Has World War III started?

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By Benjamin G. Davis, Associate Professor of Law, University of Toledo College of Law

On September 17, 2012 the Daily Show host Jon Stewart interviewed former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan on his new book “Interventions” (http://www.thedailyshow.com/full-episodes/mon-september-17-2012-kofi-annan).  Watching Annan reminded me of a moment during his term as Secretary General when I was in Geneva at the Palais des Nations for a UN expert meeting on Online Dispute Resolution.  During a coffee break participants at the conference were in the hall and, to my surprise, who should come walking by with two aides – Secretary General Kofi Annan!  These kinds of serendipitous moments with a world leader are extremely rare (at least in my life) so I wanted to say something to him as he passed.  Fumbling for something to say, I finally came up with a particularly unremarkable comment.  I shouted to him, “Good luck, Mr. Secretary General!”  As he went by he smiled to all of us and said, “Thank you.  I need it.”  I thought it was a wonderful synthesis of the difficulty of that role and the modesty of this international civil servant and diplomat.

On the September 17 Daily Show (the interview starts around 13:10), Jon Stewart asked Kofi Annan on the “Kofi Annan Scale” where was the world from a range of “peace in our time” to “Oh my god, run!”  Annan said “We are close to run.”  That struck me, for if anyone would know and have the long view on the state of the “waltz of nations,” Annan  – just back from failed efforts to mediate the Syrian Civil War – would know. 

Sitting in Toledo and thinking about this time with the economic difficulties in the United States, the unrest in Europe over the austerity measures, the unrest across the Middle East beyond “just” the Syrian Civil War and its spillovers in Turkey, the Iranian nuclear sanctions standoff, the intractable Palestinian-Israeli conflict with no end in sight, the hot wars in places in Africa, Yemen, as well as Afghanistan-Pakistan, and the tensions in East Asia between China, Japan, Korea, and Russia and others manifested indirectly in the Asian Island Disputes, Annan’s troubling assessment of this “messy” world seemed very trenchant.

With that backdrop, this morning I am moved to wonder aloud about a few things.  When I look at the Syrian Civil War, it echoes to me of the Spanish Civil War in the 1930’s with a battle between an authoritarian regime in power and its enemies – a proxy war between the powers of that day and a proxy war in our time between the powers today.  When I looked at the murder of Ambassador Chris Stevens and others in Benghazi at the hands ostensibly of non-state actors, it reminds me of the murder of Archduke Ferdinand by an “anarchist” in the Balkans as a prelude to World War I. When I read of the cyberefforts of Stuxnet on Iran and the Iranian push for nuclear development, I wonder if we are not already in an armed conflict – a war – canalized in cyberspace now but with real risks of leakage into the real world with the amassing of forces to protect the Strait of Hormuz.  

When I look at the United States in war since 9/11 and think of Al-Qaeda and other entities not as just non-state actors, but as a lucid non-state actor whose leadership has carefully analyzed with cold logic the likely manner in which the United States Executive across Administrations is likely to react and continue to react to its provocations, I see not only war but the putting in place of a logic of war.  By logic of war, the French word of “engrenage” in the sense of gears grinding comes to mind, gears getting energy to grind toward armed conflict.  We are led to believe that these gears get their energy from radical Islam, but I think radical Islam is only a vessel.  I recognize radical Islam as a potent vessel for its ability to generate powerful emotions derived from world history back to the passing of Abraham with manifestations in the Crusades and Jihad, in colonization and decolonization, in the bipolar Cold War world through the post-Soviet era to today.  But, it is a vessel of non-state actors through which are refracted the cold energy coming from states with implacable logic advancing their interests on the international plane.  And, as significant, radical Islam and reactions to it all serve as mechanisms or means to an end of advancing this or that state’s longer term strategic goals.  I sense a very intricate process among the states of seeking in their own way to maintain or enhance their version of “Lebensraum” or “living space” in the current period.  In this dynamic world, the multipolar effort to preserve and/or enhance living space by these states is the energy driving the non-state actors which, to me, are mere useful tactical proxies in a much more deadly, if less overtly seen, struggle that is on many levels.

The fault lines we see among the permanent members of the United Nations that paralyze the United Nations Security Council are reminiscent of the Cold War fault lines, but in a world where the relative economic and military position of so many sovereigns is much more diverse and therefore significant than in the 1950’s and 1960’s.  Rather than a bipolar dialogue with all instrumentalized in that twilight struggle, it feels like a more complex multipolar world with each pole instrumentalizing all within its relative power to advance its interests and enhance its position.

I worry that in the development of nationalist and other fervors, internal repression as a threat of all that is seen as foreign (or even what might have been seen as dissent in an earlier period) may be becoming part of the internal girding for more external conflict as part of the “engrenage.”  The emphasis seems to be more about power these days in the exchanges among nations then about dialogue among adversaries and states of divergent interests seeking common ground.  Even common ground on what so recently seemed to be elemental aspects of the rule of law appears more elusive than it did even 15 years ago.

Some might think that things are not so bad compared to the time of Mutually Assured Destruction when the world was constantly on the brink of nuclear war.  Yet, while reduced, those weapons of mass destruction remain present in the world and are dependent on cooler heads prevailing in diverse states seeking to advance their interests.

Annan talked about the risk of miscalculation, but I wonder whether we might reframe that as the risk of calculated moves to advance one’s interests that also seek as part of that calculation to cause reactions that are carefully calculated to also advance one’s interests.  Thus, the dilemma with which cooler heads are confronted is how close to overall armed conflict are regional conflicts pushing us, how close are national conflicts pushing us to regional conflicts, and how close are internal conflicts pushing us to national conflicts -in each state in the world.  Technology allows these tensions to be expressed not only vertically down into states and horizontally across states, but transversally between the top through the bottom of each state interacting with the top through the bottom across states in myriad ways.  The result is both inter-state but also internationalized intra-state dynamics in a manner that feels new and unchanneled by the traditional structures of national structures and which come back and forth to influence those national structures.

Obviously, all this is probably not new in the long history of the world though it feels new to people like me because it is new to us in our short period of time on earth.  How we move through these times – I refrain from saying manage because it is too optimistic a term these days – is anyone’s guess.

I fear there are those who have gone back to the 19th century vision of armed conflict as a tool of policy – or at least to a more narrowed view in recent years of their national interpretation of the renunciation of force and the threat of use of force in the United Nations Charter.  Or, maybe it is a more expanded view of the Article 51 self-defense concept that may permeate more of the world.

I worry that we have crossed the rubicon into World War III – at least in cyberspace – and the question is whether those cold analysts in all these states in their competitions through proxies or directly are willing to countenance more armed conflict in real space as they advance their interests – personal and/or perceived national interests.

For those of us who have not suffered the physical destruction of armed conflict on our soil within memory, I hope that we listen to those who have participated both as victors and vanquished in such endeavors in the past.  I think in particular of the Canadian veterans of the Dieppe Raid of August 29, 1942 who landed on a beach under the worst circumstances, had to surrender to the Germans, and spent the remainder of the war as POW’s.  I went up to Windsor (from which most of those Canadian soldiers came), Canada for the 70th anniversary commemoration of that raid, inspired to go by the story told to me by a colleague about his father who had served in those forces.  Meeting with these men and women of a certain age, I was particularly moved by the comments of one gentleman who had been an engineer in those forces.  Engineers are the first to arrive and the last to leave in such a raid – with duties to explode things etc to make way for the troops.  His jeep got stuck in the sand which saved his life.  Another engineer jeep that had advanced farther up the beach was exploded by the Germans instantly killing all.  Having been in that war and having lived the harsh conditions for years as a POW in the German hands, I listened as this gentle old man advised me again of the horror of war.

I hope there are enough of those old veterans around all over the world for those charged with protecting/advancing each state’s interest to hear and comprehend their experience.  I recognize the concept of face and saving face that is integral to the sovereign’s vision of itself relative to other sovereigns in the world.  I hope that in their cold logic those analysts who examine how to advance their state’s interests keep in mind that there is loss of face both in dialogue and in war.  Failure in either diminishes the state.  I recognize that lines are drawn at times when the contradictions between states are too much – bleeding over into war.  I hope that the current crop of leaders are up to the task of recognizing and addressing both internal and external contradictions in a manner that both accommodates change without betraying fundamental principles.  In a multipolar world, I recognize that this is terribly difficult to do well.  Annan’s “run” suggests that, as difficult as this all is, we are not doing this as well as we might.  The miscalculation I fear is the one by which states think that their current efforts are good enough.

At least from Toledo, and looking at all the states around the world including my own, I do not believe these past 20 years have shown these efforts are good enough.  And, I would suggest that the peoples of the world, deserve better from all our states whomever their leaders.