International relations, as a field, has been deeply engaged in understanding the nature, causes, and resolutions of conflict. One foundational theory is Realism, which views international relations as a struggle for power among self-interested states.
Thinkers like Thucydides, Machiavelli, and more recently, Hans Morgenthau and Kenneth Waltz, have been prominent in shaping this perspective.
Contrasting this, Liberalism, with proponents such as Immanuel Kant and Woodrow Wilson, emphasises cooperation, democracy, and international institutions in mitigating conflicts. Constructivism, a more recent development championed by Alexander Wendt, posits that international relations are socially constructed through interactions and not merely driven by material interests.
Moving to 2024, the world continues to witness a variety of conflicts, some with deep historical roots and others sparked by contemporary issues. These conflicts range from territorial disputes, ideological and religious confrontations, to struggles for resources and power.
The Council for Foreign Relations, through its Global Conflict Tracker, reports that as of January 2024, the world grapples with approximately 27 active conflicts spanning various countries and regions. These conflicts are not only persistent but also escalating in severity.
Intensifying global disorder
The strife in the Red Sea area, the ongoing war between Ukraine and Russia, the enduring Gaza war, along with air strikes in Iran and Pakistan, are prime examples of the intensifying global disorder. These situations underscore a stark reality: the world is in a desperate and urgent need for peace, as conflict continues to deepen and spread across the globe.
Conflicts between countries are often seen as inevitable due to various historical, political, and socioeconomic reasons. Yuval Noah Harari, in his works like “Sapiens” and “Homo Deus,” emphasises the deep-rooted evolutionary and psychological aspects of human societies that drive them towards conflict.
Harari argues that the innate human tendency to organise into cohesive groups based on shared myths and narratives can lead to strong in-group vs. out-group dynamics, often resulting in conflicts between nations.
On the other hand, Francis Fukuyama’s seminal work “The End of History and the Last Man” initially posited the triumph of liberal democracy as the final form of human government, suggesting a decrease in ideological conflicts. However, Fukuyama later acknowledged the persistent nature of human conflicts driven by thymos, the part of the soul that craves recognition, which can manifest in nationalism and group-based rivalries.
This aspect underscores the continuing inevitability of conflicts as countries seek recognition, power, and status on the global stage. Both Harari and Fukuyama’s insights reveal that despite advancements in technology, economics, and political structures, the fundamental aspects of human nature and the desire for group identity and recognition make conflicts between countries an enduring phenomenon.
Despite the inevitability of conflicts, international bodies like the United Nations (UN) were established with the aim of minimising, if not entirely preventing, global conflicts. The UN was created in the aftermath of World War II, with the primary intention of preventing another such catastrophic conflict and promoting international cooperation and peace. It was envisioned as a platform where nations could resolve their differences through dialogue and collective decision-making, rather than through warfare.
Saga of conflicting interests
However, the effectiveness of the UN in achieving these goals has been a subject of significant debate, with many viewing it as having failed miserably in preventing conflicts. One of the critical reasons for this perceived failure is the structure of the UN Security Council, where the veto power held by the five permanent members often leads to paralysis in decision-making, especially when these powers have conflicting interests. This has resulted in the UN’s inability to act decisively in numerous conflicts.
Furthermore, the UN has often been criticised for its bureaucratic inefficiencies and the lack of enforcement power. While it can pass resolutions and establish peacekeeping missions, the UN lacks the authority to enforce its decisions effectively, especially when member states are unwilling to comply or contribute necessary resources. This limitation has been evident in cases where UN peacekeeping missions have failed to prevent violence or have been embroiled in controversies themselves.
Additionally, the changing nature of global conflicts, which now often involve non-state actors and complex international alliances, poses new challenges that the UN’s post-World War II framework is not fully equipped to handle. As such, while the UN’s creation was a monumental step towards fostering global cooperation and peace, its structure and capabilities have often fallen short in the face of evolving global challenges, leading to criticisms of its effectiveness in minimising international conflicts.
Thus, there is a need to reform the UN which can help in realising the true objectives of the UN. The call for reforming the United Nations is grounded in the need to make it more representative, agile, and effective in the 21st-century geopolitical landscape. A key area of reform is the expansion and democratisation of the Security Council.
UN needs reform
Proposals include increasing the number of permanent and non-permanent members to better reflect the current global power dynamics and possibly revising or abolishing the veto power that often hampers decisive action. This restructuring would aim to reduce the dominance of the post-World War II powers and give a greater voice to emerging economies and regions currently underrepresented.
In addressing the UN’s bureaucratic inefficiencies, a streamlined approach is crucial. This involves reforming administrative procedures, enhancing transparency, and fostering greater accountability in its operations. Simplifying the process for deploying peacekeeping missions and improving their coordination with regional organisations can enhance their effectiveness.
Furthermore, increasing the financial and operational independence of these missions could enable quicker and more effective responses to emerging conflicts. Investment in technology and data analysis tools could also help the UN in better predicting and responding to complex international crises.
Lastly, adapting to the changing nature of warfare and conflict is essential. This requires a focus on conflict prevention and mediation strategies that account for non-state actors and asymmetrical warfare. The UN could develop specialised agencies or task forces dedicated to understanding and intervening in conflicts involving non-state entities, cyber warfare, and other modern forms of conflict.
Strengthening partnerships with regional organisations, non-governmental organisations, and the private sector can provide the UN with additional resources and expertise. By embracing these reforms, the United Nations can transform into a more dynamic, responsive, and effective institution, better equipped to minimise and resolve conflicts in the contemporary world.
Aditya Sinha is Officer on Special Duty, Research, Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister of India. Views Personal.