March 21, 2019
There has been no war between the major industrial powers of the world that girdle the Northern Hemisphere for almost 74 years since the end of World War II. However, other forms of warfare abound, and the global outlook remains sobering – to say the least.
Peace in the Northern Hemisphere, so far
So far, the first two decades of the 21st century has been an improvement on many before it, but it has still been a far from a peaceful period. By the 19th year of the 20th century, a full world war had already been fought, devastating the great nations of Europe, the Middle East and Eurasia. Sadly, it was followed by typhus and influenza epidemics that were among the deadliest in human history.
Currently, ongoing chaotic bloodshed continues unabated in South Sudan and perhaps 10 million people have died in violent tribal violence that has swept Congo DRC, formerly known as Zaire, the vast and tormented heart of Africa. The US Army continues to fight counterinsurgency wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Libya and Syria remain in bloodstained chaos and a new conflict may loom in Venezuela.
Perhaps most ominously of all, Ukraine continues to decline into further poverty and civil chaos, with its two easternmost provinces effectively independent and supported by Russia, defying the efforts of the Kiev government to reestablish control over them.
No peace between Israel and the Palestinians
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains as far from resolution as ever, while the potential for Israel to come into conflict with Iran over Syria are greater than ever. Saudi Arabia and its United Arab Emirates allies remain bogged down supporting the government of Yemen against Houthi rebels supported by Tehran.
India and Pakistan still enemies
In 2018, both India and Pakistan joined the Shanghai Cooperation Organization led by Russia and China; but that hasn’t prevented a dangerous new crisis erupting between them over Kashmir. While Moscow and Beijing appear seriously committed to peacefully resolving the crisis, that outcome cannot be taken for granted.
Even in traditionally prosperous and peaceful Western Europe potentially disruptive may be even violent conflicts and massive political divides are rapidly opening not between major nations but within them.
The United Kingdom is torn apart over the modality to execute its exit from the European Union (EU). The prosperous and advanced province of Catalonia in Spain is in open defiance of the national government in Madrid. It is seeking independence, with the support of a majority of its voters and elected representatives.
Italy is perennially torn apart between its North and South, and the North-dominated national government is in open conflict with the EU’s ruling Commission in Brussels. So is the government of Hungary, seeking to impose major immigration restrictions, in defiance of the European Commission.
Germany is still reeling to absorb the more than one million immigrants it received from the Middle East, mainly Syria, in recent years and France continues to be rocked by the biggest and most violent protests it has known in half a century.
Limited but serious conventional conflicts
The 21st century has also already seen small scale but very real conventional wars: In 2008, the Russian army carried out a startling conquest of one-third of the small former Soviet republic of Georgia in the Caucasus.
The Israeli army carried out military offensives in Gaza in 2008-9, 2012 and 2014, and against Hezbollah in Southern Lebanon in 2006. However, Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, remains still very much in charge in Gaza.
All these conflicts, in their variety, document an important principle, widely ignored: It is that the contagion of war, like different diseases, cannot be limited to one form. As they have throughout human history, wars and conflicts come in many different forms and different sizes.
The five-day Russian blitzkrieg that led to the conquest of one-third of Georgia in 2008, with negligible losses, was a revival of a direct, clear-cut, old-fashioned kind of military offensive that was supposed to be long since banished from the European continent. And it carried a grim warning for US leaders. Indeed, major land wars that could involve US armed forces against formidable opponents are no longer inconceivable.
The new US national security doctrine appears to recognize this, but the profound implications have yet to be recognized by US political leaders and the American public.
Americans believe that there will be no more large-scale wars
The US public and even most military leaders still assume that there is no likelihood of a full-scale thermonuclear war erupting in the coming decades. However, in the first decade of the 20th century, most people thought a full-scale war between the major world powers of that generation was inconceivable, too. Sometimes, international catastrophes happen, and nations stumble into them without realizing the consequences until it is too late.
Russia and other nations have indeed developed their conventional military forces for the possible contingencies of having to fight land wars on a very large scale in different parts of the Eurasian land mass. India and China have come to the same conclusion. Moscow has a now openly announced that the new hypersonic Zircon missiles it is developing are conceptualized as a "decapitation weapon” taking out US nuclear command and control systems at the very beginning of any global conflict.
The lessons of what happened in Georgia more than a decade ago fly in the face of the Conventional Wisdom complacently assumed by US military planners and most American strategists since the collapse of communism. They have taken for granted the idea that gigantic, full-scale land wars on major continents involving hundreds of thousands or even millions of troops have become inconceivable.
Russia and China preparing for big conflicts?
Yet in 2018, Russia and China committed well over 300,000 troops to joint land maneuvers in Northeast Asia in one of their regular Shanghai Cooperation Organization joint training exercises.
The sublime confidence of ongoing peace and security across the entire Northern Hemisphere of the planet should therefore not be accepted uncritically but instead reassessed with serious skepticism and concern. As George Gershwin famously wrote in one of the songs for his opera "Porgy and Bess,” "It ain’t necessarily so.”