Endless Wars

Viewpoint by Sergio Duarte

The writer is an Ambassador, former United Nations High Representative for Disarmament Affair, and President of Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs.

NEW YORK (IDN) — The Charter of the United Nations consolidated important norms of international law. Its Preamble affirms the decision to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind”. At the time of its adoption, the world was deeply shocked by two successive wars that directly involved Europe and other regions. In spite of the lofty purposes expressed in the Charter, several armed conflicts in many parts of the globe have marked the seventy-seven years of the United Nations’ existence. 

Since 1945 and until last February there had been no wars on European territory, except for the conflicts among former Yugoslav republics in the Balkans and military operations conducted by NATO in that region in the 1990’s. Korea, Viet Nam, the Middle East, several countries and regions of Africa and even Latin America, to mention just a few cases, were not immune to the suffering brought by wars, often caused by political or economic interests of the central powers.

The list of armed conflicts worldwide in these last seventy-seven years, some of which are still going on, is extensive and tragic. A lucrative armaments industry fuels dissension and fosters combats.  

Even without wider conflagrations, Europe experienced an era of tense apprehension during the decades following World War II. Two heavily armed camps politically and ideologically opposed to each other occupied geographic spaces divided by a line that extended from north to south from eastern Scandinavia to the Balkans and also encompassed Turkey and parts of the Mediterranean: to the west NATO, established in 1949 under the leadership of the United States and on the other side the Warsaw Pact, led by the Soviet Union.

In spite of some crises, the two military alliances never faced each other in open warfare and kept a delicate balance of forces. This period became known as the “Cold War” and lasted until the dismemberment of the Soviet Union. Its ideological components were gradually replaced by a search for power and influence in the international order. The Cold War did not disappear—it just changed.

After the collapse of the USSR, the Warsaw Pact was terminated in 1991. In the course of three decades the majority of its former parties gravitated toward NATO, adopted forms of political and economic organization based on the principles dear to their Western neighbors and joined the European Union, which now comprises 27 members.

East and West are relative concepts: they depend on the location of the observer. Politically, economically and militarily the European West—whose symbolic boundary in postwar times was the Berlin wall—shifted to almost reaching the border with the Russian Federation, the successor of the Soviet Union.

In more recent times, each of the two sides—NATO and Russia—came to identify the other as its chief adversary. Both are engaged in a new arms race in search of illusory supremacy. Mutual mistrust increased, even after both presidents issued in 2021 an encouraging joint statement that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought”.

Russia believes that NATO’s eastward progress is a serious threat to its security and is alarmed by the possibility that Ukraine, an immediate neighbor, might seek membership in the Atlantic alliance. While there may be grounds for its concerns, Russia chose the path of armed aggression to fend off that eventuality.

Whatever its reasons, this attitude flatly contradicts the Charter of the United Nations. By signing the Charter, all members of the international organization committed to settle their international disputes by peaceful means and to abstain from the use or threat or use of force against the territorial integrity of other states.

NATO’s founding treaty establishes that an armed attack against one or more of its members shall be considered an attack against them all and would justify a military response. Since Ukraine is not a member of NATO, the alliance is not bound to intervene directly in the hostilities, although several members are providing growing amounts of arms to the Kiev government. At the same time, they adopted individual and collective severe sanctions against Russia, vowing to weaken it economically and militarily and hoping to provoke internal uprisings against Moscow authorities.  

A negotiated solution to the conflict seems distant. The humanitarian cost of the war is very high and the situation in the battlefield remains uncertain. Over 5.5 million people have fled Ukraine and several thousand on both sides have already perished.

Russia’s apparent immediate objective is to secure a land link to the Crimean Peninsula, which it annexed in 2014, and to establish control over the Ukrainian shores of the Black Sea. Ukrainian forces successfully expelled invaders in the north along the border with Belarus and keep control of the central and western parts of the country, including the capital Kiev.

Ukraine’s president relies on NATO’s support but has already made clear that he will not seek membership in the western alliance and does not seem inclined to renounce sovereignty over parts of the country’s territory.  Up to now, diplomatic contacts between the two contenders has been limited to humanitarian agreements, clearly short of what would be necessary to prevent or alleviate the plight of civilian populations.

Anxiety and tension once again grip Europe while worldwide concern with the course of the conflict and its economic and human consequences increases. The main fear is the risk of a military escalation that leads to the use of nuclear weapons. Russia and NATO arsenals boast so-called “tactical” atomic weapons, that is, arms with relatively low nuclear explosive power that have been developed for use in battlefield operations.

Even so, such weapons are many times more powerful than the ones that were used to raze Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Their use may provoke a response in kind from the enemy and trigger an escalation of unpredictable results.

A treaty concluded in 1987 eliminated nuclear intermediate-range missiles based in Europe. This decision caused relief among the population and brought détente to the relations between the two major powers.  Nevertheless, the forces currently stationed in Russian territory as well as the atomic war power that can be used by NATO from aeroplanes or submarines are more than enough to ensure catastrophic damage in the case of a direct confrontation.

Moreover, Washington and Moscow possess supersonic nuclear intercontinental missiles that can elude existing defense systems and whose use may result in complete mutual destruction with irreversible consequences for the remainder of the planet. An accident or sheer carelessness may cause the extinction of the human race. The current russo-Ukrainian chapter of the ongoing confrontation between Russia and the West has depended exclusively on conventional weapons, although veiled threats of nuclear retaliation in case of more direct involvement of NATO still persist.

Durable peace in the world can only be reached through good faith understandings that take into consideration the legitimate security concerns of all parties. The negotiating instruments that remain at the disposal of the international community were created precisely to prevent the scourge of war.

The risk of recurrence of the untold human and material losses caused by past and present bloody conflicts is a warning sign that mankind may not yet have fully learned the lessons from its history. The competition for ever more destructive weapons does not lead to undisputable supremacy; rather, as it is plain to see, it is the most direct path to the perpetuation of the rivalries and mistrust that contribute to create and fuel endless wars.

There is no logical or moral justification for History to continue as a constant series of conflicts with ever more lethal and indiscriminate weapons.  Humanity must understand once and for all that security for some cannot be attained at the expense of the insecurity of others. Wisdom and restraint, taking into account the lessons of the past, offer the best chance of building a future of peace and averting the threat of unprecedented devastation. [IDN-InDepthNews — 10 May 2022]

Photo: Protestors at a February 2022 rally against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine march past the statue of Tsar Alexander II in Senate Square in Helsinki. CC BY 2.0

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This article was produced as a part of the joint media project between The Non-profit International Press Syndicate Group and Soka Gakkai International in Consultative Status with ECOSOC on 10 May 2022.

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