The Seven Shades of Gray between Conflict and Peace

by Mangesh Sawant - 7 December, 2021, 12:00 1363 Views 0 Comment

The end of the cold war led to the flourishing of the liberal order, formation of new states, globalisation and international cooperation. The post cold war era led to a short respite of conflicts and scholars saw the emergence of a new world order. Nation states cheered the advent of a peaceful world without understanding that the international system is anarchic.

As the second decade of the 21stcentury ends the world has slipped into uncertainty and instability characterised by intractable conflicts. Consensus building which was the center piece of international politics since the end of WW II is crumbling. Countries which were opposed to each other on grounds of ideology, territories, borders and historical differences cooperated against an expansionist Iraq in 1990. But contemporary world collaborative structures are disintegrating.

The 20th century involved proxy wars between the two superpowers. In the 21st century there is a diffusion of conflict in which multiple non state players such as terrorist groups, militias and organised criminal groups are destabilising entire regions. The 20th century threats are replaced by contested territories, fragmented societies and competition in global commons. The intervention of regional powers in local conflicts is creating new alignments adding to volatility in divided regions.Since the end of WWII the proportion of conflicts with foreign involvement has been the highest. The lines between intrastate and interstate conflicts have become increas­ingly blurred. International organisations (IOs) are maintaining the status quo instead of solving interconnected borderless conflicts, famine, climate risks and refugees. Reformist revisionist states are deploying unconventional instruments of power.

Great power rivalry is taking center stage as China resorts to hybrid warfare characterised by military expansion, disinformation campaigns and economic coercion. Strategic realignment is taking place as the US transfers its military from the Middle East to the Indo-Pacific region.

Countries gained independence from the shackles of colonialism only to be grasped by the grip of authoritarianism. Social unrest as a response to authoritarianism has become common in the Middle East and Africa. Socialist policies, political volatility, profligate spending and socioeconomic problems such as increasing food prices and reduced access to basic state servicesare leading to a geoeconomic crisis in South America.

Cyber warfare is the new entrant to the field of geopolitics. Techno authoritarian regimes are hacking into the democratic orderas disinformation campaigns are replacing conventional threats.

Since 1945 the world has not witnessed such high levels of unprecedented array of geopolitical risks.The seven shades of gray will determine the geopolitical risks and strategic events which are on an inflection point.These thematic descriptions of the contemporary worldare the prominent players in the 21st century great game of geopolitics.

  1. Turkey:The new entrant on an ancient playground

The tribal conflicts of the 18th century are being played in the 21st century Middle East.The only differencesare the weapons used from swords to precision guided munitions. Insurgenciescontinue unabated whilesectarianism constitutes a challenge to good governancein theunstable Middle East.Arab Springs have degenerated into deeply divisive civil wars in Libya, Syria and Yemenwhich are exploited by the regional powers.

Turkey is the new entrant to the Middle Eastern quagmire. President Erdogan seems to be returning to the idea of Ottoman rule. Turkey is challenging the hegemonic tussle between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The region is witnessing theresurgence of the age-old conflict between the Ottomans, Arabs and Persians.Ankara is destabilisingthe wider region by intervening with impunity in multiple conflicts in NagornaKarabakh, Syria and Libya. The conflicts in the Middle East could put Turkey and Saudi Arabia on a collision course.

Turkey is becoming estranged from US and India as Ankara’s historically cautious foreign policy is being replaced by domestic authoritarianism and an interventionist approach.Paradoxicallya socially and culturally conservative Saudi Arabia is moving in the direction of reforms while Turkey is abandoning the liberal Kemalist traditions.

  1. International Organisations: The silent and complicit spectators

IOs have increasingly failed to deliver on the principles enshrined in their charter.UN’s multilateralism is being questioned onits 75th anniversary as it has been managing crisis instead of preventing them.Since its inception violence from armed conflictis destabilising entire regionsleading to the humanitarian crisis.UN brokered peace agreements have been unsuccessful as grievances arenot addressed whileregional powers hamper the peace process.

Vested interests of nation states dominate IOs while the essence of Robert Keohane’s global interdependence is visibly absent. After 100 years Russian and Turkish peacekeeping troops are maintaining a peace treaty between Armenia and Azerbaijan.The UN was not a party to the peace process. Historically Russia and Turkey have kept IOsout of the peace process as Czars, Sultans, Lenin and Kemal Ataturk have drawn new borders in the region.

The UN has become an organisation for copious speeches and endless meetings while conflicts have been brewing in Syria, Libya, Somalia, Yemen and Afghanistan. UN member states are fighting against each other in various conflicts instead of being responsible stakeholders for the collective good of the international community. Countries like Turkey and Saudi Arabia have been flouting the very rules they are supposed to protect. China which is apermanent member of the UNSC has proliferated nuclear technology, is involved with disputes with 18 countries and is a violator of international laws.While responsible democracies like Japan, Germany and India are rotated as non-permanent members.

China is profiting from the very system it subverts.China views IOsas convenient platforms for promotingits global agenda. Chinais taking control of IOs through the appointment of four officials and ninedeputies in fifteen UN agencies.China may coerce the UN agencies to pass resolutions or prepare incorrect reports against democracies. A Wilmer Hale investigation found that the World Bank’s former Chief Executive Kristalina Georgieva had pressured staff to boost China’s rankings in the Ease of Doing Business list.

Human rights violators such as China and Pakistan are elected members of the UNHRC. In return for investments countries like Pakistan are supporting China on issues which go against the essence of democracy and international law. In the UN thirty seven countries including Saudi Arabiaand UAE wrote a letter of support for China praising it for achievements in the field of human rights.

The irrelevance of IOs is not restricted to the UN system. Pakistan is not placed on the FATF blacklist due to the support it receives from Turkey and China.Since the last two decades, the WTO has failed to address China’s unlawful trade practices. China is the second largest economy in the world yet it receives special privileges under WTO rules as itis categorised as a developing country. NATO remains a silent spectator as Turkey which is a NATO member interferes in various conflicts. South America remains politically fragmented as countries engage in conflicts rather than solve the differences through the OAS.

The world will degenerate in a lawless playground for authoritarian states if costs are not imposed on the perpetrators of conflict. A new framework of IOs has to be built to mitigate the 21st century geopolitical threats.

  1. Disarray and division in Union 27

Europe is concernedaboutan interfering China, the emergence of far right groups, populism, illegal immigration and social unrest. Tensions are rising between traditional powers like Germany and new entrants like Poland and the Czech Republic due to China’s policy of divide and rule through the 17+1 platform.Chinese majority ownership investments in Europe’s critical infrastructure such as telecommunications networks, ports, civilian roads and rails could affect NATO’s ability to respond to a diplomatic or a military crisis. China has invested $318 billion in Europe by buying ports in countries like Greece. In response, Greece has voted in favor of China in EU institutions.

Populist and illiberal political parties in Hungary and Poland avoid accountability while their governments are opposed to the EU rule of law.If remained unchecked populism may become a permanent featurein the EU.

  1. Beijing: A bull in a China shop

China resorts to economic warfare and interdependency as a means of political coercion. China’s intimidating strategy warns the nation that they risk trade ties if they oppose Beijing’s domestic laws and foreign policy. Ironically China abhors foreign interference in its internal affairs but it interferes in other countries through sharp and soft power. China flouts international law despite Beijing’s grandiose statements about peaceful co-existence.

The Indo Pacific region is witnessing an arms race as China increases its defense spending while its neighborsrespond to the China threat. China is increasing the ICBM stockpile as it refrains from signing the SALT and START treaties.Its unrestricted expansion in the South China Sea may lead to a regional crisis.The Doklama and Galwan crisis reflects an inflection point that will fundamentally change the trajectory of India-China relations.

China’s belligerent foreign policy and manipulative diplomacy is harming its relations with democracies. Countries like US and India are economically decoupling from China. Democracies are militarily collaborating under the Quad. India has banned 225 Chinese apps. A US trade war is taking a toll on China’s exports. Chinese companies like Huawei are banned by EU, US and India. Engagement as a policy and economic doctrine has outlived its usefulness with China.China has squandered the hardwon soft power. Xi Jinping is on the verge of destroying the China shop that was built by Deng Xiaoping.

  1. Terrorism

Transnational insurgencies mark the transition to fourth generation warfare which includes terrorist groups taking advantage of regional conflicts and political and socioeconomic issues.Terrorism has morphed into decentralised groups and franchises.Terrorist groups are establishing bases in ungoverned territories and unstable countries. Terrorist activity has been reduced in Afghanistan and Iraq but there is a rise in terrorist activity in North Africa, Nigeria and Sahel and Sinai regions. ISIS was the first terrorist organisation to operate as a state. The ISIS model of decentralisation is leading to lone wolf and coordinated small style attacks as opposed to Al Qaeda type news making 9/11 attacks.

Terrorists will transit from weapons to launching cyber attacks on countries and hacking financial accounts of organisations.The world may see the emergence of PLO as a terrorist organisationas gulf nations normalise their relations with Israel. Terrorism will remain at the forefront of the national security threats for US, Europe and India.

  1. Anarchy: The new geopolitical threat

Countries are challenged by subversive activities of anarchists, anti-globalisers and anti-government extremists. Social unrestand large scale protests are a major concern on lines of terrorism for law enforcement agencies. Anarchists may embed themselves in genuine protests and resort to urban warfare tactics. Miscreant groups have destroyed government establishments and private property.Terrorist groups may exploit the protests by assimilating in the crowd to launch attacks.Due to the high risk of civilian casualties law enforcement agencies may not be able to engage the terrorists. Countries like China may exploit an archist groups to divide national unity and fuel secessionism. Anarchy must be designated as a national security concern as it will be an existential threat to democracies.

  1. The Keyboard is Mightier Than the Trigger

Cyber warfare is far superior as compared to the historic battlefields of the 20th century. Cyberspace is the new geopolitical battleground of the digital age. Due to plausible deniability cyber attacks are more dangerous than conventional warfare as the retaliation by the victim is low. An attack could shut down a city and cause financial losses, injuries and deaths. Cyber attacks are the favorite asymmetric weapons of China and North Korea.

In the future computers will replace human beings in promoting disinformation campaigns through fake news. Security measures such as facial recognition and voice recognition could be compromised with the introduction of sophisticated faces wap technology and voice alteration techniques. A fake video of the President or the PM could be release donsocial media causingchaos and discontent among masses.

Social media bots can create automated posts which could causedis order. China through its popular apps could cause social unrest in democracies by posting manipulated anti social content. These emerging threats may cause a conflict between the two nations. And the perpetrator might be a third country.


The contemporary period exposes several geopolitical fault lines which are more difficult to tackle than those of the past decades. The international system has entered the age of flux and incompetence. A peaceful world order as envisaged after the end of the cold war is implausible. Since the end of the cold war the international environment has degenerated from managed peace to the emergence of chaos.Authoritarian nations will cause anarchy while democracies will work towards cooperation. Hybrid, asymmetric and intrastate warfare will be the dominant form of conflict. The world is worse off than it was during the cold war.Geopolitical volatility is the new norm. The world will operate in the seven shades of grey between conflict and peace.

Mangesh Sawant
Author has a Masters in International Affairs Degree from Columbia University, New York. He is a subject matter expert on Homeland Security, geopolitical risk analysis, global security and military studies.

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