War, Peace And The Return Of History In 2023

Adam Tooze writes in Chartbook: In 2023 the escalation of violence around the world was horrifying. As the FT remarked: “The anecdotal evidence that war is surging round the world is confirmed by the numbers. A recent report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies documented 183 ongoing conflicts around the world, the highest number in more than three decades. And that figure was arrived at before the outbreak of the war in Gaza.”

Conflict Trends in 2023: A Growing Threat to Global Peace

How do we locate this surge in violence in contemporary history? One can, as the FT does, point to a variety of contingent causes, such as failures of intelligence and deterrence, weak state power and the perception that Western power is fading. Whilst recognizing the diversity of causes, we should go deeper than this. In 2023, Mali, Burkina Faso, Sudan and Myanmar all witnessed intense violence. In each case one can point to drivers that can be located in 20th-century history: fragile postcolonial states, the stresses of the Cold War and the emergence of Islamic radicalism. Conflicts are also impelled by local scrambles for resources and power and by regional and global forces. But all of them are instances of a worrying new trend, internationalized intrastate conflicts. It is not just “western weakness”, but the new rivalry between the US, Russia, China and regional players like the Emirates and Saudi Arabia that is fueling these conflicts.

Though these poor-country conflicts are in no way separate from global trends, the influence is largely one way. The fighting is escalated by wider global and international forces, but the wider ramifications of the conflicts themselves are relatively limited. That in turn helps to account for the fact that despite their scale, the conflicts receive relatively scant coverage. As a consumer of mainstream news one has to make a conscious effort to insert them back into the bigger picture. Chartbook 256 on Myanmar and 209 on Sudan and the Sahel Gold Rush were gestures in that direction.

At the other end of the spectrum, in 2023 the two largest economies in the world – China and the USA – squared off in the latest phase of a global great power struggle, a clash that could upend the world as we know it. This conflict hogs the headlines practically every day. In Chartbook 249 I sketched a history of the first war scare of this new era, which stretched between October 2022 and the spring of 2023. To my mind, the article on the “Second Cold War”, published in Geopolitics by the team of the Second Cold War Observatory is the most interesting piece so far on this emerging conflict and its historical location. Read More