Wars and Conflicts are Pushing Cooperation Off the Radar Screen

Global conflicts dominate today. A wise man once told me; “When the pendulum gets to the bottom it can only go up.” I responded: “Just tell me when it gets to the bottom and starts to go up.” For the moment, the pendulum is accelerating downward on cooperation with no bottom in sight and accelerating upward on conflict. The bomb boys are winning.

International cooperation and global conflict go up and down; when one goes up, the other goes down. Cooperation was dizzyingly high in 1989 at the fall of the Berlin Wall. Now, it is in an accelerating downward swing with global conflicts on the way up. How high can conflict swing? How far down can cooperation go?

The conflict side of the pendulum is oscillating near the top and close to a global confrontation. As it gets higher, war drums get louder and louder. We are approaching the second anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The war continues with no signs of a ceasefire or compromise on either side. Israeli atrocities also go on, with no immediate pause in the fighting or Prime Minister Netanyahu showing signs of changing his announced plans of eliminating Hamas.

War percussionists are warming up. At the February 15 NATO defense ministerial meeting, the NATO Secretary General proudly announced that NATO European allies would spend $388 billion on defense in 2024, “for the first time this amounts to a combined 2% of their GDP.”  And Donald Trump threatened NATO members who do not pay their share by encouraging Russia to invade any NATO country that does not.

Adding to drum beats about conflict with Russia and pushing the conflict side higher, media headlines warn about Russia’s nuclear spacecraft program, calling into question the U.S.’s capability to shoot down Russian missiles with nuclear warheads. And the death of Aleksei Navalny “rocks” the February 16-18 Munich Security Conference. Condemnation of Russian President Vladimir Putin for Navalny’s death excludes any short-term negotiation with Russia on ending the war. (Putin will not resurface as diplomatically acceptable unlike Mohammed bin Salman after the Khashoggi assassination. Putin is far too demonized.)

Drum beats on an upcoming Chinese invasion of Taiwan are softly in the background, but never far away. Minor drum rolls accompany Houthi rebels attacking ships in the southern Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, and civil wars in Sudan, Yemen, and elsewhere go on.

Why are we now in such an elevated state of conflict alert? What is behind the war drums? A simple answer is that there is a plot behind this before the upcoming United States presidential election. (Why shouldn’t progressives also be conspiracy theorists?) Republicans regularly depict Democrats as soft on security, be it a made-up missile gap or barbaric hordes coming across the southern border. For Republicans, Democrats have tree-hugging in their DNA – sorry Scoop Jackson.

The Republican presidential campaign will try to show how competent President Donald Trump would be in keeping Uncle Sam at home as opposed to the Democrat’s and President Biden’s failed foreign policy. As one pre-election Trump post boasts about Trumps’s presidency: “Did ya know? This was the first 4-year term without a new war since Eisenhower.”

Trump’s particular understanding of cooperation is based on his personal relations with potential enemy leaders. If he walked across the DMZ and shook hands with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, participated in a sword dance with Saudi Arabia’s MBS, claimed President Xi Jinping as a “very good friend,” and bragged about his positive relationship with Vladimir Putin – “Putin never ever would have gone into Ukraine if I were president,” – there is no need to be worried about World War III or America’s leadership in the world. Despite these examples, his MAGA isolationism does not move the pendulum any higher toward global cooperation.

Can the United Nations, the world’s largest cooperation institution, soften the war drums and stop cooperation’s descent? What ever happened to the United Nations’ attempt at global cooperation through the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)? Did the flop at COP28 put them to rest? According to a U.N. report of July 2023 concerning the SDGs’ targets: “Progress on more than 50 per cent of targets of the SDGs is weak and insufficient; on 30 per cent, it has stalled or gone into reverse. These include key targets on poverty, hunger, and climate. Unless we act now, the 2030 Agenda could become an epitaph for a world that might have been.”

Not very promising. But there is forthcoming another major attempt by the United Nations to re-energize global cooperation before it reaches the bottom. The United Nations sponsored Summit for the Future will take place on September 23-24, 2024, in New York. Its declared purpose is to “enhance cooperation on critical challenges and address gaps in global governance, reaffirm existing commitments including SDGs and the United Nations Charter, and move towards a reinvigorated multilateral system that is better positioned to positively impact people’s lives.”

What are the chances of the Summit’s success? Adam Day analyzed the possibilities in the International Peace Institute’s Global Observatory: “In a context of deep geopolitical fracture and low levels of trust, there will be a tendency for member states to act defensively, protect national interests, and minimize risks. Such a defensive posture would almost certainly lead to a lowest-common-denominator summit and would do little to advance the bold ideas in the secretary-general’s Our Common Agenda report. In fact, a Pact for the Future in 2024 that merely restated the challenges facing us today alongside an (in-principle) commitment to act collectively could contribute to an even greater sense of mistrust and cynicism about the role of the UN today.”

The outlook for implementation of the Summit’s goals is bleak. Can a proposed Pact for the Future at the Summit realistically silence the war drums and the realpolitik of national interests, competition, and conflict? Will the Summit be able to move the pendulum down from conflict and up on cooperation?

Conflict and cooperation are at opposite ends of a swinging pendulum. For the moment, the bomb boys are winning.

Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.