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War tends to be so destructive that it is almost always harmful to both sides, regardless of who wins, says the writer. Picture: 123RF
War tends to be so destructive that it is almost always harmful to both sides, regardless of who wins, says the writer. Picture: 123RF

As SA heads towards the 2024 elections, most political parties are focusing their message on pressing domestic issues: the economy, unemployment, energy, and so on. Foreign policy, and the question how SA can protect its interests in an increasingly conflicted world, receives comparatively little attention. But perhaps it should.

Most measures of global conflict show that war is increasing in the world. The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project Index, which attempts to quantify the general level of conflict worldwide, finds that there was a 40% increase in global conflict in 2020-23.

Another index, the Australia-based Global Peace Index, reported an astounding 96% increase in global conflict-related deaths in 2022-23. Governments everywhere are responding by arming themselves: a recent report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute in Sweden found that global military expenditure increased by almost 7% in 2022-23.

Disturbingly, many of these conflicts are of a type that was once thought to be going extinct: conflicts between two or more governments. The Russia-Ukraine war is perhaps the most prominent example of this type of conflict, and it shows no sign of abating. On the contrary, Russia is now advancing on many fronts, and President Vladimir Putin appears to have staked much of his domestic legitimacy to the promise of a successful conquest.

Israel and Iran have waged a secret war for decades using tools such as proxies and cyber weapons, but in 2024 they began striking at each other directly

Israel and Iran have waged a secret war for decades using tools such as proxies and cyber weapons, but in 2024 they began striking at each other directly.

In 2023, Azerbaijan took advantage of a distracted Russia to recapture the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenia. In South America, Venezuela has laid a claim to most of the territory of the neighbouring state of Guyana. And in Africa, we may yet see another deadly conflict between Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo.

Wars between governments are, potentially, far more dangerous than other types of conflicts. Governments can mobilise entire societies and wield dangerous weapons — including, for some countries, nuclear arms. The deadliest wars in world history have been fought between governments; for example, World War 2 is estimated to have killed 70-million to 85-million people. Many of the global governance institutions that exist today, including the UN and the organisations that evolved into the EU, were explicitly designed to prevent such disasters from occurring again.

And yet, in the aftermath of the Cold War, the study of interstate war fell into disfavour. Many scholars believed that warfare between modern states had become too costly and dangerous for most governments to contemplate. Moreover, globalisation had connected the world through networks of trade and commerce. It was widely believed that it would be safer and more profitable for countries to achieve their economic interests through commerce, rather than using armies to seize resources from their neighbours.

To the extent that this globalised system would be threatened, the danger would come from groups such as terrorists, mafias, and armed rebels, rather than states.

With the return of interstate war, however, there has now been a resurgence of interest in older theories that seek to explain why such wars occur. One of the most well-established ideas in political science is the argument that there might be a relationship between war and “polarity” — that is to say, the number of powerful states in the system.

Kenneth Waltz, one of the most influential political scientists of the 20th century, believed that a “bipolar” system (in which there are two major powers that balance against each other) tends to be stable. By contrast, he argued that a “multipolar” system (in which there are many competing powers) tends to be unstable and prone to war. Today, many observers believe we have shifted from the bipolar system of the Cold War into a new era of multipolarity.

The increasing complexity of multipolarity intersects with another idea, which is that war represents a type of “commitment problem”. In principle, war tends to be so destructive that it is almost always harmful to both sides, regardless of who wins.

However, even if two countries would be better off resolving their differences through peaceful negotiation, they might not trust the other side to stick to their promises in the long term.

This problem becomes especially tricky in a situation where the balance of power is rapidly changing. For, if a government is negotiating with an adversary that is rapidly growing in power, it might worry that the adversary will attempt to renegotiate the terms of the deal in another 10 or 20 years. Faced with this dilemma, some governments might be tempted to roll the dice on the prospect of a successful war in the short term.

Perhaps the most sinister theory that has emerged from recent political science is the idea of the “Thucydides Trap”, a term coined by the American political scientist Graham Allison. Essentially a supercharged version of the idea of war as a commitment problem, the Thucydides Trap describes a situation in which a rising power and a declining power are drawn by mutual fear and suspicion into a conflict that ends up harming both of them. Allison argues that this dynamic helps to explain repeated cases of major wars across the centuries, and suggests that there is a genuine danger that the US and China might fall into such a trap.

This argument is controversial; critics argue the Thucydides Trap encourages policymakers in both the US and China to think about their relationship in conflictual terms. However, Allison has always insisted that the goal of his research was warn about the possible danger and thereby decrease the likelihood of a major war.

To what extent should SA concern itself with the lofty question of global peace? On the one hand, measured in terms of the size of its economy or its armed forces, SA is only a middle-ranking power in the international system. On the other hand, smaller states can have an impact on global politics, if they are willing to co-operate in intelligent and strategic ways. Furthermore, even if SA’s foreign policy can make only a marginal difference to the future of world politics, this might nevertheless have a high expected value, even if it leads to only a small reduction in the risk of a future scenario that is particularly catastrophic.

• Dr Caromba is a researcher at the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection.

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