An Increasing Risk of Inter-state Conflict
There has been a significant decrease in inter-state conflict war since World War II, and the conflicts that it gave rise to, such as that between North and South Korea between 1950 and 1953. That said, conflict has, of course, anything but disappeared from the world. In fact, there has been an uptick with developments in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. But the vast majority of conflicts since World War II have been intra-state, not inter-state, in nature, and as a result they have not tended to pose a frontal threat to international security.
Several factors now point, however, to a rising risk of a return to major inter-state conflict. In particular, the domestic situation in China, Russia and the United States has become increasingly unstable. This occurs at the same time as their inter-relationships are characterized by growing mistrust and tension.
In parallel, there are a series of smaller states – North Korea, Taiwan, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and the like - that are beset with domestic and foreign policy contradictions. They could end up dragging their geo-strategic benefactors – the US, the PRC and the Russian Federation - into conflict. These smaller states are potentially the Sarajevo’s of international politics a hundred years after the outbreak of the Great War of 1914-18.
Few people expect that their countries will ever have to go war but time and time again societies clash and seek to fight to the finish. The social costs of such futility are legend, but we humans seem to possess an unlimited capacity for unlearning the lessons of the past. We only relearn them - and even then - after yet another bout of great suffering.
Lessons about War
There follows a short-list of what I, as a thus far fortunate non-participant in great-power war, have learned from readings and conversations with and about people who have been on the front line.
·Wars often start with subterfuge. The aggressor nation sets up a situation in which the soon-to be aggressed nation is accused of mounting an attack against the soon to be aggressed nation. So, in 1939, in what has become known as the Gleiwitz incident, Germany claimed that Polish soldiers had attacked a German border outpost. In fact, the attackers were German soldiers outfitted in Polish uniforms who were dispatched across the German-Polish border with the express purpose of launching an attack on German assets that could then be used to justify German aggression against Poland. The German action in 1939 was a precursor of a similar “false flag” action on the part of the Russian Federation seventy-five years later when it deployed its “little green men” to Eastern Ukraine.
·Similarly, the road to war is typically paved by inter-state dishonesty and deception. So, in a recent piece in the New York Times, Brad Stephens explained how North Korea and Russia have cheated on the obligations they have entered into by treaty or multilateral agreement. This is typical of state leaderships that are not subject to any significant supervision and oversight.
·Aggressor states also often assume that with a surprise attack they will be able to pursue their expansionist objectives without encountering serious opposition, even if the state they attack has greater resources at its disposal. So, in World War II, Japan thought that it could achieve a quick victory against a much more economically and militarily powerful US that was at that juncture relatively unprepared for conflict. In the end, the stronger US would, of course, prevail. Russia and China, take note.
Similarly, aggression is often about bluff. So, one of the most intriguing stories about World War II has German forces advancing on France in 1940 and German officers having been given envelopes with orders for them to retreat that they were only to open if the opposing French forces showed serious resistance. The latter did not, and the German advance continued. A contemporary version of strategic bluff involves the North Korean leader Kim il Un and his playing of the United States. Were Kim to launch an attack against US forces in South Korea or against the US, we could be fairly certain that the US, even under Trump, would blow North Korea to smithereens. Kim’s only card is the bluff, supported Russia and China that have their own reasons for putting the US under pressure. So far, it has been working.
Wars are characterized by changing alliances. So, in WWII, from 1939 to 41, Germany and the Soviet Union were allies. Without their alliance, World War might never have begun. But from 1941 on, the two erstwhile allies were bitter enemies. In any major future conflict, we can expect similar shifts to occur. For example, India and Pakistan are again at loggerheads over New Delhi’s decision to change the status of Kashmir. Right now, India is counting on the support it has traditionally received from Russia in dealing with Pakistan. Similarly, Pakistan is relying on its traditionally good relations with communist China in its efforts to counter India. Their attitudes towards these traditional allegiances might very well change in the event of any serious confrontation between the US, China and Russia.
·Wars tend to start when countries with common long-term interests fail to act on them. So, the leading democracies of the 1930s -the US, Great Britain, France and the then Czechoslovakia – would have been able to resist Hitler if they had united their efforts. They failed to do so. Their lack of a common defensive posture opened the way to the Second World War. The disarray in which NATO, the most successful defence organization in history, now finds itself, in large part owing to the deliberate attempts by the sitting US President to defang the organization, provides a chilling parallel.
Wars also tend to start when non-aggressor states have neglected to maintain their defence capacity. Since the end of the Cold War, NATO countries – with the exception of the US – have presided over a significant decrease in their defence capacity. The decline in defence spending and readiness was an understandable reaction to the disappearance of the USSR, the main strategic threat that gave rise to the creation of the Atlantic Alliance. The defence effort of several NATO allies has increased significantly since the Russian incursion in Eastern Ukraine, but it is still less than ideal. Defence prowess is, of course, not just about numbers as the almost twenty-year US deployment in Afghanistan underscores. At the same time, the relative underspending of US Allies provides fodder for the America First ruminations of the incumbent US President.
·Wars tend to last much longer than expected. So, WWI was supposed to last weeks; it lasted four years, WWII was supposed to last months; it lasted six years. The Cold War, one was told could be over in a moment as a result of a nuclear exchange, but it lasted half a century or so. The US-led action in Afghanistan, originally designed to neutralize the perpetrators of the 9/11 attack is still ongoing, the longest active conflict that the US has ever been involved in.
· Wars tend to be accompanied by technological breakthroughs. So, in WWI, it was the submarine. In WWII, it was the atomic bomb. In the next great war, this will be about drones, robots and cyberattacks on critical infrastructure. Note that these are comparatively cheap innovations that can be acquired by less affluent states.
At the same time, new wars tend to be planned and fought on the basis of assumptions stemming from old ones. So, after its failure to defend effectively against the German onslaught in the Great War, France constructed a system of defences known as the Maginot Line as a bulwark against what was correctly assumed to be a possible new German attack. With their new, more mobile and fast-moving attack tanks, the Germans just went around the line in 1940. In today’s strategic environment, it may well be that the aircraft carrier on which so much of sea defence – American, in particular - is based will fall prey to another new generation of superior military technology.
Wars are inevitably accompanied by a colossal breakdown in law and order, and an abandonment of democratic and humanitarian values. In this kind of situation, atrocities are par for the course. And they inevitably occur on all sides of the conflict, despite what we are shown in Hollywood films. War destroys the mores that make a community a society: once destroyed, anything goes. So, in World War II, members of the American Japanese community were summarily rounded up and placed in detention camps. If and as, the West becomes implicated in direct conflict with China and Russia, we can expect efforts to round up nationals of the latter states. This may again be done without much attention being paid to human rights and the question of guilt. That said, in a globalized world, the potential for expat immigrants to bear allegiance to their countries of origin is infinitely greater than in World War II.
Wars invariably leave unsettled problems. So, the harsh terms placed on Germany after WWI were in part responsible for the rise of Hitler and World War II. The world’s largely ineffectual opposition to Israel’s expansionist policies in Palestine has set the state for further conflicts: by virtue of the UN resolution of 1947 that divided the then historical Palestine, Israel was to hold 51% of its territory; it now holds 78%.
Wars also tend to cause change in statal and social structures. In the wake of the Great War, three great Empires - the Austrian, the German and the Ottoman - tumbled. And with the end of the Cold War, the Soviet Union fell apart. A new great war could portend a similar fate for large, multi-ethnic states such as Russia and China – and even the US.
The impact of war is infinitely greater than about what happens on the battlefield. The Great War set the stage for the Great Plague that ended up killing some fifty million people worldwide, including my mother’s father and one of my father’s brothers.