The Future of War, Peace, and International Relations

I was going through my files and found this particular piece, from around 2 years ago, sitting in a metaphorical corner. The piece was requested by one of the editors of my department’s student magazines (they have this column where profs are invited to write), but as far as I know, it never made to print. So, instead of letting it sit, I might as well upload it here. I haven’t made any adjustments; everything is presented as it was the moment I sent it off to the editor. As this was intended for an undergraduate audience in a magazine, the language has been adjusted as such.

What does the future hold?

That question is the very reason why analysts and researchers remain employed and relevant. But it is not the easiest question to answer. Nobody knows what the future holds; we can only make educated guesses. So, I would recommend against thinking of my following commentary as a definitive answer. Rather, think of it as a guide to think in this increasingly perplexing world, particularly on the issue of war, peace, and international relations.

Technological acceleration will continue to be the defining feature of future international relations, along with a rise in populism as a counter-narrative to globalism. In war, technology will continue to play a dominant role as unmanned technologies become more advanced. But this doesn’t mean we will be living in a Terminator scenario. In peace, the future will only bring about newer problems that require new ways of thinking. With this in mind, what does the future hold?

Wars of the future

According to pop culture, the wars of the future will have less humans on the battlefield and more mechs. Soldiers will safely be hidden in bunkers, controlling their semi-autonomous drones and humanoid robots to fight against the adversary, who has similar weapons. Or, as the Japanese promise us, we will be piloting giant humanoid mech robots armed with laser weapons. Behind the scenes, specialized “warrior geeks” will be battling in cyberspace, fending off cyberattacks by furiously typing lines of code on the keyboard – thus giving a totally new meaning to the term “keyboard warrior”. As civilians, we will occasionally groan as we can’t access social media because the government has rerouted civilian bandwidth to support the war effort, which requires a ton of processing power to support the satellite links that the robots rely on.

The above scenario assumes that a potential future war would be among equal nation-states. Most of this is due in part of our rooted thinking in 20th century war. Wars were massive and industrial, replete with gore and images of bravado. Robots and mechanised soldiers are simply 21st century interpretations of 20th century warfare – indicating that our way of looking at war has changed very little.

Despite donning a new metallic exterior, the inherently paradoxical nature of war will remain as Clausewitz theorised centuries ago. War will always be politically motivated; as the political motive is the only thing that separates war from an act of blind violence. War will always be a mixture of emotion, reason, and chance; as humans will remain the central focus of war, not machines. Since machines do not have political ambitions (yet), they will only be viewed as merely tools for humans to wage their wars.

Conflicts in the world are getting smaller and more limited. Nation-states tend to leave each other alone, save for a few that just can’t seem to get along well. Even then, those states would prefer to engage in limited warfare as a conventional war reminiscent of World War 2 would be unbearable. Additionally, states are now locked in conflict with non-state actors, to whom globalization and acceleration have provided more power. This includes a number of civil wars and insurgencies which are common in developing and “failed” states.

Wars of the future will also feature much more of the urban and cyber domains, as these are where the new adversaries reside. The most recent siege of Marawi had forced the Philippines military to “re-learn” urban warfare. Israeli forces conduct regular training in urban warfare facilities. Cybersecurity has also been added as part of Singapore’s National Service (the two-year mandatory military service) curriculum, and such cyber curricula are becoming more mainstream in military education. These trends point towards a future where wars are fought amongst the people.

As Rupert Smith argued in The Utility of Force, industrial war no longer exists, and the future will be an age of war among the people. We will no longer be separated from the battlefield; we ARE the battlefield. A lone wolf terrorist can easily order bomb materials, untraced, by using cryptocurrency through the Dark Net. They can draw guidance from fellow terrorists through encrypted messaging channels. Likewise, disgruntled guerrillas or insurgents can do the same thing. Their objective will be to cause panic and terror, so governments feel compelled to fulfill the group’s demands. Fighting these irregular forces won’t be easy either, since they hide within the population and can use the people as human shields. Should the military act carelessly, they will soon find themselves facing more insurgents than before.

Wars of the future, therefore, will unlikely be like Overwatch: Bastion and Orisa units mowing down human soldiers shooting from behind Reinhardt’s energy shield, or Hana Song gliding around the field in her MEKA unit shooting things. This may be true, but give it at least 100 years. For the time being, war will mostly feature what Edward Luttwak calls “post-heroic” warfare. Real, or “heroic”, military action will be far and in between, as such action invites more condemnation than praise. Maybe the occasional raid on a terrorist outpost using what the military calls Manned-Unmanned Teams (MUM-T) is the best military action we can get. Most of the time though, soldiers will be doing more analytical work: sifting through endless streams of data, monitoring cyber defenses or enemy movement, or simply patrolling conflict zones with help from their unmanned companions.

The future of peace

Much has been said about how future conflict will unfold, but what of peace? If globalization and acceleration has indeed changed the face of war, they have also changed the face of peace.

Peace usually meant the end of conflict; but today, peace goes beyond a simple cessation of hostilities. A true state of peace is when citizens of a state can live a proper life, without fear of any conflict, along with the proactive prevention of any potential conflict. This means that states now must deal with the threats of poverty, economic inequality, climate change, identity politics, and a lot more – often simultaneously. This has placed a large burden on governments, who continue to struggle to adapt to these new dynamics.

Peace of the future then, would require states to not be stuck in their respective boxes. There would need to be more collaboration and cooperation, facilitated by domestic and international institutions. Such forms of interaction would transcend the conventional “boxes” that states are so comfortable in. We would need to strive as a global community to achieve Immanuel Kant’s ultimate aspiration: a form of world government that is capable of pooling together the best that states have to offer and redistribute the benefits to the less privileged.

These conditions entail the involvement of non-state actors in a collaborative partnership with the state in promoting peaceful initiatives. To curb violent extremism would require the involvement of both government and non-government elements, as demonstrated by Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Economic inequality, a primary contributing factor to most non-traditional security issues such as terrorism or piracy, cannot be addressed solely by the government; it would require collaboration with domestic and foreign state and non-state actors. The same can be said for global warming, a defining issue of this generation. And these issues will feature technology as either a potential savior or the very cause of the problem itself.

International institutions remain an important building block for peace, but their existence is only as powerful as their members. Thus, to secure peace in the future, states can only do so by not only thinking of their own interests, but also the collective interests of the global community. Simply put, we simply cannot do things alone these days, and this goes double if we want to address problems in the uncertain future ahead.   That concludes my personal observations of the future of war, peace, and international relations. To summarize, the future of IR will see more non-state actors, limited yet equally stressing conflict, and the use of technology as either a trump card or an equalizer. Cooperation is the way to go; insisting on going alone will only make things harder. There is indeed reason to be pessimistic of such promises of collaboration. It is tempting to fall back into egotistical reasoning; that we can never reconcile our differences and that conflict will be inevitable. That much is true, for human nature is inherently flawed. Yet, think of the International Space Station, which could only come into being through international cooperation, and not selfishness.

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