WINCHESTER, ENGLAND – “Only the dead have seen the end of war.” George Santayana’s dictum seems particularly appropriate nowadays, with the Arab world, from Syria and Iraq to Yemen and Libya, a cauldron of violence; Afghanistan locked in combat with the Taliban; swaths of central Africa cursed by bloody competition — often along ethnic/religious lines — for mineral resources. Even Europe’s tranquility is at risk — witness the separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine, which before the current cease-fire had claimed more than 6,000 lives.
What explains this resort to armed conflict to solve the world’s problems? Not so long ago, the trend was toward peace, not war. In 1989, with the collapse of communism, Francis Fukuyama announced “the end of history,” and two years later President George H. W. Bush celebrated a “new world order” of cooperation between the world’s powers.
At the time, they were right. World War II, with a death toll of at least 55 million, had been the high point of mankind’s collective savagery. But from 1950 to 1989 — the Korean War through the Vietnam War and on to the end of the Cold War — deaths from violent conflict averaged 180,000 a year. In the 1990s, the toll fell to 100,000 a year. And in the first decade of this century, it fell still more, to around 55,000 a year — the lowest rate in any decade in the previous 100 years and equivalent to just over 1,000 a year for the “average armed conflict.”
Sadly, as I note in my new book “The World in Conflict,” the trend is now turning upward. Given that so many of Africa’s wars, from the Democratic Republic of Congo to the conflict in Somalia, began decades ago, the explanation lies elsewhere: in the Muslim world from northern Nigeria to Afghanistan and beyond.
Since Syria’s civil war erupted in 2011, the death toll has reached more than 250,000, and half of the population has been displaced, causing a flood of refugees into surrounding countries and into the European Union. Indeed, the Syrian conflict alone has been enough to change the graph of conflict — and the upward trajectory becomes even steeper when the deaths in Iraq, Yemen, and Libya are included.
Those who hailed the Arab Spring five years ago must now recognize that its blooms died fast. Only Tunisia has reasonable democratic credentials, whereas Libya, Yemen and Syria have joined Somalia as failed states, and Egypt, the most populous country in the Arab world, has reverted to an autocracy verging on dictatorship.
The question is when — or if — the trend will turn down again. Thanks largely to multilateral bodies such as the United Nations, states very rarely go to war with other states (Russia’s brief war with Georgia in 2008 is an exception proving the rule). Likewise, thanks to the EU — awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012 because it had “for over six decades contributed to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy, and human rights in Europe” — another Franco-German war is inconceivable.
Instead, wars are between states and non-state actors — between, say, Nigeria and Boko Haram, or between India and its Naxalite insurgents. Or they are civil wars — for example, in South Sudan or Libya. Or they are proxy battles of the type that characterized the Cold War — witness Iran’s deployment in Syria of Lebanon’s Hezbollah fighters to defend Bashar Assad’s regime.
Whatever the various, often overlapping, causes of conflict — ideology, religion, ethnicity, competition for resources — the Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz two centuries ago gave the pithiest answer to the question of why we resort to violence: “War is an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will.”
But can force alone compel the submission of the Islamic State group and the demise of jihadi extremism in the Muslim world? There are two reasons to doubt that it can. One is the reluctance of militarily strong outside powers, whether America and its NATO allies or President Vladimir Putin’s Russia, to “put boots on the ground” after their painful experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan (a disaster for the Soviet Union in the 1980s and in this century for the U.S. and NATO).
The second reason is the underlying appeal of the Islamist message to many of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims. The nation-states of the Arab world are colonial inventions, superseding the caliphates — Umayyad, Abbasid, Fatimid, and finally Ottoman — that once spread civilization from Mesopotamia to the Atlantic. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in June 2014 announced a new caliphate, with himself as “commander of the faithful,” it struck a chord. Moreover, the brutality of his fundamentalist Islamic State seems to many not so very different from the behavior of Saudi Arabia, which has spent decades spreading its Wahhabi fundamentalism through mosques and madrassas around the world.
In other words, the message must change if peace is to return to the Muslim world. That will not happen soon. Sunni Saudi Arabia will first have to moderate its antipathy to Shiite Muslims in general and Shiite-majority Iran in particular. Meanwhile, the Islamic State group has manpower, money, territory, and military expertise (much of it from former officers in the Iraqi Army).
Saudi Arabia will eventually recognize that it needs Iran’s help to defeat the Islamic State. And eventually the Islamic State will implode as its subjects demand the right to listen to music and behave as they want. Sadly, “eventually” is the key word. Saudi Arabia’s instinct, born of the centuries-old antipathy between Arabs and Persians, is to see Iran as a threat to be confronted, rather than accommodated. As for the Islamic State, North Korea is proof that brutal regimes can be very durable. In the meantime, the graph of deaths from conflict will keep trending upward, mocking the world’s diplomats, peacemakers, and pretensions to humanity and civilization.
John Andrews, a former editor and foreign correspondent for The Economist, is the author of “The World in Conflict: Understanding the world’s trouble spots.” © Project Syndicate, 2016