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24 April 2024

The age of danger

Order is breaking down as the great powers take sides in multiple wars.

By Bruno Maçães

At a private dinner a few months ago, a senior European minister explained what will happen if Donald Trump wins the US presidential election in November and withdraws all support for Ukraine. Unless the large European countries stepped up to replace the American effort – an unlikely proposition – he said his country, a Nato member, would have no choice but to fight alongside Ukraine – inside Ukraine. As he put it, why should his country wait for a Ukrainian defeat, followed by the forced mobilisation of a conquered nation to swell the ranks of a Russian army bent on new excursions? 

Some at the dinner felt reassured that not everyone in Europe is preparing to turn Ukraine into a sacrificial victim. Others feared such solidarity would lead to a continent-wide war. But that was exactly the point the minister was making: can we say that the war does not concern us? Perhaps every European, whether they know it or not, is already enlisted in a conflict that is much larger than it seemed two years ago.

Over the past year, Russia and Ukraine have built heavy fortifications along the contact line in the Donbas region, in preparation for a long war. Their neighbours have been preparing as well. In January, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia approved a plan to build a common Baltic defence line along their borders with Russia and Belarus, inspired by the highly effective defensive systems deployed in Ukraine. 

Today, the forces feeding conflict are more powerful than those tending towards order. That is perhaps why so many wars are left unresolved. They may drop out of our sight, like the conflicts in Syria or Yemen, but only through force of repetition, the recurrence of daily horrors on a more or less constant scale. The hope now is that Ukraine and the wider Middle East will escape the same fate; the great fear is that those conflicts will become wider conflagrations.

There was much relief following Israel’s limited strike on Iran on 19 April, as it seemed that an all-out war between the two states had been avoided. Or had war already started? After all, Iran’s spectacular missile and drone attack on Israel on 13 April would have seemed unthinkable just two weeks before. Even the measure of restraint shown by both Israel and Iran on this occasion may indicate nothing more than prudent planning for a long conflict and many more rounds to come. The conflicts in the new age of danger may well have no clear beginning or end.

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Meanwhile, destruction spreads from the periphery to the centre of power within the global system, and the difference between centre and periphery collapses. Consider Ukraine once more. Part of the historical significance of the conflict is that it signalled the moment Western democracies were demoted from the position of world’s “policemen” – mediators attempting to recreate order in different flashpoints – to that of active contenders. Even Iraq and Afghanistan were presented more as policing operations against terrorism than traditional wars. From the outset of Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion, events in Ukraine seemed markedly new and dangerous, not because it was the first major conflict in Europe since the Second World War – it was not – but because, with many of the world’s major powers involved, there was no one left to contain the conflict. 

Is the United States directly involved in the Ukraine war? I am afraid it is. It became directly involved the moment Putin decided to use his nuclear arsenal as a blackmail tool to limit Western military support for Kyiv. Perhaps a different policy could have been adopted, but the Biden administration was quick to conclude that a collapse in the Russian lines might provoke the Kremlin to use a nuclear weapon in Ukraine, after which even the security of US citizens might be in jeopardy. Joe Biden and his top officials are convinced that the risk of nuclear escalation is real. That risk shapes every calculation, including how far to support Ukraine with advanced military technology. Nuclear weapons have become offensive rather than defensive, enabling wars of conquest by shielding the invading army from the risk of defeat. They alone have turned a Ukrainian victory, once thought possible, into an increasingly remote possibility.

There was a second development revealing the limits of Western power: the sanction-hit Russian economy not only did not collapse, as predicted by Biden days after the invasion, but has even recorded better growth figures than Germany or Britain since 2022. For the past decade or so, many commentators have been talking about a redistribution of economic power towards Asian giants such as China and India. Putin simply used these developments to insulate the Russian economy from the West. Oil has continued to flow, feeding the Russian war machine. You sometimes hear that Europe is no longer dependent on Russian oil because it has stopped buying it. In reality, it remains dependent on Russian supplies being sold – even if it’s not to Europe – in order to keep global energy prices low. Two decades ago, when Russia was vulnerable to devastating debt crises or bank runs, Putin would not have dared to invade Ukraine.

Illustration by Skizzomat Illustration

The way Western democracies have dealt with their demotion from the imperial seat to the gladiators’ arena has been extraordinary to witness. Suddenly, every universal rule and value was jettisoned, replaced with the fervour of a battle between “us” and “them”. That change in approach became more clear with the war in Gaza. Once upon a time, the US tried to place itself in the role of mediator between Israelis and Palestinians. That role had a persistent bias, but what has taken place since 7 October is qualitatively different.

As Prince Turki al-Faisal, former head of Saudi intelligence, told me during an interview in Riyadh in March, the sense of balance has been lost. Washington feels it is fighting a war on the side of Israel, and as always happens in war, truth became the first casualty. Information is carefully controlled, and the official spokespeople in Washington often remind me of “Baghdad Bob”, the Iraqi spokesperson during the Iraq War of 2003. On 2 April, the White House national security communications adviser John Kirby claimed, speaking in an odd sing-song, that not a single violation of international law by Israeli forces had taken place since October.

The US remains a singularly powerful country, but it no longer has the economic and spiritual resources to represent an idea of universal order. Every day its officials demonstrate that they are completely incapable of understanding different viewpoints. But as the votes at the United Nations on an immediate ceasefire in Gaza show, the Washington perspective is increasingly contested by an overwhelming majority of countries. 

When order unravels, it unravels quickly and comprehensively. In some Western nations even the act of considering opposing perspectives is now regarded as a mild form of treason. Attention to complex issues gives way to the simplest of narratives, where the enemy has been fashioned as a malevolent, global force. Do Palestinians have rights? Do they even exist as a people? No, they are a tool used by Iran, by Putin, by Xi Jinping. Because the intellectual effort to see Palestinians as human beings endowed with rights would force many Western states to revise too many things about their approach, they are made to disappear. We see this in the banning of protests and of pro-Palestinian voices from conferences, as is increasingly the case in Germany. In the US, if the war in Gaza is to receive any kind of sustained attention, it must first morph into an episode of the American campus culture wars. As I write this, mass graves are being uncovered by Palestinian emergency crews at Al-Shifa and Nasser hospitals in Gaza. The video evidence seems indisputable, but there has been almost no interest from Western media. 

The West is not alone in imposing its view on the rest of the world. The authorities in Beijing proceeded in the same way at the outset of the war in Ukraine when they reduced Kyiv’s resistance to an American plot. India has opted to remain uninvolved, although its sympathy for the stronger horse is obvious in the case of both Russia and Israel. Meanwhile, over the past decade, Iran has repopulated Syria with new Shia settlements in order to increase its influence. The former Sunni residents have fled armed combat and have not been allowed to return to their homes.

It is often thought that wars are fought for the sake of order, with the two sides opposed in their visions of what order means. In Sudan, the ongoing and brutal conflict between the Sudanese Armed Forces and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) disabuses us of such pieties. The RSF was founded in 2013 in Darfur but grew into a kind of private security firm fighting a war in Yemen, funded by Saudi and Emirati petrodollars. A private army is not accountable to any state and its goals are often deliberately ill-defined. Just as a company must maximise revenue and profit, a private militia must maximise returns. It just so happens that those returns are measured in dead bodies and burned villages. It is very hard to fire soldiers when a war cools down, as it did in Yemen. Instead, new battlefields must be found.

This model is bound to spread – if only because no other principle is so immediately appealing as “maximising returns”. As the Sudanese academic Magdi el-Gizouli has argued, in a belt of countries stretching from Yemen to Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, the militia form has become the most effective means of control. It has proved an efficient way to keep societies functional within a market system in which the militarised labour of a teenager becomes the most readily available commodity. El-Gizouli thinks this trend will become increasingly prevalent in the future. Could it become universal? 

As early as 2016, the RSF realised that a private militia could gain a monopoly over valuable commodities such as gold, securing trade routes and access to foreign markets. It was from its counterpart in Sudan that Russia’s Wagner Group learned the craft in 2017, before taking it to the Central African Republic and Mali. In the north, the RSF has been deployed to patrol the border with Libya and stem the flow of migrants to Europe. That line of business has been growing as well.

In a speech to the US Congress on 11 April, the Japanese prime minister, Kishida Fumio, spoke of a single global security landscape: “Ukraine of today may be East Asia of tomorrow.” There is something inevitable about the globalisation of conflict: every actor will look for partners and allies where it can find them, particularly when war becomes a real possibility. In this way, the security landscape today is reminiscent of the dynamics leading to the two world wars in the 20th century. Perhaps a world war is simply a war where no one stands outside the fray. In that sense, maybe we are already in a world war.

Travelling to East Asia today may sometimes feel like a return to a lost era, a world where military conflict seems implausible because social energy is so singularly focused on technological and economic development. That is an illusion. I ended a visit to Taiwan in 2023 during the island’s National Day, convinced that, while a war might not be imminent, the foundations for a future conflict are being laid. The fragile understanding agreed between Mao Zedong and Richard Nixon over Taiwan half a century ago has unravelled. China no longer accepts that the status quo, preferred by a majority in Taiwan, can be indefinitely maintained, and the US is convinced that even a peaceful reunification with the mainland may be unacceptable now that China has become a serious competitor. In my report for the New Statesman in December 2023, I wrote that the present moment in Taiwan can perhaps be compared to 2004 in Ukraine, the year of the Orange Revolution, a decade before the first Russian invasion and almost two decades before the current, much larger war began. Kishida has a point.

The globalisation of conflict ultimately means that the only universal principle is conflict itself, and no individual flashpoint can be resolved by appealing to ideas of order. Think tanks and consultancy firms, which like to discuss risks and threats, suggest that the world is on the brink; it’s the age of danger. Those concepts may turn out to be too sanguine. Danger refers to the future. Already we live among ruins.

This appears in the 26 April – 2 May issue of the New Statesman magazine

[See also: The Iran attack changes everything]

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This article appears in the 24 Apr 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Age of Danger