The United Nations General Assembly warns of a more violent world, so how do we stop future wars?


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Jamie Shea
Jamie Shea

Senior Fellow for Peace, Security and Defence at Friends of Europe, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)

Late September saw representatives from 190 out of the world’s 193 countries descend on New York for the 77th annual high-level meeting of the UN General Assembly (UNGA). Out of the 150 heads of state and government announced, 126 actually showed up, with Presidents Putin and Xi being notable absentees. With the COVID-19 pandemic forcing the UN to organise this massive international gathering fully or partially online for the past two years, this was the first opportunity in some years for the world’s leaders to meet in person, and have an adult conversation about what they can and will do to stop the world from sliding further into chaos and poverty. After all, as Woody Allen put it, “80% of success in life is just showing up.”

The alarming tone was set by UN Secretary-General António Guterres in what was by far his gloomiest speech to date. “We are gridlocked in a colossal global dysfunction. Our world is in peril and paralysed,” he stated. The President of the General Assembly Csaba Kőrösi pointed out that although Ukraine is currently the largest and most acute war, there are 30 other ongoing conflicts in the world, none of which are improving. He added that climate change is destroying the planet and that human rights need to be better safeguarded.

The head of the World Food Programme, David Beasley, described how the war in Ukraine has exacerbated failing food supply chains already undermined by the COVID-19 pandemic and pointed to the impending prospect of famine in 45 countries, affecting 50mn people. If relief was not immediately forthcoming, he predicted starvation, riots, mass migration and the destabilisation of nations. African leaders spoke in a similar vein. Both Macky Sall of Senegal, President of the 55-state African Union, and Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria warned about the dangers of terrorism expanding across Africa. The latter also warned about new kinds of war and “conflicts being driven by non-state actors, proliferation of small arms and light weapons, terrorism, violent extremism, malignant use of technology, climate change [and] irregular migration”.

The repeated threats by Putin and other Russian leaders to use nuclear weapons against Ukraine and NATO […] is indeed alarming

Nearly every speech at UNGA focused on the war in Ukraine, whether directly or indirectly. There was general agreement that the war has been a catastrophe not only for the Ukrainian people but for the world as a whole. The International Monetary Fund calculates that it has sucked $2tn out of the global economy. Millions of people have been caught in the vortex of hunger, inflation, energy shortages and rising inequality provoked by Putin’s invasion. Few nations have escaped the shockwaves of this conflict, which, notwithstanding the recent Ukrainian victories, shows every sign of continuing well into next year and even beyond.

This led French President Macron to castigate those countries that have been sitting on the fence and refusing to condemn Russia or impose sanctions on it. Macron spoke of “a contemptible cynicism that is destroying the world order”, even describing this as a “new imperialism”. In the middle of UNGA, France convened a meeting of the UN Security Council to explore ways in which Russia could be held accountable for its invasion of Ukraine. This had little impact on the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who arrived just in time to deliver his speech and then promptly left. Lavrov justified Russia’s invasion by alleging that Kyiv had been conducting a campaign of repression against Russian speakers inside Ukraine.

This year’s UNGA marked a transition point between a world largely at peace since the end of the Cold Warand a new era in which violence is on the rise and military intervention is used by major powers, such as Russia and China, to intimidate neighbours. The repeated threats by Putin and other Russian leaders to use nuclear weapons against Ukraine and NATO, even though no one is invading or has threatened to invade Russia, is indeed alarming. It testifies to the fact that once belligerent states start using force, they are unwilling to backtrack. The common response to military failure is not to retreat or seek a compromise settlement, but to double down and escalate, thereby prolonging wars well beyond the point of their utility, leaving warlords to resort to ever more risky options, and increasing the level of death and destruction beyond any rational cost-benefit analysis. Deterrence is also harder against adversaries who have painted themselves into a corner and want to take the world down with them in the manner of Adolf Hitler.

Over the years, the conflicting parties have learned to manage confrontations and none see war […] as something that can provide a durable solution

So before we enter a truly dystopian period in international relations and reverse the benefits of globalisation and multinational cooperation accrued over the past decades, the most pressing questions for the UN to answer are: why do wars break out?What pushes a leader or security elite to take the massive risks of launching a war? As Machiavelli told us in “The Prince”: it is easy to start wars but very difficult to end them.

There is no reason why even the most bitter and protracted international disputes should inevitably end in total, destructive war as in Ukraine today. For instance, Israelis and Palestinians have been at loggerheads for decades and violence occasionally flares up in the Gaza Strip or West Bank but it ends quickly because of international mediation or the Israelis’ ability to control violence through its back channels to Hamas and Hezbollah. One could make a similar argument about the tensions between unionist and nationalist communities in Northern Ireland, or the tense stand-off between India and China on the Himalayan plateau, both characterised by sporadic clashes but no recourse to general and open-ended war “These conflicts are not frozen, only the solutions”, to borrow the words of Ivan Krastev. Over the years, the conflicting parties have learned to manage confrontations and none see war, with all its risks, as something that can provide a durable solution or even advance long-term interests. So why do some leaders decide that war pays and that the projected outcome is worth the massive costs, international condemnation, sanctions and isolation?

Academics have formulated five main hypotheses for why leaders go to war.

As absolute power is accumulated, a leader has fewer interests to balance or constituencies to take care of

The first, unsurprisingly, is the acquisition ofabsolute power and the resulting arrogant view of reality that absolutist leaders acquire. Those who, like Putin, have been previously successful in rebuilding a strong centralised state and reasserting influence in the former Soviet space come to believe in their own infallibility, assuming that democracies that were weak and divided in the past will remain similarly supine and cowardly. Absolutist leaders believe in their own divine mission to reshape the international order and realise a great historical project. The more ambitious the project, like restoring the contours of the Tsarist empire, the more great sacrifices are justified.

Only restraints imposed by collective institutions can keep absolutist leaders in check. Even the Soviet Union had its politburo and KGB intelligence service to remind risk-friendly leaders of the state of public opinion or the country’s ability to sustain protracted military campaigns or the impact of sanctions. The business community or oligarchs, in the absence of any organised political opposition, can perform the same restraining function as well. A country does not need to be a democracy to have a system of checks and balances. Even corrupt elites, no matter how unpalatable, can oppose war when it is harmful to their business interests. Yet, what we have seen in Russia and China is leaders who change constitutions to stay in power indefinitely. As absolute power is accumulated, a leader has fewer interests to balance or constituencies to take care of. The well-being of the population can also be disregarded. For instance, some of the Russians recently conscripted into the army as part of Putin’s partial mobilisation have already been killed or taken prisoner in Ukraine. They were sent there with almost no military training. This is indeed a form of criminal negligence.

A second factor is themisperceptionof the adversary. In the case of Putin, this is clearly the refusal to recognise Ukraine as an independent country that has its own identity and culture, and thus, the right to exist and develop separately from Russia. This misperception has led Putin and the Russian security establishment to exaggerate the divisions between Ukrainian speakers in the western half of the country and Russian speakers in the eastern half. Putin overlooked the possibility that his invasion would unite Ukrainians as never before. Since previous Russian interventions in Ukraine, whether military actions in Crimea and the Donbas in 2014 or hybrid warfare and cyber campaigns against Ukraine’s infrastructure, had been relatively cost-free in the past, Russia looked only at the elements of disunity in Ukraine and not at the elements of cohesion and resilience. Misperception leads to a tunnel vision in which only one scenario is considered. The strengthening of the Ukrainian military after 2014, Ukraine’s expertise in cyber defence and the inspirational ability of President Zelenskyy to rally the population were overlooked.

Uncertainty leaves the warlords room for optimistic speculation

The third factor is uncertainty, which may. seem counterintuitive as it is normally associated with deterrence. Yet, when it comes to wars, uncertainty plays into the hands of belligerents. If all outcomes are possible, then why would war not succeed as much – if not better than – maintaining peace? Uncertainty leaves the warlords room for optimistic speculation. It feeds risk-taking and lowers the incentives for restraint. It fosters an overestimation of one’s own strengths and of the weaknesses of adversaries. It substitutes hope for genuine strategy and discourages the elaboration of alternative options and backup plans. The classic example is Germany launching the First World War in 1914, miscalculating how Great Britain would respond, ignoring the consequences of violating Belgium’s neutrality, underestimating Russia’s capacity for rapid mobilisation and having too much confidence in its own all-or-nothing Schlieffen Plan to defeat France in just six weeks.

Next is commitment. Once they have embarked on a course of action, aggressors find it impossible to back down. Like a gambler making ever more risky and costly bets in the hope of recuperating earlier losses, they double down and respond to setbacks or defeats with more escalation and even more dangerous threats. This means that wars drag on long after their outcome has been decided or their utility to the aggressor has disappeared. It was clear early in 1944 that Hitler’s Germany had lost the Second World War, but the fighting continued for over a year and the highest casualty figures occurred in 1945 despite Germany’s inevitable defeat Right to his last moments in the Berlin bunker, Hitler still believed that the miracle weapons, such as the V2 missiles and non-existent German divisions, would come to the rescue and allow him to hold on to his regime and at least some of his conquests.

Similarly, the Korean War was largely over by the end of 1950 but went on for two more years with neither side able to change the division along the 38th parallel and most of the casualties occurring during this stalemate period. We see Putin reacting to Ukraine’s recent offensive in the east of the country in the same way: brandishing the threat of nuclear strikes, organising hasty and sham referendums to annex Ukrainian territory, and ordering a highly unpopular partial mobilisation within Russia to pour more troops into the conflict.

Breaking through the self-isolation of dictatorships or the warped mindsets of warlords is not easy

Finally, there is the role of proxies or splinter forces. These are autonomous elements within a state or a warlike organisation that push for extremist stances and try to capture the state or the organisation from the inside. They reject compromise and believe violence alone can help secure their objectives. Splinter groups of this kind often exist in terrorist groups or national liberation movements. Their focus can be as much on eliminating moderates in their own ranks as on fighting the proclaimed enemy. And yet, splinter groups can exist within states too. Again, a classic example is pre-1914 Germany, a country with a parliament dominated by Social Democrats committed to peace but unable to rein in the military establishment around the Kaiser with its realpolitik and pessimistic view of international relations. In more recent times, we can think of Myanmar, where a short-lived experience of a democratically elected civilian government was not sufficient to bring a nationalist and ethnically sectarian military establishment under control, prevent its persecution of the Rohingya minority and its seizure of power in a coup d’état. Putin himself is a product of one of these closed sects: the slivoki of security officials emerging from the old Soviet KGB, nostalgic for the Soviet Union, deeply suspicious of the West, seeing politics as a zero-sum game where there can be only winners and losers, and believing that order and stability can only be achieved through an all-powerful, repressive state that demands absolute obedience from its citizens. Step by step, Putin and his fellow slivoki have pushed aside every political figure, particularly those with an economics background, who argued for cooperation and accommodation with Russia’s western neighbours.

So, considering these five factors that push certain countries into aggressive wars, what are the prescriptions for preventing war? Successful approaches in dealing with one conflict will not necessarily work in another. Breaking through the self-isolation of dictatorships or the warped mindsets of warlords is not easy either. Yet, the damage and sheer unacceptability of warfare, as demonstrated by the global chaos unleashed by the war in Ukraine, means that we need to think harder about this problem and start to take action once one or more of the five factors have been identified.

For instance, we know that the decentralisation of power reduces violence. After its elections in 2007, which led to violent clashes between different ethnic groups and political factions, Kenya decentralised some state power to the provinces. This decentralised the violence locally and occasional flare-ups have been much less prolonged and severe.

The selective leaking of intelligence regarding Russia’s invasion preparations robbed the Kremlin of any element of surprise

We also need to look at what can be done to strengthen checks and balances within authoritarian states. For instance, both carrots and sticks offer incentives to certain elite groups to vigorously oppose reckless policies. Getting the message across to intelligence services regarding the consequences of aggressive action in the hope that they will communicate it to their political masters might also help. Another step is to push back against the fake narratives and phoney versions of history that aggressors use to victimise themselves or to cover up their aggressive actions. It is not easy to penetrate the tight information wall that surrounds authoritarian societies. But YouTube is freely available in Russia, and in the age of the internet, we need to explore every electronic means of broadcasting true and accurate information, as well as alternative political narratives into these closed societies, which is admittedly easier where Russian speakers live outside Russia, for instance, in Ukraine, the Baltic states and Moldova.

Dealing with the uncertainty factor is not easy either. A major effort was made here in the run-up to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. The United States and its NATO allies made clear to Moscow what kind of punitive sanctions it could expect. They made it clear too that they would support Ukraine and provide its army with advanced weaponry to impose a high cost on Russia, and the selective leaking of intelligence regarding Russia’s invasion preparations robbed the Kremlin of any element of surprise. Western leaders also engaged directly with Putin to reduce his capacity to exploit uncertainty by making clear what the international response would be. Ultimately, the effort failed, but this does not mean that explicit warning would not work elsewhere, and there may well be useful lessons to be learned, for instance, regarding timing and specificity.

Dealing with escalation or inflexible commitment may well be the hardest part of all. It is designed to scare us into compromise and concessions by persuading us that we are dealing with a tough opponent who will not hesitate to bring the Temple of Solomon down on all our heads if they are denied their war prize. Former US president, Richard Nixon, called this his “mad man theory”. He threatened his North Vietnamese adversaries with unrestricted bombing if they did not agree to come to the negotiating table. Some of this may be bluff and bluster, as in Putin’s threats to use nuclear weapons against Ukraine, although any threat to use nuclear weapons by a country’s leader cannot go without a reaction from the international community. Other forms of escalation may be more probable. The key is not to give in to blackmail or encourage reckless behaviour through provocation. The US has recently made clear that it is not changing its nuclear posture or readiness levels in response to Russia’s nuclear gesticulations, but instead focusing on what Russia is actually doing with its nuclear weapons. At the same time, warning of the enormous consequences of the use of nuclear weapons by Russia can reinforce deterrence. As with the use of chemical weapons, leaking intelligence to build up international pressure on the Kremlin split it from partners, such as China or India, and the discreet preparation of response options can all be part of a preventive strategy.

We do not go from brutal wars to peaceful democratic democracies in one step

Mediation can help too. It is often a thankless task and the UN’s record is mixed. Yet, unless an adversary is to be pursued all the way to unconditional surrender, as with Germany and Japan in 1945, some form of mediation that leads to negotiations between the belligerent parties is required sooner or later. The Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland, the resolution of the name dispute between Greece and North Macedonia and the UN-brokered ceasefire in Libya are all proof that perseverance and skilled mediation can succeed. Admittedly Syria, Myanmar, Cyprus and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have proved far more intractable. Mediation is often unpopular among purists as it can mean giving warlords or those with blood on their hands a role in the future order. But these warlords will stop fighting only if they perceive that they have more to gain from peace.

Moreover, we do not go from brutal wars to peaceful democratic democracies in one step. There are many intermediate stages and numerous election cycles where the warlords are progressively screened out, while strong institutions, the separation of powers and civil society are built up. The perfect should never become the enemy of the good. The UN needs to look hard at its mediation efforts and learn the lessons of both its successes and failures. It is not so much the task of finding solutions but rather knowing why certain solutions cannot be implemented and working out how to progressively remove the obstacles along the way.

This year’s UNGA certainly pulled the international alarm cord. Yet leaders are not elected only to give warnings or their analysis of the problems. They are in power to prevent the worst from happening and to figure out the best ways to achieve and maintain peace, for without peace no other challenge can be fully addressed nor human development move forward. The UN Charter of 1945 pledges to “save mankind from the scourge of war”. So it would be useful if the UN Secretary-General could immediately establish a number of groups, bringing not only eminent academics and experts together but also senior national representatives, to discuss how the global community can better respond to the five war-igniting factors identified in this article. These high-level groups should look at how the UN can improve its capacity for mediation. The findings and conclusions of these groups should be the key agenda item for the 78th UNGA next September, and the participating leaders should be invited to focus their speeches on their intentions to implement the recommendations. The effort may not work but we know what awaits us in the remainder of the 21st century if we do not even try.

The views expressed in this #CriticalThinking article reflect those of the author(s) and not of Friends of Europe.

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