Looking at today’s strategic environment, we can distinguish between three rings of conflict, two active and the third dormant. The first ring concerns the struggle for modernization and political pluralism underway within Arab and Muslim communities. The second springs from the involvement of outside interests and powers in this struggle – essentially the United States and its coalition partners in Afghanistan and Iraq. The third ring of conflict could become operative if and when other countries seek to capitalize on the weakness and preoccupation of those engaged in the first two circles by settling old scores, establishing new hegemonies, moving borders, and the like. Asia - east, south and central - could prove particularly prone to such activity in view of its questioned sovereignties, disputed territories, and the uneven progress of its democratization.
Activation of all three rings of conflict would be tantamount to a new world war, an apocalyptic prospect that on the face of things seems unlikely. But there are a number of faultlines in the current global situation that are reminiscent of other periods that proved to be the precursor to major conflict. The system of rules governing the use of force in international relations that was put in place after World War II has been called into question, and there is no consensus in sight on anything that could replace it. In addition, international and regional institutions such as the UN, the EU, and NATO appear to have lost much of their ability to make effective decisions. There is also a strong revanchist element on display in the discourse and actions of a significant part of the elite in the Arab and Muslim communities. Finally, under the impact of recent developments, America’s capacity to lead - on which much of the world has depended for over six decades - has been dealt a broadside blow. What we thankfully do not observe is widespread economic crisis, although there are concerns about such factors as the historically high price of oil and the sustainability of mainland China’s economic growth, which affects prosperity in many other parts of the globe.
As for the situation in the Arab and Muslim communities, all things being equal, there would be every reason to expect that most of this population of over a billion people would want - in time and on their own terms - to succeed in reforming their societies. Recent elections in Malaysia, Turkey, Algeria and Indonesia all point to this. But this path is likely to prove increasingly difficult unless two things happen. Al-Qaeda and its offshoots must be shown to be beatable. And, in those areas where the Western and the Arab and Muslim worlds are most interdependent - trade and development, immigration, human rights and of course the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
- there must be fundamental change in the policies of the developed democracies.
For many Arabs and Muslims, it is of course US policy towards the Arab-Palestinian conflict that shapes their sympathies and allegiances (although this seems to be lost on both the Republican and Democratic leaderships). This has undercut not only the prospects of success in Iraq and Afghanistan but has also compounded America’s estrangement from several of its traditional allies. On top of this, with its many commitments abroad, the US now finds itself dangerously overstretched. Finally, Washington’s overall approach to Iraq and the revelations about the treatment of prisoners have raised new doubts about America’s principles and competence.
World War IV (World War III having been the Cold War) would be rather different from those wars that have come before. It would have asymmetric features, such as we now see in the contest between the West and Al-Qaeda, but also conflicts both within and among states. This would be a war of odd alliances. It would be perhaps the first truly global war. And in view of the accessibility of weapons of mass destruction, it could also be expected to take civilian suffering to new heights.
Countervailing action, to be effective, must be decisive, comprehensive and geared for the longer haul. Three courses of action beckon. First, we need a dual strategy combining hard and soft security means for the struggle against the Jihadists. During the Cold War, hard security was essentially about military prowess and dissuasion. Now, it must rely on the cooperative efforts of a wide array of security sector actors operating both nationally and transnationally. The other part of the dual strategy may be even more important. In a world of globalised, 24-hour communications and an unparalleled intermingling of communities, the course of conflicts can be decided more by politics and diplomacy than by force.
Second, the West must resuscitate the transatlantic coalition that served it so well during the Cold War, a grouping that should now, of course, include the new allies and friends that it has since gained within and beyond the Euro-Atlantic region. The key challenge here is for leaders in the US and the EU to put aside their turf struggles and tactical differences, and to demonstrate strategic statesmanship. Either we will have US-EU co-leadership, or we risk having none at all.
But third, this can only happen if such a coalition can unite around a reinvigorated Western ideal of political pluralism, ethnic and religious tolerance, equal rights for different communities, and fairer economic prospects, across both borders and cultures.
David Law is Senior Fellow for Security Sector Reform, Geneva Center for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces.