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Reflecting on 1,000 columns over 20 years: the predictions that came true

On an openDemocracy milestone for Paul Rogers, he gives an insight into the late 20th-century landscape that shaped his accurate war analysis

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
25 September 2021, 12.01am
Smoke rising over Manhattan, 11 September 2001
DPA Picture Alliance/Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

This week marks the 20th anniversary of the first column I wrote for openDemocracy, a few days after the 9/11 attacks and before the start of the interminable ‘War on Terror’. It is also the 1,000th column in the series and so a fitting opportunity to reflect on how it came about, and how the analysis presented back then stands up 20 years later.

Like many peace researchers in the immediate post-Cold War years of the early 1990s, my colleagues and I at the University of Bradford were trying to work out how trends in international insecurity were evolving. In an early contribution, Malcolm Dando and I wrote the book, ‘A Violent Peace’, published in 1992, which argued that state-on-state conflict might be overshadowed by the impact of global trends, especially environmental limits to growth.

Two years later, I co-edited, along with Kath and Geoff Tansey, another book, ‘A World Divided’, recently republished by Routledge, which focused more on how the global system was not only subject to limits to growth but was based on an economic model causing more marginalisation.

Later in the decade, I also wrote about how conventional approaches to security were misguided, with little interest in conflicts arising from an environmentally constrained and economically divided world. These conflicts, it was argued, could not be controlled by force, and the term ‘liddism’ was coined to explain attempts to keep the lid on dissent rather than turn down the heat. That led to my next book, ‘Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century’, published in 2000.

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It all started with 9/11

Around that time, the mediator and conflict resolution specialist, Gabrielle Rifkind, was working with Scilla Elworthy, founding director of the Oxford Research Group, on approaches to conflict resolution. Rifkind, who now runs the conflict resolution organisation, Oxford Process, liked the term ‘liddism’ and decided to run occasional “liddite conversations” at her London home, bringing together academics, activists and media people to discuss this and related themes.

In the first of these, held a couple of months before 9/11, Scilla and I presented an analysis of world security trends from the ‘Losing Control’ perspective to an interested, if somewhat sceptical, group that included the founding editor-in-chief of openDemocracy, Anthony Barnett, who was then engaged in setting up the publication.

openDemocracy started publishing at the beginning of September 2001, and immediately attracted attention. When 9/11 happened, Barnett got in touch with me and suggested I write an article about the attacks and what might happen next. I did so, then followed it up the week after with another, and yet another a week later, and so on until the thousandth today.

The columns have concentrated mainly on the security dimension and the overall causes of war, not least because of openDemocracy’s remarkable range of writers, who have so many different global perspectives. The columns have also covered climate breakdown and the impact of socio-economic marginalisation, with the underlying thinking being that the dominant causes of global insecurity in the early decades of the 21st century would be the widening socio-economic divide, global marginalisation and environmental limits to growth.

Of all the columns, three stick in my mind the most. That very first one, ‘Afghanistan: the problem with military action, went against most conventional thinking after 9/11 by arguing strongly against going to war with al-Qaida and the Taliban, warning of an interminable conflict. That seemed to get it wrong at the time, as the Bush administration terminated the Taliban regime in Kabul and dispersed al-Qaida across South Asia and beyond in a matter of weeks.

As Bush declared; ‘Mission accomplished’, the columns appeared misjudged – but history proved them to be right

That allowed Bush to give his State of the Union Address four months later, in January 2002, declaring that the neoconservative vision for a ‘New American Century’ was back on track and would move on to confront an ‘axis of evil’, starting with the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq.

That war followed just over a year later, in March 2003. Within a fortnight, everything seemed to be going well as the US troops closed in on Baghdad, but I wrote a column titled ‘A thirty-year war, that suggested otherwise and predicted a long, drawn out conflict. Once again, that seemed misjudged as Bush was able to give his “mission accomplished” speech less than a month later.

As it turned out, both columns had it right. In Afghanistan, the Taliban were back within a couple of years, leading to nearly two decades of war, at least partly due to US preoccupation with its wider ‘axis of evil’ targets, while the Iraq war deteriorated rapidly into a bitter insurgency made worse by interconfessional conflict that lasted for eight years.

Afghanistan and Iraq turned out to be just two of four failed US-led wars since 9/11. The third, in 2011, was an intense air war that the US joined as part of a NATO-led coalition to support anti-Gaddafi rebels in Libya, but the state descended into instability and violence light years away from the stable, pro-Western, oil-rich country that the US had expected.

Then there was the sudden, phoenix-like rise of Isis from the ashes of al-Qaida in Iraq, which led to the fourth US-led war, the 2014-18 air and drone assault on northern Syria and Iraq. That, too, has failed, as Isis regroups in both countries, while expanding across the Sahel, spreading into northern Mozambique and the DRC, and even increasing its presence in Afghanistan.

The war-promoting hydra

While much of this was down to deep political failures by Western states, things are rapidly moving on, as China has replaced terrorism to become what the West considers its greatest threat, with the AUKUS pact being the latest example in how things are heating up between the two sides. It is as if the four failed wars are forgotten, even though Brown University’s ‘Cost of War Project’ has reported that 929,000 people have been killed in the post-9/11 wars due to direct war violence, including 387,000 civilians, while 38 million people have been displaced so far.

That brings us to the third column that stands out the most for me, one from just three years ago, about the functioning of the world’s military complexes, ‘A war-promoting hydra’. In each state that has sizeable armed forces, there are also arms companies, as well as civil servants, labour unions, think tanks and universities, all integrated into a single self-sustaining complex with formidable lobbying power.

These complexes need foreign threats in order to thrive and keep the annual defence budgets high, and the best of these currently is China, which is proving to be a welcome development for Western militaries. It will also be welcome in the Chinese equivalent, which is all too ready to point its political masters in the direction of a Western threat. Rogue states and major non-state actors may also be significant to the global military systems but generic issues such as pandemics or climate breakdown are far less satisfactory.

So, where are we now? Over the past 20 years, a recurring theme of the columns, that of a triple paradigm crisis for economy, environment and security, has increased in potency, and there is more to explore. There is much welcome new thinking across the Global North and South, and some of it is examined in more detail in the new edition of ‘Losing Control’. This analysis will surely feature in further columns in this series, for as long as it continues – even if there is no way that it can extend to another 1,000 columns!

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