Are we at war? And why can’t we be sure anymore?
The question — “Are we at war?” — seems absurd. Surely, we would know it if we were. But maybe we’re in a new era — and wars are creeping up on us.
In the decade after the collapse of communism, the United States and its allies seemed invulnerable to challenges, from military to technological to economic. All changed in the 2000s, the dawning of the third millennium: an Age of Disruption. Russia, under a president smarting publicly at the loss of the Soviet empire, has now delivered an answer to decline: aggressive claims on lost territories.
China, admired for its free-market-driven growth since the 1980s, is feared for the strategic expansion that now accompanies it. This happens in its own region: a dispute between Beijing and Tokyo over disputed ownership of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands remains tense. It is also at work far beyond — in Africa, the Middle East and Latin America — where it seeks energy and natural resources.
China is doing what other fast-growing powers — notably, Germany before both world wars — have done: expand the military to be consonant with the booming economy. The explanation to the world is the need for defense. The rest of the world sees it as a possible prelude to aggression.
The European Union, seen by its enthusiasts as bound to dominate the 21st century (as the United States the 20th) now wallows in interlocking cul-de-sacs, with a still-fragile currency and an increasingly disaffected Britain straining against what it sees as the EU’s inability to deal with the disaffection among Europeans.
Islamist radicalism, long germinating in the Middle East, has metastasized in the third millennium, and now underlies much of the fear of internal and interstate conflict in Europe and North America — but also in China, Africa and Russia, all afflicted with local variants of the same cancer.
Under these auspices, wars, and their putative causes, get worse. What emerges from a super-fast tour of current conflict is not a World War Three in the offing. Rather it could become an even more extensive series of partly connected, partly discrete local or regional wars that, if they continue, could overwhelm the already strained mechanisms for mediation and peacemaking, and coalesce into arcs of killing and destruction.
They will be more akin to the 30 Years’ War in the first half of the 17th century in Europe, a “war” that was a series of desperate struggles ignited by religious differences, desire for conquest, fear and revenge – as now.
Iraq, as this is written, is at the brink of civil war, already bloody. Syria is deeper into the same trajectory, as is Libya. Egypt is now commanded by the former head of the armed forces, who has shown himself ruthless — so far, popularly so — toward the Muslim Brotherhood, who ran and composed the former government.
Iran, now co-operating warily with the United States to defeat Sunni militants in Iraq, remains attached to the development of nuclear weapons. It also remains in denial of such a development — to the continued alarm of Israel, which has failed to reach agreement with a Palestinian government now uniting with Hamas, a group that Israel, with the United States and the EU, labels a terrorist organization.
In Pakistan, Nigeria and Kenya, terrorist groups as vicious in their practice as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is in Iraq and Syria, now become more audacious, profiting from the disorganization of military and security forces. Jake Zenn, a U.S.-based expert on Nigeria’s Boko Haram terrorist group, told a seminar in London last week that the group “has the potential to affect the entire country,” Africa’s largest and potentially richest.
On Europe’s eastern stretches, Russia and Ukraine both speak peace and practice war. Russia’s expansionism, and President Vladimir Putin’s forthright promise to “protect” all ethnic Russians living outside of Russia’s borders in the states of the former Soviet Union worries its neighbors, such as Kazakhstan, which has a large Russian minority concentrated along its northern border with Russia. Ostensibly neutral Western states, such as Sweden and Finland, the latter bordering on and once at war with Russia, are now thinking hard about joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
There’s more, but that’s enough before anxiety overload sets in. One of the largest differences between now and a century ago, before the Great War, is that all sides know, sometimes minutely, what the others are doing. Former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden’s leaks of the agency’s files last year revealed the extent of monitoring by the NSA, aided by Britain’s GCHQ monitoring center and other European intelligence agencies.
Civil libertarians, and Snowden himself, see the revelations of the vast reach and technological abilities of the agency and its allies as a cause of great concern: Less stressed has been their usefulness in understanding what goes on in the globe, and how threatening it can be. Secret intelligence operations were primitive a century ago. The advances in technology over the past few decades have rendered much of the world transparent.
Indeed, so efficient have the intelligence centers become that Snowden and his allies make the case that intelligence has been put on a war footing — but with no war.
Transparency may warn of but doesn’t defuse or prevent conflict. The groups and movements that see causes of war in and around their areas are usually highly motivated and increasingly well-funded. Many nations now expanding their military and extending their strategic reach want to redress old or recent damages. The established order, set in place by the United States and allies after World War Two, clearly trembles.
So the question — Are we at war? — doesn’t depend on whether we can hear the rumble of guns and the air raid sirens of the European wars of the last century. The shot that reverberates through our modern, wired world may be fired almost anywhere. Our best hope is that its containment, by overstretched institutions and a war-weary hegemon, will not prove impossible.
PHOTO (TOP): Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron (5th L) poses for a group photo with (L-R) European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, U.S. President Barack Obama, France’s President Francois Hollande, Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Italy’s Prime Minister Enrico Letta and European Council President Herman Van Rompuy, at the G8 Summit, at Lough Erne, near Enniskillen, in Northern Ireland. June 18, 2013. REUTERS/Yves Herman
PHOTO (INSERT 1): A Shi’ite volunteer wearing a mask, who has joined the Iraqi army to fight against the predominantly Sunni militants from the radical Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), looks on during a parade on a street in Kanaan, Diyala province, June 26, 2014. REUTERS/Stringer
PHOTO (INSERT 2): Russian President Vladimir Putin takes part in a live broadcast nationwide phone-in in Moscow April 17, 2014. REUTERS/Alexei Nikolskyi/RIA Novosti/Kremlin
PHOTO (INSERT 3): Accused government whistleblower Edward Snowden is seen on a screen as he speaks via video conference with members of the Committee on legal Affairs and Human Rights of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe during an hearing on “mass surveillance” at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, April 8, 2014. REUTERS/Vincent Kessler