In recent years two phenomena have come to dominate the international scene. One is the appearance of what have been given the name “failed states”.
We know that in recent years there has been a fundamental reorganizing of the Westphalian world of sovereign countries that had dominated since the end of the Thirty Years War in 1648. The structure that emerged from that conflict was one of great, medium or small powers and a hierarchy placing them in groups following dominant or “paramount” powers, sub-paramount powers, client-states and neutrals.
As this structure emerged from a “long war”, so did the new structure emerge from another long war – The Cold War (1947-1989). Traditional states are now joined by a multitude of non-state actors: criminal syndicates, terrorist and separatist organizations, great corporations and banks, pseudo-states such as Northern Cyprus, Nagorno-Karabakh, the Palestinian Authority and others; non-governmental organizations and so on.
These non-state actors engage states and one another in the same ways that states interacted in the heyday of the Westphalian system, using all the elements and instruments of statecraft, including diplomacy, propaganda, economics, subversion, military display and war.
The new era was inaugurated in spectacular fashion by the direct attack on the most powerful state in the world at that time, the United States, by a non-state actor on September 11, 2001. Since that momentous day, the international scene has become ever more chaotic, especially in the MENA region (Middle East and North Africa).
Several countries in MENA are at various levels of disintegration, including Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan and Libya. To this growing list must now be added Venezuela in South America. The resulting chaos is highly dangerous, because as is well known, nature abhors a vacuum, and all the failed states represent power vacuums that are now battlegrounds in which multiple states and non-state actors are in conflict.
Adding to the anarchy is the precipitous decline of the former hyperpower, the US. Two disastrous governments in a row (2001-2009 and 2009-2017) followed by what gives signs of being a third (2017-2021) have resulted in a country monumentally indebted and with declining military predominance and international prestige. This adds to the power vacuum referred to above, which results in failed states, but also in the second of the current phenomena we referred to.
The world is on the edge of catastrophic war for the first time since the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. China is rampaging around the East and South China Seas, creating naval and air bases in uninhabited island groups claimed by other countries. It has unambiguously asserted its hegemony in the entire Far Eastern region in a direct challenge to the US and its allies: Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Australia and New Zealand. China has also engaged in a military confrontation with India in the Himalayas over disputed territory.
In the entire western and southwestern periphery of Russia, that country is aggressively asserting its hegemony, very effectively using propaganda, economic strategies, subversion, massive air, naval and land military displays and even war, in Georgia and Ukraine. Minor powers, notably North Korea and Iran, are actively building nuclear capabilities and openly threatening other countries with eventual nuclear Armageddon, while in the case of Iran, actively supporting terrorist and separatist groups and engaging in direct military intervention, notably in Syria and Iraq.
Opportunities offered by failed states and the decline of American (and European) power, coupled with the ascendancy of countries such as Russia and China and the adventurism of North Korea and Iran, has placed the world in position where a major war is a distinct possibility.
Let us not forget that the outbreak of World War I was due to multiple errors of judgment and action on the part of European powers. Humankind has learned very little since then, despite the horrendous destruction of the two World Wars, the Cold War and now the war against Islamic terrorism.
If there is one thing that is predictable about the future, it is that human beings and their organizations, including states, will commit errors as a result of misperceptions, faulty intelligence or simple hubris. That is the precipice that we are currently approaching.