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World on Fire, Part 2: Global Conflict Has Surged to an 80-Year High. Why?

This might be the most violent period of the 21st century, with more total conflicts than any year since World War II

Demonstrators take part in a protest in front of the European Commission representation in Warsaw on January 8.
Photo by WOJTEK RADWANSKI/AFP via Getty Images

This is the second episode in “World on Fire,” a series on the historic levels of global violence and conflict in the Middle East, the Americas, and beyond. Listen to Part 1 here: “World on Fire, Part 1: The Houthis, Israel’s Impossible War, and Worsening Middle East Chaos.”

You and I are living through an extraordinary period of global conflict. In Europe, Russia and Ukraine are engaged in one of the continent’s deadliest hot wars since 1945. In Africa, the last few years have seen devastating wars in Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and South Sudan. In the Middle East, of course, there is Israel’s record-breaking bombing of Gaza and the unfolding crisis in Yemen. In Central Asia, Azerbaijan launched a brutal attack against Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh. In Central and South America, cartel and gang violence has surged. The Jalisco Cartel New Generation and its affiliates in Mexico and Columbia were responsible for more than 11,000 deaths in 2022. Last week, the state of Ecuador arrested 900 people in a security operation to stop gang violence, following the prison escape of one of the country’s most powerful drug lords.

According to researchers at Uppsala University, this might be the most violent period of the 21st century, with more total conflicts than any year since World War II. Why is it all happening at once?

Paul Poast is a political scientist who studies international relations and conflict history at the University of Chicago. In an essay for The Atlantic, he said we are in the midst of “not a world war, but a world at war.” And in this interview, we consider five theories for why global conflict seems to be surging around the world.

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In the following excerpt, Derek talks to Paul Poast about the similarities between the Russia-Ukraine and Israel-Palestine conflicts.

Derek Thompson: It is always a pleasure to have you on the podcast. It is never a pleasure contextually to have you on the podcast. You are our merchant of gloom and doom. I only bring you on to talk about something terrible happening in Ukraine, something terrible happening in Israel. Today is the mother of all depressing contexts. We’re talking about global conflict surging to an 80-year high all over the world. And the goal for this episode is almost, it’s seemingly grandiose. By some measures, this is the most chaos and conflict that the world has experienced in decades, maybe since the end of the last World War. And what I want to talk about with you is whether there are explanations, theories, frames that can help explain why so many different conflicts seem to be breaking out at once.

This is the second that we’ve done in a series that we’re calling “World on Fire” about the global chaos and conflict unfolding around us. And in our first show in the series, which was last week, we did a deep dive on the Middle East conflicts, Israel-Gaza, the West Bank, Hezbollah, Yemen, the Houthis, Iran. And listeners, if you want to go deeper into that subject, I strongly encourage you to listen to that show. Paul, you have appeared on this show several times, principally as an analyst of the Russia-Ukraine war. And what’s interesting is that you see a connection between the Russian-Ukraine war and the Israel-Palestine conflict. And I’d like you to get us started by drawing this connection more explicitly.

In a recent op-ed, you wrote, “What do the war efforts of Israel and Ukraine have in common? … Each is highly dependent on material assistance from the United States, … each government sees itself engaged in an existential fight following a violent military incursion by its enemy. But what is most notable at this moment is that both are engaged in war efforts that, despite imposing heavy casualties on their opponents, are in danger of strategic defeat.” Strategic defeat. Paul, what does that phrase mean from an international relations standpoint? And why are you applying it to the two most famous wars in the world right now?

Paul Poast: There’s different levels of analyzing a war. There’s the tactical level, and the tactical level is kind of what we think about a lot of times when we’re looking at military history. We’re looking at the battle lines. We’re seeing where the soldiers are placed and so forth. And honestly, that’s oftentimes what gets people’s attention. Then there’s all the way at the other level. There is the political aspect to it. And this is the callback to Clausewitz and his famous phrase from On War, that war is just the continuation of politics by other means. And so this is really thinking about what are the aims of the political actors because ultimately war is a political act, even though we might be looking a lot of times at things at the tactical level. The strategic is what links the two. The strategic is about what the facts on the ground mean for ultimately the political aims of the war and whether those can be achieved.

The reason why I argue that both Ukraine and Israel could be facing strategic defeat is to help differentiate strategic defeat from tactical victory or tactical defeat. You could argue that Ukraine is actually achieving quite a bit on a tactical level. They launched this counteroffensive in 2023. Now, of course, there was a lot of debate about how successful that was and people even saying it was a flat-out failure, but I wouldn’t go as far as to say it was a flat-out failure at all. I mean, to me, a flat-out failure would’ve been that they actually lost their military and had to retreat and so forth. And that didn’t happen. But they also didn’t have the huge breakthrough like what occurred in the fall of 2022, which we talked about at the time, where it just seemed like Ukrainian forces were moving through so quickly. They were moving through Russian forces so quickly, and it almost seemed like Russia was going to just collapse, the Russian forces were going to collapse. And of course that didn’t happen.

But that was what people were expecting to see of that counteroffensive, and that’s not what happened, but Ukraine did have some victories. They did gain some land. They did gain back some territory. They did actually impose a lot of punishment on Russian forces. But again, they weren’t able to do it at the level that maybe some were hoping for. Same thing with Israel, thinking about Gaza. There’s no way you could argue that Israel is being tactically defeated. They are just completely punishing Gaza, but what was brought up a few weeks ago was by the secretary of defense, U.S. secretary of defense, Lloyd Austin, where he said Israel was on the verge of a strategic defeat.

So in the case of Israel, the strategic defeat is the idea that, yes, you might be achieving these aims on the ground, but you’re not actually going to achieve the overall objective of wiping out Hamas. You’re actually creating more animosity within the Palestinian people. You’re creating more animosity throughout the region. You might even be creating more animosity throughout the globe. And that, of course, is going completely against what you might be hoping to achieve politically in terms of actually creating a secure environment for Israel.

This excerpt was edited for clarity. Listen to the rest of the episode here and follow the Plain English feed on Spotify.

Host: Derek Thompson
Guest: Paul Poast
Producer: Devon Baroldi

Subscribe: Spotify