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The death toll of a dying order

Feb 22,2015 - Last updated at Feb 22,2015

Ukraine’s crisis should not blind us to the main conundrum of global affairs today: while the world is more peaceful than it has been for 300 years, when measured by the number of wars between states, the level of disorder is rising.

In fact, there is growing anarchy in the world’s hot spots.

This tendency can be seen not just in the implosion of Syria and the spread of strife, displacement, and massive human suffering to neighbouring countries.

In Nigeria, Africa’s largest country, at least 2,500 civilians have been murdered by the Islamist extremist group Boko Haram in the last month alone. 

An estimated 1.5 million people have been displaced in the northeastern states of Yobe, Borno and Adamawa, and the violence has spilled over into neighbouring Niger and Chad.

Moreover, the Taliban is far from vanquished in Afghanistan.

The government of the Central African Republic struggles to establish its power even in its capital.

Some 1,700 clans and militias are battling for power in Libya. There remain 40 major armed groups on the loose in eastern Congo. And the list goes on.

In all these places, an overstretched and under-resourced humanitarian sector has been thrust into the front line, salving some of the worst wounds of the record-breaking number of people displaced from their homes by conflict and disaster.

United Nations agencies and their NGO partners, designed to deal with the victims of organised, time-limited, rule-bound interstate conflict, are struggling to cope in the face of chaotic, long-term intra-state conflict.

There are three schools of thought about why this is happening. One view is that, just as the Reformation convulsed Europe half a millennium ago, the world today is witnessing a struggle of similarly explosive potential within the Islamic world.

For all the talk of the threat posed by Islamist extremism to the West, it is worth bearing in mind the point lucidly put by Ahmed Rashid: “ISIS is not waging war against the West… This is above all a war within Islam: a conflict of Sunni against Shiite, but also a war by Sunni extremists against more moderate Muslims.”

This struggle within Islam pits pluralism against purification. It is ripping countries and regions apart, luring people to travel halfway around the world to join jihad, and threatening to unleash more violence against Muslims, as well as against Christians, Jews and others.

But the battle within Islam is not a satisfactory or sufficient explanation for the state of anarchy we see in a place like South Sudan, whose 11 million people gained independence just over three years ago.

Though the world’s newest country emerged from a bitter civil war between Christians and Muslims, the independence referendum received 99 per cent support.

Yet today 1.5 million of its citizens have been uprooted, which has nothing to do with Islam and everything to do with a struggle along ethnic lines for control of the country’s resources.

At least two other factors are vital to understanding the acute crisis in 30-40 fragile states around the world today.

The first is the flip side of globalisation: Far from homogenising the world’s population and erasing differences, our era is marked by the increasingly sharp assertion of local ethnic, political and religious identities.

And, critically, an increasing number of states are unable to contain these divisions within peaceful boundaries. 

Their political systems are too brittle, their populations too poor, and their neighbours too meddlesome to enable their leaders to find ways to share power and meet people’s needs.

But there is a further factor contributing to the sense that we are entering a decade of disorder in which destabilising humanitarian crises in failing or failed states are not properly addressed. It is a factor easy to state and difficult to redress: The international system is weak and divided.

Though the Cold War was marked by global polarisation, with distinct geopolitical blocs and proxy conflicts, it was also a period in which the international system was more ordered than it is today.

We should not mourn the Cold War’s passing; but we should recognise the consequences of the vacuum that has persisted in its place for the last quarter-century.

Today, the world’s ability to come together in an effective way has become a dim memory.

Consider the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. 

A slow and weak international response meant that local community-based initiatives were responsible for the heavy lifting. As a result, while Ebola was eventually beaten back, the death toll was much higher than necessary.

The larger picture is one of international institutions besieged by competing demands and national priorities. 

Far from being overweening — an allegation that is frequently made against the European Union and the UN — these institutions struggle to overcome entrenched national positions.

Alongside weak structures in fragile states, this is a recipe for chaos.

The humanitarian sector is working to improve its performance in a variety of areas, from clarifying outcomes to promoting evidence-based programming and value-for-money interventions.

But while we can try to slow down the dying, we cannot stop the killing. 

That is a challenge for global politics — a challenge of prioritisation, organisation and values.

The writer, president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, was foreign secretary of the United Kingdom from 2007 to 2010. ©Project Syndicate, 2015.

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