From endless war to endless war
Announcing Russia’s decision to annex four parts of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin laid out an ambitious agenda to upend decades of the U.S.-led global order. He is proposing that authoritarian regimes challenge Washington, and he believes that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine this year is one example of how Moscow will weaken the West’s power. This comes at a price — not only for Ukrainians, but also for countries around the world because adversaries of the U.S. and other warmongers may see an opening to start smaller wars.
When President George H.W. Bush proposed “a new world order” in 1990, he suggested working with Russia and other states to create a world “where the strong respect the rights of the weak.” This was supposed to be a world of “rules,” in which countries didn’t invade one another or annex each other’s territory. Instead, international organizations and mediation were supposed to replace war.
The optimism and naïveté of the 1990s gave way to a more cynical global outlook after 9/11. Many critics of U.S. policy over the past 20 years have asserted that the U.S. engaged in “endless wars.” A recently published account of President Obama’s January 2016 thoughts on the upcoming Trump administration reveals he said that Donald Trump likely wouldn’t “launch big wars.” Obama wanted to end U.S. involvement in foreign wars. This creates a kind of policy continuity from 2008 to the present, with American presidents preferring an end to Washington’s involvement in conflicts. This shift coincides with two other policy decisions — first, the decision to shift to confronting Russia and China, rather than fighting a global war on terror, and encouraging U.S. partners and allies to do more.
The preference in Washington to move away from “endless wars” has not resulted in those wars ending. Adversaries such as Russia have rushed in to fill the vacuum when U.S. power seems weaker; the result is a more dangerous world, with more wars likely to occur. This seems counterintuitive: Why would America’s seeking to end its role in conflicts make conflict more likely? We only have to look around the world to see a few examples of how this is happening.
On Sept. 28, American forces in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq had to scramble an F-15 to shoot down an Iranian drone. Iran had launched 73 ballistic missiles and dozens of drones to attack Kurdish groups in Iraq and one of the drones wandered too close to U.S. forces, becoming a threat. That Iran felt impunity to fire a massive number of missiles and drones into Iraq shows that it knew there would be no retaliation.
While Iran has attacked Iraq, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have had border clashes, as have Armenia and Azerbaijan. Ethiopia is increasing its battle against rebels in Tigray province, and neighboring Eritrea is building up troops. The multibillion-dollar Nord Stream 1 pipelines apparently were sabotaged in a mysterious incident that many Western countries think Russia carried out.
All of these wars, from Ukraine to Ethiopia, are not entirely new. Russia was meddling in Ukraine in the 1990s and Ethiopia was at war with Eritrea in the past. However, there appears to be a growing sense of impunity when it comes to these conflicts today. Many countries may be taking advantage of a void in U.S. leadership to launch or revisit conflicts. They sense the world order is shifting and when that happens, more conflict arises as countries jostle for position, similar to what happened in the lead-up to the First and Second World Wars. This is why Iran felt empowered to launch dozens of cruise missiles at Iraq; it’s why Russia felt it could invade Ukraine.
The new image of “endless war” may not be the U.S. fighting somewhere, such as in Afghanistan; instead, it may be Russia fighting in Ukraine, and other countries involved in new conflicts. For the U.S. and Western allies this means the burden of continuing involvement in conflicts will not end. One cannot simply wish away world conflicts and hope that authoritarian adversaries will stop invading other countries.
Seth J. Frantzman is executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis. A former assistant professor of American Studies at Al-Quds University, he covers the Middle East for The Jerusalem Post and is a Ginsburg/Milstein writing fellow at the Middle East Forum. He is the author of “Drone Wars.” Follow him on Twitter @sfrantzman.