The end of the Cold War brought about a new era of optimism. Conflict was wound down in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Angola, Mozambique and the United Nations brokered an accord that saw Vietnam withdraw from Cambodia. When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990 and posed a threat to Saudi Arabia the response was a brutally overwhelming demonstration of force from a United States led coalition that included Western and Arab states. A brave new world beckoned in which the United States would act as global policeman under the auspices of the UN. This short period of triumphalism was known as the ‘New World Order’.
The next decade saw these hopes dashed. In Algeria the democratic project was cut short when the Army realised that the Islamist FIS would win and a bloody, decade long civil war erupted. In Central Africa the decades long animosity between Hutu and Tutsi escalated from massacres to genocide as up to a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered. In Europe, Yugoslavia splintered violently and from the horror in Bosnia Herzegovina a new term entered the lexicon of international relations: ‘ethnic cleansing’. In the Caucasus during 1991 the Chechen secessionists broke free of the Russian Federation and Russia prevaricated for three years before launching an ill fated invasion that led to a bloody 21 month war. The post Cold War would be a period in which inter-state violence was significantly reduced, but intra-state violence characterised by entrenched hatred and ethnic violence would be the norm. Irregular warfare, which includes insurgency, guerrilla warfare, and terrorism, became the dominant forms of armed violence and distinctions between soldier and civilian, friend and enemy, war and peace became blurred. In the years since the end of the Cold War four overlapping trends in armed conflict have emerged
The event that would come to define the violence of the early 21st century was the 9/11 attacks on the United States. Armed violence was, and is, prevalent across the world, with Central Africa and northern Nigeria being only two examples, but 9/11 struck at a global superpower and produced a major, if flawed, response. The subsequent Global War on Terror (GWOT) led to the demise of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq. The war against Al-Qaeda has a had a major impact on the fortunes of countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan and the demonstrable ability of the United States and her allies to invade Afghanistan and Iraq is matched by their failure in their occupation and goals of state building. This, the first trend, more accurately understood as the ‘terror wars’, has seen Al-Qaeda crippled, but with numerous offshoots, or ‘franchises’ emerging, one of which was in Iraq and would develop into the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq (ISIS). As of 2014, ISIS had become the primary focus of the terror wars, effectively becoming an insurgency and at the same time influencing terrorist attacks in the US and Europe.
A consequence of the focus of the terror wars on Afghanistan and Iraq is that other protracted conflicts driven by ethnicity, identity, or religion, but with specifically local concerns were overlooked. These are the second major trend and include Kashmir, the Caucasus, Darfur, the Great Lakes region of Central Africa and the continuing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The violence in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia are also examples of this trend. While religion can rarely be removed as a factor, it is ethnicity and identity which underpin these conflicts, exacerbated by competition over resources and territory.
A third major trend is the ill-fated ‘Arab Spring’, a convulsion that has reached across the entire Arab world and in its worst outcomes has seen Libya, Yemen and Syria descend into civil war, and the rise of the Islamic State insurgency in Syria and Iraq. These have local causes and in the cases of Iraq and Syria there are also roots in the occupation of Iraq by the United States and United Kingdom. The various uprisings and protests that began in 2010 came about through the demands of the peoples of each country for more representative governance, better quality of life and human rights. The response by governments has varied from concessions in Jordan to outright repression in Syria with only Tunisia moving towards democratic governance. The Islamic State insurgency forms only one part of the Syrian civil war and is but one part of the social and political problems besetting Iraq, but their assumption of the role of global jihad and threat to Iraq has ensured western military involvement.
The fourth major theme is the re-emergence of Cold War rivalries. In truth, these never went away as despite the withdrawal of US and Soviet forces from Europe and reductions in nuclear weapons submarines still patrolled with nuclear warheads and the question of Russia’s place in the world remained unresolved. Tied into this was the rise of China as a major economic and political power, one increasingly able to assert her influence. In Europe, the European Union (EU) has expanded to include former communist states, including Bulgaria, Poland and Romania, and the former Soviet Republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. NATO has also expanded as countries seek the security of membership of the alliance, the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania being ones that the Russian leadership has found hard to accept. The consequences are that the Russian leadership is under increasing pressure from the political and socio-economic power of the EU and faces a closer and larger NATO alliance. Coupled with these are concerns about the welfare and status of ethnic Russians in surrounding countries that were once allies.In the Asia-Pacific region, China’s military modernisation and increasing assertiveness has led the United States to move its focus away from Europe and to allies in the region. Such rivalries are important as they influence events in countries and regions where there are already political problems.
Armed conflicts rarely have a sole cause, much as opposing parties may wish to argue otherwise (the finger being pointed firmly in the other side’s direction) and our final example is no exception to the rule. In 2014 a revolution occurred in Ukraine after the President made a delayed association agreement with the EU. Protests then broke out in eastern and southern Ukraine, including Crimea, against closer links to the EU. This escalated into the annexation of Crimea by Russia and the outbreak of armed conflict between separatists in eastern Ukraine and government forces. The conflict in the east has been supported by Russia in form of manpower and equipment, despite the denials of the Russian government. At the heart of the violence in Ukraine is a division between a western orientated western region and a smaller Russophile eastern region (now termed ‘the Donbass’) and widespread political corruption. Ukraine had been leaning towards future EU membership and was a potential new NATO member. Such a state of affairs was anathema to the Russian leadership and provides a partial explanation for its actions in Ukraine and the rapidity of the rise of separatist fighting forces in the Donbass, as well as the military capability of the separatists. There were clearly significant political problems in Ukraine prior to the 2014 revolution, how much of this is due to ‘hybrid warfare’ on the part of the Russian government remains to be seen, but the outcome for Ukraine was dire and EU-Russia and US-Russia relations are at a new low over the conflict.