By Adrian Piecyk
“War. War never changes.” It is an undeniably powerful quote, and one that has entered the pop culture lexicon through no shortage of references in video games, film, and literature. But for all the phrase’s topical pithiness, the past decades have proven it wrong time and time again. War changes, and not only does it change, it is transforming at a rate that has left generations of policy-makers and generals dumbfounded and in the occasionally quite literal dust. The long decline into irrelevance of conventional and nuclear military strategies has not only re-imagined how wars are fought, but how a state of war is even defined. The past year’s high-profile terrorist attacks in Paris and resulting mobilization of French military assets are only the most obvious example, with thousands more being killed across the globe in terrorist attacks with nary a single, formal declaration of war to be seen. Yet France’s newfound vigour for intervention is, by this point, decidedly passé when compared to the United States’ global drone campaigns, Russia flexing its military muscle in Syria and Ukraine, or even France’s own boots-on-the-ground campaign against Islamist militants in Mali two years prior. With open war between countries unfeasible and unfashionable, non-state actors and state ‘humanitarian interventions’ are approaching a near-monopoly in the world’s conflicts. Beyond the legalism and niceties of by-the-book diplomacy, a politically expedient and questionably legal ‘gray zone’ is rapidly emerging. In the brave new world of the 21st century, war is peace and peace is war.
From ‘conflict resolution’ to ‘conflict postponement’
Warfare involving non-state actors and covert funding by supportive states is hardly a new phenomenon. The Cold War earned its title by virtue of the United States and Soviet Union preferring to outsource their ideological duels to countless regimes and freedom fighters across the breadth of the unaligned ‘Third World.’ Afghanistan’s Mujahadeen, Vietnam’s Viet Cong, South Africa’s ANC, and Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge are only a sample of the many groups who, despite their long list of differences, all share the dubious honour of coming to power on the bankroll of a foreign power. Others, like West Germany’s Red Army Faction or America’s Weather Underground, are fast fading into obscurity on the margins of history textbooks. But what happens when an armed group is too weak to seize power, but too strong to be decisively eradicated? The mind is immediately drawn to North Korea, whose newest despot of the Kim dynasty has recently celebrated another alleged hydrogen bomb test in the country’s 63rd year of armistice, but no formal peace with its southern neighbour. Yet compared to many other frozen conflicts, the Koreas can nearly be called a success story. The Post-Soviet Caucasus are paralyzed with unresolved wars, leaving de facto independent states like South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Nagorno-Karabakh trapped in a shaky peace that can more accurately be called simple ceasefires. Even Kosovo, the cause celebre of 2008, remains chaotic and unrecognized by nearly half of the UN’s member-states, and it is only one small portion of the vast, undefused powderkeg that is the post-Yugoslav Balkans. In the past, these territorial disputes would have been ‘solved’ with brutal ethnic cleansing or population transfer, which ironically are precisely the reasons that the West and Russia intervened in many of these conflicts. While the interventions undoubtedly saved countless lives, the interventionists themselves have categorically failed to address the underlying causes that sparked war in the first place. They leave these regions in a seemingly-unending state of tension and mutual distrust.
The failure of conventional strategies for unconventional problems
Undoubtedly, much of the above can be said of the Middle East and the myriad problems it faces in attempting to restore peace and order in the face of civil war. Similarly, Ukraine now faces many of the same problems that have plagued Georgia and Azerbaijan since the collapse of the Soviet Union, as the increasingly unpopular and impoverished government attempts to grapple with the secession of Crimea and the Donbass. Western Europe only achieved peace through ethnic homogeneity after the colossal bloodletting of two world wars and decades of government-mandated assimilation. Even then, Catalonia’s drive for independence and rising tensions in Corsica are just the most recent examples that the process is far from complete. The borders of the Middle East remain a relic of the carving-up of the Ottoman Empire, a process which paid little attention to the cultural and religious makeup of the people whose futures were decided by the Sykes-Picot Agreement. With the crushing defeat of Pan-Arabism and Ba’athism by the United States and Israel in the 20th century, it should be unsurprising to policy-makers that countless disillusioned young men turn instead to radical Wahhabism and tribal loyalties rather than the secular nationalism that failed them earlier, or the corrupt and alien democratic regimes imposed on them following American invasion. Yet there has been almost no talk, let alone tangible policy, in regards to the future map of the Middle East. If the last two decades have proven anything, it is that importing Western liberal democracy has categorically failed to smother the demands for self-determination among cultural and religious groups, which have invariably risen after the collapse of strongmen dictators.
Biting the bullet – breaking the stigma of changing borders
Since the end of the Second World War, there has been an understandable reluctance among Western policy-makers to alter countries’ borders. As US Secretary of State John Kerry has stated several times, usually to chastise Vladimir Putin, it smacks of ‘outdated’ 19th century imperialism. Yet this seemingly inviolate sanctity which borders hold among Western politicians completely ignores that most of the world never travelled the same road to the nation-state. A cobbled together, colonial concession-turned-state like Iraq can hardly be compared to states whose political and ethnic borders developed organically over centuries, like France or England. To not only impose, but then reinforce a nation-state system on a region with a vastly different history and perspective on ‘citizenship’ only serves to bury problems rather than solve them. ISIS can be bombed to ash for years, but it and similar organizations will never disappear so long as the Middle East remains divided by borders and violent regime changes, which have only served to heighten tensions rather than create lasting peace. Much the same can be said of Ukraine and Georgia, who both lost significant chunks of territory because their fervently nationalistic, Western-leaning regimes categorically failed to meet the demands of their minorities and resorted to trying to break them by force. In all these cases, the systematic dismantling of traditional systems of power-sharing and self-government has led to deepening anarchy rather than progress. It is often said that those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it, and it would serve policy-makers well to recall that the national and liberal awakenings of the 19th and 20th centuries ushered in the single bloodiest period of human history, even with all the organic development towards the nation-state model to smooth the process. To force this system blindly under the mistaken belief that one-size-fits-all reeks of the imperialist ‘White Man’s Burden’ that many politicians decry by name, but preach in substance. The world’s battlefields don’t need nation building, they need locally-developed systems that work. Forces like global jihadism can only be stopped by creating, and oftentimes recreating, tangible identities, not forcing a sense of belonging under crumbling, non-representative states. Only by adapting to changing circumstances can policy-makers hope to tackle the ever-expanding ‘gray zone’ of organizations and people for whom the current diplomatic and political system simply doesn’t fit.
Adrian Piecyk is the managing editor of The Foreign Observer, and a student at the University of Toronto studying History, Political Science, and Russian Language.