|South Ossetia, one of many little known conflicts|
The European Union was founded after the Second World War, where large armed forces fought each other and devastated a continent. Such wars are becoming a thing of the past and most current and future conflicts are very different. Today, most conflicts are within societies and not between states, argues Jochen Hippler from the Institute for Development and Peace in ISIS Europe's 2009 Peace Report. Politically speaking, there are two important and frequent types of conflict, sometimes combined:
1. Insurgencies involving struggles for power within a state, often involving competing insurgency groups against a government, often with the involvement of outside states conducting 'war by proxy'.
2. Conflicts in the context of failed states, where the state has stopped functioning and insurgents or warlords fight over power and natural resources.
In both cases a military victory is almost impossible to achieve and conflict grinds on, often over decades. In all cases, although winners are hard to see, it is the poor, the dispossessed who are always the losers. The battlegrounds in these cases are often not territory but the hearts and minds of the populations in order to achieve political power in a society rather than the acquisition of territory. Insurgent campaigns are also difficult to fight by military means as it is hard to discern the difference between combatants and civilians. All too often this leads to ethnic cleansing and similar atrocities by organised forces as there is no identifiable enemy or battleground. The old cry from the Crusades of "Kill them all, the Lord will recognise his own" is often a policy objective.
How to end these wars? This is the question being considered by the EU and NATO. It has always been easier to start a war than end it, and in a globalised world the many longstanding conflicts affect us all, from the Israel/Palestine situation, African conflicts, especially in the Congo and Sudan to Western interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Most analysts agree that the Iraq war was a grievous strategic error and the poor preparation, combined with hasty decisions, like disbanding the Iraqi army, has proven the old maxim that conflict begets conflict.
Retired British General Rupert Smith wrote in 'The Utility of Force' that "Capturing the will of the people is a very clear and basic concept, yet one that is either misunderstood or ignored by political and military establishments around the world. The politician keeps applying force to attain a condition, assuming the military will both create and maintain it. and whilst for many years the military has understood the need to win hearts and minds of the local population, this is still seen as a supporting activity to the defeat of the insurgents rather than the overall objective."
The US military has learned some hard lessons in Iraq and the arrival of General Petraeus led to a new strategy, elucidated in their counterinsurgency manual, "Counter insurgents achieve the most meaningful success by gaining popular support and legitimacy for the host government, not by killing insurgents. Security plays an important role in setting the stage for other progress, but lasting victory comes from a vibrant economy, political participation, and restored hope."
Hippler agrees with this strategy saying insurgencies seldom succeed against a functioning state and their aims are to weaken a state and provide a 'virtual' state in its place. Groups like Hezbollah and Hamas have been very active in setting up such institutions, providing education, health and other social services where the nominal state cannot provide them. This has given them public support which enhances their capabilities and supports their goals. There is an anecdote set in Afghanistan that illustrates the point. A widow had ten acres of her land taken off her by her husband's brother. She tried for a decade to get restitution in the Afghan courts without success, but when the Taliban gained control of her village she went to their sharia courts. Two days later they had ruled that she must be given her land back and the offender had also to give her an additional ten acres for ten years to compensate her for the loss of crops. This was seen as fair and efficient, so who are the villagers going to turn to in case of difficulties but the Taliban?
The EU is well placed to assist in capacity building. For example European money has kept the Palestinian Authority functioning and has fed the 90% of Palestinians dependant on food aid. The use of soft power is where the EU can try to influence. One council official said that "If there were ten commandments for the EU, the first one would be 'Thou shalt negotiate", echoing Winston Churchill's remark that "Jaw-jaw is better than war, war". However, the parties in conflict do need to have the desire to talk or, as in the case of Israel and Palestine, they will condemn their peoples to seemingly endless violence.
The problem for Europe is that the EU is seen as an economic actor and for all its diplomacy, the monies spent don't always translate into political influence. This often leaves EU policy trailing behind the US State Department and the vagaries of the occupant of the White House. Will Lisbon improve this? Many expect it will, but the vagueness in the treaty mean that there will be turf wars between the institutions and Henry Kissinger's famed request for "what number do I call for Europe?" is still unanswered.
Despite this the EU has built up significant experience in peace building and is a major player. The Obama administration is seen as being much closer to EU ideals and the American President has shown a keen interest in conflict resolution, despite a domestic agenda of almost overwhelming problems, but the EU does need to get its act together and find mechanisms to expedite their contributions towards conflict resolution or they will continue to trail behind Uncle Sam, losing prestige and more importantly, influence.