Fetus Of A Universal War
The current global situation is a live context to understanding Kissinger’s new book World Order. The events in the last decade leading to today’s crisis in the Middle East may well have prompted the writing of the book, or at least necessitated one like it.
The melees in and around Syria have radiated beyond Syria in the forms of global terrorism, refugee exodus, and other modes of violent or hostile engagement (the “War”). For the first time in over a half a century, the War portends a breakdown in the international order. It has too many dimensions to be easily containable. Tracing its origin to 911 and the decade of interventionist breakups of regimes without effective rebuilding of society and social order, the current situation is beginning to resemble a fetus for a potential universal war. It threatens to drag an increasing number of countries and combatants into the fray and potentially trap them in quagmires and contaminating spirals of violence. It is already global in scope because it takes the terrorists relatively little amount of resources to pull off coordinated major attacks anywhere in the world (see “Terrorism and Caliphate” below).
What is equally disturbing is the reality of divisiveness among nations. The War triggers and exposes the entangling self interests among individual national, sub-national and supra-national groups. They are unable to form a united front in order to rid the world of the terrorist threats and other menaces of war. Instead, everybody is harboring selfish secretive agenda and hatching its own devilish embryo. Unless we manage to strangle these embryos before they hatch into the next stages, the consequences can be holocaustic.
I mentioned two years ago that Syria is a hornet’s nest, best left undisturbed. It is where all the pieces of the Middle East, and the adjacent parts of the world attached to it, are held together in a mish mesh with what amounts to antiquated glue. But they did hold, however tenuously. After the removal of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the unleashing of Arab Spring against established regimes across the region, Syria became the piece in the helter-skelter pile of dominoes that many parties, both inside and outside the region, were tempted to pick. The results have proven disastrous.
More serious and unfortunate, the Western countries are incredibly dictated by their creation of a renewed Cold War with Russia, and their obsession with a demonization of Putin. That extends the geopolitical scope of the Middle East fracas to far beyond a regional tug-of-war. A Putin struggling for his survival can only be an extremely dangerous scenario. And the West has blurred its focus in trying to achieve just that. In the process, the West itself is showing fissures and disunity. It is, therefore, every person for himself at the moment. That is precisely how the Islamic State can thrive.
Today, the territorial boundaries of Syria are practically non-effectual. Instead, together with a large stretch of Iraq, it occupies an epicenter of a geopolitical implosion that threatens to drag multiple countries and the world into an undefined imbalance. Those that are farther away, like America and China, may appear to be more fortunate. But they too risk a reshaping of the global balance to their relative detriment. As such, nobody can truly afford to be a total bystander. And that is how war can become universal.
Terrorism And Caliphate
One year ago. I warned that when the so-called Islamic State (“IS”) declared a caliphate that it will be very troublesome indeed. That is because there always exists within Islam a notion of universality that goes far beyond what the Christian world is cognizant of. Once a caliphate is proclaimed, individual Muslims who heed the call would rise into action spontaneously anywhere in the world (much like a crusade in Christendom, but much vaster in scale and potential effectiveness). The individuals are motivated from the heart and, subjected to propaganda and brain-washing, would direct their passion against perceived injustices, humiliations, and brutalities. For instance, the more Charlie Hebdo taunts Islam and the more innocent civilians get killed by drones and other aerial bombardments, the more fury will be unleashed by those who would heed the call. Anger elevates into hatred, and hatred breeds hatred. This syndrome is then reciprocated in their adversaries. We are locked into such a vicious cycle today. Because of Islam’s global reach and sheer multitude, nowhere is safe. Even China is faced with very real threats from Islamic terrorists which have noticeably escalated in recent months.
By America’s abstention, the IS managed to establish a substantial territorial base stretching from central Iraq into Syria. The caliphate also has active presence in many other countries, such as Yemen. Being spiritual, its development can be rapidly organic and spontaneous. For example, while the world focuses on Syria, the largest training base of loosely-defined terrorists/Jihadists is reported to be in Libya (to no one’s surprise). Moreover, the IS in Syria/Iraq has been more than able to sustain itself socio-economically. It has always been nourished by Saudi and other Sunni Arab’s money and arms, intended to help break up the so-called Shiite Crescent (a legacy resulting from the US ousting of Sunni Saddam Hussein, thereby creating a vacuum filled by majority Shiites stretching from Iran through Iraq into minority Shiite-controlled Syria, and down into Lebanon’s Hezbollah). It is now revealed that Turkey also has been buying the black-market oil from the IS, heavily involved in supplying arms to them, and profiteering from the smuggling of refugees into Europe. All these have made the IS organically viable and very hard to eradicate.
By calling a caliphate, the IS aims to spread the War like a cancer, appealing especially to those Muslims in socio-economically disadvantaged and aggrieved societies, from Africa, Central and South Asia to Malaysia, Philippines and Indonesia (which has over 200 million Muslims). The use of cyber-networks has made its proliferation potentially viral. It runs through cracks all over the world, with countries like Thailand practically a porous exchange depot of clandestine sourcing and servicing. It is a phenomenon mankind has never seen, at least not in the modern age.
The rest of the world is hardly prepared. This is a new mode of warfare that is asymmetrical and unconventional. Instead of figuring out the means to combat this new form of opponent, the countries of the world are going logger-head against one another, settling old scores, inventing new grievances, finding animosities in one another and exposing mistrusts. This pattern of behavior is nothing new in history.
We are past the stage where the War can be expected to end any time soon. It bears resemblance to the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) in the old European context, of a spiral that drags everybody into various stages and episodes of conflict until the sides and antagonisms are blurred and/or elusive. Very likely, this War will grind on for a while and end in a stalemate, as did the Thirty Years’ War. The only variable is the extent of carnage in the process. Hopefully, we can speed things up these days and the War will not take thirty years, nor take as many lives with it.
As with the Thirty Years’ War, this War will give the global community an opportunity (and necessity) to construct or restore a set of principles for a world order in its aftermath. That process has supposedly started in Vienna, but it is only the beginning of what will undoubtedly be a long trek. For comparison, the parties involved in the Thirty Years’ War reached a series of treaties collectively known as the Peace of Westphalia, but it took a full eight years after the exhausted combatants began the negotiations before the Peace was concluded. In the War today, the fighting has only just begun, and proliferating. It is still drawing more parties into the fray. Until the armed combatants have exhausted substantially all remaining options and the battlefield produced either viable outcomes or no alternatives for all the major parties who can sustain the course, the peace will elude us. In the meantime, it will be talk, talk, fight, fight, talk, fight, talk, fight. And the fighting will spread elsewhere.
Above all, the world will need masterful statesmen from many sides, as the jobs are monumental and delicate. And we need to factor in human follies and mistakes that are inevitable. Above all, we need to rebuild viable societies in the process, before disorder resumes yet again. It will take years, not months.
Westphalian Principles And World Order
One of the themes from Kissinger’s World Order is his reference to the Westphalian principles of world order. These principles were the result of the complicated and realpolitik lessons the European world learned from the tragedies of the Thirty Years’ War. The Westphalian principles stipulate mutual respect for national sovereignty, non-interference in each others’ domestic politics, and collective action to achieve relative balance of power among nations and to keep their mutual ambitious adventures in check. These principles, argues Kissinger, have kept relative peace (or absence of generalized warfare) in Europe for well over three hundred years, interrupted only three times, once by Napoleon, then by WWI, and then by Hitler and imperial Japan. In each instance, the antagonists had abandoned or disregarded the Westphalian principles. This is happening once again, since 911.
The Westphalian principles contrast sharply with the prevailing American principles of exceptionalism, combined with a missionary imperative for intervention, notwithstanding brazen double standards in the conduct of world affairs, and increased use of dirty tricks to destabilize target regimes in recent years.
China put forward the Five Principles Of Peaceful Coexistence in the 1950’s among non-aligned nations. They still exist today as the tenet in China’s foreign policy. These principles closely resemble the Westphalian principles. That perhaps explains why Kissinger keeps proposing that China makes her views known on the subject of his book (which Xi Jingping did recently in Seattle, with Kissinger expressing approval).
As China carries more weight in the world, she must play more important a role. Hopefully, it will help restore some semblance of order, and not create yet more serious conflicts. But as everybody understands, the latter is very much up to the US also.