There is daily evidence that we are living in an age of impunity. The latest attacks by Israel demonstrated that no matter what the world says, no matter how loud the outcries, no one can stop it from continuing its pounding of rockets and destruction of the Palestinians. The only country that could at least temper them is the United States and they prefer to stay out. Hamas is seen as a terrorist organization bent on destroying Israel. The fact that they have not held any elections in fifteen years removes the claim of their legitimacy. It does not matter how the latest conflict escalated and who is to blame. It does not matter how Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is using this conflict at a time when his power is being challenged. As long as certain major countries side with Israel nothing will happen or change. The guilt of the Second World War still clings as many countries cannot even condemn Israel’s heavy-handed action.
Is this an isolated incident? No, it happened before on many occasions but now Israel is acting even more carefree. It knows that the U.S. is not interested in the Middle East and that as long as there is no threat to it, matters are left in the hands of Israel. They know that the Arab states will cry out and hold emergency meetings and spew statements to no avail. In the end, the Palestinians will be left alone to face Israel, once again.
Soft power an illusion today
The problem is that the world is increasingly polarized by religion and cultural affinities. We may have to admit that the so-called ‘clash of civilizations’ is becoming a reality. As we continue to move on from a bipolar to a unipolar and now to a multipolar world, old scores are being settled. Soft power already looks like an illusion. Smart power is only a great catchphrase. However real influence still comes from hard power and the willingness to use it. Some things never change.
Russia was able to do so in Georgia and more brazenly in Ukraine. Does anybody believe that Russia will leave eastern Ukraine, much less Crimea? The world can only condemn or put forward some sanctions. But as long as the perpetrator is strong and ready to withstand measures or has the backing of a major state, then we will see more and more raw power in action. The fact that there are international resolutions which are in your favour but not implemented is an advantage to a country in need of redress, as we recently saw in Nagorno Karabagh. Azerbaijan used the political vacuum to its benefit and when it saw that there was an opportunity, took it and gained back its lost territory in less than two months after waiting thirty years for diplomacy to deliver.
Iraq invaded Kuwait and was countered by a coalition led by the United States. However the Cold War was over and Iraq was alone with no other country backing it. A big miscalculation.
Saudi Arabia and Iran went head to head in Yemen for years in an area where no one has any major interest. The Syrian civil war has gone on for over a decade because diplomacy could not succeed and too many powers got involved.
Frozen conflicts that have remained unresolved for lack of genuine diplomatic efforts are in danger of being heated up if one side believes it can succeed through military action. As long as the future aggressor feels that they have an advantage, such as the backing of several states or a powerful one or believes it has international law behind it, who will be able to stop it.
Is Taiwan next?
There have been talks for some time that the next armed conflict could be about Taiwan. The reason why China continues to refrain from taking military action is that it not sure of what the U.S. reaction will be. Furthermore, the military build-up in Taiwan does not make it look like a pushover. Finally, any aggression towards Taiwan would tarnish China’s image no matter how much propaganda it would pour out that it is uniting the island with the mainland. Yet this assessment can be dismissed once China feels confident enough and is ready to weather the storm.
We are on the verge of witnessing a return to countries taking up arms when the time is propitious and is ready to strike swiftly. If no one is willing to send forces to prevent such aggression whoever acts will do so with impunity. As long as a country is ready to face the consequences of its actions, risks of future clashes will emerge. The multilateral system is sclerotic. Not only those established by those after World War II but the regional ones such as the African Union, ASEAN, the Arab League have all failed to resolve disputes. The EU could not even settle conflicts in Europe.
As diplomacy continues to fail we should prepare ourselves for an increase of such encounters. When the international community does not stand up and act to counter aggression, diplomacy will be useless. The years between the two world wars have too many examples of such disappointments.