What Is Behind the Global Explosion of Violent Conflict? write Emma Beals and Peter Salisbury for Foreign Affairs news source.
Violent conflict is increasing in multiple parts of the world
In addition to Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel, and the Israeli offensive on Gaza, raising the specter of a wider war in the Middle East, there has been a surge in violence across Syria, including a wave of armed drone attacks that threatened U.S. troops stationed there. In the Caucasus in late September, Azerbaijan seized the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh—forcing an estimated 150,000 ethnic Armenians to flee their historical home in the territory and setting the stage for renewed fighting with Armenia. Meanwhile, in Africa, the civil war in Sudan rages on, conflict has returned to Ethiopia, and a military takeover of Niger in July was the sixth coup across the Sahel and West Africa since 2020.
In fact, according to an analysis of data gathered by the Uppsala Conflict Data Program, conducted by the Peace Research Institute Oslo, the number, intensity, and length of conflicts worldwide is at its highest level since before the end of the Cold War. The study found that there were 55 active conflicts in 2022, with the average one lasting about eight to 11 years, a substantial increase from the 33 active conflicts lasting an average of seven years a decade earlier.
Notwithstanding the increase in conflicts, it has been more than a decade since an internationally mediated comprehensive peace deal has been brokered to end a war. UN-led or UN-assisted political processes in Libya, Sudan, and Yemen have stalled or collapsed. Seemingly frozen conflicts—in countries including Ethiopia, Israel, and Myanmar—are thawing at an alarming pace. With the Russian invasion of Ukraine, high-intensity conflict has even returned to Europe, which had previously enjoyed several decades of relative peace and stability. Alongside the proliferation of war has come record levels of human upheaval. In 2022, a quarter of the world’s population—two billion people—lived in conflict-affected areas. The number of people forcibly displaced worldwide reached a record 108 million by the start of 2023.
Until now, the international response from European Union member states, the United Kingdom, and the United States, all of whom invested heavily in peace building in the wake of the Cold War, has been to shift the goal posts of “peace” from conflict resolution to conflict management. But events in the Middle East and elsewhere are a reminder that conflict can be managed for only so long. As fighting flares worldwide and the root causes of conflict remain unresolved, traditional peace building and development tools look increasingly ineffective. The result is that aid bills grow, refugees are displaced, and fractured societies continue to suffer. A new approach to resolving and managing conflicts and their impact is urgently needed.
Having fallen between 1990 and 2007, the total number of conflicts worldwide began to rise in 2010, the Uppsala Conflict Data Program found. The number of civil and interstate wars, and the fatalities they cause, are now at their highest levels since the mid-1980s, and the UN declared in January that the number of violent conflicts worldwide is at its highest level since the end of World War II. Wars that are halted are increasingly likely to reignite within a year, as happens about five times a year on average.
Wars are becoming more common, and difficult to end, for a number of reasons. One is the changing nature of conflict. Twenty-first-century wars tend to be fought between states and armed groups committed to different causes with access to relatively advanced weaponry and other forms of technology, as well as money earned from natural resources and criminal activity. Complex, multiparty conflict became the norm after the Soviet Union collapsed, which removed the binary organizing principle of West-Soviet competition that shaped many earlier wars. More recently, conflicts have also become increasingly internationalized. Countries including Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States regularly become drawn, whether indirectly or directly, into foreign wars, as has been seen repeatedly in conflicts in the Middle East and Africa. The more local and international parties that are involved in a conflict, the harder it is to end it.
The UN, once the go-to conflict mediator, has been sidelined. The UN’s loss of influence has been driven by geopolitical competition, which has divided powerful states. The UN Security Council is particularly affected by these forces. It has seized up, plagued by growing international rivalries between the United States, Russia, and China and by an increasingly transactional approach to international politics. Deadlock at the Security Council means that the UN can offer neither solutions nor censure for war crimes or aggression. Security Council–mandated peacekeeping and transition teams are becoming rarer and are often short-lived, and UN envoys, peacekeepers, and other officials increasingly lack leverage and credibility with conflicting parties. This June, for example, Mali sought the withdrawal of a decadelong UN peacekeeping presence because of tensions between the government and the mission, including a disagreement over their role and mandate. Sudan’s rival warlords reportedly refused to even speak to their country’s UN Special Envoy Volker Perthes, before he resigned in September. The UN peacekeeping chief, Jean-Pierre Lacroix, has stated that divisions within the Security Council mean UN missions are no longer able to achieve “the ultimate goal of peacekeeping”—devising durable political solutions—and must instead settle for “intermediate goals” such as “preserving cease-fires.”
Increasingly overwhelmed by a series of global crises and new policy priorities, including Russian aggression in Europe and an assertive China, many high-level policymakers in the United States and Europe see limited value in intervening militarily or investing significant political capital in far-flung conflicts that they regard as of little strategic consequence. Attention has instead shifted to dealing with the consequences of conflicts—waves of refugees and cross-border smuggling of drugs and weapons, in particular—rather than their causes.
Lowering the bar
Faced with this array of challenges, the perception of what is possible among UN officials and Western countries who once threw their weight behind peacemaking—principally EU member-states led by France and Germany, as well as the United Kingdom and the United States—is changing. A former UN official who worked for decades on international peace processes has noted that the numerous barriers to mediation make it “almost impossible” to end modern conflicts. In practice, UN intervention today often serves to de-escalate conflicts or, in a best-case scenario, initiate a fragile political process that few expect to work. In private, many veteran mediators and policy officials have argued that the ambitions of many international mediation efforts are tacitly limited to bilateral dealmaking designed to achieve short-term détente or limited goals, such as the 2022 agreement that allowed Ukrainian grain to pass through the Black Sea. Marginalized during negotiations, and lacking broad peace agreements and political transitions in which they can play a significant role, UN mediators have lost much of their raison d’être. Most other peace-building tools—including inclusive political dialogue, accountability, transitional justice, and security sector reform—cannot succeed without political processes to anchor them.
Elsewhere, the aspirations of many Western diplomats have quietly shifted to pursuing or supporting containment or de-escalation, avoiding the search for peaceful and sustainable resolution to conflicts. Efforts by the United States to describe the Abraham Accords—which sought to normalize Arab relations with Israel—as “a peace process” highlight this change. The accords in practice fail to address the drivers of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as has become disastrously clear in the Israel-Hamas war.
International aspirations for long-term solutions are particularly low in the Middle East and North Africa. The current phase of Yemen’s civil war has slowed to a near-halt following negotiations between the Houthi rebels—who sparked the conflict by seizing the capital in 2014—and Saudi Arabia, which intervened to oust them in 2015. But the UN and the Houthis’ domestic rivals have been excluded from negotiations, and the chances of a meaningful political settlement appear low. Many Yemenis, including the veteran researcher Nadwa al-Dawsari, expect either a return to fighting sooner or later, or the continuation of a limbo state of “no war, no peace” if the Houthi-Saudi channel remains the main negotiation track.
Syria’s so-called frozen conflict is also seeing an alarming but predictable uptick in violence and instability because of the lack of progress of negotiations. On one track, negotiations between the Arab Liaison Committee, which is composed of Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Egypt and the Arab League, and the Syrian government have stalled. At the same time, the UN-led peace process in Syria is detached from the conflict’s drivers. It is pursuing limited objectives, including a new constitution to be drafted by a committee that has not met in 18 months, and a yet-to-begin process, led by the UN, that seeks to build mutual confidence between Syria and the Arab Liaison Committee, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States. This process is largely divorced from current political and military developments, including a recent spike in violence across the country.
Violence cannot be contained
Until recently, some international officials appeared to think an end to fighting was a good-enough goal. In late September, U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, touting the Biden administration’s foreign policy bona fides, claimed that the Middle East was “quieter today than it has been in two decades.” But Hamas’s brutal attacks in Israel a week after his comments and Israel’s ongoing military response in Gaza, as well as surging violence across Syria, show the limits of containment.
Containment does not resolve conflicts and requires active management. This means proactive efforts to address grievances, quell violence, advance negotiations, and take action to deal with increasing instability or unexpected events. Whereas reducing violence is a sensible initial goal, once conflicts have been de-escalated, attention all too often shifts elsewhere. It is easy, then, to miss warning signs that fighting is about to restart. This is a particular problem when armed actors or regimes remain in control after failed peace processes or during political transitions. Without accountability for their past misdeeds, such groups feel free to repeat violence. For this reason, Sudan’s generals appear to have believed that they would not be held to account by the UN, their international backers (particularly Saudi Arabia and the UAE), or the states engaged in supporting the transition process (including Norway, the United Kingdom, and the United States) when they began to fight each other in April. Sudanese activists and diplomats based in the capital rightly pointed out that they had repeatedly warned that the men who have governed the country since the 2019 military coup were gearing up for war with one another. But these warnings were either dismissed or watered down in Western capitals, including Washington, in part because no conflict had yet broken out and because officials did not see Sudan as a priority.
Both regional actors and Western diplomats and analysts have long argued that the status quo in Gaza and the West Bank is unsustainable. But international attention has been focused elsewhere. Regional normalization efforts led by the Trump administration built ties between Israel and former Arab adversaries including Bahrain and the UAE. The Abraham Accords have been sustained by the Biden administration, which has energetically pursued an Israeli-Saudi deal. But these efforts have completely failed to address the drivers of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Despite this, even as the war between Israel and Hamas escalated, U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, declared that Washington still hoped to continue Israeli-Saudi normalization negotiations.
The aid trap
All too often, humanitarian aid has become a panacea for managing unresolved conflict. Take Syria, where, 12 years after the war began, the UN aid funding requests for 2023 included $4.81 billion for programs inside the country and $5.7 billion to support refugees. Similar sums are being expended in Sudan and Myanmar, both of which are suffering conflicts and have vacant UN political envoy roles and no discernible peace process. Violence grinds on unabated, and civilians subsist on meager aid provision—in areas where they can be reached. As the number of conflicts rises, the price tag for aid keeps growing.
Donors cannot keep up with the growing cost of war. Funding for aid appeals increased by an average of ten percent year on year between 2012 and 2018 but then tapered off. Yet UN appeals for funds have continued to grow, quadrupling in number between 2013 and today. Of the 406 million people in need of humanitarian assistance in 2022, 87 percent lived in a country in the midst of high-intensity conflict, and 83 percent in a protracted crisis.
Aid, in these circumstances, cannot be the only answer. Refugee return requires a fundamental shift in local dynamics that allows those fleeing violence and persecution to safely return home, access their properties, and reintegrate into society without discrimination. At the same time, postconflict justice and development require management by suitable governments that are willing to address the violations committed during the conflict and provide adequate governance free of discrimination to facilitate a productive economic environment in which corruption and illicit activity are combated. Locally led peace building that heals the social fractures caused by conflict requires civic space to conduct dialogue, address grievances, and secure inclusive decision-making and governance.
Blessed are the peacemakers
The world is at an inflection point, and it is still possible to galvanize support for a new approach to resolving conflict. To achieve this, creative and courageous leadership is needed from a broad coalition of politicians, business leaders, the UN, peace builders, and local communities—aligned with a renewed ambition to make peace. Without aspiring to, and placing a value on, sustainable peace, it is all too easy to accept least bad outcomes and to forget the enormous human and resource toll of doing so.
First and foremost, any effort at renewing peacemaking for the twenty-first century needs political will from powerful states, principally the United States and the other permanent members of the UN Security Council. This point was explicitly made by UN Secretary-General António Guterres in his recently published policy brief, “A New Agenda for Peace,” a vision that places the responsibility for securing the peace and upholding international norms in the hands of individual countries rather than the multilateral system. If governments that say they believe in a rules-based order—including those in Brussels, London, and Washington—are willing to uphold international laws and norms, then there may be some hope for the future. But if they are not, then the current race to the bottom is certain to continue.
More accurate language referring to “peace” may help these governments reengage with the struggle for it. Describing negotiations over a cease-fire as a “peace process,” as if peace were just around the corner rather than years or decades away, all too often leads to early claims that it has been achieved just because the guns have temporarily fallen silent. This misconception leads to disengagement. New, more accurate framing that differentiates between stages of conflict management, conflict resolution, and peace building, as well as a more honest account of the prospects for progress into the next stage, would lead to a more honest account of what is possible and practical—or morally acceptable. In particular, this new approach to language would help to establish realistic expectations of what can be achieved in the short, medium, and long terms. It would also prevent the all too familiar rush to declare success that scuppers the continuation of many peace processes.
Most important, a new approach to mediation is needed. Formal peace-building processes and practices were expanded and professionalized during the post–Cold War period, and they presume or require dynamics—including geopolitical cooperation and successful peace settlements and political transitions—that no longer exist. Today’s world is defined by geopolitical competition and requires something very different. In responding to these challenges, mediators must become more creative and collaborative. They must become advocates for their own cause, making the public case for peace, and they must secure diplomatic support and engage with a wide variety of groups, including civil society. In particular, mediators must work closely with, and empower, local peace builders, absorbing local knowledge and involving key players in peace processes, which must no longer seek to perpetuate status quo power dynamics. Mediators must also work closely with—and at times provide support to—regional blocs, play a greater role in supporting bilateral negotiations, and empower conflicting parties to create sustainable peace once the guns have been silenced.
Meanwhile, those seeking to make peace will need to engage nontraditional actors—middle powers, humanitarian organizations, and actors from the private sector. These partnerships should harness the potential of the environmental, social, and corporate governance agenda to carve out a role for the private sector in supporting peace, forge new models of geopolitical cooperation, and use aid to support peace rather than serve as a substitute for it. These are big asks. But they are also the basic requirements for building sustainable peace, stopping the proliferation of conflict, and aiming for more than the temporary quelling of violence.
Did you subscribe to our daily Newsletter?
It’s Free! Click here to Subscribe
Source: Foreign Affairs