Wright foresees changes in globalized 21st-century warfare, governance

Kreable Young | Staff Photographer
Robin Wright speaks during the morning lecture on Friday in the Amphitheater.

Journalist Robin Wright has reported on every war, revolution and uprising in the Middle East since 1973, as well as conflicts in other regions. In all, she has reported from more than 140 countries for publications including The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The New Yorker and Time magazine.

In her morning lecture on Friday in the Amphitheater, Wright drew upon these 41 years of international conflict reporting to share her insights on the future of war.

“The world seems to be a pretty scary place right now, on lots of fronts,” she said under a map of current global conflicts. But 21st-century wars and uprisings have proven different from those of the 20th century, Wright said.

“The defining forces of conflict are going to change, not just in the Middle East, but globally,” she said.

One such change can be seen in the frequency of political uprisings.

“The 21st century is going to witness many more rebellions and uprisings than the 20th century did, but not for unexpected reasons, and not always for reasons to fear,” she said. “The flashpoints may often actually reflect human progress.”

Oppressed populations are acting out against authoritarian regimes, Wright said.

“The world is going through the greatest wave of empowerment in human history,” she said.

That demand for empowerment is the legacy of the formation of independent states in the last 70 years, Wright said.

“Three-quarters of the world has become independent since 1945 — in my lifetime. I’m older than most of the countries in the world,” she said. “But most of those new countries were not born democracies. And once they became free of colonial rule, people gradually began fighting for freedoms from autocratic rule by their own people.”

By 1990, the world had 69 electoral democracies. Today, there are just over 110. But some are more democratic than others, Wright said, adding that equitable justice, fair distribution of resources and economic inclusion and opportunity must complement elections to form a true democracy.

Those transitions take a long time, Wright said. Nearly two centuries elapsed between the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

“We like to think of ourselves as so much more advanced than the rest of the world, and it isn’t always true,” Wright said. “But it is a lesson in how long it takes for people to get their rights. And I say that as a woman.”

The United States developed its national voice in the form of protests, and many other countries took note.

“In many ways, America popularized the idea of a sit-in to the world in the 1960s and ‘70s,” she said. “We created a model that we’re seeing play out in other parts of the world today.”

Protests can turn into uprisings, which can become violent and pose difficult political and moral questions to world powers such as the U.S.

The decision to intervene militarily for any reason is an “incredibly hard” one, Wright said, turning her attention to the current threat from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

“In the case of the Yazidis stranded on a mountain in northern Iraq, we opted to intervene,” she said. “It is always right to try to prevent genocide. Always.”

But that intervention has only been partially successful, she said, noting that there are still Yazidis on that mountain. And U.S. intervention has helped only 40 or 50 thousand of the “millions” facing the threat of ISIS, which Wright considers the deadliest force in the world.

In the meantime, Wright said, 170,000 Syrians have been massacred over the last three years by war planes and chemical weapons.

“I’m not suggesting that the United States should have intervened,” she said. “My bigger question is that, when we decide to help one group of people and not another, it will often appear to be a policy of selective salvation, and that again troubles our great American conscience.”

Such questions are never easy, Wright said.

“We should have this debate as a nation, as the most moral nation — at least in principle — on Earth,” she added.

The idea of power is changing.

“As the very concept of power begins to shift, so will the frontlines of conflict, the flashpoints of conflict and the players in conflict,” she said. “Power is no longer defined simply by the size of your army, or the number of your tanks, or the capability of your warplanes. They still count, no doubt, but the traditional barometers and the hierarchy of power is changing. Even the architecture of power is changing, which will in turn redefine wars, uprisings. It’s visible in the most basic way: the public square.”

Flipping to a photograph of Benito Mussolini addressing a crowd in a square in Rome, Wright explained the shift in the role played by the public square.

“For millennia, the public square was designed as a means of exerting control, to organize civic life,” she said. “The public square is increasingly also the place to challenge power, even to oust leaders.”

Cairo’s Tahrir Square saw the ousting of two Egyptian presidents. Similar protests have captured the world’s attention in countries the world over, including democracies such as Turkey.

“Power is also shifting in another way that is redefining conflict,” Wright said. “A growing number of the wars pit states against nonstate actors, as we see in Gaza over the past month, as Israel has been fighting Hamas.”

Since 1973, Israel has not waged war against another state. Instead, it has fought groups such as Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic jihadist groups and militias. The last three conventional wars between Middle Eastern countries, Wright said, were the Yom Kippur War in 1973, the Iran-Iraq War in 1980 and Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

Since then, the region’s threats are nonstate groups such as Hezbollah and al-Qaida of the Arabian Peninsula. Many of these groups, Wright said, originally emerged to fight autocrats. AQAP emerged to fight the Saudi monarchy, “the most autocratic government in the world,” she said.

And ISIS originally emerged to protect the Sunni minority and to fight foreign intervention in Iraq.

Such groups are one example of unintended consequences of U.S. intervention, Wright said. Another can be found in Libya, which she lamented as a failed democracy.

“You can get rid of the old order,” she said. “But unless there’s a new order in place, unless there are people who can help create a new order, that situation can crumble into what is today Libya, almost a failed state, after all we did to help it.”

One new type of power that the world has seen in the 21st century, Wright said, are what she called “micro-powers,” groups and individuals that incite political change and even wage cyberwar.

“They reflect the asymmetric war where a computer mouse is turned into a tank, and fighting is not between states and even smaller militias, and it doesn’t happen anywhere on the ground,” she said. “Cyberwar is really the biggest battlefield of the 21st century. The U.S. used it against Iran in trying to dismantle, disable or limit its nuclear program.”

Noting that 87 percent of the world has access to a cell phone today, Wright argued that connectedness changes the way that traditional warfare is waged.

“We can’t underplay the role of Twitter in taking on tanks,” she said.

Wright then turned her attention from micro-powers to macro-powers as nations join regional blocs.

“The most important reconfiguration of power is what I call the new macro-powers,” she said.

“And it’s been evolving now for 500 years. In the late 15th century, the world began to move from city-states to nation-states. In the 21st century — today — we are on the road to globalization. But the interim step on that road is the regional bloc that we’re going from nation to region when it comes to not just trade, but security, diplomacy. And we’re only beginning to kind of understand what’s happened.”

In closing her lecture, Wright predicted global challenges over the next decades.

“We have some really tough challenges to face when it comes to our allies and our principles,” Wright said. “And I’m not trying to dictate or suggest what we should and shouldn’t be doing, but I do think it’s time that we think about it more seriously, more long-range, because the 21st century is going to be tougher than the 20th in many ways — for reasons that may not be bad in the course of human history — but it will be a turbulent period.”


Q: I’ll start by remembering that, last time you were, everyone was calling it the “Arab Spring,” and you said, “No. Let’s call it the ‘Arab Awakening.’” What are you calling it today?

A: The “Arab Earthquake.” There’s no question that a process has begun. But Samuel Huntington, a political scientist from Harvard and a controversial figure because of his book The Clash of Civilizations, wrote a very good book about the three waves of democracy, and it is true that there are waves of democracy. We’ve seen that throughout history. It takes a wave during which they seed, and then you see the waves pull back. Then, in the second round the seeds begin to flower, and the waves sort of push them over or flatten them. The third time, the plant comes up strong. I think that’s the pattern. And that’s a process that, again, is going to frustrate us over and over and over, because it won’t happen quickly and because of the instability.

You can look at a place like Venezuela, which was the first democracy in 1952. But it became so unstable that Hugo Chavez, who tried to organize a military coup in the 1990s, actually became popular and was democratically elected because people wanted stability.

It will be that constant tension between whether you want something that empowers and the uncertainty that it brings with new players versus the stability of autocratic rule where at least you know what the certainties are.

Q: Do bloc formations undermine the power of individuals and undermine the core democratic principle of one person, one vote?

A: Not necessarily. It depends on the bloc and so forth. We’re not at the point where the blocs are governing yet. But it is one of the next steps. Blocs do make decisions, whether they’re on trade law, trade patterns, tariffs, environmental actions that can be very existential. They often are important in determining a broader course. It affects a lot of the issues of our lives and the way we lead our lives. How does the individual identify? Who makes these decisions for us? I think power will be more diffused; it will not as simple or straightforward with one leader. There are going to be multiple places that make decisions. It’s going to be a fascinating transition.

Q: How do large multi-national corporations fit into this new world order?

A: Well, they are already multi-national. I’m not a businessperson. I’d defer to anyone in the audience who does business on that question. Clearly, you have to be multi-national if you want to be a major player in the world, in order to make it long-term, unless you have an immediate audience in one area and you have enough consumers. But you may find that whatever you produce is made cheaper someplace else.

Increasingly, you will see those businesses that survive have to be multi-national. It’s infuriating to me that with my local telephone provider, I have to talk to somebody in Manila or New Delhi in order to get my telephone line checked out.

Q: What is new about the new world order in terms of vision? Will it build towards recognition of ourselves as planetary citizens, and what happens to the whole?

A: I don’t think anybody has the vision yet. We’re in that interim stage. We see that we have to collaborate with others, whether it’s with NATO in the post-World War II era in creating a security alliance and now ends up making decisions on diplomacy as well.

This is one thing that worries me the most about the United States. We aren’t ready for globalization. We are arguably less prepared because we are so self-sufficient — whether it’s militarily or economically — that we don’t need the blocs, even though we’re part of many of them. Other countries do need them, whether it’s learning the languages or understanding the legal mechanisms of how do you become part of a bigger whole. We are lacking the vision and the ability to make the transition, and I think that may be one of the threads that’s makes us vulnerable in losing our greatness.

Q: Will conflicts over water resources emerge as a sixth bottom line?

A: Yeah, no kidding. This is where the 21st century will be very, very much about environmental issues, because of climate change and dwindling water resources. Jeff Kemp has done a lot of work on the issue of water in the Middle East as a source of conflict. What’s really interesting is that Iran is home to the largest lake in the Middle East. I should say was home to the largest lake in the Middle East, because it is basically dried up. It changes the ecosystem. Iran now has four of the most polluted cities in the world. Because of its growing population, it can’t sustain its population with its own water.

That’s one of the reasons Iran needs others. Even pariah Iran has become part of a regional environmental bloc centered around the Caspian Sea. Absolutely, when it comes to the sources of conflict, I take that as a given. Environment will be far bigger in the 21st century than in any point in history.

Q: With the emergence of so many blocs, isn’t conflict more likely?

A: Well, I don’t know about ‘more likely,’ but the kinds of conflict we have. We don’t know how to make the transition. Most people are not willing to say ‘Oh yeah, I see the greater common good. I’m going to give up a little of this to be part of something bigger.’ We all want to cling to those things that give us security, and I think there will be sources of tension. I can show you these slides and you can say ‘Oh yeah, that’s obvious. That’s good. We can get more out of it by being part of a bigger entity.’ It also means giving up some of your national identity, which we see playing out to some degree in Ukraine.

I think transitions are always turbulent. They always create conflict because it’s hard to get beyond ourselves.

I often compare change to a tornado. What happens during a tornado? You go to the basement and cling to the pillars. The same thing happens in a political tornado. You go to the pillars of your soul and cling to those sources of identity and you don’t want to give them up and think of ourselves as something bigger. It will be hard particularly for Americans to do.

Q: Going back to ISIS, we have several questions. How serious is the threat that ISIS can attack the United States?

A: I’ll be honest with you, the last 13 years I haven’t really worried about al-Qaida, but I think these guys mean business. I think what happened over the past week is important for a couple of reasons. One is that we took on ISIS. We said our mission was limited, that we were only intervening again to get the Yazidis off Mt. Sinjar and to protect American personnel in Erbil in northern Kurdistan in Iraq. But within 24 hours we bombed ISIS, and we did it several times for almost a week, and we reserve the right do it again. They won’t see that as limited in the same way that we probably wouldn’t. They think that they’ve been attacked. Their members have been killed. We’ve crossed that threshold and seem to be in conflict with them. And so that makes us targets.

For example, I lived in Beirut for five years in the 1980s, and I remember when the U.S. sent in peacekeepers after the Israeli invasion to try to separate so the PLO could leave and there would be a buffer between the Israelis. At one point, there was fighting between some Christians and Muslims in the mountains. The U.S. intervened on behalf of the Christians.

These were not necessarily good Christians. They were Falangists. They named themselves after the fascist Spanish party. But we bombed on their behalf, and 34 days later, a Muslim extremist bombed the Marines. The Marines commander, when he was ordered to take that action, said ‘I can’t do that. We’ll become targets. We’ll be sitting ducks in our peacekeeping positions.’ Sure enough, they were. 241 marines died. It was the largest loss of U.S. militarily life in a single incident since Iwo Jima.

So there is cause and effect. We forget sometimes. What we meant to do was good, but this is again back into unintended consequences. They also hit the American embassy because an American had intervened in Lebanon. That was the beginning of Hezbollah, and Hezbollah is one of the big threats in the region as well. I think ISIS wants to hit us. I don’t think they’re capable right now.

But the danger is you have all these foreign fighters from Europe, particularly, and reportedly over 100 from the United States that have the ability to get into the West and come home. Do they want to do things? I think they do. Does that mean they’re going to do 9/11? Not necessarily. But they have a willingness to die to carry out their attacks. The end justifies any means. If they feel that this is in defense of their cause rather than an offensive action I don’t think they’ll have any hesitation.

Q: What’s the religious impact on this process of looking at ISIS? Can religion be a force for good?

A: I think the vast majority of Muslims are opposed to the use of violence. This is made clear by many things, whether it’s the imams of the faith. Gallup and Pew do regular polls of the Islamic world and find that the majority of people oppose suicide bombing and the use of violence. I don’t think [Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi] is representative in any way.

Remember that ISIS is only estimated to be about 20,000 people. The problem is that they use such Draconian tactics that fear has become a very psychological weapon. Iraq’s military was 400,000 strong, and four divisions just faded away in the face of ISIS. I do think that this is where al-Baghdadi invokes religion when, really, what he’s talking about is protection of a group of people who believe in the Sunni faith and were excluded from the political process. This is how you go from empowerment to extremism being on the same spectrum, just different ends of the spectrum and the same phenomenon.

We wanted to make sure the Sunnis were included in the political process. One of the interesting stories is in 2006 when the U.S. was considering a surge of an additional 30,000 troops in Iraq, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff actually opposed the idea of the surge initially. They thought they could accomplish their military goals, but they were afraid of not being able to accomplish the parallel political process of getting a government in place that would be inclusive, that would change the constitution in a way that would give what the regions enough power to make the Sunnis and the Kurds feel that they were part of and remained invested in one country.

The Joint Chiefs were right. We sent 30,000 troops in. We pushed back al-Qaida. But we never managed to get the Iraqis to embrace the political change required to get the Sunnis on board. And, as a result, ISIS not only came back, but people were more sympathetic because they thought they had proof that the new order in Iraq would not only exclude them but persecute them and cost them to lose their jobs that were given to friends of the Shiite Prime Minister.

We look at these things as sectarian when in fact they’re really political. It is not about imposing a Sunni state. It’s more about protecting the Sunnis in a state that will protect them. That’s something we have to remember when we deal with this problem.

Q: These are a couple of questions that may not seem related, but they I think they are. One is on your slide of democracies: Canada and Australia were a darker green than the United States. This questioner wants you to comment on that. I think a good final question is that uprising can lead to a switch of just another dictator. What groups or individuals or countries are teaching the process and methods of local, regional and national democratic self-government?

A: The slide I picked is from Freedom House and it has a scale of how it judges freedoms. It has a whole range of them — press freedom and women’s rights. You did see greener patches in Canada and Australia. Someone is really observant, and bravo to you. As we’ve seen in Ferguson, we have our own problems that are ongoing.

When it comes to who’s doing it right — yikes. Let’s look at the Arab Spring and the countries that have done well. I would say that little Tunisia has become the best model for making the transition. They’ve had an Islamist party was elected to run a government but worked hard from the beginning to create a coalition government that included two secular parties. It was also critical in cracking down on Islamist extremists in the country, along the border, particularly.

For an Islamist government to crack down on Islamist extremists was very important. This is the battle that has to be waged in the Islamic world: that Islamists who believe in the values of their faith also reject extremism. That’s what happened in Tunisia. In fact, the Islamist government signed an order to create a wider coalition government that’s going to lead into elections this fall.

We’re likely to see a peaceful transition of power unlike Egypt where I think the revolution is yet to come. We’ve seen two military coups spurred and legitimized by public protests. But where you see an autocrat in power, that, I think is in some ways more dangerous than Hosni Mubarak was when it comes to rights of individuals. I don’t think military rule, where the judiciary sentences 1,200 people to death in two months, is what we want to see prevail.

I think as we have this dialogue about who do we save and who are our allies, when it comes to the aid that we give, I often think we need to rethink that in fundamental ways and use our resources to help for development and creating jobs and using it to create different conditions to allow those little micro powers to have a say in shaping a very different future.

—Transcribed by Mike Kasarda