When America and Russia cannot act together in the face of a common threat on the scale of Isis, then there is little cause for optimism Getty
At the risk of sounding a little foolish, there is, sadly, much evidence that World War Three has already arrived, though not quite in the way so many futurologists of the past imagined it, as a clash between superpowers, their tanks chasing each other across the North German plain.
Nowadays, our planet is much more kaleidoscopic and asymmetric in its violence than that, and the world is pretty much in flames already, should we care to look. The question is whether all the present (relatively) little wars could actually mutate into, or trigger, a real superpower conflict involving the US, Russia and China, at the least.
We are probably not yet at the most dangerous pass since 1945: the 1962 Cuban missile crisis and the early 1980s felt more frightening in those terms, in truth much more than after 9/11, traumatising as that event was. But we are certainly in risky, unstable, uncertain times.
There are about 195 countries in the world. Only a dozen or so can be said to be properly at peace: Iceland, the world’s most peaceful country according to the Global Peace Index, followed by Denmark, Austria, New Zealand, Portugal, the Czech Republic, Switzerland, Canada, Japan, Slovenia and Finland. A tiny proportion of the world’s population reside in these outposts of calm. The list of conflicts, wars, civil wars, insurgencies and permanent states of terror is a much longer one, from the all-too-familiar agonies of Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Ukraine, Boko Haram in west Africa, and Yemen through to less well-covered conflicts such as the drugs wars in Mexico and insurgencies from Burma to Armenia and Azerbaijan to (until recently) Colombia. Britain, one way or another, has been in some sort of conflict every year since 1914, with the sole exception of 1968.
So the world is at war, and more so than at any point than in most people’s lifetimes. It is a way of life for most of humanity. Each conflict is different, of course. Slogans such as the “war on terror” or the “war on militant Islamism” fail to capture this reality. After all, many of these conflicts – as we see graphically in Syria and Yemen, for example – are between different groups of militant Islamists, with the Sunni-Shia divide more or less visible. Closer to home, in Northern Ireland, some of the bloodiest moments in the Troubles came when armed Republicans fought armed Loyalists, rather than the security forces. The tendency with al-Qaeda and Isis is for semi-autonomous or autonomous groups, or just random disaffected individuals armed with only a light truck or a smuggled gun, to “affiliate” themselves, often after the event.
The “clash of civilisations”, the famous phrase coined by Samuel Huntington a quarter century ago, has not materialised in the sense he envisaged – substantial blocs of nation states fighting conventional wars across “faultiness”. Instead, we have these fragmented, chaotic, unpredictable sets of “players” that vary in size and potency from the United States of America to a lone maniac with a machete on a train in Germany, or gangs of drunken child soldiers in the Central African Republic. There are proxy wars which defy easy categorisation into a pattern of “the West versus the Rest”. Where America wants to retain friendlier relations with Iran and Saudi Arabia, whose side is the US on in the proxy war between Tehran and Riyadh in Yemen? When the Hutu and the Tutsi attempt genocide, they do so for ethnic not geopolitical reasons.
Even so, the immediate danger now is Cold War 2, much more than a “hot” Third World War, though one could grow out of the other. The US-Russia relationship is on a pivot between progress and failure, more so than at any time since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Also unsteady are America’s and Russia’s respective relations with China, which, as has been true since the Sino-Soviet split in 1961 and Richard Nixon’s historic visit in 1972, can be categorised, in Huntington’s terms, as a “swing superpower”, and a better armed, active and richer one nowadays.
When America and Russia cannot act together in the face of a common threat on the scale of Isis, then there is certainly little cause for optimism. Putin won his war in the Ukraine with the annexation of Crimea and the de facto capture of eastern Ukraine, on the very borders of Nato and the European Union. Perhaps, had Donald Trump not been so enchanted by Vladimir Putin, we would have heard more about that particular failing by the Obama administration in the presidential campaign.