Synergia Conclave, ‘Future of War and Conflic’, Bangalore, 17-19 October 2019
Talk by Dr. Arvind Gupta, Director, VIF

The main drivers of the future conflicts will be geopolitics, economics, technology and identity. On all these fronts, there is a great deal of uncertainty today. That makes it difficult to predict what kind of conflict will happen in the future. But what can be said with a reasonable degree of certainty is that there will be no well-defined adversaries in a future conflict. Many actors will be involved. Many technologies will be used.

Will there be any restraining factors on future conflicts? Paradoxically, interdependence can be a restraining factor. There may not be any clear winners and losers in future conflicts. Therein lies the hope.

War has been a constant in history. However, their context and the way they are waged keeps changing. The current phase of globalisation has provided a new context to wars and conflicts. We are entering into an era of hybrid and asymmetric warfare. In the 20th century, numerous wars were fought, including the first in the Second World War, which engulfed the entire world. Technologies and weapons with enormous destructive potential work invented and used with gay abandon. Hundreds of millions of people died in these wars.

After the Second World War, the nature of the conflict changed. The destructive potential of nuclear weapons forced the antagonist camps to arrive at the concept of deterrence based on mutually assured destruction. Direct war between the socialist and the capitalist camp was avoided but many proxy wars were fought. The dismantling of imperialism and colonialism led to numerous disputes and conflicts which often turned violent. Some of these are raging even today, as for instance in the Middle East. Millions of people died in these conflicts.

The end of the Cold War did not bring the “end of history”, as Fukuyama had claimed. Instead, conflicts and wars have continued unabated. The Gulf War in 1990 against Iraq led to the establishment of unipolarity in the military domain. New technologies were developed in what is called a “revolution in military affairs” which is essentially “network-centric warfare”.

Beyond the Military

The United States, the only superpower around the time, had to shift gears and take resort to yet another “global war”, this time on terrorism, the global War on Terrorism. The enemy was invisible and scattered. Ideology was his main weapon. His resilience was remarkable. More force was used to attack the terrorists, more terrorists took birth. Terrorism led to radicalisation of minds which in turn is feeding more conflicts. How to counter violent ideologies which attacked the minds is a problem that has not yet been solved. Terrorism and radicalisation cannot be defeated by military forces.

The world has seen many conflicts on resources like oil, water et cetera. Such conflicts are likely to intensify in the future as access to resources dwindle. The conflicts over water are going to become more acute in the future unless steps are taken now to defuse them. Producing enough food to sustain the world’s population as climate change hits the crop productivity could lead to conflicts over food as well.

The exponential growth in the creation of data on which our day-to-day life depends is a new phenomenon. The latest trend is how to weaponise data. Cyber weapons are being invented. New technologies like artificial intelligence, machine learning, robotics, cloud computing big data analytics et cetera are being used to develop what is being called the autonomous weapon systems. The idea is to develop weapons which have the capability of taking autonomous decisions bypassing the humans in the decision-making loop. Autonomous weapon systems raise major questions of strategy and tactics as well as ethics.

Warfare is also becoming more comprehensive, going beyond the strictly military domain. The Chinese are mastering the concept of ‘three warfare’ is which includes legal warfare, economic warfare, and information warfare.

Economic Warfare

The US-China trade dispute is no longer just a trade dispute. Today, trade lies very much at the heart of national security concerns of many countries. US and China are locked in a struggle for dominance in trade and technology which will dominate the new world order. That is the larger backdrop to the ongoing trade warfare between the two economic giants. The reform of the world’s financial, developmental and trade institutions has become highly contentious.

Sanctions have long been used as a means of economic warfare. Both the US and China have used economic warfare liberally, without the need to declare war. For instance, China stopped the export of rare earths to Japan to achieve certain political ends. The US has been using sanctions against Russia and Iran to cripple their economies. Technology denial regimes have been used by the West to prevent other countries to develop their technological capabilities. South Korea and Japan are also engaged in economic warfare to settle their political differences.

Legal Warfare

Legal warfare is another method by which adversaries can be pressurized. International law is proving to be inadequate to deal with today’s challenges. Not long ago, China outrightly rejected the findings of the Permanent Court of Justice on the disputed islands in the South China Sea. Instead, it has occupied the islands, militarised them started negotiations on a Code of conduct after having established its sovereignty.

P-5 members of the UN Security Council have violated the UN Security Council Resolutions on Libya, attaching their own interpretations and attacking the Gadhafi regime. Pakistan continues to internationalize the Kashmir issue by harping upon the implementation of the UN Security Council resolutions knowing full well that they have become infructuous and unimplementable with the passage of time. However, it sells references to take the high moral ground internationally. Recently, China has also mentioned the UN Security Council resolutions on Kashmir. This way, China and Pakistan are putting pressure on India on Kashmir.

Information Warfare

Information warfare or perception management or propaganda has been a major tool in the tool kit of adversaries. In the backdrop of hyper-connectivity, information warfare has taken on a new edge. Social media platforms emerge as new warfare. Psychological warfare is conducted with great ease on social media platforms. Fake news causes disruptions raise emotions and accentuates conflicts.

As cyber connectivity becomes indispensable to human existence, cyber warfare will also become a prominent way of conducting war. Cyber warfare is conducted silently and its greatest use is in causing massive disruptions by attacking the networks on which modern society depends. Individuals can also be targeted with ease. It is now the most common issue of cyberspace which is borderless and attribution is difficult. This makes cyber arena as an ideal battleground.

Nuclear and Space

The demise of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty has put pressure on the non-proliferation institutions. A new arms race may be in the offing as new weapon system like the hypersonic glide vehicles are developed. The weaponisation of outer space can destabilise the entire world. The existing international law recommends the use of outer space for peaceful purposes. However, satellites and other assets have dual use. They can also be used for military purposes.

Militarisation of space has already begun. Space is crowded with surveillance satellites which extensively being used for spying. The Outer Space Treaty prohibits the placement of nuclear weapons in outer space but is ambiguous on placing other weapons in space. The efforts to prevent the weaponisation of space have not succeeded. The use of outer space for long-range missiles is quite common. The Conference on Disarmament, the platform where the prevention of arms race is to be discussed, has been paralysed for decades.

The Future

The ongoing transition to a multipolar world is a period of great uncertainty and instability. As new power equations are formed, it becomes imperative to have an agreement on a rule-based order which can deal with new issues. That is where the difficulty lies. The older institutions, which were formed by the victors of the Second World War in their own image, are under stress and are becoming increasingly ineffective. New institutions have not yet been formed. At the same time, the world has become so interdependent that even a major incident anywhere can potentially have a cascading effect through the world. Over 70 percent of the global trade today is done through global supply chains which pass through a number of countries. Some of these countries may have an antagonistic relationship with each other.

Any disruptions in the global supply chains due to natural or man-made reasons will spell disaster. The future conflicts well be around disruptions in the various connectivity pathways that have been formed over the years. The interconnections are fragile, vulnerable to attacks by state and nonstate actors.

What should be done?

Clearly, the answer is in taking sober view of the issues and refrain from extreme nationalistic views developing a rule-based order which can help in conflict avoidance and also dispute resolution. Globalisation has created haves and have-nots. The acute disparities in the world and within the countries have to be attended to. The UN sustainable development goals is an effort to ensure that everybody has a minimum level of benefits from the economic growth.

International relations are based on the notions of competition, struggle, dominance et cetera. These organising principles for the New World order need to be looked. Conditions that create peace must be prioritised over conditions which create War.

Many conflicts are cultural in nature. Samuel Huntington has warned that there will be a clash of civilisations which can lead to violence at an unprecedented scale. Unless there is a genuine and honest dialogue amongst the major religions and cultures of the world, conflict cannot be avoided. There are many such dialogues which happen around the world but most of them are pro forma in nature. The disagreements are not seriously addressed. The Indian civilisation like the Hindu and Buddhist civilization perceive the world as a family. This is the model that should be adopted.

To avoid future conflicts, we also need to create an environmental consciousness. Today, environmental degradation, destruction of biodiversity and ecology, climate change et cetera are causing a great deal of conflict. Protecting the environment and biodiversity, which is an inherent part of sustainable development, is absolutely essential.

Most conflicts germinate in our minds. There is a need to change the rigid mindsets. There is a need to change our life styles. It is well known that climate change cannot be effectively tackled unless there is a change in the way we live and relate to nature. There is a need to encourage the values of tolerance, accommodation and empathy. Otherwise, conflicts will continue to happen and cause misery.

Unfortunately, in the current thinking on international relations, there is no place for ethics, morality and values. International politics is conducted on the basis of national interests which often clash with those of the other countries. Yet, nation-states are relatively speaking a new innovation. Globalisation has ensured that the distinction between the national and international is going to be blurred. As a new world order emerges, this is the time to rethink the basis on which such an order should be built. Conflict avoidance and environmental consciousness should be kept in the center of the new thinking.

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
3 + 10 =
Solve this simple math problem and enter the result. E.g. for 1+3, enter 4.
Contact Us