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Wars in the 21st Century

By January 28, 2000 No Comments

Every century has its major wars, and this new one will be no exception. If the last three centuries are anything to go by, Canadians can reasonably expect to be involved in at least one major conflict and any number of smaller ones before 2100 rolls around. After 50 years of relative peace, Canadians might forget that they were an arena in major conflicts during the 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries – and were involved in many minor episodes between times. Our 20th Century record stretches from South Africa to Kosovo, with well over 100,000 dead Canadians resting between them.

We have no right to peace, and should know better than to expect it. So what might we anticipate in the coming century?

At the start of 2000, the Western World is unified as never before – a relief considering that most of two of the five bloodiest affairs of the last century (both World Wars) were largely waged between European states. Indeed, the current unity between such former rivals as Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Spain and the US is almost unprecedented. Moreover, Western military technology remains, as it has for the past 400 years, superior to that of the rest of the world.

It is easy to assume that this combination of Western unanimity and military superiority will continue to guarantee peace for Canada and our allies. This is a foolish assumption to make – the West is not the World.

Only 10 years ago, we were just coming out of a long confrontation with the Soviet Union. Russia, while only a feeble core of its old empire, does not love the West. It might recover much of its strength under capable leadership. China makes no secret of its dislike of the West and its leaders have openly discussed the prospect of general warfare with the US. The Islamic world, disunited and chaotic, could also eventually present a potent threat. Stability is precarious elsewhere.

Weapons of mass destruction are also a profound “equalizer” and the diminished US and Russian arsenals could soon be equaled in size and raw capability by China. India and the Islamic nations could follow within a generation. Multi-polar nuclear parity could occur within 40 years – unless the US can retain its current supremacy through the introduction of effective anti-ballistic missile (ABM) defences.

Note that the US is currently constrained by the ABM Treaty it signed with the USSR in 1972. However, lesser forms of missile defence are allowed. At present, the US is promoting Theatre and National Missile Defence; allowing its technology programs to develop through ABM loopholes.

America’s main strategic advantage is its technological superiority. The only way it can play this trump in a multi-polar nuclear world is to “move the goal-posts”. In short, for China and other emerging powers, if they want to play the super-power game, they would have to play it at a disadvantage. In the meantime, the sharing of ABM technology with traditional American allies (almost all Western nations) will enhance the value of alliance, and likewise keep smaller nations safe from ballistic blackmail.

Regardless of the deployment of ABMs by the US and its allies, nuclear parity will exist – roughly – in terms of raw offensive capability. Regardless of the hypothetical strategic nuclear “war-fighting” capabilities of various nations, the nuclear threat between nations should remain one in potentia. Actual nuclear warfare between states with full arsenals is likely to remain unrealized. (Indeed, the deployment of ABM will probably make it remain so).

During the Cold War, nuclear parity ensured that conflict between the great powers 2 largely took place through proxies. Between 1946 and 1991, the US and the USSR only became actively involved in three kinds of conflicts:

  1. Armed intervention within an allied or client state of vital interest. The Soviet Union actively intervened in Hungary and Czechoslovakia to prop up Communist governments, while the US was active in the Caribbean to limit the influence of a then Soviet client state.
  2. Active involvement in the defence of allied or client states. The US, for example, lost 50,000 men in both South Korea and South Vietnam. The Soviets – who armed North Korea and North Vietnam — were more cautious with their own personnel until their Afghan intervention of 1979. They were much more liberal with the soldiers of client states. Cuba, for example, was active in the Angolan Wars of 1975-88.
  3. In non-state Proxy Wars either as instigators (the Soviets being famous sponsors of international terrorism); victims (a common US role); or in aggressive support for other proxy players – such as assisting parties involved in coups d’etat or guerrilla movements.

Even with the widespread deployment of ABM systems by the US and its Allies; the risks attendant to general conflict with nuclear powers will inhibit warfare in the 21st Century. Therefore, these lesser forms of fighting are likely to take on a renewed salience in the immediate future. If Samuel Huntingdon’s controversial thesis outlined in The Clash of Civilizations continues to be a more accurate guide to the future than others have been; the new alliances and blocs are already in place.

Armed intervention as part of an alliance structure is always possible for Canada. At some time in the coming decades, it may be that a country like Turkey or Malaysia (lying as they do along the “fault-lines” described by Huntingdon) may require a multinational intervention of some kind. This is especially true if the country has been part of a larger alliance structure, and a coup takes place or a political minority attempts to move the country into an opposing structure.

Turkey, for example, has normally chosen to attempt to identify itself as a European rather than a Middle Eastern Nation. If it becomes a front-line state in a Western- Islamic contest, and a Fundamentalist coup occurs, might Canada be asked to contribute to a force that backs the last elected government? It is conceivable.

What may be even more conceivable is alliance participation by Canadian warships in an attempt to break a strategic blockade of Taiwan by China.

Canada fought in both World Wars and Korea because of our alliance. Perhaps Canadian involvement in the World Wars was more a question of instinct than of policy, but since the 1940s, Canada’s safety has relied on alliances and collective security. This policy security has repeatedly taken Canadian troops into the former Yugoslavia on “peacekeeping” missions – which often involved very real combat. Collective security has also led Canadian airmen into two shooting wars in the 1990s. Obviously, Canadian troops, pilots and naval crews will see combat in coming years.

Terrorism and organized crime have always been problems of one sort another – even in Canada’s long history. However, during the Cold War, terrorism took on a new importance and became a tool whereby one nation could vex another behind a veneer of anonymity. In the late Cold War, insurgents around the world learned that they could operate with little super-power support by connecting with organized criminal activities. The new hybrid of insurgent and gangster is already posing a serious problem for any nation that subscribes to the Rule of Law. Canada does not yet seem to recognize foreign-oriented insurgent groups or organized criminal activity as a major national security threat. This is a mistake.

In the coming multipolar Cold War, it may be that the terrorist and the terrorist hybrid will become even more sinister. Almost all such groups have a narrow ethnic or cultural focus. As they usually have no loyalty to anything but themselves, they would be amenable to overtures from different power blocs. Cooperation with other nations will give small hostile groups even more in the way of resources – unlimited access to arms and training, for example. Worse still is the possibility of access to weapons of mass destruction.

Most Western European and North American nations have had an open immigration policy in recent decades. Canada and the United States, for instance, are among the most cosmopolitan nations that have ever existed. This is a noble experiment and a significant accomplishment. But what happens when insignificant fractions of ethnic communities suddenly become severe threats to the commonality? The tolerant spirit that allows a cosmopolitan society to function might well vanish overnight; with dire results – worse, perhaps, than the relatively benign internment practiced by Western nations on Japanese and German nationals earlier.

Canada does need to prepare for the coming century. The long neglect of its military must be overcome. More importantly (as difficult as this seems), we may have to give some serious thought to how we can preserve what we have built in the face of an ugly emerging international order.