My latest DIPLOMAT piece – what if World War Three has started but we haven’t realised?

So here we are (at the time of writing this) in mid-January 2022. As usual the British media are agog and aghast at various world issues.  The legal machinations of Prince Andrew.  Australia’s COVID persecution of Novak Djoković. And, even more important, DID BORIS ACTUALLY HAVE PARTIES WHEN THE REST OF US WERE LOCKED DOWN??!!

Meanwhile, tucked away in the far corners of the news columns, other things are happening:

Sweden is bolstering its modest armed forces in the Baltic Sea island of Gotland in response to stepped up Russian military activity in the area. Major General Lena Hallin (head of Sweden’s military security agency): “For some time developments have been moving in the direction of a serious security policy crisis in Europe.”

Ukraine government websites are being hit by massive cyber-attacks, as Russia mobilises forces on its border with Ukraine and the Biden Administration claims that Moscow is frothing up ‘false flag’ allegations to justify an invasion.

And Poland’s Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau warns that “The risk of war in the OSCE area is now greater than ever before in the last 30 years.”

Wait … what?

War? In Europe? How can that be a thing once more, 30 years after American political scientist Francis Fukuyama famously pronounced that we were seeing the “end of history?”

Good question. Yet a few weeks later here we are, columns of Russian heavy armour invading a neighbouring sovereign country with a view to stealing much of its land. This looks like war to me.

In so many Western capitals our political elites seem to have given up on democracy as an-end-in-itself. Never mind what’s right. What can we get away with? The result is not just the erosion of responsibility and freedom. It’s much worse: the erosion of the very idea of responsibility, of freedom as something worth having – and worth fighting for.

Has an unrecognised tipping-point been reached, and (worse) been passed? Has state-sponsored anxiety and attendant public spending become so enormous a part of our lives that instead of our owning the state, the bland brutish state owns us? How would we hapless voters notice? If we did notice, would we even care?

Hence the international situation now feels so … brittle. And dangerous. What if too many things go wrong at the international level at the same time? What if the capacity of the world’s leaders and institutions to respond in a coherent, authoritative way to several huge problems just sighs and ebbs away?

Imagine a global economic and political perfect storm:

Russia invades Ukraine and claims to annex large areas of Ukrainian territory. Western economic sanctions freeze the Russian/Belarus financial systems

Moscow hits back with cyber-attacks against Western banks. Cash machines across Europe and the United States run dry; just-in-time supplies of food to supermarkets around the world collapse, prompting mass protests

Hundreds of thousands of people try to escape from Ukraine and Belarus into the European Union. EU capitals struggle to reach agreement on how to respond.

Clashes between different ethnic communities break out in European countries, including within the European Union (Hungary, Romania, Estonia and Latvia) and in Serbia/Kosovo. The Dayton peace agreement for Bosnia and Herzegovina looks close to collapse

Elsewhere new military tension rises between North and South KoreaChina threatens to ‘settle the Taiwan problem, once and for all’

Iran too weighs in, threatening a new ‘final solution’ for Israel. Israel warns that it will use every possible means to defend itself. Turkey says that it will not tolerate this. Military mobilisation on all sides

In several African countries ethno-tribal gangster warlordism spreads out of control, causing famine conditions

The US Administration in Washington faces plummeting opinion polls and finds it impossible to react coherently. NATO is weak. The EU is divided. The UN is powerless: the five Security Council permanent members can’t agree on anything that matters

Previously any one of these problems could be managed or at least contained. The problem today lies in the fact that they can come along simultaneously, as if from nowhere, and have mutually reinforcing bad impacts on elemental ideas of economic and political confidence. Generalised global pessimism spreads like wildfire through social media networks: shared understandings, restraints and responsibilities which have mainly kept the peace since WW2 falter before our eyes.

In short, the planet’s legal and moral order looks and feels weak. For the first time in centuries the USA and Europe can’t define, let alone set the global agenda. Other powers sense that things are going their way: why not exploit this situation to redraw the map – and rewrite global rules – as they see fit?

Well, the Ukraine part of that appalling scenario is unfolding, although so far without showing signs of spreading (and, perhaps) not going as well as the Kremlin wanted?). Western capitals have come up with a patchwork-quilt of notably heavier economic sanctions that before, including knocking large parts of the Russian banking system off the SWIFT network.

World Wars One and Two were conflicts with global consequences arising from European power-struggles. But, it might be said, they were brought about by classic thematic and ‘organised’ rivalries that were easy to understand. And far fewer countries were global players.

By contrast World War Three could be completely different: a crazy global free-for-all, where one international border after another disintegrates and no-one knows what to do about it all. In such a situation radical and ruthless leaders have a huge advantage: it’s time for a brazen ‘grab what you can’ international looting spree.

The Cold War ended abruptly. What if the post-Cold War settlement featuring a sense of optimistic global cooperation also ends abruptly?

In particular, the end of the Soviet Union led to 15 new independent states. Russia accepted this and has done well by it. But Moscow now looks to be embarking on a dangerous new course: demanding explicitly that these states are ‘independent’ only insofar as they agree to do what Moscow wants and do not try to join the ‘Western’ community. And once the rules for Modern Europe get torn up, perhaps the rules in other parts of the world will get torn up too.

Maybe diplomacy is becoming Just Too Difficult.