Despite all the hopes we have been nurturing since the end of the Cold War, conflict prevention and resolution continue to be growth businesses. The world in which NATO is considering its future is one where it is rational to be anxious – about the continued risk of different kinds of deadly conflict, the proliferation of different kinds of deadly weapons, and the inability or unwillingness of present security structures to cope effectively with these risks.
Wars between states are much less common than they used to be, but cannot be discounted. The state of play between India and Pakistan remains extraordinarily fragile, with a huge risk of nuclear miscalculation on both sides; the Taiwan Strait and Korean Peninsula are quiet for the moment, but will need much effort to remain so; and tensions between many states in Africa remain very close to the surface. And if the US finally decides to go to war unilaterally against Iraq – arguing pre-emptive self-defence but unable to persuade the wider international community of the imminence of a grave threat to its security – it may not be easy to remain as confident as we have become about the wholly exceptional character of interstate conflict.
Wars or conflicts within states nonetheless remain overwhelmingly the most likely cause of continuing disturbance and suffering. In the last decade 53 of the 56 major armed conflicts were of this kind – whether driven by grievance, greed, state failure or all of the above. From Colombia to Zimbabwe to Somalia to Macedonia to the Caucasus to Central Asia to Indonesia, and many places in between, there is a very real risk of major conflict breaking out, or escalating, or recurring or continuing. Ongoing attention to all of them by the key players in the international community is very hard to ensure, but it is crucially necessary.
The security challenge on which the world has focused most since 11 September 2001 has been wars on states. This is hardly a new phenomenon – terror has been used as a weapon by the weak against the strong since time immemorial – but on 911 the notion of ‘asymmetric’ security threats moved in an instant from abstraction to alarming reality. How to best deal with these threats, apart from just shoring up homeland security and punishing the perpetrators, remains one of the most difficult policy problems around. But it should be clear enough where to start, and that is with the recognition that no-one is ever going to be better able to deal with terrorists than those governing the states and territories from which they come. Building both the will and the capacity of those governments to act effectively should, accordingly, be the primary objective of the US and its allies.
Tackling conflict and mass violence effectively means doing better than we have in dealing with the weapons with which it is waged, starting with the conventional weapons, including small arms and landmines as well as those of a higher-tech variety, in which the world is awash. Policy options for reducing the flood are very limited, but it is was an unhappy start for the US – for reasons, as so often, of domestic politics – to insist on diluting to the extent it did last year the UN plan for dealing with trafficking in small arms.
In the case of weapons of mass destruction – nuclear, chemical and biological – non-proliferation regimes are under real stress, and there is real concern about such weapons falling into the hands of non-state actors with terrorist agendas. The problem is a real one and has to be addressed with every ounce of cooperative spirit the international community can muster – including the business community, which has a critical role in relation to chemical and biological inspection regimes in particular. After playing an important leadership role a decade ago in securing a tough international inspection regime for chemical weapons, the most recent contributions of the US have been to scuttle a draft protocol seeking a similar enforcement mechanism for biological weapons, have the Senate vote down ratification of the CTBT and devote a totally inadequate proportion of the gigantic defence budget to securing nuclear weapons and fissile materials in the former Soviet Union.
The other class of weapons we have to worry about – and for which international treaty regimes are little help – are what are now being called weapons of mass disruption. These are the hardest of all to deal with, even with much more sophisticated intelligence gathering and exchanges than we have now: cyberspace attacks on critical communications networks; and miscellaneous nightmare scenarios like highly strategically focused simultaneous physical attacks on key electrical stations, causing cascading power failure throughout even a continent-sized country.
The capacity and will of the international community to both prevent and react to all these risks is more limited than we like to acknowledge. At the global level the UN Security Council is fully empowered to deal with any situation it chooses to characterise as a threat to international peace and security. But while high level UN diplomacy is often more successful than is generally appreciated, the Security Council remains the prisoner of its member states – and the P5 veto power – when it comes to follow through by way of peace enforcement, peacekeeping or peace building operations. In recent years it has abandoned to ‘coalitions of the willing’ the actual conduct of any serious Ch VII based operations: the capacity for blue helmet command is just not there. What is crucial is that it does not also abdicate political responsibility: in the face of another conscience-shocking situation of similar magnitude, and one could arise at any time, the UN simply cannot afford another Srbrenica, Rwanda or Kosovo.
Regional organizations, quite broadly empowered under Ch VIII of the UN Charter, can be very effective in conflict prevention and management, not least because of neighbourhood knowledge and incentives. NATO – notwithstanding current existential anxieties as to whether it is still a military or now a political body, who it should embrace, and the extent to which its role should extend out of area – is far and away the best resourced of these. Its proposed new rapid reaction capability will add to its potential effectiveness – and if it can stimulate the EU into early operationalisation of its own proposed capability in this respect, so much the better. But most of the world’s other regional organizations have a long way to go before being really effective even in a diplomatic conflict prevention role, let alone a military one.
As to individual member states, the international security system is in bad shape if it has to rely on these acting alone to be the world’s armed police. The United States is now the only state wholly capable of so acting alone – with its defence budget now substantially greater than all of the defence budgets combined not only of NATO and other allies, but China, Russia, and its putative “axis of evil” enemies as well. The temptation may be very great for it to act pre-emptively, against non-imminent threats, without seeking UN endorsement, but the costs to international order are bound to be very high if this happens.
So what, at least in general terms, has to be done? The checklist for governments and intergovernmental organisations is straightforward enough. First, act comprehensively, which in the case of security problems means addressing them in a way that recognises they are not one-dimensional, and that social, economic and cultural factors can be at least as important as political and military ones in explaining why people and governments act as they do, and in persuading them to act otherwise.
Secondly, act cooperatively, which means recognising that in the real contemporary world, however big a country may be, most international problems are only solvable with the help of others. In the case of security threats it means recognising that acting together rather than in splendid isolation is also what for the most part is required by the UN Charter – the only dominant system of security law that we have, and which we would have to invent if it didn’t exist.
And thirdly, act intelligently, which means acting comprehensively and cooperatively, but more than just that. Before the event, it means acting preventively – on the basis that nothing is so cost effective in terms of dollars, lives, property destruction and misery. During the event, in reacting to deadly conflict or the prospect of mass violence, it means acting productively rather than counterproductively: for example, not solving one problem by creating others – as may have happened with buying support for Afghanistan at too high a price from some of the authoritarian governments of Central Asia. After the event, it means acting sustainably – being prepared to devote as many resources to post-conflict reconstruction and peacebuilding as to the initial intervention. There is a real danger, despite all the rhetoric, of this not happening in Afghanistan.
Effective conflict prevention and resolution requires understanding of what is at stake, imagination in crafting solutions, institutions able to translate ideas into action, and above all strong leadership to mobilise the necessary will and resources. Supply on all these fronts has been long short of need, and it is a challenge for every actor on the international stage to find ways of bridging the gap.