Is Ukraine the End of the War on Terror?
Shocked by the sudden and brutal Russian invasion of Ukraine, the world is still trying to sort out the implications for its immediate future and, perhaps, the rest of the century. Everyone, however, seems certain that the world has entered a new era. Something like a paradigm shift has taken place, and one of the most important but still unspoken results is likely to be the end of the War on Terror.
September 11, 2001, was the last time that the world underwent a paradigm shift. Ever since then, an enormous expenditure of lives, treasure, and military resources has gone into the global struggle to defeat radical Islamic terrorism. Over time, this war shifted from large-scale invasions like Afghanistan and Iraq toward more precise operations like drone strikes or the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, but the enemy remained the same. Even the botched withdrawal from Afghanistan did not change this, and in some ways only emphasized the threat.
The minute Russian tanks crossed the border into Ukraine, however, this changed — perhaps for good.
The post-9/11 paradigm involved states fighting asymmetrical wars against terror organizations that operated outside the framework of government. The Ukraine war marks the return of state-to-state conflicts, with larger countries seeking to dominate smaller ones via superior military force.
This also means the return of great power rivalries, which were long believed to have been overcome by globalism, multilateralism, and a strategic reality in which the sole “hyperpower” was the United States. But with Vladimir Putin, we find ourselves faced with a man who sees the world in terms of spheres of influence, in which a few large and powerful countries compete for power, prestige, and hegemony over rival sectors of the globe. Islamic terror sought hegemony through fear, intimidation, and the public display of horrific acts, but it had no tanks or planes. Russia, in contrast, seeks hegemony the old-fashioned way — and must be dealt with by old-fashioned means.
More than anything else, an epochal dread has reemerged, in that the world now faces the slim but real possibility of nuclear war. While there was always the fear that a terrorist group could acquire a nuclear weapon, it seemed impossible that a great power might unleash hundreds of nuclear missiles, decimate large portions of the globe, and perhaps end human civilization. Now, Putin has put his nuclear forces on alert in order to deter Western intervention on Ukraine’s behalf, and thus nuclear brinkmanship has returned to haunt the world.
As a result of all this, the War on Terror now seems almost irrelevant, at least to the powers-that-be. All eyes have turned back to Europe and its fraught geopolitics; secular tyrants like Putin appear even more dangerous than theocratic psychopaths like bin Laden; and Russian imperialism is now seen as more of a threat to the world than Islamic terror. The attacks of September 11 were horrific, but pale in comparison to a potential nuclear war.
The implications of this are, at the moment, unclear. It is certain that the fight against Islamic terrorism will not simply end. No doubt there will still be pinpoint operations against terror groups, but the world will move toward the containment of expansionist states rather than the destruction of terrorist organizations, and military resources will be directed toward the deterrence of large conventional armies instead of lightly-armed but ruthless militants. The new era will look very much like the old era of the Cold War, and indeed much of human history.
Radical Islam, of course, will not simply go away, and terror attacks will occur again. Yet it is ironic that the Ukraine war may have neutralized the terrorists’ strongest weapon: the media. With the European peace shattered, great armies once again in the field, and the specter of nuclear war, media attention has been monopolized by the new paradigm. The terrorists’ ability to magnify their horrific acts via non-stop news coverage, which is essential to their strategy, has been crippled. Unless there is another attack on the scale of 9/11, it is difficult to see how this will change.
But the paradigm shift that has superseded the War on Terror presents its own dangers, in particular with regard to Iran. Unlike al-Qaeda, which never exercised state power, the Iranian regime is a state that is a terrorist organization and a terrorist organization that is a state. As such, it fits the new paradigm as well as it did the old one. It would be a grave mistake for the world to assume that the fight against Iranian imperialism and terror is now irrelevant, a relic of an obsolete paradigm. Indeed, if it acquires a nuclear weapon, Iran could threaten the existence of humanity as much as any other nuclear power.
Moreover, we must remember that the process of history never ends. An Iranian nuclear breakout would mark a paradigm shift of its own, and it would be as immense as the one we face today. The previous shift, prompted by 9/11, should teach us this essential lesson. But as the Ukraine invasion proves, humanity never learns its lesson. That a major land war in Europe is changing our worldview is understandable, but we would do well to remember that paradigms shift all the time. The world has changed, but it could easily change again, and we should be ready for it.