Armed troops have taken over territory in Eastern Europe. First-world navies are jockeying for territorial waters in the South China Sea. Barbarous rebel forces are overrunning regime troops in Iraq and Syria.
And the jailing of Australian Peter Greste has shone a spotlight on the unrest in formerly stable countries like Egypt.
A century ago, the world was in such turmoil that all it took was a single bullet to trigger the Great War. Are we again in such a fragile state?
World peace seems to be in retreat. And while Australia is a long way from the epicentres of unrest, geography is no guarantee of immunity.
Terror attacks, militant uprisings and landgrabs by powerful nations are nothing new.
Terrorism wracked the world at the turn of the last century, though it was branded “anarchy” back then. So too did the sabre-rattling of ambitious new world powers.
In June, 1914, no-one would have believed that the blood of almost an entire generation would be spilt in trenches rent from the soil of France and Belgium.
In August 1939, no-one could have dreamt Nazi Germany would so soon be marching in lock-step down the Champs Elysees in Paris.
Can it happen again?
Can we imagine the modern Western world being set on fire?
Or are the similarities between then and now overstated?
A time of peace
As the Senior Lecturer in Security Studies at Murdoch University, Dr Rajat Ganguly, points out: It’s easy to overlook the large swathes of our planet which are actually now at peace.
“South and North America, Western and Central Europe, southern Africa, Australia, India, Southeast Asia; war between nation-states is less frequent today than it was 100 years ago,” he says.
Only one year ago, things were looking even better.
Osama bin Laden had been consigned to the deep in 2011. The other personification of evil, Saddam Hussein, had been executed in 2006.
The last of the “Coalition of the Willing” had been withdrawn from Iraq. A similar operation was well underway in Afghanistan.
That left only Syria’s President Assad and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un amid the ranks of a new axis of evil. Even Iran had become the subject of increasingly conciliatory noises from Washington.
“Mission Accomplished”, if not the words, was certainly the sentiment on many politicians’ lips.
Time for war?
Against all expectations, the past 12 months has produced cascading failures in international diplomacy.
This collapse has been captured this month in an annual “Global Peace Index”, produced by the Australia-based Institute for Economics and Peace. It claims the recent deterioration in world affairs — even before events in Ukraine and Iraq — has been the most serious since the end of World War II.
China has been butting-heads with Japan, Vietnam, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines over its territorial ambitions.
Iraq is suddenly on the brink of collapse, and Russia has strolled into Crimea with barely a murmur of dissent.
Thailand’s newborn constitutional government has again been toppled by a military coup and North Korea continues to push itself forward in a desperate bid to be taken seriously as a world power.
And all the while a war — though it has been called everything but — has been waged around the globe against growing extremist influences. US Special Forces have raided Libya and Somalia in an effort to kill or neutralise key commanders. The drone strikes in Yemen and other areas of the Middle East continue, unabated.
The terrorists also have had their fair share of victories. Al-Shabaab’s massacre at a Kenyan shopping mall killed 67 and drew the attention of the world. More than 300 schoolgirls were kidnapped and non-Muslims were massacred by extremists in Nigeria.
Then there was the attack on the US Embassy in Libya which killed the US Ambassador and three other US citizens.
The use of “hard power” is making a comeback, executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) Peter Jennings writes in a recent blog. “It’s an ugly thing, supposedly a relic of an uglier past abandoned by modern states in favour of diplomacy … It never really went away.”
The heat is on
It was against a similar backdrop of international tensions and ambitions that a bullet claimed the life of Austria’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand.
It was a regional act over just one regional issue: The “Black Hand” political movement was upset that Austria was acting to prevent the formation of a unified “Greater Serbia” on its borders.
From Libya to Yemen, Iraq to Indonesia, the United States finds itself forced to be ready to respond to such regional issues.
“America’s challenge is immense: it must reconstitute a tired military and shake off its aversion to being dragged into conflicts at precisely the moment the rest of the world rediscovers the blunt-edged value of force,” Mr Jennings writes.
The separation between Somalia and China may seem remote. But so did the link between Serbia and Germany in 1914.
However, as Dr Ganguly points out, the world map was a very different beast a century ago. “The 1914 war was basically a European war, which became global due to far-flung European colonies,” he said. “The situation today is completely different. I think it will be a gross stretch to talk about World War III.”
War in the 21st century is nothing like that of a century ago. The fight is no longer on Winston Churchill’s seas and oceans. It is rarely in the air.
There have been no battles on the beaches, or landing grounds since Iraq in 1991. The fighting is all in the fields and streets — and in the hills. It’s ideology that never surrenders.
Some dismiss the recent resurgence of Islamic extremism in the Middle East as more about local politics than world affairs. But the bombing of the Boston Marathon last year by Sunni-affiliated terrorists shows such extremist attitudes are still a real and present danger.
But the “asymmetric” threat posed by the likes of al Qaeda is aimed at the West’s way of life. Victory there is a matter of instilling, and leveraging, fear. And in exploiting growing discontent. That war will likely never end.
If a modern prophet ever ends up marching down the Washington Mall, it will be at the head of an internal uprising: Not an Arabic invasion force.
But the world is, once again, a troubled place.
Is turmoil the New World Order? Or, once again in Churchill’s words: Will a New World, with all its power and might, step forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old?
The chill of the Cold War is back in the air. Russian bombers are again trailing their coats close to US and British borders. Warships and submarines are picking up their deadly dance where they left off more than two decades ago.
Even so, the Crimea crisis which sparked it all is already over. Russia possesses it. The West is doing little about it.
“Russia’s open military annexation of Crimea and barely-disguised subversion of Kiev’s authority in Ukraine’s eastern provinces constitute a show of hard power as naked as Hitler’s march into the Sudetenland,” says ASPI’s Peter Jennings.
But how far does President Putin’s ambition extend? Is it restrained to the once-were-Soviet states of Urkaine, Latvia and Belarus. And then there’s Poland — whose sovereignty has previously been abandoned to Russia after Hitler’s fall.
“I would not read too much into this,” Dr Ganguly says. “The Russians have long voiced concern about the expansion of NATO. Ukraine has become a test case for Russian resolve to resist the spread of NATO.”
Having been there and done that, Russia seems to have a good sense about what it can get away with. Other, newer powers may not.
2) The China Seas
Oil and gas are a common cause for war. And both are found in plenty among the scattered islands of South and East Asia. But now fish stocks are at the top of this race for resource control.
China is using a 900-year-old map from the height of its ancient empire as justification for claiming waters far from its modern shores. Nearby nations enjoying the benefits of a world defined by the outcome of World War II see things differently.
“Beijing has moved from the passivity of ‘peaceful rise’ rhetoric, through the more assertive diplomacy of 2010 to now, where hard-power behaviour at sea and in the air simply asserts China’s control.” ASPI’s Mr Jennings says.
But, as Dr Ganguly points out, tough-talk rarely equates to war. “There is yet no reason to believe that China will resort to war to fulfil its territorial ambitions,” he says. “It’s a complex economic relationship and the emerging tensions are part and parcel of a new evolving security order in which China, Japan, India and the US all want to play the pivotal role.”
Since the hugely expensive exercises in Afghanistan and Iraq, the word “intervention” has been anathema in the west. But the prevalent hope was that the turmoil would somehow remain contained by Syria’s borders. ISIS has proven that hope unfounded.
Now, Syria looks set to follow the path of Afghanistan and Iraq into lawlessness and chaos.
“What’s happening in Syria and Iraq is a clash by proxy between Sunni Islam led by Saudi Arabia and Shia Islam led by Iran,” says Dr Ganguly.
But the West remains focused on Syria’s president, Assad, and not the volatile religious powder keg he is sitting upon.
“Assad is a man who knows that losing power condemns him to a personal fate like Libya’s Gaddafi’s,” Mr Jennings writes.
It’s a blazing beacon to the failure of the West’s recent wars. It’s also the last thing President Obama needed on his plate.
Tens of thousands of lives have been lost and billions of dollars up-ended into the battlefields of Iraq. Now the nation seems to be lurching towards fragmentation, without an effective army or a functional government to lead it.
According to Dr Ganguly, it’s largely our own fault. “The problem was created by the US initially through the invasion of Iraq which toppled Saddam. Then the US military disengagement opened up space for civil war between armed militant groups that had initially mobilised to fight the US occupation.”
What arises from the ashes will determine the direction of the Middle East for decades to come. Will it be a hard-line Islamic Caliphate? Or can balance be found under strengthened, secular state?
Now Afghanistan fears being left similarly high-and-dry once the final US forces are pulled out in coming years. Will its US-trained military and police prove any more reliant in the face of fanatical Taliban fighters than those of Iraq when presented with ISIS?
As Mr Jennings points out: “There’s no post-Afghanistan peace dividend to be harvested”. Even President Obama appears to have quietly conceded this concern.
In recent weeks he approved a two-year extension for fighting forces to remain operational in the nation’s war-torn valleys. 2014 was supposed to be the last year on the ground. It certainly didn’t hurt al-Qaeda — it now larger and more decentralised than it was on September 11, 2001.
Afghanistan has been a melting pot of world politics for hundreds of years. This isn’t likely to end any time soon.
Even though this Shia nation has been pushing for decades to develop its own nuclear weapons, it seems to have recently restrained its territorial ambitions. Instead, it appears to be seeking strength against the turmoil of its own region — turmoil which threatens to tear down Syria and Iraq and form a rival “Caliphate” religious state.
Such an entity would only escalate the fractious politics of Islamic nations.
Only Saudi Arabia has seemed able to maintain any real sense of stability in the region. But for how long?
The fractious politics of Islam have not left the constitutional republic of Yemen untouched, even though it is far from the battlefields of Syria and Iraq. al-Qaeda-linked militants have recently attacked the presidential palace and tried to assassinate the defence minister.
US drone strikes against remote jihadist bases sporadically reach the news — usually when a misfire claims innocent lives. Yemen is now just another explosive element in the increasingly unstable powder-keg of the Middle East.
8) North Korea
Nuclear blasts. Missile tests. This rogue state keeps thrusting itself back into the news. Just this week the poverty-stricken dictatorship threatened war in response to the pending release of a comedy in the United States about its leader, Kim Jong-un. North Korea has been regularly playing a game of brinkmanship with South Korea and Japan. The region has long been one-wrong-move — or wayward missile — away from war.
The birthplace of the Arab Spring has already succumbed to a debilitating winter. Vying political and religious factions made the recent attempt at a valid government virtually unviable.
The military has since stepped in, and all the dramas associated with martial law have come back into play — not least the recent jailing of Australian journalist Peter Greste.
As one of the more powerful and populated nations of the Middle East, what happens here has direct implications for its neighbours spanning two continents.
Since the long-term dictatorship of Muammar Gaddafi was toppled in a NATO-supported Civil War in 20011, the seemingly inevitable march of Islamic extremists has brought a renewed jihad to this oil-rich Mediterranean state. The new democratic government has, once again, found itself in gridlock. Militias have stepped into the power vacuum and Western interests are increasingly coming under attack. Fresh elections this week once again have the world watching, and wondering.
Africa’s largest economy faces an uncertain future as increasingly militant religious extremist groups unleash turmoil upon an already fragile political system. Defections and extraordinary pork-barrel spending has become a feature of the lead-up to elections next year, but the nation remains wracked over the fate of nearly 400 schoolgirls abducted by extremists opposed to their education.
It’s yet another hotspot in the growing war of Islam.
War-torn Somalia is still struggling to repair its religious and racial divides after decades of internal struggle. Into this void has moved al-Shabaab, a clan-based terrorist group which boasts of ties with al Qaeda. This organisation claimed responsibility for a murderous attack on a shopping mall in nearby Kenya last year. In return, it has itself become the target of US Navy SEAL and drone raids.
Unweakened and more determined, al-Shabaab — supported by Britain’s “White Widow”, Samantha Lewthwaite, is expanding its campaign of terror into other neighbouring states.
Written by Jamie Seidel
News Corp Australia Network