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The disorderly state of the world: does the answer lie in the use of force?

Introduction

The world has been in a perpetual state of precariousness, despite the progress achieved in the last decades with regard to fighting poverty and other areas. Regrettably, that precariousness is even more pronounced in 2022, with the armed conflict between Russian Federation and Ukraine, the post-pandemic phase, high inflation, significant increase in prices of food, fuel, and other products, and major shocks to energy security, food security, and human security. This conflictual macro-situation has severely compromised the international efforts to counter climate change and eradicate poverty (including reduction of public debt for heavily indebted (less developed) countries)), as well as more generally to achieve the SDGs by 2030, not to speak about rising the spectrum of major military powers direct confrontation with potentially catastrophic consequences. The current multi-faceted crisis most likely will plunge hundreds of millions of people back into poverty and push millions to outright famine and death. These hundreds of millions of persons at risk are mainly from less developed countries (46 countries, UNCTAD list), but the numbers include many others, including the poor from developed countries.

How did we get here? The answer is not that complicated, it hinges on the eternal quest among the major powers for military and economic dominance and carving out their spheres of influence, which was very poorly managed. This is mainly (but not only) about the continuing East-West divide, which has been playing out over the last 3 decades, and more specifically about the disintegration of the former USSR and whether the former USSR countries would come under the influence of EU and NATO (read US and major EU countries) or remain under the influence of the Russian Federation through membership in the CIS and the CSTO. More generally, it reflects the overt economic and covert military clashes among the major powers which have become quite prominent in the last 10-20 years, resulting in a more multi-polar world order and the taking of high-stakes decisions by them on a range of issues.

What is most likely to happen?

The Russian Federation (supported by several major countries, even if covertly) and Ukraine (supported by the US, EU, and NATO countries), will dig in their heels and the conflict will continue for many months, if not for years. The risk of nuclear escalation remains high. Thousands more young Ukrainian and Russian soldiers will die in the fight, while millions of Ukrainians will remain displaced or live as refugees. Putin will most likely remain in power, whereas Zelenskiy might lose the next general elections to a Ukrainian oligarch or an opposition coalition with a more prominent hardline.

The rising inflation, living costs’ increases, and the energy insecurity for the coming winter will most likely translate in political instability for many countries worldwide. Sri Lanka is just an example of what could happen from a combination of government mismanagement and energy insecurity, whereas many countries worldwide are struggling with energy and food security. Most likely, the increased costs of living will lead to major protests in European and other countries in the coming months, which could potentially destabilize these countries with severe effects. Besides the armed conflict in Ukraine, there are major tensions in the South China Sea, which hopefully will not develop into fully-fledged armed conflicts. The overall prognosis is not good, despite the latest deal brokered by Turkiye and the UN, aimed at ensuring that grain, corn, and fertilizers can be shipped from Ukraine and the Russian Federation to other countries, to avoid famine. Many options for a settlement to the conflict have been put forward, including through the Ukraine Peace Settlement Project and many posts in Opinio Juris (in the form of Option Papers, currently at No. XI).

What should happen?

What should happen is an international, preferably UN-led, effort to try to resolve the main existing controversies through a political solution that addresses security and other concerns and restores international peace and security. Despite a visit to Moscow and Kiev by the UN Secretary-General Guterres in late April 2022 and a mid-May UN Security Council Presidential Statement of support for his efforts to achieve a peaceful resolution in Ukraine (see a timeline of key events/information at UNRIC), regrettably, this is not likely to materialize soon, because the parties are invested in their positions and compromise seems out of reach.

What should not have happened?

As the world was slowly coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, the fully-fledged armed conflict in Ukraine and the subsequent rush to increase defense spending in the hundreds of billions of USD should have been avoided at all costs, in the interests of peace, sustainable economic development, and joint efforts to counter climate change. Should the collective West carry its part of the blame for what has occurred in terms of its eastward expansion, especially the projected NATO expansion with Ukraine and Georgia, despite strong objections from the Russian Federation? Several writers have addressed this issue expressing serious doubts about such expansion, including Kissinger; Mearsheimer; and Walt. Many others have chosen a hawkish position. Obviously, this discussion about the causes of the conflict and its potential prevention, does not take away the responsibility of the Russian Federation for starting the armed conflict.

Concluding remarks

During one of my visits at the Noble Peace Centre a few years ago, I was struck by a phrase: “If war is the answer, then we are asking the wrong questions”. Hopefully this phrase will cause world leaders (and their advisers) to think twice before pushing their countries into the path of armed confrontation, or continuing on that risky path. I also hope that more reasonable voices will eventually prevail in public conversations about potential ways out of the current quagmire.

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