Fighting over the past
- Old hatreds: Two states can both be democracies, and yet share a troubled, conflicted past (think, Turkey and Greece). Posit a debilitating enough humiliation on one side (e.g., Greece exiting the Eurozone and suffering economic collapse), and the potential for conflict may rise in the form of the “splendid little war” to divert the public’s attention. An easier trigger to imagine in this era: the discovery of some heretofore unobtainable resource bonanza (shale gas, offshore oil) in the historically disputed land or sea borders that separate them.
- Enduring regional rivalries: Consider two democracies that have long aimed to dominate a sub-region of less powerful states that divides them. When such typically turbulent sub-regions lapse into infighting, democracies can be pulled into the resulting wars. Regions that exhibit such possibilities include the Caucasus, Southeast Asia, Central Asia and a Middle East eventually democratized by the still-unfolding Arab Spring.
- The stable peace unraveled by democratic revolution: Israel had long enjoyed a lasting peace with an undemocratic Egypt, but that stability is now put at risk by—of all things—Egypt’s tumultuous transition to an Islamist-infused democracy.
- Imperial legacies: Consider France’s frequent interventions in its former African colonies, the UK’s 1982 war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands (a lingering wound now salted with the prospect of exploited seabed resources), and, quite frankly, Russia’s relations with any of its former subjects (most notably Georgia in 2008).
- Straight versus squiggly borders: The historical observation that states with irregular borders are more stable than those with straight lines, usually drawn by conquering outsiders. In the latter case, “artificial states” often result, with indigenous populations split between one of more countries (e.g., the Kurds). Africa is chock-full of such situations, and it is democratizing as incomes there rise.
- Messy “divorces” yield never-ending “custody battles”: Show us a state that has split up into two or more successors (e.g., Balkans, India-Pakistan-Bangladesh, “joint custody” Cyprus), and we will show you enduring fights over “lost progeny.”
Fighting over identity
- Proving one’s legitimacy to lead: Turkey aims to recapture leadership of the Arab world and needs to prove just how Islamic it is. That requirement forces it to torch a long-standing quasi-alliance with fellow democratic power Israel (e.g., the Gaza “peace flotilla” as a “bloody shirt” drill). A Muslim Brotherhood-run Egypt now confronts similar temptations.
- Long-suppressed identity now unleashed: The essential Western (and Israeli) fear concerning the Sunni-empowering Arab Spring—how will populist Islamic democracies “sew their wild oats” in their unbridled youth? By resuming warfare with Israel? Picking fights with status-quo-defending Western democracies? Recall the dramatic uptick in conflicts among newborn democracies following the fall of the Soviet empire.
- Religious divides: The fabled “tenth parallel” divides a northern Africa (mostly desert) that is predominately Muslim from a central/southern Africa (mostly grassland) that is predominately Christian/Animist. States have already split along such lines (Sudan, Mali?) and several democracies have recently suffered significant civil unrest (Nigeria) or even civil war (Ivory Coast). The divide isn’t necessarily the causal factor, but when tensions right, this is how populations inevitably choose sides.
- Regional integration schemes: Right now that is the European project, long divided east-to-west and today increasingly north-to-south. Add in a significant influx of ghettoized populations (Muslims), and the struggle for a European identity can still devolve into serious violence.
- The right-to-protect (R2P) impulse: Some democracies quite seriously define themselves by not allowing other states to devolve into “ethnic cleansing.” We have recently watched democracies divide on this issue with regard to Libya and now Syria. While it is extremely unlikely to devolve into direct blows, it may well migrate into warfare by proxies.
Fighting over the future
- When democracies don’t agree over the “glorious revolution”: This can occur when a “distributed” democracy like Indonesia loses one of its component states (East Timor, West Papua?) that is subsequently embraced by a neighbor (Australia). Even greater tensions can arise when one democratic multinational union (European Union) starts picking up the pieces from a disassembled empire (Russia’s).
- When expat/split populations agitate for meddling in another state: Think of India’s enduring interest—and meddling—in Sri Lanka over the Tamils, and now Turkey’s new boldness concerning Iraq’s Kurdish Regional Government. Then there’s the whole India-Pakistan-Afghanistan muddle. And if democracy keeps coming to the Middle East and Africa, the possibilities seem endless.
Fighting over resources
- Water wars: Much anticipated and greatly touted, thanks to unfolding climate change, we have no shortage of plausible scenarios here. More than two hundred river basins are shared by states whose collective population encompasses almost half of humanity. Moreover, population growth and water shortages are co-located across heavily populated equatorial regions. Two places to watch: the Indus River basin connecting Pakistan and India and the Tigris-Euphrates river systems of ancient Mesopotamia (linking Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Israel).
- Disputed seabed/exclusive economic zones: The list here is equally long, with the South China Sea dispute generating the most disturbing headlines. Check out Turkey and Israel’s ongoing threats over Cyprus’s offshore gas deposits.
- The Arctic “gold rush”: Here we watch the Arctic Council, arguably the most important international organization of the century—at least in its potential evolution. Remembering that America bought its seat (albeit in 1867), might China try the same thing? Maybe with a Greenland looking to fully separate from guardian Denmark? And how will barely-democratic Russia, with its near-majority share of the Arctic coastline, get along with its fellow Council members?
- The shale gas “fracking” revolution: Pipelines are supposed to make for good neighbors, but Russia’s relationship with the rest of Europe says otherwise. A world of skyrocketing natural-gas usage will feature a lot more pipelines crossing borders in regions full of immature democracies.
- When bankrupt powers sell territory: This has occurred throughout history. Heck, most of America was acquired in this manner. In a democratizing world where globalization accelerates the rise and fall of economies, we’re likely to see a lot more of this. But territory never comes totally bereft of indigenous populations, and therein lies the rub...and the inevitable friction that can later trigger conflict.
- The rise of cyber warfare: For now more virtual than real, but threaten enough treasure and there will be blood – eventually. The new U.S. cyber war doctrine speaks of kinetic responses to cyber attacks—a dangerous accelerant toward great-power war.
Fighting over non-state actors
- Terrorists/insurgencies embedded in a neighboring state: The classic of the genre right now. Pakistan and India come quickly to mind, as does Israel with Lebanon or a post-Mubarak Egypt. Then there’s America’s emerging Obama Doctrine that seems to say Washington has the right to assassinate—at will—all over the world.
- Crime wars that cross borders: The obvious one here is Mexico and the United States, but Venezuela and Colombia apply too. In both instances we see the more powerful state (U.S., Venezuela) openly meddle in the internal policing function of the other (Mexico, Colombia)—albeit for different reasons. One may not care to label such criminal violence “warfare,” and yet Mexico’s cartel war is the most violent conflict on the planet right now.
- When corporations settle frontiers: Remember America’s own frontier-settling history, where private companies engaged in all manner of policing. Globalization is forcing the settlement of numerous economic frontiers in developing—and democratizing—regions, and corporations often lead the way. Can such activities trigger wars? History says yes.
- Guest labor populations: The U.S. is putting up a security fence between itself and fellow democracy Mexico. With globalization encouraging vast-but-temporary labor flows, expect more inter-state tensions along these lines.
Fighting over power
- When rising authoritarian regimes come between old democratic friends: America fears China’s rise and restricts arms and high-technology trade with Beijing. But a financially strapped Europe may not always be so careful. What happens if China and the U.S. go at it and Europe’s not necessarily on America’s side? Then there’s China’s growing economic sway in Asia—could Beijing push Taiwan or South Korea into some fight with its old antagonist Japan?
- When there’s more than one “global policeman”: America assumes it carries the only “badge,” but as Russia’s invasion of Georgia proved, copycatting can occur. With so many rising democratic great powers out there, this could easily become a crowded profession.
Not an exhaustive list, to be sure, but a reminder that even democracies—mature or not—can find plenty of reasons to fight with one another in a world of increasing connectivity.
Wikistrat is the world’s first massively multi-player online consultancy (MMOC). It leverages a global network of subject-matter experts via a patent pending crowd-sourcing methodology to provide insights unavailable anywhere else.
This article was originally published in the Diplomatic Courier's September/October 2012 edition.