The British government recently announced that a national service of commemoration will take place on March 13th to mark the end of combat operations in Afghanistan (link here). Bookended by the campaigns in Iraq (the latest of which continued to be busy last weekend, see here) the last decade or so of fighting has seen the purpose and efficacy of military action in the realm of international relations transformed. The result, I think, will be a more unstable world for some decades yet.
There are many lessons that can be drawn from these military deployments. Not least, how the campaigns have highlighted the gulf in understanding between civilian society and the military. This is primarily because, unlike the generation that grew up after the second world war, most of society no longer has experience of military service, either directly or by an immediate family member. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but it has led to a “reverent but disengaged” attitude toward the military, “absent the caveats or public scepticism we would apply to other…institutions, especially ones that run on taxpayer money” according to James Fallows in The Atlantic magazine (see here). “If more members of Congress…had had children in uniform,” he says, “the United States would probably not have gone to war in Iraq”.
Two other lessons in particular stand out for me. First, the campaigns demonstrated how little the world community has progressed in terms of international relations since 1945 and has actually retrenched from the end of the Cold War. The shortcomings of collective security and the United Nations (UN) were demonstrated for all the world to see, leading to an ambivalence towards international norms in certain contexts.
Take the UN. Set up to prevent a third world war, it has been brilliantly successful in that regard. But a system designed to curb international adventurism by encouraging, through the security-council veto, international inaction, will allow occasional tragedies such as Rwanda, Bosnia or Syria. This may be the price to pay for international peace, but post-Cold War, is an outdated system. The UN is still rooted in a state-on-state paradigm and has proved almost powerless to prevent such abuses. Therefore, when an entity such as al-Qaeda (and, today, Da’ish) appears, it is too easy for the world community to ignore, or rather too hard to do something about collectively (with all the legal and moral cover that provides). Hence the rise of coalitions of the willing, ad-hoc arrangements and interpretation of international law. The role and status of the nation state is centre stage once again.
NATO also has demonstrated a fundamental weakness. It becomes unstuck very quickly outside the model of collective defence, for which the high point was the end of the Cold War. Despite the description of a community of values, the campaigns have demonstrated through national caveats, how limited NATO’s offensive capability is in wars of choice. The result, in Afghanistan at least, was a number of small and only related campaigns rather than a coherent whole. Such wavering may have encouraged Russia’s recent adventurism in Ukraine.
The second lesson to be drawn is that the campaigns showed how ‘war’ as is commonly understood as a contest between two opposing heavy-metal armies, is dead. Rather, it is now more akin to armed politics. It was very appealing for both campaigns to be seen in a traditional manner, as ‘hard’ military responses are easier to employ (plus, it’s what the military does: ‘when you are a hammer everything looks like a nail’). The more nuanced application of military effect that has latterly been employed certainly offers a more coherent policy response. But it also raises the spectre of war without end as, unbounded, a blurring of the distinction between peace and war could invite a more regular use of force (as President Obama acknowledged here).
So where are we, as we mark the centenary of the first world war? Nation states interpreting international law to suit their interests and more readily reaching for the military as a policy response. And a political class increasingly detached from the people they ask to do the fighting. Cool heads will be required in the coming years.