Evidently humans are not alone in having their faith and behaviour tested during the holy month of Ramadan. The international order is being tested as well. Nor do we hold a monopoly on sin and misdeed. Governments and their ruling elites are just as vulnerable to them, especially when it comes to matters of war and peace. These agencies proved amazing in their response to Covid-19. Although the pandemic killed more than six million worldwide, governments succeeded in stemming the spread of the disease, developing a vaccine and distributing it across the world without discrimination between rich countries and poor. Yes, there was a time lag before the vaccines became available in developing nations, but it was also the case that wealthy countries were harder hit.
On the other hand, just over a year ago, those same elites stood with hands tied behind their backs as the world careened over the brink, from Russian troop amassments to Western threats of sanctions, to pledges of support Ukraine into a full-scale war in Ukraine. We know how that has played out from various statements, threats, maps, figures and other information. There were some surprises, such as the strength of Ukrainian resistance. But now, a year after the war began, it is painfully clear that Ukraine is the biggest loser. Many of its cities have been reduced to rubble, its economy is in ruins, a large portion of its population has been displaced at home and abroad. The conflict currently stands on a knife’s edge at the threshold of a new round of fighting called the “spring offensive.” But we may be looking at a different kind of war before another year is out. A sign of what could lie ahead occurred with the confrontation between a Russian fighter plane and an American MQ-9 Reaper drone on a military intelligence gathering operation over the Black Sea near Crimea.
This first direct collision between the US and Russia testified to the unpredictable dynamics of the war and how it can generate unanticipated situations that are even difficult to assess legally in terms of the law of war or law of the sea. Did the engagement occur in an area where all countries have the right to “innocent” passage? Is an unmanned and unarmed plane flying a thousand feet above sea level near a war zone a legitimate military target? Regardless of how it is framed legally or militarily, the implications of that incident are extremely grave. All major wars in history were preceded by alarming arms races and huge increases in military spending. We see this happening today among all major powers. Russia and Ukraine are spending fortunes by the day; indeed, by the hour. The US is discussing a $6.8 trillion budget for 2024, including $842 billion for defence. Germany has increased its defence budget by $100 billion since the start of the war. Japan has not announced a figure, but it has stated that it will increase defence spending enough to be able to contend with all foreign threats. China and India have followed suit. The growing outlays will, of course, fund the new arms race in an era where weapons are nothing like those used in world wars or even the Cold War.
International relations theorists and strategic analysts believe that weapons buildups, mobilisations and deployments generate a war-producing momentum of their own. World War I is notorious for being a war that no one wanted but everyone failed to prevent. It broke out because each side was afraid that the other would be the first to start and thus gain the advantage of the initiative. Could the same happen with the current war? Are we not watching escalations in quantities and qualities of weapons that could eventually lure in parties that did not even want the war to begin with? Can the new types of cyber, unmanned and AI weapons, in all their chemical, biological and of course tactical nuclear and strategic nuclear varieties truly be subordinated to rational calculations. Or will they detonate and seal the fate of all humankind without forewarning?
Fortunately, the world stage is not entirely full of news of impending hell. We have a Chinese initiative that offers a possible solution in the form of a six-point theory. It also has a practical aspect in the form of President Xi Jinping’s visit to Moscow and his stated intention of speaking with Ukrainian President Zelenskyy. The theoretical and practical sides combined define a starting point that consists of a ceasefire and the launch of a negotiations process. Secondly, they tell us that Russian-Chinese relations have evolved to a degree that Moscow can afford to back down from its more maximalist demands, such as holding onto territory that is purely Ukrainian and the demilitarisation of Ukraine. At the same time, China’s position in the UN including its right to veto offers Kyiv the opportunity to give a peace initiative a try, and that could alleviate the military pressure on it ahead of the expected spring offensive.
The initiative is a more explicit expression of the joint Chinese-Russian declaration of 4 February 2022 calling for reform of the monopolar world order. Naturally, the US opposes anything that might jeopardise what it regards as its innate global rights. However, reform would offer it an opportunity for an orderly retreat in which it would retain a unique status in the international system and simultaneously find avenues that might enable it to prosper even more than under the current order. The Chinese proposition does not exclude the “cooperative rivalry” that the US political scientist Joseph Nye advocated. Nor is it inconsistent with the concept of “competition” as outlined in recent US strategic documents.
Unfortunately, the balance between the forces racing to prepare for more war, death and destruction and the Chinese push for peace remains heavily tilted in favour of the former. This is because the Chinese initiative is only Chinese up to now. The balance will only begin to shift when other midsized or major powers act, not to complicate things more than they are already complicated but to give the Chinese initiative the chance it deserves at a time when there are no other options on the table. India, Brazil, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other countries that are not part of any international military pact and that have not taken sides in this war must speak out on the horrible toll being paid by countries that have nothing to do with the war in Ukraine. Whether they do so individually after consultations with others or collectively through international organisations such as the African Union and Arab League, they must act now. This is not an attempt to revive the Non-Aligned Movement. It is an attempt to save the world.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 30 March, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly