continent-sized country with 37,000 kilometers of coastline. So we have to be clever if we are to protect ourselves from potential existential threats in a way which does involve sacrificing our political independence and pride. Australia also makes an interesting study – as do countries like Canada and some of the Scandinavians – as to how a middle power (not big or powerful enough to bend others to its will economically or militarily) can still be a reasonably influential global and regional player.

In this context, here are four key challenges facing Australian foreign policymakers. Let me summarise them, in bald outline, as follows. The first is to avoid a zero-sum game developing in our relations with China and the US. Our major economic partner, China, is hard-headedly realistic about our close alliance relationship with our key security partner, the US – in no doubt at all on which side we would be on if the nightmare scenario of a military confrontation were to arise, and not inclined to let defence issues inhibit the other dimensions of its relationship with us. But it is important to show some reciprocal understanding and restraint of our own and do our best to persuade the US and our other friends in the region likewise. It would be much against our interests to walk away from the alliance, but we would do ourselves a substantial service by re-establishing the visible degree of independence from Washington that certainly characterized a number of our positions during the years of the Hawke-Keating governments of the 1980s and ‘90s when I was a minister. We should certainly never again offer reflex support for indefensible military adventures of the kind mounted in Iraq in 2003, always making sure that we have good independent grounds for embarking on any such operation.

Another useful contribution we can make, recognizing just how grating and confronting these words sound now to Chinese ears, is to constantly urge our friends in Washington to avoid using what I call the ‘DLP’ words – maintaining the dominance, or leadership or primacy of the US in East Asia. We must recognise the absolute legitimacy of China’s claims to have regional strategic space of its own, and to be taken seriously now as a rule-maker as well as just rule-taker on the global stage. We should be saying, and believing, that the real choice for America – as I once heard Bill Clinton put it privately after he left the presidency, though never as clearly publicly – is not “to use our enormous economic and military to try to stay top dog on the global block in perpetuity, but use it to create a world in which we will be comfortable living when we are no longer top dog.”

Our second challenge is to further build and consolidate our relationships with our major Asian friends and neighbours, especially Indonesia in South East Asia, but also India in South Asia and Japan and South Korea in North-East Asia. I have long argued that Australia’s future will depend much more on our geography than our history, and these are the Indo-Pacific powers who will do most to keep within manageable bounds any expansionist aspirations from China. It is particularly important in this context that the ASEAN countries harness their collective middle-power capacity and energy, and Australia could bring a lot to that table. It is premature now, and probably will be for the foreseeable future, to think of Australia as a formal member of ASEAN, but it would be in both our interests for the strong bonds which already exist between us to be very much stronger still.

The third, and closely related, challenge for us is to keep a place at the table at the major regional policymaking forums. Australia has worked very hard, and rightly so, over the last three decades to put in place regional economic and security mechanisms – from APEC and the ASEAN Regional Forum to the new East Asia Summit– that actually work. We certainly don’t need in any of this just another expensive series of photo-opportunities with set-piece speeches endorsing pre-cooked lowest-common denominator communiqués, not to mention line-ups of men wearing silly shirts. But to advance all of our national interests – both broadly and narrowly framed – we unquestionably need effective dialogue and policy cooperation structures like these, which are tremendously important in building direct personal relationships at leadership level.

The remaining challenge for us is to play a significant role in the major global policymaking forums, including the G20, through our terms on the UN Security Council, and in our participation in major international conferences like the NPT Review, Sustainable Development Goals and Climate conferences, in all of which we have shown a capacity to punch above our weight over the years, at least when we have had governments in office – and that has not always been the case – who are strong committed to multilateral process, and who see the pursuit of global and regional public goods as being a matter of core national interest in their own right.

Australia is never going to be a major power on the global stage, but we do see ourselves as a classic middle power, not strong enough economically or politically to impose our will on anybody, but making up for that through the power of persuasion – based on the capacity, energy and creativity of our policymakers and diplomats, and the credibility of our stances on key issues over the years. As Kuwait has shown over the years with its strong commitment to humanitarian assistance and its admirable efforts to play a calming and mediating role in the current GCC crisis over Qatar, you don't have to be a big guy to be influential and respected in the wider world.