In The Media

Failing states and proxy wars  

by David Bercuson

Ottawa  Citizen
March 3, 2014

Both the Liberal government’s 2005 International Policy Statement and the Conservative government’s 2008 Canada First Defence Strategy placed failed or failing states near the centre of Canada’s future defence concerns.

In both cases it was asserted that failed or failing states were a major source of international instability, particularly because such fundamentally lawless states were used by major terrorist groups as bases of operation. It was also held that the social and economic instability within those states invariably spilled over their borders to affect neighbouring regions in areas of the world that were and are of obvious concern to Canada.

A good example might be the impact that the perpetually failing state of Haiti might have on the surrounding Caribbean basin, which has long been an area of strategic and economic interest to Canada.

At the time the two policy declarations were issued (they were most decidedly not White Papers), it certainly seemed as if failed and failing states were very much a major concern to Canada. After all, the nation was at war in Afghanistan, which had allowed itself to become the main base of al-Qaida and the staging ground for the 9/11 attacks on the United States.

It would be a significant mistake, however, if Canadian foreign and defence policy from here on is to be based on the danger to Canada of failed or failing states.

No one can deny that there are states in the world that are virtually without government or in which a central authority is so weak that all manner of international brigands — political, religious, or criminal — can carry out their daily business without hindrance or interruption. But a brief review of the most significant issues that will shape international relations over the next several decades shows that virtually all of them are the outgrowth of the good old- fashioned state-to-state rivalry that the world has experienced since the dawn of states — city, regional or national.

In the Indo-Pacific region, the push and pull of four states — Japan, China, South Korea and India — will be the main struggle that will determine what the Asia of 2064 will look like. To add to that power struggle, which is being played out in political, diplomatic, economic and military spheres, there is the question of how Australia will defend itself if U.S. power is in fact in decline, how Indonesia might cope with a sudden rise of Islamic militancy and how the Philippines’ growing desire for a renewed U.S. security relationship will play off against Philippine nationalism.

Those who insist the greatest problem in Central Asia today is still the possibility of civil war in Afghanistan after the final pullout of the U.S. and NATO at the end of this year forget that at least one of Afghanistan’s major sources of instability is that it was the prize in the Great Game that pitted the United Kingdom against Tsarist Russia from the 18th century to the onset of the Cold War at least. The geopolitical struggles that have been at work in that part of the world for centuries — Persia/Iran versus India, India versus China, China versus Russia — will still dominate Central Asia for decades, if not centuries, to come.

One of the great questions that hangs over international relations today is the extent to which the United States will be able to project both hard and soft power in the future. The U.S. will be dominant in the western hemisphere for decades if not centuries to come, but how much longer will the United States Navy be the ultimate guarantor of the freedom of international navigation? And if not the United States Navy, then what navy or combination of navies will police the global commons?

In Central Europe, the clash between Russia and Europe, played out in manoeuvring over issues such as gas pipelines and trade agreements, is starkly in display in the streets of Ukraine’s major cities. Vladimir Putin’s Russia is trying to build an informal empire in what was once the Soviet Union. Its campaign to rule its “near abroad,” however, is clashing with the aspirations of former satellite states, or parts of the U.S.S.R., that now desire stronger trade and economic relations with the west. Russia may still be a wealthy state today due to its oil and gas resources, and it is certainly the world’s second most powerful state in military terms, but the Russian demographic picture — aging population, widespread alcoholism, and a standard of living gap that makes the EU and the U.S. egalitarian paradises by comparison — is not a basis for future economic dynamism.

What this all means in practical terms is simple: although significant state-to-state war seems immensely unlikely at the moment, our political leaders need to remember that the military provides the glint of steel that ultimately makes diplomacy work. And because of that, a credible military capability that (alone, or in combination with other nations) gives pause to those whose interests run afoul of ours, is still vitally necessary.

David Bercuson is a Fellow of the Canadian Defence & Foreign Affairs Institute and Director of the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies with the University of Calgary.

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