November 14, 2015

Are we Heading Towards a Third World War?


By Shoaib Bajwa, UK

The world in 2015 is in a dangerous position. The global economic downturn continues to have political and economic reverberations, which touch almost every citizen. Armed conflict in the Middle Eastern and North African regions, with the involvement of Western military powers, and now of Russia and Iran, has accentuated already toxic regional instability. But whilst regional armed conflict and economic challenges might not be new, the backdrop against which they occur is. Growing income inequality and increasing budget deficits are putting capitalism under sever strain whilst the rising, prosperous population of China (albeit not immune from the global downturn) is starting to challenge the economic primacy of the West. The nations that pioneered capitalism and embody the philosophy of individualism are facing challenges from countries whose political institutions and cultural histories may share little in common, but whose ideological routes trace themselves broadly to collectivism. China, Russia and nations across the Middle East present a distinct set of challenges to the present world order. The question is as the balance of power shifts away from the West, could the conditions for war – beyond isolated albeit devastating regional conflicts – grow into a global conflagration?

The start of the 21st century has unquestionably witnessed the limits of economic, military and political might of the West. In some respects the challenges to West come from within. The foundations of the European project – forged in the ashes of WW2 – are now being seriously called into question by member-states. The European refugee crisis (to an extent a direct result of overseas adventures) is further challenging the stability of European political institutions. In the US, Capitol Hill is divided like never before, and its politics is in gridlock. The Western notion of America exporting democracy when its own system is buckling under the strain of a divided nation completely lacks credibility. In short, the economic crisis is becoming a crisis of politics too. On both sides of the Atlantic the rise of extreme parties on the right and left is making the pursuit of moderate, centre-ground policies increasingly difficult. In Europe, anti-integration parties feed on a pervasive mood of political cynicism. In the UK the Labour Party has elected an unreformed left-winger to lead its movement. Whilst, in the US the Republicans are seriously flirting with Donald Trump as their presidential candidate. Were the property magnate turned Republican hopeful to make it to the Oval Office, it’s impossible not to imagine that US foreign policy would be become more hawkish with all the implications that would have for global security.

However, the most obvious and immediate threat to the global stability comes from instability in Syria, and the potential for a proxy war to emerge between Russia and the West. A worst-case (and highly unlikely) scenario would be say a Russian bomber aircraft engaging in an aerial skirmish with an RAF Typhoon – regional experts are already suggesting that the skies over Syria are dangerously crowded with Russian jets flying near US planes on bombing runs. But hypothetical Russian aggression of this nature ignores the political realities both inside Russia and the motivations for Moscow’s involvement in Syrian air strikes. Putin’s military involvement is largely pragmatic. There are an estimated 3,000 Russian extremists fighting with ISIS in Syria. Moscow wants to kill them in Syria to prevent them returning to Russia. Add in the fears in Moscow that the Assad regime will fall (Russia has key military bases in Syria) and Putin’s interest is self-evident. In short the potential for Syrian conflict by itself escalating into a global conflict is marginal, but it clarifies Russia’s willingness and capability to engage in a war far from its geographical boundaries.

Then there’s China, a nation with ambitions of reordering the global system as befits its growing economic and military might (it has been estimated, for example, that the Chinese navy will have more military vessels than its US counterparty by 2020). Indeed, history tells us that rising powers have often tested the global status quo through force and in his ‘Chinese Dream’ speech, President Xi Jinping made the connection between military strength and national primacy envisioning the concept of “Guanjun Guojia Genti” (read: replacing the US as the world’s leading power). That said, for all the hundreds of billions of dollars Beijing has invested in its armed forces since the late ‘90s it has largely acquired short-range, defensive weaponry – in other words it’s ill equipped to fight a truly global war. However, given China’s ambitions, backed by its economic might, it will not be a surprise if there is a rapid and swift shift in its military capability.

Perhaps more interesting are the growing signs of co-operation between Beijing and Moscow. Following the Ukraine crisis and the imposition of sanctions by the US and EU on Moscow, Putin travelled to China, signing a series of contracts including a $400 billion deal to export gas to China. He is looking to reorient the Russian economy towards Asia as a way to mitigate the negative impact of Western sanctions. Beijing in turn views it as an opportunity to widen its access to Russia’s natural resources, win lucrative contracts for infrastructure projects and expand its markets for Chinese technology, turning Russia into a junior partner in the relationship between the two countries. Military co-operation may not be an immediate talking point but the relationship between China and Russia is improving with inevitable longer-term challenges to the security of the West.

What about the threats to the West from extreme Islamism? Unquestionably, the emergence of lawless regions in North Africa and the Middle East, arguably as a result of Western military intervention, has created multiple breeding grounds for the rise of extreme jihadist groups, notably ISIS. But in terms of Islamic states and direct threat they pose to global security, the picture is complex and the threats are of course multiple. They include the Arab Spring risings and the ongoing tensions they bring across the Gulf states, especially Bahrain, the Iranian WMD program and ongoing unrest in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt. All of these global events contribute to the general state of tension in the region. North Africa was a tinder-box, lit by the spark of the Arab Spring. The Gulf States remain un-lit, and any future conflicts in these countries have the potential to suck in exterior actors, owing to the complex diplomatic ties these nations have to Western and Eastern backers. But there is too much oil at stake to allow conflicts to rage without intervention, limiting the possibility of truly global conflict.

The most obvious flashpoint is, of course, the Israel-Palestine conflict. But escalation of the conflict beyond the Middle East would necessitate a coalition of nations from the region. With many of the Gulf States in particular relying on the US, Israel’s’ greatest ally, for military armaments and collective security, it’s unlikely that the conflict could escalate beyond the region. Looking at Islamic nations more broadly, they are divided between extremism, monarchism, or corrupt democratic governments. Indeed, the UK for example, has stronger relations with the likes of Saudi Arabia (albeit a relationship tested over recent weeks) than many countries in the Middle East have between one another. Perhaps the maxim ‘united we stand, divided we fall’ does not ring entirely true here: A conflict in the Middle East, though terrible, would be unlikely to spread beyond the borders of the region, even if it became a proxy for East/West global rivalry. This is simply because the divisions of the subcontinent preclude any combatant nations gaining a coalition large enough to upgrade a local war to a global conflict.

All of this is not to mention the threat from cyber warfare and nuclear conflict – both very real threats to global stability, though in the case of the latter, less so since the end of the Cold War.

The West – specifically role of the US – as the world’s policeman is on the wane. But capitalism and its underpinning mantra of individualism does not – yet at least – face a coherent or allied threat from nations for whom collectivism is the single force which could unite these disparate nations and continents. A third world war is unlikely in the short term to emerge from the multiple regional conflicts and economic schisms we’re seeing. But the tectonic plates are shifting, and as they do nations must find a way for individualism and collectivism to co-exist. If they cannot, global stability will surely be tested. 

Shoaib Bajwa is a London based financial crime prevention professional and take a keen interest on current social and political issues.