The pessimists were right, at least in the short term—things are getting worse. Terrorism and armed conflict have increased in the past decade and the post-World War II vision of a cooperative international order, which seemed to get a second chance with the end of the Cold War, is now threatened by resurgent nationalism. To secure a more peaceful world in the long term, the optimists must base their struggle with a clear-eyed understanding of how far things have gone wrong.
Since 2010, a vicious circle has developed. A two-decade downward trend in global violence has gone into reverse, even if conflict has not reached the levels it was at during the Cold War. Today, there are more conflicts, more displaced persons, and more refugees than there were five years ago, and that deterioration generates fear and retrenchment at the very moment when a more cooperative and proactive management of the world is needed to prevent further deterioration. Many nations are now more focused on crisis management than prevention, looking after their immediate interests rather than working together to prevent new conflicts.
Paradoxically, this is happening at a time when the world is more connected than it has ever been—goods, but also people, information, and ideas, are on the move. Migrations have always existed, but they are acquiring new dimensions, quantitatively and qualitatively, as better-informed human beings look for better futures. Many are leaving zones of conflict and many are just looking for the promise of a better life that the weak states they come from are unable to offer them. But in the absence of a genuine global human community, such movements lead to fragmentation rather than convergence.
At the same time, the increased connectivity of the information sphere means that local events can quickly become global news. The suicide-bomb fueled violence of civil wars in Iraq or Syria have distorted our traditional measures of terrorist activity, yet some terrorist acts still reverberate worldwide in an unprecedented way, thus encouraging more terrorism. Technological progress, whether it is applied to cyber warfare or dirty bombs, may one day make it possible for terrorists to dramatically amplify the physical impact of their actions. For now, the impact of terrorism is more a reflection of information warfare than physical realities.
In the richer parts of the globe, the outside world is thus increasingly seen as a threat to the cultural and economic fabric of society, rather than an opportunity. Peaceful societies are becoming dangerously polarized, as the politics of fear gain momentum. This is why it is essential that those struggling for a more peaceful future—be they diplomats, civil society leaders, or my colleagues in conflict prevention—keep up their mission of informing governments and public opinion about what is really happening and what can be done to tip the needle away from war.
They must also confront the paradox that the connectivity of the world makes conflict resolution more difficult rather than easier. Hopes rose after the end of the Cold War that in the absence of a global confrontation, a sense of common purpose in the international community would help resolve conflicts by addressing grievances that were primarily local. And indeed, there was for a time a significant drop in the number of wars, as UN peacekeeping missions were deployed and many conflicts were ended. The present situation is reversing the progress that was achieved.
This is not a return to the Cold War, as there is no ideological battle that would bring some new structure of antagonism in the world. The challenge is in fact greater. The ideological vacuum that characterizes our time, including the crisis of a liberal agenda, is filled by identity nationalism from Moscow to Washington. This fracturing is turning the international community into a mosaic of inward-looking states, some of which are very fragile. Domestic dynamics shape international politics. But in a connected world states are not islands, and what happens in one has repercussions beyond its borders. More and more, conflicts are crossing borders, between Iraq and Syria, Libya and the Sahel, and Nigeria and Cameroon.
The Syrian conflict is the most tragic and extreme example of a world fragmented by fears and connected by conflicting interests. Syria is not just a base for the transnational organization known as the Islamic State, it is also a battlefield in the confrontation of regional powers and a strategic pawn in the U.S.-Russia relationship. Multiple layers of conflict mean that any resolution will have to accommodate multiple agendas. Some, indeed, may for now be irreconcilable. Until such times pass, the least bad strategy is containment.
New forms of warfare have also eroded the relevance of the clear rules on the use of force that were agreed to at the end of World War II. Cyber attacks, which include a wide range of actions with some limited to information warfare and with some having potentially lethal consequences, usually do not have a clearly identified author and blur the lines of responsibility for hostilities. Use of force in self-defense was expanded by the Clinton and Bush administrations, and the extensive use of drones by the Obama administration further eroded the distinction between war and peace. Moreover, the body of laws that was developed to regulate the violence of war is also under threat, as the distinction between civilians and combatants is increasingly challenged. In Syria and Yemen, international humanitarian law is ignored as civilians and civilian targets are repeatedly bombed and groups such as the Islamic State commit atrocities against civilians on a regular basis.
Matters are further complicated by the internal crisis of states themselves. This is most acute in the Middle East, where the legitimacy of majority rule clashes with ethnic and religious loyalties, posing a direct challenge to the monarchies and military regimes that have dominated the past century in that region.
In Africa, many states have exhausted the legitimacy that their leaders had gained from the anticolonial struggle, and their rulers are now judged by their people on the services they deliver. A potentially rich country like the Democratic Republic of Congo, for instance, has more people living in extreme poverty than China and Indonesia combined.
In China and countries that have been the greatest beneficiaries of the last 20 years, the capacity of the state to maintain a high level of growth is in doubt. This is beginning to threaten the implicit bargain that has underpinned the relationship between the state and the people: limits on civil liberties in exchange for rapidly improving standards of living.
Even in the richest parts of the world, states are in a silent crisis. They are too distant to effectively manage problems that need to be dealt with at the community level, like the local integration of migrants, and too small to manage global issues like climate change. In a world where the global and the local are increasingly intertwined, states are pulled in opposite directions. They are expected to represent local identities, and at the same time to interface effectively with a globalized world. They have difficulty doing both. The multilateral organizations that connect them—the European Union in particular—are suspected of exposing societies to destructive, anonymous forces of globalization rather than acting to protect communities.
The situation is made worse by the fact that the increased connectivity of conflicts is not accompanied by a parallel strengthening of the agreements and institutions that could serve as the mortar to hold together a fragmenting international community. Nor is it counterbalanced by the reaffirmation of principles and rules that would help manage and contain the uncertainties of relations between autonomous states. On the contrary, the arms control treaties that have helped give predictability to the strategic relationship between the West and Russia are being questioned. The EU is in crisis and the United Nations is unlikely to enjoy strong support from the new U.S. administration. Several member states have withdrawn from the International Criminal Court, which was created at the peak of the liberal, universalist agenda.
Doubts in the capacity of international institutions to prevent, manage, and solve conflicts continue to grow, further eroding their legitimacy. When the Security Council is paralyzed by the differences between its members, as is the case for Syria, the credibility of the UN as an institution suffers. The gap between what it is expected to achieve and what it can actually do widens. Moreover, the considerable growth of the operational role of the United Nations, exemplified by the more than 100,000 peacekeepers deployed around the world, has shown the limits of international engagement and could be quickly reversed. Many peacekeeping missions, from Congo to Sudan, struggle to stabilize the countries where they have been present for many years.
It has become all too obvious that internationally driven processes cannot substitute for more locally driven processes. After a decade and a half of interventionism, the liberal West has lost much of its confidence in its capacity to shape outcomes in foreign lands.
International norms and institutions are weakening, and the new administration in Washington is unlikely to make it a priority to reverse this trend. Even if it is too early to tell what all of its specific policies will be, it is already clear that U.S. support for international institutions, a fundamental tenet of the last 70 years, cannot be taken for granted anymore. The new administration may dramatically amplify a trend toward retrenchment that was already present in the Obama administration, but was balanced by efforts to strengthen multilateral organizations like the UN and the World Bank. President Trump’s “America First” is more than a slogan, and one can no longer assume that the United States will maintain a key stake in upholding the international order it was instrumental in creating.
Such an evolution could also be accompanied by a shift in which values have priority. In China and elsewhere in the region, so-called Asian values are likely to hold sway. Stability and efficiency might gain preeminence over democracy and human rights. Already, the question is being raised by some as to whether democratic elections are an effective system to select the best leaders, or at least to eliminate unqualified ones. The “soft power” of the West would then be dramatically reduced, and historians would see 2016 as the year when the move away from a world largely shaped by Western values accelerated.
The rest of the world will have to adjust as balances change. This is not just happening in Asia, but also between Russia and Western Europe, between Iran and the Saudi Arabia-dominated Gulf, and between India and its neighbors. These adjustments will create a whole new set of regional and local dynamics. A world that is likely to become more transactional holds many surprises. Alliances can shift and countries can harden their stances quickly if they believe they cannot rely on the same external reassurance. The coming years are therefore likely to see a continuation of the trend toward more—rather than less—conflicts. While old conflicts are increasingly difficult to end, new ones keep being added to an already long list. As the world slips into ever more violence, the danger is that war becomes the new normal rather than an exceptional situation.
More dramatic scenarios are possible. The erosion of international norms and institutions combined with less preventive diplomacy will lead to more conflicts, and local grievances combined with international or transnational connections will increase the risks of escalation. Local actors may gain enough autonomy to generate new conflicts even against the will of more powerful actors, who may find themselves dragged by their web of connections into wars they did not initiate. That phenomenon was a factor in the chain of events that led to World War I. It could be replicated today, with the important qualification that the existence of nuclear weapons introduces more caution and more risk in the present situation.
If this survey is gloomy, it is because the world faces daunting times ahead. Today, more than any time since the end of the Cold War, conflict prevention, the inclusion of the widest possible range of actors, and a vigorous defense of international law and norms should be the priority of all those who want to maintain a cooperative, rules-based management of world affairs.
Nothing is preordained. Turning this state of affairs around will depend on the capacity of those countries that have benefited from decades of a relatively peaceful and cooperative management of the world to collectively fill the vacuum that could be the result of a more self-centered United States. New leaders may emerge as partners to buttress the global system, perhaps including China or coalitions of regional powers that have understood that a shared basic order benefits all. They should be proactively encouraged, not sidelined. Such a coalition, which should include what is left of the European Union as an important actor, would be strong enough to uphold and consolidate a system of norms and values that was born in the West. This may be a best-case scenario, but it is the light that should guide those international policymakers as they seek their way through this dark and dangerous passage.
Jean-Marie Guéhenno is the president and CEO of the International Crisis Group. Follow on Twitter @JGuehenno.