from The Internationalist , International Institutions and Global Governance Program , and Council of Councils

Iran and Beyond: Interstate Conflict Grows More Palpable

An undated U.S. Air Force handout photo shows a RQ-4 Global Hawk unmanned aircraft in mid-air. U.S. Air Force/Bobbi Zapka/Handout/Files via Reuters

As tensions between the United States and Iran increase, questions of conflict prevention and response loom large. 

June 21, 2019

An undated U.S. Air Force handout photo shows a RQ-4 Global Hawk unmanned aircraft in mid-air. U.S. Air Force/Bobbi Zapka/Handout/Files via Reuters
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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

The following is a guest post by Kyle L. Evanoff, research associate for international institutions and global governance at the Council on Foreign Relations.

The United States and Iran are treading a rocky path of late, to say the least. Recent developments include strikes on oil tankers in waters off Iran’s coast, the Iranian downing of a U.S. surveillance drone, and a last-minute decision from President Donald J. Trump to call off airstrikes on Iranian targets last night. The net result is escalated tensions and the clear possibility of open conflict between the world’s pre-eminent military power and a leading regional power, a state of affairs that accords with the expectations of some of the world’s leading think tank heads.

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Conflict Prevention

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The 2018-2019 Report Card on International Cooperation, which drew upon the wisdom of more than two dozen chiefs of Council of Councils (CoC) member institutes, ranked “Preventing and Responding to Violent Conflict Between States” eighth of ten issue areas in terms of ripeness for breakthroughs in international cooperation. This ranking was incommensurate with the issue area’s importance: the CoC saw interstate conflict as the fourth most important issue area, behind mitigating and adapting to climate change, managing the global economy, and preventing nuclear proliferation (another issue central to current U.S.-Iran woes).

Efforts in 2018

These assessments came after a 2018 that saw some degree of international progress in preventing and responding to violent conflict between states. Although such efforts were far from perfect, the CoC awarded them a C+, recognizing a handful of relative successes. As Michael Fullilove of the Lowy Institute (Australia) wrote, “the stabilization of relations between the United States and North Korea in 2018 was a welcome development.” Steven Blockmans of the Centre for European Policy Studies (Belgium) likewise pointed to an instance of prevention: “in a rare display of compromise in the Balkans, Greece and Macedonia resolved their name dispute after a quarter century of UN-led mediation talks.” And Riccardo Alcaro of the Institute of International Affairs (Italy) was optimistic about “Ethiopia and Eritrea’s Asmara Joint Declaration of Peace and Friendship,” which “formally ended the war along the border, reestablished diplomatic relations, and launched cooperation.”

On the other hand, the CoC leaders were well aware of the shortcomings in 2018 in preventing and responding to violent conflict between states. As José María Lladós and Juan Battaleme of the Argentine Council for International Relations observed, “many of the most important conflicts remain active. In fact, most are currently under higher degrees of tension than previous years.” Yemen, Syria, and Ukraine remain active conflict zones, the first of which is home to what many claim to be the world’s most pressing humanitarian crisis. “In Syria,” meanwhile, “the war is largely over, but no peace is in sight,” according to Volker Perthes of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. Indeed, “the Middle East remains in turmoil” and “new aggression in Eastern Europe is prevalent,” in the view of Sunjoy Joshi and Samir Saran of the Observer Research Foundation (India). They added that “little respect for international law is seen in the South China Sea, and newer territorial tensions between China and India are brewing in the Himalayas.”

Prospects for 2019

With 2019 well underway, many of the concerns expressed in the report card have proved prescient. Writing of Iran and the United States, Alcaro offered a frank and accurate assessment: “the chances for escalation are higher in 2019 than in 2018.” Perthes concurred, writing that “the United States leaving the [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] undermined international diplomacy and peaceful crisis prevention, and it marked a setback in international cooperation regarding interstate conflicts.” The recent developments surrounding Iran have only added fuel to the fire.

Other regions are also at risk of increased tensions or interstate violence. As Amos Yadlin of the Institute for National Security Studies (Israel) observed, “in recent years, tensions between major international powers have heightened,” a potential prelude to great power conflict. Yul Sohn of the East Asian Institute (South Korea) identified maritime disputes in East Asia as a potential flashpoint, writing that “circumstances surrounding the South China Sea have not been bad, although in the light of trade talks, the area remains unsafe.” Indeed, President Trump has continued to wage his trade war with China, and that economic conflict has numerous connections to national security and military competition. Simmering conflict in Ukraine also offers cause for concern. Mariana Campero of the Mexican Council on Foreign Relations offered an assessment of the situation: “Tensions between Russia and Ukraine escalated after an attack on Ukrainian vessels on the Sea of Azov, and regional peace is at stake. The world’s response was tame, which only strengthened Russia’s resolve.”

More on:

Iran

Conflict Prevention

Wars and Conflict

Diplomacy and International Institutions

U.S. Foreign Policy

Recommendations

As worrisome as these conflicts are in the aggregate, the overall picture is not entirely bleak. Adam Ward of Chatham House (United Kingdom) offered a silver lining to 2018—“there was no formal breakout of interstate war between large powers”—which continues to be the case halfway through 2019. He also cautioned, however, that “the revival of proxy conflicts has blurred category lines in this regard.” As conflicts such as those in Syria and Yemen demonstrate, the line between interstate and intrastate conflict is often not clear, which leaves open the possibility of local and regional disputes escalating into broader conflict.

As with many other areas of international cooperation, preventing and responding to violent conflict between states is a complex endeavor, unamenable to simple solutions. Rohinton Medhora of the Centre for International Governance Innovation (Canada) summed up the dynamic, lamenting that “it is hard to think of a single reform that could make a difference, because the causes and nature of interstate conflicts vary considerably.” And some initiatives that might prove helpful on the global stage are unlikely to materialize. Campero noted that “reforming the UN Security Council is necessary to distribute global power and better address international conflicts.” At the same time, UN Security Council reform has been stalled for decades.

Until such measures come to fruition, smaller steps are critical. As Yadlin suggested, “further dialogue between the United States, China, and Russia” could help in averting great power conflict and managing smaller conflicts. The United States has an especially important role to play in the latter. Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations prescribed “greater U.S. efforts to discourage an Israel-Iran or Saudi Arabia-Iran war.” For now, though, the most important measure for the United States to take is to avoid starting its own war with Iran.   

About the CoC Report Card

The Council of Councils (CoC) Report Card on International Cooperation evaluates multilateral efforts to address ten of the world’s most pressing global challenges, from countering transnational terrorism to advancing global health. No country can confront these issues better on its own; on the contrary, combating the threats, managing the risks, and exploiting the opportunities presented by globalization all require international cooperation. To help policymakers around the world prioritize among these challenges, the CoC Report Card on International Cooperation surveyed the Council of Councils, a network of twenty-eight foreign policy institutes around the world between December 2018 and January 2019.

View the full CoC Report Card on International Cooperation to see how global think tank leaders graded the world’s performance and prospects for 2019 on ten global challenges.

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