For 24 hours, I’ve been trying to work out why people have been so worried about Turkey downing a Russian plane. Or rather, I’ve been trying to work out why the worry people have expressed over it has surprised me. Then I realised: many people take it as a sign that there’s a possibility of war.

But, well, of course there’s going to be a war. Or war in general. There has been war for the last 15 years across a vast swathe of territory. But that’s not what is meant. Of course there are going to be wars between advanced nations in the distant future, or tomorrow. Of course we are headed for war. Limited, strategic, surgical — unless they get out of hand — but war nevertheless.

We are living in a period that is a weird amalgam of the Cold War — when spheres of influence were respected — and the ’90s New World Order, when the US (with the assistance of NATO) tried to establish a monopole global empire. In the Cold War, quite aside from staying out of immediate spheres — the USSR backed off nuclear-arming Cuba once its aim had been achieved (stopping the US renewing its nuclear forces in Turkey) and the US never considered helping out Hungary in 1956 or Czechoslovakia in 1968 — there was also a “first-in” principle.

The USSR, shamefully, never gave the North Vietnamese the support they needed to counter US forces, because the US were already there. The US armed Nicaraguan right-wing terrorists but never invaded after the Sandinistas took over in the 1980s. For all Reagan’s rhetoric, the US in the ’80s was a cautious power, withdrawing from Lebanon after a single suicide bomb in 1985, and running client states like Iraq at arm’s length. The Kuwait invasion — and the refusal to march to Baghdad — was the last act of the Cold War.

The New World Order era was actually put on hold for most of the Clinton era — one downed helicopter prompted a withdrawal from Somalia — and it was this caution that produced the “Project for a New American Century” project in the late ’90s, its plan to invade Iraq, and its use of 9/11 as a pretext for removing a secular dictator of a stable state in a war against a violent stateless religious-political movement.

The chaos of that encounter produced a new caution between states. In the post-Arab spring carve-up, the US-UK took Libya, Russia took Syria. The Free Syrian Army — i.e. Islamists we can work with, shading all the way to “moderate” al-Qaeda (they want to modify, but not abolish, 18C) — were funded simply to tie Russia and Iran down a bit.

The caution recognised that the notion of violent Islamism as an “existential threat” was just pap for the masses. Advanced states alone have the power to inflict real mayhem. IS is now a state (we started calling it Daesh, when it became the state it had boasted of being, acquiring contiguous territory and a subject population). IS needed to be contested as a state to acquire the recognition of statehood. For a year or more the West resisted the temptation. So IS had to pull something pretty special out of the box.

The Paris attacks were it. They modified forms of terror with which we have become jaded and accepting — the sudden bomb on the bus — and meted out a form of death, in the Bataclan concert hall, that is almost too horrifying to think about. By attacking the young, by killing slowly, they put death at the centre of life and stirred up a public anger that the French state had little choice but respond to (the Bataclan attacks were identical to Anders Breivik’s attacks in Norway in 2011. But European hard-right political terrorism was written off as the product of mental illness, while IS terrorism was portrayed, by the right, as the unmediated product of Islam.)

The desire to respond to IS after Paris has thus produced a situation in which a number of states that know themselves to have conflicting interests are pretending, in front of their publics, to have a united interest against “barbarism” (barbarism is killing thousands performatively; civilisation, a la Assad, our new ally, is killing hundreds of thousands routinely). The interests are prior to the assault against IS. Russia was obviously testing Turkey’s willingness to defend its borders, ahead of possible spy flights; Turkey was having none of it.

For all the talk of civilisation v barbarism, IS remains their client and agent in the Syria/Iraq border zone, a means of preventing the Kurds from consolidating their own state across the Syria/Iraq interzone. The Kurds say they have abandoned a quest for their own state across the four states they’re in (Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran). The Turks don’t believe it, and the Kurds may well be changing their mind back, anyway. IS are their guys; Assad is Russia’s. The downing of the jet was the point at which the conflict became de-proxied. Turkey will be urged to restraint by its Western NATO “partners”. Given their new willingness to join with Russia in propping up Assad, Turkey will presumably and justifiably scorn them.

The Turkey-Russia encounter highlights the folly and mendacity of extending NATO, an organisation whose eastern border is now thousands of kilometres from the North frikkin’ Atlantic. When the Cold War ended, there was a commitment by the West not to extend NATO into the old Warsaw Pact zone. Now it is being extended into the old USSR zone. The object is the encirclement of Russia. The product of such is the cementing of Putin and his system in power, and the subversion of any possibility of genuine parliamentary democracy.

These and other events — the China-Japan-US confrontation over the South China Sea, for example — remind us that there is every likelihood that small state-to-state strategic wars are likely to return. That’s especially so as climate change and other resources shifts change the geophysical terrain (the organisations putting the most money into climate change planning are the world’s militaries).

That might occasion a new discussion in Australia about new possibilities, or the renewal of some old ones: armed neutrality, for example, as opposed to a split dependency — economic on China, military on the US (I mean, what could possibly go wrong with that) — as the right’s desired form (including the Labor Right). Or a squidgy pacifism/internationalism on sections of the left (not my section; clean-up in aisle fourth international) that then collapses to a silent consent to US action when necessary — in the air-support given the Syrian Kurds, for example.

But it also illustrates the further collapse of the grand right neocon project. For everyone can see that in backing Assad, they are now trying to restore an exact version of Saddam Hussein. Saddam looked like Stalin and Assad looks like the “compare the market” meerkat, but the latter is as unboundedly brutal as the former. More so. By the time the Iraq invasion happened, with the no-fly-zone in place, Saddam was, according to Human Rights Watch, knocking off about a thousand enemies a year. By 2006, a thousand corpses was a good week in Baghdad. Now it’s a good week in Syria, and we are working to restore the system of secular dictatorship that imposes it — and which we spent a decade, a half-million lives and $3 trillion toppling, to create a Shiite country and the punk version of al-Qaeda, with its own state.

In the face of this, the right’s confusion is total. They’ve retreated to their old habits of bleating about multiculturalism and looking for fifth columnists. All the more reason to now offer a realistic, independent security policy for the 21st century. Twenty-four hours is a long time in global politics, especially if someone just shot down your jet.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey