The promising world 'peace dividend', a term initially coined by US president George H.W. Bush and UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher, was on everyone’s lips. Hope was in the air. The Soviet Union and United States vowed to work together to further cut down on a nuclear arsenal that could have blown up the world many times over. And they also seemed to be hard at work getting rid of another major – and often underestimated – impediment to peace: proxy wars, the type of war waged in the developing world for most of the Cold War, from Latin America to Central Asia to the Horn of Africa.
These were wars in which the Soviet Union and US did not directly fight, but paid and favored local fighters, often through highly classified operations and byzantine financial networks that have inspired generations of spy novelists. Before the Cold War, colonial regimes paid local proxies to advance their agendas and “divide and conquer”.
As the Cold War finally came to a close, it was hoped and anticipated that weapon donations would be replaced by UN Peacekeepers and a new generation of NGO activists. Indeed, the new crop of peacemakers seemed to be more liberated. Free from the stifling imperatives of geopolitics, they could implement deals that had previously died prematurely at the conference tables of diplomats, anxious over the advances of an enemy superpower. The tit-for-tat strategies that would reap destruction seemed to be a thing of yesteryear.
The “War to End all Wars” is a coinage that stems from the First World War. In the global public imagination: the Cold War would be the real “War to End all Wars.” Following its conclusion, an era of enduring peace was within immediate reach. Or so it seemed.
Fast forward 28 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, and few such promised realities seem to have materialized. On the contrary, we have entered a new era of proxy wars.
Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria,Yemen, Somalia etc.
To bring these complex wars to a halt, we have to be very precise about what keeps them going. Saudi Arabia and Iran, probably the two main players in proxy wars in a destabilizaion of the Middle Eastern region that is steadily increasing, fund proxy forces to bolster their versions of Islam—Sunni and Shiite Islam, respectively. It is safe to assume that from the perspective of Riyadh and Teheran, furthering sectarian interests, inextricably intertwined with access to resources and geopolitical influence, are of more importance than peace in the region.
But it is not only sectarian strife—often highlighted in the western media—but also global unregulated capitalism that pours kerosene on a Middle East that is already in flames.
Western weapon companies see the newly emerging proxy wars as momentous opportunities for increased revenues. During a 2015 conference of Lockheed Martin in Palm Beach Florida, its executive vice president Bruce Tanner predicted “indirect benefits” from the war in Syria. Similarly, as the Intercept reports, Raytheon chief executive Tom Kennedy spoke of “a significant uptick” for “defense solutions across the board in multiple countries in the Middle East.” Referring to Saudi Arabia, Kennedy elaborates, “It’s all the turmoil they have going on, whether the turmoil is occurring in Yemen, whether it’s with the Houthis, whether it’s occurring in Syria or Iraq, with ISIS.” And sure enough, stocks for arms have soared in recent years.
But it is not only weapons but also oil which disincentivizes policy makers from de-escalating proxy wars. As Christopher Davidson, who the Economist called “one of the most knowledgeable academics” writing about the Middle East, shows in his 688-page long tome “Shadow Wars: The Secret Struggle for the Middle East,” how many covert operations in the Middle East were historically supported to advance the explicit geopolitical or economic interests of the funders.
According to Davidson, the emergence of the US as a major oil producer has motivated US policy makers (Trump included) to let Saudi forces engage in exhausting proxy wars throughout the region so that a weakened Saudi Arabia is forced to sell its state assets.
Whatever the precise motivations, aside from the publicly touted humanitarian rationales, oil and weapons play a role in the decisions made by states, even when lives are at stake.
But whatever the argument, the evidence in support of proxy wars as an effective means in the interest of peace is scarce. At least this is the case if one follows the analysis coming from the proverbial mouth of the horse, the CIA. The spy agency has funded proxy fighters for most of its history.
Reportedly president Obama, at least an initial skeptic in the use of proxies, was interested in finding out if funding insurgents generally accomplish the stated strategic goals and commissioned an internal study.
The report concluded that conflicts were not decided in the interest of the US following the funding of proxy actors, unless, according to the report, US personnel were on the ground along with the proxies. The notable exception—according to the study—was the support for the Mujahidin against the Soviet Union in the 1980s. However, although the Mujahidin did ultimately chase the illegally invading Soviet forces out of the country, Afghanistan did not regain stability. One thing to come out of this instability was the merging of the Mujahidin into Al Qaida: the very same enemy the US fights in the current global 'War on Terror'.
This is not just one war, but multiple new proxy wars that cause immense suffering and which have, according to the Global Terrorism Index, contributed to an almost nine-fold increase in deaths caused by terrorism between 2000 and 2016. If we consider the entire historical context, the Afghanistan example serves, at best, as a very cautionary tale.
Tthe Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP), demonstrates that 2014 saw an increase in the number of active conflicts and also the casualties from battle. Forty armed conflicts were active in 2014, whereas in 2013 34 conflicts were designated active. The increase in conflicts since 1999 stood at 18 percent. Whatever gains were brought about by the 'peace dividend', they have been reversed, with people all over the world paying the greatest price.
President Donald Trump, by contrast, initially critical of Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy, has stepped up military activities since he took office. For example, drone strikes, an important component in the theater of war in Yemen, have gone up by 432 percent and his $ 110 billion weapons sale to Saudi Arabia also won't help in getting hostilities slowed down.
A new type of vigorous and principled peace movement must be formed in this time of crisis. Peace movements in rich countries should join Middle Eastern peace movements that rally for more democratic and less sectarian governance. Social movements can become stronger by integrating divergent points of view, histories and ideologies, which inform interpretations of complex conflicts. It necessarily has to look at the various internal roots of conflict, and also at how foreign governments, from Moscow and Washington to Riyadh and Teheran, fuel conflicts.
Supporting and holding political platforms accountable will be key to demilitarizing political ideologies and stopping the world in its “ruinous race” to global war, to use the words of Gorbachev. More often than not, a call to arm a party to a conflict prolongs said conflict.
The public’s immediate question with regards to conflicts probably shouldn’t be “Whom should we support militarily?” Instead, we should more seriously consider questions such as “Who keeps a conflict going?” and “How can we de-escalate it?”
Far from being out of touch with reality, the global peace movement—though worryingly weakened—in fact holds the most realistic solutions to conflict. Given the data, it is clear that negotiation with the actors in a conflict is the best route to peace. De-escalation is the only framework in tune with the realities of the contemporary world as well as the lessons of recent history.
We the people have to compel and force if necessary regional and global political forces to work towards de-escalating conflicts. Challenging the financial conglomerates that bring weapons into the hand of proxies may be one of the most effective ways to do so.
Please get out of your comfort zone and act- the future of your children and grand-children are at stake.