The Ukraine war is such a terrible catastrophe that we must seriously consider how to return to peace and stability. Reading Roman history over the Christmas holidays, I was struck by how the Romans were driven by an almost perpetual war. Rome first consolidated its power during the Punic Wars against Carthage, but the spoils of war in Gaul, Syria and Egypt etc. became the spoils of aggressive consuls and generals like Julius Caesar to buy political votes in Rome. Ultimately, the war machine corrupted the republic (rule by the commoners) into imperial status (rule by the dictators). As domestic decay set in at the hands of a corrupt elite and disaffected masses, the Roman Empire crumbled under the weight of invading barbarians and its own debt. For Rome the war was glorious, but it was paid for by its unsung sacrifices.
We are already on similar paths toward serious conflict. The Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) Annual Conflict Study 2022 reported that in 2021 there were 54 state conflicts in 35 countries with nearly 85,000 war-related deaths. Since 1946, internal conflicts have outweighed inter-state conflicts; War deaths have increased, as have interstate conflicts after the 1990s; with non-state actors such as crime cartels and terrorists playing a significant role.
These symptoms are all evident in the Ukraine War, where the complex internal civil war between Catholic Ukrainians and Russian-speaking Ukrainians prompted major power intervention.
So far, the conflict between the great powers has only been contained by mutual fear of a total nuclear war. While the outcome is unknown, the lines of this competition are becoming clearer. In contrast to 1971, when the United States deftly pulled China out of the Soviet camp, the Biden administration is rallying allies through the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), AUKUS and Quad to try to contain Russia and China as existential threats.
Diplomacy is the art of negotiating under impossible conditions in order to seek peace. Today, traditional diplomacy is unrecognizable as the other side is demonized and every tool is armed, from trade, finance, media to technology.
The old dictum of seeking peace by preparing for war does not mean going out of your way to provoke one another at every opportunity. This path sacrifices truth, trust and cooperation. Global cooperation is essential to address universal threats such as global warming, global inequalities in health and wealth, and government failure. Most world citizens prefer peace to meet their daily needs for food, health, security and jobs.
Today, four megatrends are converging into global conflicts. First, climate-related natural disasters such as typhoons, droughts, and floods devastate poor countries that cannot cope with the resulting internal unrest. Their failure inevitably invites the great powers to intervene. Second, growing populations in Africa and Latin America will drive massive outward migration and increase the risk of border wars. Third, the world splits into blocks of energy. Europe, Japan, China and India have energy shortages while America, Russia and the Middle East have a surplus. Because the US is now a competitor to Russia and the Middle East for oil and gas supplies, these suppliers may not want to price oil and gas in US dollars. Energy wars turn into currency wars. Fourth, these conflicts are fueled by “chip wars” as defense capabilities are increasingly driven by semiconductors, computing power, artificial intelligence, cryptotechnology, and manufacturing expertise. In short, we have moved from a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) state to a chaotic, random, fragile and emotional (CAFE) phase where nothing can be taken for granted. Chaos arises from the shift from unipolar to multipolar order because no one is fully responsible. Accidents are important because in a situation of distrust, every event becomes a cause for suspicion and rebellion, escalating into conflict. The fragility of social relations is spreading as democratic governments are fragmented by weak coalitions while autocracies tighten controls to impose their own legitimacy. The world is fragmenting into ever smaller states, with 193 UN members today, four times the 51 in 1945. In every country, online social bubbles amplify emotional responses to disputes over ethnicity, identity, religion and culture.
In this age of anger and fear, wiser statesmen should lead us to peace and sanity, rather than trying to channel that emotional energy toward war.
Unfortunately, few remember the UN Secretary-General’s March 2020 plea for a global ceasefire to focus on fighting the pandemic: “Now is the time for a new collective push for peace and reconciliation.”
Christmas is a time of peace and goodwill for all. But the voices of those who advocate peace and sound negotiations are drowned out by accusations of being “appeasers” or friends of the devil. Lulled by 77 years of peace and prosperity, a generation of current leaders have forgotten that 40 to 50 million died in World War II, adding to the 20 million in Europe alone during World War I.
With little sense of history or the cost of war, this generation of leaders glorifies war as if it were a Hollywood movie. In a nuclear third world war there are no ultimate victories, only a negotiated peace after utter exhaustion or mutual annihilation. There is too much media kool-aid for a victory for the moral right. Four centuries of colonialism showed the colonized that billions suffered humiliation, slavery and even genocide. Millions died, but billions survived and survived colonialism. War will not bring about a new international order, for after all, order cannot be domination by one victor, but a great bargain between many. Democracy in a multipolar world is not about universal rules enforced by just one state or ideology, but how we can live together, including conflict resolution. If the ultimate road to war is nuclear annihilation, peace through negotiations, painful and humiliating as it may be for some, is the only chance for coexistence in a diverse world.