Is Russia's fight with Ukraine as intractable as the Middle East?

If the world seems like a confusing, chaotic place right now with rampant, sudden, often tribal violence, and no one seemingly in charge, that's because it is, Brian Stewart writes.

If the world seems like a violent, chaotic place right now, it's because it is

Palestinians sleep at a UN school to escape heavy Israeli shelling in the Shejaia neighbourhood in Gaza City on Monday. (Finbarr O'Reilly / Reuters)

Bring up world events in almost any conversation these days and the sense of confusion pours out at a flood tide.

"There's more crises out there than I can keep track of" is a common refrain, and the real despair is that most of these conflicts seem so utterly intractable.

It seems that nothing gets resolved, negotiations go nowhere, and there is no power bloc any longer that seems able to manage these big international incidents effectively.

What's more, the sheer speed with which new bloodshed breaks out in horrible new forms is almost beyond comprehension.

A Malaysian airliner is suddenly shot out of the sky, almost coinciding with an explosion of fighting between Israel and Hamas.

The rise of the Ukraine-Russia crisis took the West by surprise earlier this year. So did the near collapse of Iraq to a few thousand Islamic jihadists considered too extreme even for al-Qaeda.

How many other states are at war or in constant crisis today? Syria, Yemen, South Sudan, Chad, Libya, Mali, Somalia, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, with many others, such as Egypt and Lebanon, perilously close.

The remains of the victims of downed Malaysian Airliner MH17 were finally evacuated from rebel-controlled territory in Eastern Ukraine Tuesday and sent on to the Netherlands for forensic examination. (Reuters)

It's not so much the number of violent conflicts, as we've always had several going on at a time, as the increasingly intractable and self-spawning nature of the ones that are out there.

Civilians increasingly bear the brunt of the bloodshed, as recent wars are largely internal struggles involving non-state guerrillas and security forces equally contemptuous of rules.

We seem to be approaching the point where, if the international order hasn't completely broken down, it certainly seems exhausted and on the ropes by the last dozen or so years of ongoing strife.

Sheer clutter

Of course, there were other times within the last century when an absence of international order created a similar sense of drift.

In 1934, the British historian and government minister H.A.L. Fisher had to admit that he could no longer see any sort of rhythm or "predetermined pattern" anywhere in world events, as was common in the past.

"I can see only one emergency following another as wave follows upon wave," Fisher observed, in a comment that could apply now.

Today, decision-makers continue to be surprised by "one emergency following another," even in an age of almost unimaginable intelligence capabilities and open source analysis.

Part of the fault is all the clutter. There are now 196 nations, triple what there were in the 1960s, all with issues and many with potential conflicts.

But even monster events like the fall of communism, the global economic collapse of 2008 and the whole Arab Spring movement appeared to catch almost all of us by surprise.

Conflict of cultures

Another worrisome element is that the conflict between ideology that so marked the Cold War has been replaced by the conflict of cultures — including deep religious, ethnic and tribal divides that are mushrooming in ways no central authorities seem able to control.

Even al-Qaeda loses command of its movement to new fanatics, while guerrilla armies in Africa regularly splinter and reform in even more extreme versions.

A burnt aircraft at Tripoli International Airport is the result of heavy fighting between rival militias earlier this week that killed at least four people and forcing thousands from their homes. (Reuters)

Indeed such culture wars, as political scientist Francis Fukuyama warned years ago, are extraordinarily deadly and almost impossible to negotiate an end to. For those involved believe they are engaged in an existential battle without the possibility of compromise.

To some historians, the spreading wars between the competing versions of Islam, and between jihadists and moderates, that are now ablaze in the Middle East and parts of Africa resemble the massively destructive Thirty Years War in 17th-century Europe between Catholics and Protestants.

As was the case then in Europe, modern Islamic governments have funded proxy wars they are now losing control of as militias collapse weak borders and millions are rendered homeless.

"Three and a half years after the 'Arab Spring,' there is a real possibility that we are witnessing the early phase of a prolonged and deadly struggle," writes Richard Haass, the head of the Council of Foreign Relations in New York. "As bad as things are, they could well become worse."


In diplomatic circles, there is a growing sense that policymakers are recognizing their limits, especially in the Middle East. (Until a new order rises, the area will be "less a problem to be solved than a condition to be managed," Haass says.)

But even managing chaos will prove extremely difficult, whether in Africa or in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where repeated attempts at peace talks with the Taliban have repeatedly floundered.

You can see it as well in Europe where almost the entire EU remains almost paralyzed in trying to agree on substantial sanctions to deter Russia's power-play against the Ukraine.

As for the U.S., the world's only true superpower, its president seems to sense deeply the power-play limitations of the age and moves with caution.

A striking new poll just released by Politico — and taken just before the Malaysian Airlines crisis — confirms U.S. pessimism about the world has lapsed into near isolationism.

Large majorities now reject direct engagement everywhere from Afghanistan to Syria to the Ukraine. 

Only six per cent of Americans even pick foreign policy as a top concern, which given the cascade of crises these days, is quite consistent with the idea of the head entering the sand. 


Brian Stewart

Canada and abroad

Brian Stewart is one of this country's most experienced journalists and foreign correspondents. He sits on the advisory board of Human Rights Watch Canada. He was also a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Munk School for Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. In almost four decades of reporting, he has covered many of the world's conflicts and reported from 10 war zones, from El Salvador to Beirut and Afghanistan.