In an interview to mark the Remembrance Day in November last year, Britain’s Chief of Defence Staff, General Sir Nick Carter, remarked, “I think we are living at a moment in time where the world is a very uncertain and anxious place…the real risk we have with quite a lot of the regional conflicts that are going on at the moment, is you could see escalation lead to miscalculation.” When asked if there was a threat of another world war, Gen Carter replied, "I'm saying it's a risk, and we need to be conscious of those risks.”
There is a great deal of debate on whether wars between nations are declining around the globe. The Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP), a leading provider of statistics on conflict, shows that state-based conflict (where at least one of the conflict parties is the government) in 2019 was at its highest level since World War 2. However, of all the 54 state-based conflicts, only two were interstate. This does lend some credence to the argument that wars between states have become rare.
In 2017, RAND Corporation published a study titled Conflict Trends and Conflict Drivers. For the purpose of establishing trends, the authors used data from 1946 to 2015 and conducted an extensive literature review focusing on empirical and scientific approaches to conflict.
According to the study, the three key interstate conflict drivers are the prevalence of consolidated democracies, capabilities of international organisations, and the degree of US preeminence. Other drivers of lesser weightage are the rate of economic growth, the extent of economic interdependence, and the strength of international norms.
The study concluded that interstate conflicts would continue to decline over the next 20 years through 2040. The projections were based on trends that indicated a “continued strengthening of democratic consolidation and international organization growth globally”. It also assessed that economic interdependence is likely to continue to increase, reducing the likelihood of interstate conflict. The primary factor enhancing the risk of conflict was the decline in the relative dominance of the US, but the previous factors would more than balance this.
The study also noted that although projections indicated low incidence of conflict, divergences from the projections could occur due to ‘shocks’ that are impossible to predict. The emergence of COVID-19 was one such shock. Has the last year, dominated by the effects of the pandemic, reversed the trends, and enhanced the risks of interstate conflict? To answer this question, we could review the current state of the primary drivers of conflict, as outlined in the RAND study.
It is largely accepted that consolidated democracies are less likely to go to war with each other. Unfortunately, as we look at the past year, the trends are not encouraging. A recent research by Freedom House Democracy Under Lockdown reveals that after 14 years of consecutive decline in freedom worldwide, COVID-19 has worsened the condition of democracy and human rights in 80 countries. While most of these countries are located in Africa, the list includes well-established democracies like the US, France, Netherlands, and Denmark. A backslide in democracy could not only result in internal strife but also interstate conflict.
International organisations like the United Nations are a check on Member States pursuing a unilateral path to war to resolve differences. Where conflicts occur, peacekeeping missions are deployed to end hostilities. Bodies like the World Trade Organisation manage economic disputes before they turn hostile. Here again, the trends are discouraging.
The United Nations Security Council had lost much of its effectiveness even before the pandemic, and the situation has worsened with escalating tensions between the permanent members. The World Health Organisation (WHO), which should have led a multilateral effort against COVID-19, has been mired in controversy. President Trump has formally moved to withdraw the US from the WHO, accusing the organisation of being under China's control.
Economic interdependence took the biggest hit in 2020. Globalization has retreated further as countries look to reduce import dependency, particularly from China. Trade and tariff barriers are being invoked, not only to protect domestic markets, but also as a part of a larger political strategy to pressure countries to change their behaviour. Economic woes caused by the pandemic and increasing inequality has turned countries insular, with little focus on multilateral cooperation.
Some decline in US global dominance was inevitable, given the rise of China. However, this decline has little to do with a loss in US economic or military power, which will remain unchallenged in the near future. The dilution of US dominance is more visible in its reluctance to take a leadership role in a global crisis and a denting of its soft power image. President Trump has pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal, Paris Agreement on climate change, criticized NATO members, and intensified great power rivalry.
America’s image as the most vibrant democracy in the world has taken a beating in the wake of an extremely divisive presidential election and the ugly scenes of the storming of the US Capitol by Trump supporters.
All this makes for an unpredictable, multipolar world that is inward-looking and suspicious of international cooperation. This is an unstable international scenario. Among the global conflict hot spots, South Asia remains among those regions that are most vulnerable to interstate conflicts. According to the UCDP data, of the two interstate conflicts in the world in 2019, one was the India-Pakistan conflict. Even as this conflict has remained active in 2020, India is now also engaged in a confrontation with China on its northern borders.
It is not being suggested that 2021 will suddenly see a spate of wars. Still, national leaders must seriously assess the risks associated with the current trends in international relations. To overcome internal challenges posed by COVID-19, there is a temptation to resort to hyper-nationalism and the erection of barriers to international trade. This would only exacerbate tensions. Instead, there must be a push towards multilateral efforts to deal with global problems, strengthening of international organisations, and focus on mature diplomacy. This may seem counterintuitive at this time but provides the best path to avoid stumbling into conflict.
Disclaimer:The author is former Northern Commander, Indian Army, under whose leadership India carried out surgical strikes against Pakistan in 2016. Views expressed are personal.