10/01/2022

The wars in 2022

After a year that saw an assault on the U.S. Capitol, horrific bloodshed in Ethiopia, a Taliban triumph in Afghanistan, great-power showdowns over Ukraine and Taiwan amid dwindling U.S. ambition on the global stage, COVID-19, and a climate emergency, it’s easy to see a world careening off the tracks.

But maybe one could argue things are better than they seem.

After all, by some measures, war is in retreat. The number of people killed in fighting worldwide has mostly declined since 2014 —if you count only those dying directly in combat—. According to the Uppsala Conflict Data Program, figures through the end of 2020 show battle deaths are down from seven years ago, mostly because Syria’s terrible slaughter has largely subsided.

The number of major wars has also descended from a recent peak. Despite Russian President Vladimir Putin menacing Ukraine, states rarely go to war with one another. More local conflicts rage than ever, but they tend to be of lower intensity. For the most part, 21st-century wars are less lethal than their 20th-century predecessors.

Putin rides a horse during his vacation in Siberia — Image Alexey Druzhinin/AFP/Getty Images

A more cautious United States might also have an upside. The 1990s bloodletting in Bosnia, Rwanda, and Somalia; the post-9/11 Afghanistan and Iraq wars; Sri Lanka’s murderous campaign against the Tamils; and the collapse of Libya and South Sudan all happened at a time of —and, in some cases, thanks to— a dominant U.S.-led West. That recent U.S. presidents have refrained from toppling enemies by force is a good thing. Besides, one shouldn’t overstate Washington’s sway even in its post-Cold War heyday; absent an invasion, it has always struggled to bend recalcitrant leaders —former Sudanese leader Omar al-Bashir, for example— to its will.

Still, if these are silver linings, they’re awfully thin.

Battle deaths, after all, tell just a fraction of the story. Yemen’s conflict kills more people, mostly women and young children, due to starvation or preventable disease than violence. Millions of Ethiopians suffer acute food insecurity because of the country’s civil war. Fighting involving Islamists elsewhere in Africa often doesn’t entail thousands of deaths but drives millions of people from their homes and causes humanitarian devastation.

Afghanistan’s violence levels have sharply dropped since the Taliban seized power in August, but starvation, caused mostly by Western policies, could leave more Afghans dead —including millions of children— than past decades of fighting. Worldwide, the number of displaced people, most due to war, is at a record high. Battle deaths may be down, in other words, but suffering due to conflict is not.

Apparently, the wars of the 21st century are less lethal than those of the 20th century — Image AP

Moreover, states compete fiercely even when they’re not fighting directly. They do battle with cyberattacks, disinformation campaigns, election interference, economic coercion, and by instrumentalizing migrants. Major and regional powers vie for influence, often through local allies, in war zones. Proxy fighting has not so far sparked direct confrontation among meddling states. Indeed, some navigate the danger adeptly: Russia and Turkey maintain cordial relations despite backing competing sides in the Syrian and Libyan conflicts. Still, foreign involvement in conflicts creates the risk that local clashes light bigger fires.

Standoffs involving major powers look increasingly dangerous. Putin may gamble on another incursion into Ukraine. A China-U.S. clash over Taiwan is unlikely in 2022, but the Chinese and U.S. militaries increasingly bump up against each another around the island and in the South China Sea, with all the peril of entanglement that entails. If the Iran nuclear deal collapses, which now seems probable, the United States or Israel may attempt —possibly even early in 2022— to knock out Iranian nuclear facilities, likely prompting Tehran to sprint toward weaponization while lashing out across the region. One mishap or miscalculation, in other words, and interstate war could make a comeback.

And whatever one thinks of U.S. influence, its decline inevitably brings hazards, given that American might and alliances have structured global affairs for decades. No one should exaggerate the decay: U.S. forces are still deployed around the globe, NATO stands, and Washington’s recent Asia diplomacy shows it can still marshal coalitions like no other power. But with much in flux, Washington’s rivals are probing to see how far they can go.

Trump supporters storm the US Capitol on January 6, 2021 — Image Leah Millis / Reuters

Today’s most dangerous flash points —whether Ukraine, Taiwan, or confrontations with Iran— relate in some way to the world struggling for a new equilibrium. Dysfunction in the United States hardly helps. A delicate transition of global power requires cool heads and predictability, not fraught elections and policy seesawing from one administration to the next.

As for COVID-19, the pandemic has exacerbated the world’s worst humanitarian disasters and propelled the impoverishment, rising living costs, inequality, and joblessness that fuel popular anger. It had a hand this past year in a power grab in Tunisia, Sudan’s coup, and protests in Colombia. The economic hurt COVID-19 is unleashing could strain some countries to a breaking point. Although it’s a leap from discontent to protest, from protest to crisis, and from crisis to conflict, the pandemic’s worst symptoms may yet lie ahead.

So while today’s troubling undercurrents haven’t yet set battle deaths soaring or the world ablaze, things still look bad. As this year’s list shows all too starkly, they could easily get worse.


The original extended version can be consulted at International Crisis Group

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Desde 2006 ha sido un rostro habitual en televisión, alcanzando gran popularidad gracias a 'Operación triunfo' en Telecinco. En radio ha sido tertuliano de Luis del Olmo en 'Protagonistas' y colaborador semanal de Julia Otero en Onda Cero, y en prensa columnista del diario ADN. Su primer libro, 'El pensamiento negativo', entró en la lista de los 10 libros de no ficción más vendidos en 2008 y llegó a las 15 ediciones; el segundo, 'El sentimiento negativo' (2009) va por la quinta, igual que su primera novela, 'Que la muerte te acompañe' (2011). Es socio fundador y director creativo ejecutivo de la agencia Aftershare.tv y de 60dB, productora de televisión asociada al Grupo Mediaset.'In the future the emotion will be the medium, and hopefully that will bring a more human world'. Bachelor of Business Administration and Management and MBA from ESADE, where he has been professor of 'Old creativity to the new economy', currently gives lectures and courses in the master Branded Content in communication and advertising Elisava School of Design, attached to the Universitat Pompeu Fabra. In his long career in the world of advertising and communications, worked as a copywriter and creative director at some of the most recognized agencies in Spain, as Bassat Ogilvy & Mather, Saatchi & Saatchi, Euro RSCG or SCPF. Since 2006 he has been a regular face on television, reaching great popularity thanks to 'Operation Triumph' in Telecinco. In radio was commentator with Luis del Olmo in 'Protagonistas' and Julia Otero weekly contributor on Onda Cero, and newspaper columnist for ADN. His first book, 'The negative thinking', went into the top 10 nonfiction best sellers in 2008 and reached the 15 editions. The second book, 'Negative sentiment' (2009) is on the fifth, as his first novel, 'Let death be with you' (2011). Founding partner and executive creative director of the agency Aftershare.tv and of 60dB, television producer associated with Mediaset Group." 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Más tarde pasó a trabajar con el fotógrafo de rock Joel Brodsky y fue director de fotografía en vídeos musicales de bandas clásicas del grunge como Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains o Stone Temple Pilots, y del mundo del hip-hop, como Public Enemy, Naz o Redman. Su primer vídeo para Atlantic Records fue para la banda de heavy metal Testament, y después dirigió otros para Sting, Bon Jovi, Vanessa Mae o Diana Krall. Su carrera como director de documentales comenzó con 'Karaoke Man' (2003), al que siguieron 'The Trial of the St Patrick's Four' (2006), 'Got Stem Cells?' (2007) y 'Blind Spot' (2008). 'Blind Spot' —Punto ciego— trata sobre la actual crisis energética, explorando el asunto del pico petrolero y sus implicaciones en el futuro de la civilización. Incluye entrevistas con el sociólogo William R Catton, el biólogo evolucionista Jason Bradford, el analista medioambiental Lester Brown, el escritor Bill McKibben y el físico Albert Allen Barlett, entre otros. 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Friedrich Engels es una de las figuras más interesantes y contradictorias del siglo XIX. Nacido en el seno de una próspera familia mercantil del oeste de Alemania, trabajó en la industria del algodón de Manchester y disfrutó de la cómoda vida de clase media de un caballero victoriano. Sin embargo, también fue co-fundador del comunismo internacional, una ideología que en el siglo XX llegó a gobernar a un tercio de la raza humana y que a principios del siglo XXI, y después de una aplicación decepcionante, todavía sigue viva. Fue además co-autor de El Manifiesto Comunista e hizo posible que Karl Marx pudiera dedicarse en cuerpo y alma a escribir El Capital.

Tristram Hunt es historiador, periodista y ex-parlamentario laborista, miembro de la Royal Historical Society y director desde 2017 del Victoria & Albert Museum de Londres. En su libro El gentleman comunista analiza de manera ingeniosa y amena cómo Engels, uno de los grandes vividores de la Gran Bretaña victoriana, pudo reconciliar su exuberante vida personal con la gestación de una filosofía política tirando a estricta.

Estatua en honor de Marx y Engels en Berlín — Imagen Sean Galup

Friedrich Engels is one of the most interesting and contradictory figures of the 19th century. Born into a prosperous West German merchant family, he spent his career working in the Manchester cotton industry and enjoying the comfortable middle-class life of a Victorian gentleman. Yet Engels was also the co-founder of international communism, the philosophy which in the 20th century came to control one third of the human race and that at the beginning of the 21st century, and after a disappointing application, is still alive. He was also a co-author of The Communist Manifesto and made it possible for Karl Marx to devote himself body and soul to writing Das Kapital.

Tristram Hunt is a historian, journalist and former Labor MP, member of the Royal Historical Society and director since 2017 of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. In his book The Frock-Coated Communist he analyzes in an ingenious and entertaining way how Engels, one of the great bonvivants of Victorian Britain, was able to reconcile his exuberant personal life with the gestation of a strict political philosophy.

Statue in honor of Marx and Engels in Berlin — Image Sean Galup

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