The world is transfixed at the rise of the extremist Islamic State group, contemplating its implications for the greater Middle East, and aghast at the inability of any country to stop its march across the Levant. The birth of the world’s newest (self-proclaimed) state has served to demonstrate just how feeble the established international order has become.
Isolationist America’s foreign policy and standing in the world have been further emasculated in the process. Conservative political pundits in the US criticise President Barack Obama for failing to act in a more decisive manner to stem the tide. They remain delusional in their belief that anything the US can do will make a difference. Many Americans, and much of the rest of the world, want to believe that the decade-long Iraq war was a success and that it achieved its objective - but it did not. The war merely served to underscore how frail the underpinnings of the modern Iraqi state were to begin with.
The truth is that Syria and Iraq are slowly disintegrating. Short of committing hundreds of thousands of troops to both countries in a lengthy and sustained battle - which will not happen - it seems likely that, at a minimum, the Islamic State will retain the gains it has made, and will claim even greater territory in Syria, Iraq and greater Kurdistan in the weeks and months to come. We should all be very concerned.
Apart from the evisceration of the ancien regime in the Middle East, the rise of the Islamic State - and the proliferation of other extremist groups such as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and Boko Haram and al-Shabaab in Africa - represents a world order in transition. The post-war powers are threatened by non-state actors whose strength far outweighs their numbers and material. It is a testament to the inherent contradictions of the post-war order that so many failed states were created by it. These groups are masterful at taking advantage of that. So, as the post-war order slowly crumbles, a new world order based on an entirely new set of dynamics is being created.
In 2004, there were 21 Islamic terrorist groups in 18 countries; today, there are 41 such groups in 24 countries. It is these groups, rather than the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), MINT (Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria and Turkey) and CIVETS (Colombia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Egypt, Turkey and South Africa), that are increasingly shaping the evolving world order. Scores of centrifugal forces, many of which are uncontrollable, have come to define the political and military regime of the 21st century.
Given that we live in a world of limited financial and military resources, and that developed countries at large lack the political will to become more engaged in conflicts, we had better get used to the idea that there will remain a plethora of raging fires that no one can put out. The Islamic State may be the first extremist movement to be so successful, but it is unlikely to be the last.
This article was originally posted in the South China Morning Post.