The Threat Environment in Peace-Related Operations

by Alan R. Goldman, Ph.D.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Ground Intelligence Center, the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
The disintegration of the bi-polar world order, the globalization of Western culture and ideas, growing worldwide economic interdependence, and the information explosion are transforming the international environment and creating a general crisis of legitimacy for governing elites. The breakup of the Soviet empire has unleashed long-suppressed nationalistic impulses and added to the turmoil arising from ethnic and tribal conflict throughout much of the less developed world. Governments worldwide will continue to experience mounting demands for social justice, employment, the protection of lives, property and values, and even nationhood. While these demands are not likely to overthrow the nation-state as the locus of decisionmaking power on security affairs, they will create instability and occasional anarchy resulting in the erosion of state authority and the creation of new mini-states.
Fortunately, there are currently no threats to Western civilization as serious as those responsible for igniting World War I, World War II, and the Cold War. However, there is always the danger that local conflicts will engage the vital interests of the major powers and set the stage for far greater conflicts. It is certain that the major powers will confront different threats than those they found most pressing for most of this century. These emerging threats will inflict violence on American civilians and servicemembers, and at times impinge upon the stability and security of the United States.
Subnational conflicts will often turn violent, and when they do they will provide daunting and novel challenges to U.S. military forces that have successfully waged war against the various threats from potential hegemonic powers. The transition to the present domestic and international multipolar order will spread the kind of turmoil previously associated with such places as the Andean nations of Latin America, Central America, the Middle East, and Africa. Conflict around the perimeter of the former Soviet Union at the national and subnational level already stretches from the Balkans into the Caucuses and Central Asia and north to the Korean Peninsula. Indeed, ethnic, racial, tribal, class, and religious conflicts will likely be growing global phenomena.
In the future, even the most remote and deprived populations around the world will be able to arm themselves in order to take advantage of changing circumstances, or to fend off threats to their status and way of life. As the intermixed domestic and international order seeks a new equilibrium, the necessary conditions for conflict will exist in virtually every society and nation, and especially where democratic institutions and practices are weak or nonexistent.

Modernity, Change, and Conflict

The pace and magnitude of global change will continue to shock and reshape foreign and domestic politics. For the time being, Western institutions and values define modernity and success, including freedom and free enterprise, and by easy access to multiple sources of information. Modernity also implies the triumph of the city over the country, industry and technology over agriculture and pastoralism, and secularist opinions and life-styles over traditionalism. Post-modernity implies the pervasive power of information that is fast becoming everyone's birthright; no longer the dominion of just the few. Influence in the information age will continue to gravitate toward those with the access and knowledge to master and manipulate the communications media in all its proliferating forms. However, there will also be a seizure of power by newly aware, propagandized and partially informed groups and leaders who are driven by often inchoate fears, but increasingly well-articulated grievances born of a rising sense of victimization and injustice.
Because modernity fosters the questioning of traditional values, it will also continue to generate a violent backlash from those threatened by modernism such as the mullahs of Iran, the elite classes of Latin America, ex-communists and new fascists in Europe, and eventually perhaps the majority of the middle class in the West. Paradoxically, it is now arguable that we are witnessing both the end of history and the reemergence of it. With the breakup of the bipolar order, it is likely that the traditional forces of fragmentation, ethnicity, backlash, and conflict will be even stronger than newer competing trends toward multiculturalism, integration, interdependence, and harmony.
Rapid, visual, undirected, or tenuously controlled change to the domestic and international order creates unusual turmoil and insecurity, and fosters in its wake a search for stability, order, familiarity, roots, and ethnic identity. Governments in the less developed world will continue to respond to popular and often frantic and fanatic demands and challenges to their rule with a confusing mix of forceful crackdowns and experiments with more participatory democracy. Government leaders are unlikely to find any antidemocratic model that works, although Asian countries as disparate as China and Singapore may be the exception that proves the rule, especially if anarchy and violence come to be associated with Western culture and behavior.

Progress and Conflict

With ever-greater effectiveness, individuals and groups will target corrupt, venal, and stultified bureaucratic elites. In parts of the Islamic world there is a pincer assault on the ruling order from frustrated college graduates demanding suitable jobs and from displaced religious elites who have lost much of their old authority. Articulate antiestablishment figures and popular demands in South Korea, Italy, and Mexico are forcing wrenching changes in the domestic political order in the direction of more openness and participation. However, in the Balkans, where the fault lines of faith and history run deep, the destruction of the bipolar status quo and the breakup of Yugoslavia have resulted in anarchy, ethnic- and religious-based violence, and an atmosphere of fear, hatred, insecurity, revenge and despotism.
In general, the disequilibrium and anarchy inherent to the breakup of the old order will be exacerbated by the explosive spread of information and knowledge at a time when the income gap between rich and poor continues to widen. Modernism instructs the populace about inequities, raises popular expectations, and provokes greater demands from the disenfranchised. When the people perceive the elites as unresponsive, self-serving, corrupt, and unable to provide tolerable and equitable levels of material and psychic rewards, the tinder for conflict spreads out of control.

When Conflicts Turn Violent

In his book The Causes of War, military historian Michael Howard wrote one can divide it [the world] into those status quo powers for whom the existing international order is on the whole satisfactory, and those revisionist powers for whom it is not: who regard it on the whole oppressive and unjust, and who have no way of obtaining justice through the normal processes of peaceful negotiation. For whom the only way to obtain such justice may appear to be to fight
Howard also said that groups can effectively threaten peace when their armament is initially almost negligible, as often as not purloined from the armories of their opponents.
Violence will very often accompany the transition to a new global equilibrium. There is no indication that organized mass murder on the scale perpetrated by Hitler, Stalin, or Mao is in the offing, thanks in large part to a more informed, enlightened and tolerant public. Nevertheless, the post-Cold War world order promises to be divisive, chaotic and highly conflictual. When social disintegration occurs alongside national dissolution (as in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia with its many ethnic and religious divisions), the necessary condition for conflict is present. The sufficient condition for violent conflict exists when armaments of all types are readily available.
When a people such as the Serbs perceives itself in decline and losing control over its future safety and well-being, it is likely to seek emotional outlets against scapegoats or "enemies" who may be real or imagined. The interrelated conditions of adverse power shifts result in a growing sense of personal insecurity. Social and national disintegration create a tangible environment of fear in which even a single incident such as an assassination or a political act such as the recognition of an independent Croatia or Bosnia can spark periods of prolonged violence and retaliation. Once engaged in a cycle of violence, the combatants will adopt and adapt their objectives, tactics, organization and material to suit the political and physical situation. However, one can make some broad generalizations about the milieu and motivations of rivals who take up arms against one another.