There are a number of existential issues directly related to the survival of humankind. One is the question of war and peace. The general belief is that progress and the equilibrium between instruments of war and peace have generated conditions inhibitive to war. There has not been another world war since World War II.
As atomic weapons proliferated and the spectre of nuclear cataclysm loomed, the superpowers confined themselves to cold war. That eventually came to an end with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
After that, it seemed that “globalisation” had set the world on course to lasting universal peace. Despite flareups in tension, the regional wars between China and India and India and Pakistan too came to an end. The major Arab-Israeli wars stopped at four, after which the conflict limited itself to small-scale wars in Lebanon and Gaza. Even the Football War between El Salvador and Honduras in 1969 was a never to be repeated phenomenon.
This is not to suggest that violence and recourse to arms no longer exist in international relations. This region has seen wars against terrorism, military interventions in several Arab countries, the decades long invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and many civil wars. Violence did proliferate, but there was also much avoidance of violence as well as peacemaking drives, many of which focused on the Arabs and Israel. If such efforts failed, a sufficient degree of deterrence, fear and perhaps thirst for a prosperous life prevented recourse to arms.
The world has seen precarious moments, as occurred when the borders of NATO approached the borders of Russia. Even more nerve-wracking moments occurred when Russia intervened in Georgia, annexed the Crimea and amassed forces on the borders of Ukraine. Nevertheless, the world managed to cope with these situations, mostly by letting the dynamics of local power balance contain the dangers.
Yet, Thomas Friedman, in his New York Times column of 27 April, asks, “Is There a War Coming Between China and the US?” The article is inspired, in part, by the novel 2034, by retired Admiral James Stavridis and Elliot Ackerman, a former marine and intelligence officer. A dystopian work reminiscent of George Orwell’s classic 1984, on life under a totalitarian order, 2034 imagines a future war that erupts against a backdrop of fierce economic rivalry and a heated race for global technological superiority. The war opens with a naval battle near Taiwan, and pits the US (and presumably its allies) against a Chinese-Russian-Iranian axis set on keeping the US from returning to the helm of world leadership, towards which Biden has set his sail.
For more on that fictional feud I refer you to Friedman’s article and the novel itself. In the real world it seems that the negotiations underway between the US and Iran, which China and Russia are watching closely, diminish the inevitability of such a war. Perhaps more importantly, the decree of mutual Chinese-US dependency is far greater than the current differences, including on human rights, which Biden has instrumentalised against all three countries.
The virtual climate summit that Biden hosted speaks of a shared fate connected with the health of the planet which no side can afford to ignore. This raises a matter that Washington needs to learn and that stood out in the recent talks between the US and China in Anchorage, namely the need to treat each other as peers. Surely, Biden is modest enough to understand that the “human rights” weapon no longer washes as it once did, not because China has changed but because the US is no longer what it used to be.
While a face-to-face military confrontation between China and the US seems possible only in a thriller, it is still true that it sometimes takes only a tiny spark to start a major conflagration. The assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Serbia triggered World War I and the German invasion of Poland, on the pretext of protecting the German minority, flared into World War II. Today, the sparks are flying in the Middle East between Iran and Israel.
The two have been engaged in a covert war for some time, involving sinking ships, destroying military bases, sabotaging nuclear installations (Natanz in Iran and Dimona in Israel), or locking horns in strategically soft areas in Iraq and Syria. In recent months, Israel staged aerial strikes against Iranian missile and weapon production centres in Syria in order to prevent a perceived Iranian attempt to advance militarily by stealth.
Taking advantage of its longstanding alliance with Syria, Iran has moved parts of its advanced missile manufactures to previously constructed underground complexes in the vicinity of Syrian urban centres. For some time before this, Israel put up with the influx of thousands of Iranian backed fighters from Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan into Syria in order to help defend President Bashar Al-Assad from the rebels who have been working to overthrow his dictatorship. Until recently, Israel rarely intervened in Syria, and that was only to stop weapons shipments from reaching Hizbullah in Lebanon, and to prevent pro-Iranian militias from setting up bases in southwestern Syria near Israeli territory.
However, now that Al-Assad has put down the decade long rebellion for the most part, thanks to the resolute help of Iranian and Russian forces, Israel has set its sights on the Iranian infiltration of the military infrastructure in Syria. In December last year, Israeli Chief of General Staff Aviv Kokhavi said that more than 500 Israeli missile strikes in 2020 alone had “slowed down Iran’s entrenchment in Syria... But we still have a long way to go to reach our goals in this arena.” Dozens of Western military and intelligence officials added that the main target of Israeli strikes has been any infrastructure that could advance Iranian efforts to produce precision-guided missiles that might diminish Israel’s regional military superiority.
Might this be the spark that kindles another war in the Middle East, which could spread to the rest of the world? Or should we find hope in reports that the US and Iran are close to an arrangement that could pave the way to a peace agreement in Yemen, a detente between the Arab states and Iran, and perhaps even a tacit Iranian agreement with Israel and Arab states? Now is the time to put an end to a violence-steeped era in which all sides lost and on top of which the Covid-19 pandemic struck. Surely the fatigue from it all is strong enough to push for peace.
*The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 6 May, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly