Brendan McKee examines the concept of global conflict, asking what the consequences are when it is carried out on an equal and unequal scale.
Conflict, more than anything else, has the supreme ability to simplify a complex world and boil it down to a single antagonistic dichotomy. I would imagine that this is why we are presented with conflicts, both violent and nonviolent, that occur around the world today as having two sides: Turkey versus the Kurds, Spain versus Catalonia, the EU versus the UK. This juxtaposition ignores the fact that these conflicts are not so simple as to be understood by a mere two combatants nor are the combatants themselves straightforward enough to be understood as singular blocs devoted to conflict with each other. However, greater than these two facts is what is perhaps the most problematic reality of all when it comes to conflict: that the framing of issues as a conflict transforms the way we perceive the combatants themselves and their relationship with each other.
As I mentioned, conflicts are generally presented as occurring between two main belligerent sides. Now this is obviously not a hard rule, but it is generally true as this sort of dichotomy is one of the easiest way for us as humans to understand complex issues. Look at most conflicts throughout history and you will see this is virtually always the case. World War II was fought between the Allies and the Axis. The instability in the Middle East is often articulated in terms of a clash between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and in the case of the Middle East there is also obviously Israel-Palestine conflict. The Cold War was the ideological battle between the United States and its allies versus the Soviet Union and its allies. Even nonviolent conflicts get boiled down in this manner. Conflict in Canadian politics almost always is construed as a clash between Eastern and Western interests or in terms of French Quebec versus English Canada. Leaving aside the Manichaean implications of such a dichotomy (one side, our side, is generally presented as good while the opposing side is bad), this type of dichotomous representation of a conflict does something else: it implies equality of the combatants. Placing that word versus between the names of two belligerents turns the conflict into an almost mathematical-like construct where, as long as the conflict is ongoing, the belligerents themselves appear equal. Now this may not be that problematic when looking at something like World War II, as perhaps the combatants were not perfectly equal but you would be hard pressed to find someone who would be completely opposed to the notion that the Allies and the Axis were at least somewhat equal in their abilities to wage war. This becomes more problematic when we look at conflict between states of asymmetric power, such as the Iraq War between the US and Iraq or the Vietnamese War between the US and North Vietnam. In cases like these the ability of one party to wage war is significantly less than the other and therefore the combatants are far from equal. It is in these sorts of asymmetric cases that the assumption of symmetry can be so damaging, as it allows the more powerful belligerent to waive the obligation to use its power proportionally.
This issue of a lack of proportionality is at its greatest when the conflict is between a state and a non-state actor, as conflicts between state and non-state actors tend to be presented in the same terms as if they were indeed conflicts between states. The very way we narratively frame these sorts of conflicts impacts the way we think about it. The Troubles, for example, is partly articulated as a conflict between the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the British military (I say partly here because of the complex role played by Unionist Protestant Paramilitaries) and is articulated in terms that imply their equality. The IRA would attack British forces at location A and British forces would retaliate by attacking the IRA at location B. This articulation implies some level of equality of combatants, despite the vast superiority of British forces in every imaginable metric, from military capability to institutional strength. Simply put, in the context of the Troubles, the British military had simply more options in how to fight the IRA and had more extreme options at their disposal — the IRA could never opt for an air bombing campaign or an extensive re-education program and, regardless of whether the choice was made or not, the British military could. The same can be said for the conflict between Spain and Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA), Israel and Palestine, Turkey and the Syrian Kurds, a host of other heated conflicts, and some nonviolent conflicts as well. Framing Catalonia’s bid for independence from Spain, for example, as a conflict between Catalan nationalists and Spanish nationalists implies a certain amount of institutional equality that simply does not exist. Spanish nationalism has the backing of the Spanish state which, as a state, simply has more political and institutional (as well as military if it so chose) options at its disposal when engaging in the conflict than the devolved Catalan government has (indeed, as we have seen the Spanish government has the power to suspend the Catalan government, something which the devolved government has no ability to defend or retaliate against). Articulating conflict as a contest between two sides does a great disservice both to how we understand the specific conflict, and conflicts in general, as well as increasing how difficult it is to bring a peaceful end to the situation.
Dichotomising Narratives as a Weapon
The construction of conflict as being between two equal sides is not something passive, neutral, or accidental. It is often weaponized and employed as a means to excuse actions. However, the implications of such an aggressive simplification of conflict reach far beyond the actual tactics of war, and often infect the perception of a conflict at every level of society. This construction of conflict as having two roughly equal belligerents not only excuses the use of extreme measures in ending the conflict by the more powerful party involved, but also co-opts society at large into supporting that excuse. Turkey’s recent attack on the Kurds of Northern Syria illustrate this point, as the violence used against the Kurds is excused by the narrative that this is merely violence which is being returned upon the Kurds due to their past violent acts against Turkey, despite the clearly disproportionate nature of that violence. Though it did not employ large scale violence, Spain followed a similar logic when it articulated the threat of Catalan secession as being so great as to necessitate the banning of the secessionist referendum, the use of police force to enforce that ban, the arrest of separatist leaders, and the dissolving of the Catalan parliament. This same line of thinking is used to excuse virtually all military force, from Israel’s claims it is bombing and annexing regions of Palestine in retaliation for bombings conducted by Hamas against Israel to China’s assertion that the use of force against Hong Kongers is required to maintain order and the rule of law in the face of Hong Kong’s unlawfulness.
Now this is not to say that non-state actors are not morally responsible for the actions they commit nor is it to say that they do not also use these type of arguments, after all the presentation of the British as a Manichaean enemy and the IRA as the sole force able to combat them was certainly employed during the Troubles, but what we ought to focus on here is that the abilities of the state so exceed those of the non-state actor as to make the comparison a radically unequal one. The instruments at the disposal of the non-state actor in a conflict are at best limited and their ability to disseminate a narrative, much like their ability to actually damage their opponent, is extremely limited by the material and institutional weaknesses inherent in lacking a state — the Kurds, for example, do not have the same ability as the Turkish state to fund education programs or publish journalistic articles to support their cause just as they lack the military might of the Turkish state. The state, by simple virtue of being a state, has tremendous assets, military and otherwise, at its disposal to act in virtually any way it wants and then to subsequently legitimize those actions by presenting the conflict as one that genuinely threatened the state and therefore requiring of state action to protect its legal and legitimate interests. The state is an institutional apparatus that, in our world today, has virtually unrivaled powers that extend far beyond its simple ability to beat its opponents into submission, powers that include the legal constructs that re-enforce state institutions as well as the many institutional and policy tools that furnish the state. However, all these tools mean little if the conflict the state finds itself engaged in is, in the eyes of the international community, illegitimate for one reason or another. It is here that the weaponizing of the conception of conflict as being between two roughly equal parties becomes a practical tool to legitimize state action against a fundamentally illegitimate agent.
The necessary alternative to excusing the asymmetric use of force in a conflict is to acknowledge outright that the more powerful actor in a conflict has a moral obligation to use its power proportionally to the threat it faces. Though arguments which assert that states have every right to defend themselves and their citizens may seem perfectly legitimate on the surface, we are obliged to ask what is being defended against and what defense is proportional against such a foe. Again, this is not to say that the non-state actor ought to be excused for any violence or crimes that it commits, simply that the asymmetry between the combatants obligates us to hold the powerful to a higher standard. For example, it is undeniable that a particular state may be required to take action against a non-state actor so as to defend the state’s citizens and institutions, however in defending itself the state, as the obviously more powerful actor in the conflict, has a greater moral responsibility by virtue of being the state. It is a morally imperative therefore that it restricts its actions and confronts the situation proportionally. Indeed, all arguments relating to the equality of actors go out the window when we consider that a state such as the UK had the power, literally, to erase the IRA and Northern Ireland off the map if it so chose, and though the UK leadership thankfully never opted for this, the very fact that this was within its power necessitated Britain reflexively restrict itself and its actions to an appropriate degree. Once we tear away the rhetorical devices used to excuse state action against non-state actors, we lay bare the extreme imbalances in power and we also reveal the moral imperative that the mightier actor has. By virtue of superior strength, the state has a moral obligation to restrain itself in its actions.
Conflict is a constructed problem, one in which belligerent sides use narrative tools to excuse their actions against one another. We should be aware of this and willing to tear down these narratives at every turn so as to reveal the true face of the conflict. When conflict is asymmetric, when one side is substantially greater than the other, we must focus our attention on the strong as it is they who have an obligation to the weak, even if the weak may be their opponents.