ONLY the dead have seen the end of war.
The philosopher George Santayana’s dictum seems particularly appropriate nowadays, with the Arab world, from Syria and Iraq to Yemen and Libya, a cauldron of violence; Afghanistan locked in combat with the Taliban; swaths of central Africa cursed by bloody competition — often along ethnic/religious lines — for mineral resources. Even Europe’s tranquility is at risk — witness the separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine.
What explains this resort to armed conflict to solve the world’s problems? Not so long ago, the trend was toward peace, not war. In 1991, after the collapse of communism, US president George Bush Snr celebrated a “new world order” of cooperation between the world’s powers. At the time, he was right. World War II had been the high point of mankind’s collective savagery. But from 1950 to 1989 — the Korean War through the Vietnam War and on to the end of the Cold War — deaths from violent conflict averaged 180,000 a year. In the 1990s, the toll fell to 100,000 a year.
And in the first decade of this century, it fell still more, to around 55,000 a year — the lowest rate in any decade in the previous 100 years and equivalent to just over 1,000 a year for the “average armed conflict.”
Sadly, as I note in my new book, The World in Conflict, the trend is now turning upward. Given that so many of Africa’s wars, from the Democratic Republic of Congo to the conflict in Somalia, began decades ago, the explanation lies elsewhere: in the Muslim world from northern Nigeria to Afghanistan and beyond.
Since Syria’s civil war erupted in 2011, the death toll has reached more than 250,000, and half of the population has been displaced.
Indeed, the Syrian conflict alone has been enough to change the graph of conflict — and the upward trajectory becomes even steeper when the deaths in Iraq, Yemen, and Libya are included.
Those who hailed the Arab Spring five years ago must now recognise that its blooms died fast. Only Tunisia has reasonable democratic credentials, whereas Libya, Yemen, and Syria have joined Somalia as failed states. Egypt is an autocracy verging on dictatorship.
The question is when — or if — the trend will turn down again. Thanks largely to multilateral bodies such as the UN, states very rarely go to war with other states. Likewise, thanks to the EU, another Franco-German war is inconceivable.
Instead, wars are between states and non-state actors — between, say, Nigeria and Boko Haram. Or they are civil wars — for example, in South Sudan or Libya. Or they are proxy battles of the type that characterised the Cold War — witness Iran’s deployment in Syria of Lebanon’s Hezbollah fighters to defend Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Whatever the various, often overlapping, causes of conflict — ideology, religion, ethnicity, competition for resources — the Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz two centuries ago gave the pithiest answer to the question of why we resort to violence: “War is an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will.” But can force alone compel the submission of the Islamic State and the demise of jihadist extremism in the Muslim world?
There are two reasons to doubt that it can. One is the reluctance of militarily strong outside powers, whether America and its NATO allies or Vladimir Putin’s Russia, to “put boots on the ground” after their painful experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The second reason is the underlying appeal of the Islamist message to many of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims. The nation-states of the Arab world are colonial inventions, superseding the caliphates that once spread civilization from Mesopotamia to the Atlantic.
When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in June 2014 announced a new caliphate, with himself as “commander of the faithful,” it struck a chord. Moreover, the brutality of his Islamic State seems to many not so very different from the behavior of Saudi Arabia, which has spent decades spreading its Wahhabi fundamentalism around the world.
In other words, the message must change if peace is to return to the Muslim world. That will not happen soon. Sunni Saudi Arabia will first have to moderate its antipathy to Shia Muslims in general and Shia-majority Iran in particular. Meanwhile, the Islamic State has manpower, money, territory, and military expertise.
Saudi Arabia will eventually recognise it needs Iran’s help to defeat the Islamic State. And eventually the Islamic State will implode as its subjects demand the right to listen to music and behave as they want. Sadly, “eventually” is the key word.
Saudi Arabia’s instinct is to see Iran as a threat to be confronted, rather than accommodated. As for the Islamic State, North Korea is proof that brutal regimes can be very durable.
In the meantime, the graph of deaths from conflict will keep trending upwards, mocking the world’s diplomats, peacemakers, and pretensions to humanity and civilisation.