The World’s Fragmenting Conflicts

By Jean-Marie Guéhenno, Crisis Group’s President & CEO

Interior of an apartment destroyed by violent Sunni-Shiite clashes. Lebanon, Tripoli, November 2013. MAGNUM/Lorenzo Meloni

Ignorance and indifference, not the great power rivalries and proxy conflicts of the Cold War, killed the victims of the collapse of the former Yugoslavia. The accompanying massacres, refugee flows and destruction would have stood a far better chance of being prevented if intelligent policies had been proposed and backed by high-level advocacy. This gap was the principal impetus for the men and women who established the International Crisis Group in 1995.

The hope of our founders was that such massive policy failures would not happen again. Indeed, politicians, diplomats, activists have often relied on Crisis Group over the last twenty years for detailed field-based analysis of complex situations and independent policy recommendations. There was for a while a significant decline in conflict, as the world got better at peacemaking and peacekeeping.

But here we are, with a war in Syria that has claimed a quarter million deaths and displaced some twelve million people from their homes; with the return of power politics and great power rivalry playing out in Ukraine, as well as in Syria, and, in different form, the South China Sea; and with a new transnational jihadist agenda that infects an increasing number of conflicts that were, at their inception, simpler local disputes.

The threat of big war is back, and new forms of violence — cyber-attacks, hybrid war, and terrorism with a global reach — are redefining conflict.

They threaten to reverse the progress achieved since the end of the Cold War and challenge the legal order that emerged from World War II. At issue is not just that violent non-state actors threaten an international order based on the sovereignty of states. The problem is also that states themselves increasingly use force in situations that stretch or violate the UN founding principle that prohibits the use force except in cases of self-defence, or when the UN Security Council has authorised action in the interests of international peace and security.

Is the long-term trend toward more peace and less conflict at risk of being reversed?

Crisis Group’s answer must be that it is our responsibility to prove the pessimists wrong. War is never pre-ordained, it is always a manmade disaster. But we must all work to understand the new situation fully and adapt accordingly.

First, the nature of conflict is changing.

I t is not enough to say that there are more intra- than inter-state conflicts. In a world that is as much multi-layered as it is multipolar, conflict is also multilayered: most conflicts still have very local roots, but they are often manipulated by external powers or hijacked by transnational ideologies.

The world is no more the top-down strategic play that it often was during the Cold War, but it would be naïve to think that a purely bottom-up analysis can explain the complexities of recent conflicts. Ukraine is about Ukraine, and it is also about Russia, and about Russia and the West. Syria is about the Assad regime, but it is also about the rivalry between Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, and about the spread of transnational jihadism.

States are losing their centrality as the theatre within which politics is played, and they compete with other actors, benevolent or malevolent, whose goals may not be confined within the borders of a particular country.

Second, let’s admit that when confronted with conflict and change, there is no such thing as an “international community”.

There never was, but there was the pretense, and that pretense was useful. Exposing hypocrisy can be the beginning of virtue, and the world’s thugs could sometimes be shamed into not blatantly challenging a working, if shallow, international consensus. This is no longer the case: established and emerging norms, as well as values that were still considered universal a decade ago, are now openly attacked as the props of an unfair order imposed by Western powers.

Indeed, a strong case can be made that Western powers have a significant share of responsibility for the unraveling of the international order: they launched a military operation in Iraq without the explicit authorisation of the UN Security Council, and they used the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect as cover for a policy of regime change in Libya. Both actions have had a disastrous aftermath.

Western powers lost moral authority as they were accused of double standards.

Russia is the most vocal, but not only, promoter of that view, as Moscow makes clear that the state of affairs that emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union is a low point of Russian history that it wants to change.

While openly revisionist, Russia is also, not unlike China, a conservative power. It is wary of new norms that could provide a base for unseating established authorities that abuse their power. It considers that emerging doctrines such as the Responsibility to Protect are undermining the less ambitious rules agreed in 1945, which uphold the sovereignty of states. And it is opposed to revolutions that it always deems foreign-inspired.

On the other hand, Western powers question an international order in which sovereignty can shield a government committing mass violence against its own people, and they aspire to an order in which all governments are accountable.

I n that sense, they are revolutionary powers, eager to promote change, if by peaceful means. But, worried about the loss of their post-1945 privileges, they too are conservative about sharing the high tables of international politics, such as the structure of the UN Security Council.

Most countries — those that are neither in a Russian, Chinese or broadly defined western camp — are trying to avoid being drawn into that debate, even on those occasions when they have sympathies for the values of which Western powers are now often the lonely champions. There is no agreement on the status quo, but there is no agreed framework to change it.

Where does that leave those — like Crisis Group — who are indeed not satisfied with a status quo that inflicts immense suffering on millions of people, and are therefore willing to support some aspects of the Western agenda, but who can fully identify with only one constituency: the victims of conflict? Where does that leave those who understand power politics, but are fully cognizant of the dangers, in a nuclear age, of a world in which unprincipled power politics would once again be the organising frame of reference?

As principled pragmatists we believe that the reality of double standards doesn’t justify an absence of any standards, and that multiple wrongs don’t make a right.

But in a more fragmented and more complex world, the prevention and resolution of conflict, like the new wars themselves, has to be multilayered. It has to address its local as well as regional, global and transnational dimensions.

Our world has become less intelligible, and shaping the debate has become more important. Political leaders have lost some of their capacity to control outcomes, and multiple actors, from the bottom up, need to be influenced. In the absence of a shared frame of reference, different arguments need to be used with different audiences. It is better to engage than to lecture.

Moreover, we have all learned the hard way that there are no obvious answers to the difficult challenges of our world.

There is doubt about the utility and efficacy of international intervention, whether it is conducted by the U.S., by NATO, or by UN peacekeepers. Hesitation is healthy when it is rooted in awareness of the inevitable moral hazard of intervening in the lives of others, and leads to more humility.

But we must also learn to recognise more quickly when and how to mobilise and legitimise new forms of collective action. That means fighting the growing temptation of retrenchment, based on the perception that the world is just too complicated for any effective human intervention. Never have our destinies been more intertwined, even though we are a less cohesive international community. As the risk of more dangerous and more complex conflicts increases, we can turn the complexity of the world into an asset, using the fluidity of the present dispensation of power to find new allies.

As it picks its way through this more complex moral jungle around conflict, Crisis Group will not forget that our compass in our search for peace and security over the past twenty years has been our commitment to the actual and potential victims of more conflict. And as we look toward the next twenty years, we shall not lose sight of our conviction that there is never any excuse for ignorance and indifference.

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This article represents the view of the individual writer, not that of International Crisis Group or of its Board.

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