Conflict in the 21st Century: the big ones rise the bet

Globalization has narrowed distances, diluted borders, and brought into contact people and societies that just a few decades ago, barely recognized each other
REUTERS/MOHAMMAD ISMAIL - Soldados de la OTAN en Kabul (Afganistán) el pasado 25 de marzo de 2020

REUTERS/MOHAMMAD ISMAIL  -   NATO soldiers in Kabul, Afghanistan, on 25 March 2020.

These are not good times for Western democracies. The wave of optimism that in the 1990s gave birth to the happy idea of the ‘end of history’ is now behind us. Although after the collapse of the Soviet Union the world experienced a boom in the number of countries that successively and uninterruptedly joined the select group of regimes meeting the parameters of liberal democracies, the euphoria was short-lived. The moment of unipolar US splendour, unchallenged by the initial weakness of the new Russian Federation and the discreetness of the People's Republic of China, was conducive to this democratising upsurge across the globe. But the window of opportunity closed a few years ago, when these powers emerged from their respective humiliations and presented their own amendments to the principles of US-style multilateralism. Authoritarian regimes have since proliferated under the umbrella of a multipolar and asymmetric global governance model, with a clear democratic backlash in certain Western countries1.


Oblivious to the constraints of an international order based on respect for commonly accepted norms, authoritarian leaders find in the "grey zone" the ideal playground for the use of all kinds of hybrid confrontational procedures. In a kind of "anything goes", except crossing the threshold of open warfare, they systematically resort to diplomatic, commercial, technological or military pressure, to the use of which democracies are more reluctant, subject as they are to the rule of law and the control of their respective public opinion. This produces an asymmetry that clearly tips the balance on the side of those who lack democratic controls.

A few months before the elections that brought Joe Biden to the presidency of the United States, we published in this same forum a document in which, contrary to other opinions, we ventured that a hypothetical election of the Democratic candidate would not radically change the climate of confrontation with the so-called revisionist powers, the People's Republic of China and the Russian Federation2 . The repeated statements by the then candidate and, later, the now president were evidence, if not indications, that the stakes were still high with regard to both Russia and, above all, China.

New areas, more possibilities for (cooperation) conflict

Several factors have brought us to this situation of generalised conflict. New, disruptive technologies are fundamentally changing the face of the battlefield, as the recent confrontation between Armenia and Azerbaijan3 has shown. Globalisation, the proliferation of non-state actors and the incorporation of new relational spaces only add more fog to the ever-fuzzy aspect of warfare.

The traditional land, sea and air have lost their monopoly as the domains in which relations between states were settled, for better and for worse. Multilateral control mechanisms (institutions, treaties, forums, legislation, etc.) designed to govern these relations are ambiguous as the "global commons" expand. The progressive melting of the waters of the Arctic Ocean, a region hitherto passive to human activity, will open up new trade routes, facilitate access to valuable raw materials on its seabed, as well as to fishing grounds, and is already witnessing an evident militarisation of its coasts.

Airspace is growing vertically and already incorporates outer space beyond the earth's atmosphere. If at first it seemed that this would be an area of exclusive interest to the major powers, the progressive reduction in the cost of the technologies needed to access it has opened its doors not only to other states, but also to private initiative. The possibilities for progress and scientific advances for humanity are thus growing... at the same time as a new scenario is opening up for the clash of interests and competition between state and non-state actors present in outer space.

But it is in cyberspace where all kinds of hostile activities between all kinds of actors are taking place most intensively. From intrusions into the computers of private individuals to the denial of services to a public or private institution; or the massive attack on the computer systems of a State that can paralyse the provision of essential services for society: transport, health systems, energy distribution, education, finance, etc. The difficulty of attributing responsibility for such interference, its low cost and the ease with which it can be carried out make the cyber sphere an ideal space for generalised and permanent conflict. Here, both true and false news circulate simultaneously, making the public mind the target of their cyber-attacks. The aim is to influence public opinion, whether their own or that of others: it is not reality that is relevant, but the target society's perception of it. As a result, in addition to land, sea, air, outer space and cyberspace, a sixth area of confrontation has been added: the cognitive domain. And once again, the possibilities for conflict are multiplying. War is no longer what it used to be, and the worst thing is that the big players have decided to take the gamble, and even double down.

The big two (or three) on a collision course

The change of president in the White House in January 2021 took place against the backdrop of a global Great Power Competition. Biden's arrival raised high hopes that his predecessor's oft-criticised decisions on international relations would be replaced by a more moderate attitude from the new administration. His repeated allusions to multilateralism and his nods to re-engagement with traditional allies were welcomed by many. But the undeniable progress in these areas should not blind us to the fact that, as far as China's great rival is concerned, little or nothing has changed with respect to the relations inherited from Trump. On trade, technology and persistent geopolitical tensions in the Pacific waters, the collision course remains the same. The March 2021 meeting of Chinese and US delegations in Anchorage in March 2021 revealed, to the media sent to cover the event, a highly worrying tension and dialectical aggressiveness5.

In the case of Russia, Biden has shown a significant change compared to Trump's previous ambiguity. Warnings about the Russian military deployment in the vicinity of the Ukrainian border or the case of the opposition leader Navalni have led to very serious accusations from the American to his Russian counterpart, which are unusual in the diplomatic world, however frosty relations may be.5 These growing tensions between the United States and Russia, barely quelled by the scant agreements following the few agreements that have been reached in the wake of the US-Russia relations, have been the result of the US-Russia relations. These growing tensions between the United States and Russia, barely quelled by the scant agreements following the Geneva summit6 , as with China, represent a very uncomfortable situation for the European Union that could drag it, against its own interests, into a clash of giants from which Europeans can expect nothing good.

The People's Republic of China has left behind the policy of discretion and low profile of Xi's predecessors. Aware of the country's undisputed commercial and technological power, the Chinese president has responded to US sanctions and vetoes on its technology companies, and has in turn launched his own geopolitical challenge. In addition to the "new Silk Road" and the Made in China 2025 technology initiative, China's undisguised assertiveness in the China Seas and its huge and sustained military spending have made the People's Liberation Army a fearsome military tool.

Russia too, especially since Putin's second presidential term at the helm of the Federation, has presented its credentials as a major regional power, albeit with pretensions of being on a par with the two world giants. Despite its weaknesses and shortcomings, Moscow has managed to become the arbiter of developments in its geographical surroundings, from Libya to Armenia and Azerbaijan, from the Black Sea to the Middle East, not to mention its penetration into Africa and its interests in the Central Asian republics and the Arctic. The revenues from its large hydrocarbon reserves have largely been used to rebuild an armed forces that had become obsolete after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In addition, it remains, along with the United States, the world's other major nuclear power and has a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.


The word "war", in its traditional sense, seems to have fallen into disuse, and instead it is preferred to speak interchangeably (and therefore wrongly) of confrontation, confrontation, tensions, conflict... But, on the other hand, the same term is used with the same lack of rigour to refer to alleged wars of various kinds: commercial, technological, cultural warfare. In any case, conflict - let us accept the term in its broadest meaning, including war - is manifesting itself with unusual vigour in the 21st century.

Fearful of the global catastrophe that a direct military confrontation between the great powers would entail, the latter are looking for different ways of competing to avoid a head-on clash, and they are not lacking in options. Globalisation has created, in practice, a single world market in which the emergence of China as a major exporter has shaken the previous trade balances. In 2013, in Astana, President XI presented the 'New Silk Road', a gigantic programme of investment in land and maritime infrastructures to provide an outlet for China's huge and increasingly high-quality manufacturing output. The United States, aware of the threat posed by Chinese penetration of markets previously held captive by American producers, has reacted with a battery of tariffs of dubious effectiveness. The Beijing government, for its part, responded in kind, creating an atmosphere of generalised mistrust from which no international actor has been able to escape.

Even more worrying, from the Western point of view, is China's intention to lead, in the short term, the cutting-edge technologies that will shape the model of future societies7: artificial intelligence, big data, 5G, robotics, nanotechnology, biomedicine, blockchain... The US reaction has consisted of hindering or prohibiting the penetration of these new technologies from China, similar, by the way, to what Beijing has been doing much earlier in relation to Western companies. These cross-technology vetoes are spreading to other regions. Europe has legislated to protect its technological know-how and its leading companies, and has limited the presence of Chinese components in 5G networks. India, for its part, has banned certain Chinese applications on national security grounds8. If this trend towards mutual technological exclusion, together with the aforementioned trade barriers, is not reversed, we run the risk of heading inexorably towards a global disconnection that is undesirable in such an interconnected world.

Trade and technological competition is the battleground of these generalised "non-wars" in which large and medium-sized powers clash without coming to blows. But there are other disputes, geopolitical in nature, that do bring us dangerously close to the edge of the abyss, not so much because war is deliberately sought, but because, at any given moment, the accumulated tension can lead to a loss of control of the situation.

The hottest spot in these "(still) non-wars" is undoubtedly in and around China's inland seas, which many analysts have called the "Chinese Caribbean". In line with its interests, Beijing is building up a powerful naval force that has set off alarm bells in the coastal countries. Taiwan is the most worrying element of discord between China and the United States in the region. The commitment to the security of the island of Formosa and the rest of the neighbouring countries, as well as the guarantee of free navigation in these inland seas, explain the regular presence of the US Navy, and even those of some European countries. The key question in this case is whether, when the time comes to repel military aggression by the People's Republic against its "rebel province", the United States' commitment would be strong enough to engage in a war with none other than China. And Beijing makes no secret of its intentions: "Our military will resolutely defeat anyone who attempts to separate Taiwan from China and defend national unity at all costs".9

Further north, two other US allies, Japan and South Korea, face the challenge posed by North Korea for different reasons. For Tokyo, in terms of the nuclear threat; for South Korea, in addition to the above, because of all the connotations related to the hypothetical and desired reunification, a possibility that clashes head-on with the interests of Beijing, the main supporter of the North Korean dictatorship. To the south, freedom of navigation through the Strait of Malacca is of vital importance if the flow of goods through the Strait of Malacca is not to be interrupted. The ease with which such transit through such a narrow, uncontrolled passage could be prevented at any given moment explains China's search for direct exits to the Indian Ocean from the mainland, bypassing Malacca, via Myanmar or Pakistan.

China's presence in the Indian Ocean, together with border disputes in the Himalayas, brings a new and not insignificant player into the equation: India, which in turn has serious differences with Pakistan, especially in relation to the disputed Kashmir. Pakistan is a country bordering the chaos of Afghanistan, a nuclear power, a haven for Islamic radicals and a favoured partner of China. For all these reasons, New Delhi's traditional non-alignment stance is shifting significantly towards greater understanding with the US and other Pacific democracies, such as Japan and Australia, in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD), a kind of Asian NATO that China is not at all happy about.

The Arabian Peninsula and its environs are another source of instability for which there is no acceptable solution in the foreseeable future. The Abraham Accords sponsored by Trump, and unchallenged by Biden, bring Israel closer to its hitherto irreconcilable Arab enemies to face together the threat of Iranian nuclear escalation. The sure losers, once again, will be the Palestinians. Russia, with its resolute support for the Syrian regime, has earned itself a privileged position in the region, in which any possibility of an agreement requires Moscow's approval, and ensures its military presence in the Mediterranean from naval and air bases in eastern Syria. Turkey, for its part, is simultaneously playing two difficult games with two difficult interlocutors: Russia and its NATO allies.

Africa, which has been in a precarious state since colonial times, has once again become a focal point for the ambitions of the major foreign powers. China, in search of resources and raw materials; Russia, to open markets in which to sell its modern military equipment; and, for various reasons, also the Gulf countries, Israel and Turkey. And they do so by taking advantage of the lack of interest from the United States, which is busier and more concerned about the Asian scenario. The European Union, in turn, is torn between the evidence of its necessary involvement in the development and stability of the continent, especially in the Maghreb and the Sahel region, and its own normative and budgetary limitations and the weakness of a foreign policy subordinated to the paralysing unanimity in decision-making and the strategic discrepancies of the member states. As a result, jihadism is rampant in much of the continent. Organised crime networks, in symbiosis with terrorist groups, weak institutions, rampant demography and the consequences of global warming leave millions of young people with no hope of a better future and no alternative but to join the jihad or seek their "El Dorado" in Europe.

The American continent has been hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic

The American continent has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. The persistent difficulty of these countries in reaching regional integration agreements, so necessary in a globalised world, prevents them from joining forces and competing adequately in global markets. In return, Chinese penetration threatens to deplete strategic mineral reserves and fishing grounds.

And then there are the "yes-wars"

The polyhedral conflict that we have been describing does not exclude the abundance of warlike confrontations, wars in their most traditional sense, to which the large and medium-sized powers are by no means alien, and which settle their disputes through third party actors, proxies, in so-called proxy wars. Most of these hot spots are distributed precisely in Europe's immediate surroundings: from the waters of the Atlantic in the Gulf of Guinea, the Sahel, the Horn of Africa, a Middle East extended to include Iran, the Caucasus and Afghanistan10. Jihadist terrorism, far from having been eradicated, keeps Europe's periphery aflame and acts, it must not be forgotten, also within its borders.

The most worrying aspect of this long list of wars, some better known than others, but all equally destabilising for the societies that suffer them, is that the prospects for their peaceful resolution are slim.

In the roulette wheel of Brussels and Geneva, all on the red (dragon)!

President Biden's first international tour was undoubtedly a profound one. In an intense week, the US president met with the British prime minister, attended meetings of the G-7 and the European Union, and the Alliance summit in Brussels, ending with a highlight: his face-to-face meeting with Vladimir Putin. The president had several objectives, all of which had been announced prior to his trip. The most repeated was to insist time and again that the United States has returned to multilateralism and understanding with its allies, and then to make it clear to Russia that not everything goes, and to China, on the contrary, that there will be more of the same.

Expectations prior to the Geneva meeting were not high, and the few results of the meeting did not disappoint. An agreement in principle to continue on the path of controlling the nuclear arsenal, the return of ambassadors and a few allusions to the fight against cybercrime; little more. Or nothing less. Since a comprehensive agreement was not possible, the expressed desires for better, predictable and stable, yet tense, relations can be described as a positive start; no one expected more.11 The Russian side is now on the playing field with Russia.

With the playing field established with Russia, the real challenge for the United States is posed by the strength, including military strength, of the People's Republic of China. With China identified as the main strategic adversary, Pentagon chief General Austin has sounded a clarion call to concentrate all his Department's efforts in the Pacific.12 With this call, that of the resurgence of the Chinese military and military powers, the United States is now in a position to make the most of its strategic position in the Pacific. With this call, that of the threatening resurgence of the red dragon, Biden intends to make European allies close ranks and thus send a signal of unwavering unity to face the challenges posed by the Asian power. An overwhelming logic from a strictly American point of view, but one that allies on this side of the Atlantic will have to rethink carefully. Without underestimating the importance of the Chinese challenge, European leaders are aware that a black-and-white, nuanced position of maximums is not advisable. Neither towards China, with whom Europeans have a wide range of trade relations, nor towards Russia, an inevitable neighbour with whom it would be better not to get along at all.

This unpleasant choice, either with one or the other, which is so disliked in the European Union, is also greeted with equal concern in other regions of the world. This is especially significant in the case of Asian countries, which are close to the Chinese giant, which they do not want to be dependent on and subordinate to, but which they cannot ignore or, much less, confront. Their economy and security inevitably depend, if not on aligning themselves unconditionally with Beijing, at least on not earning its open hostility. To a greater or lesser extent, the dilemma is repeated in the Middle East, Africa and Latin America.

Another undesirable consequence of this gamble of maximums, all in the red, is the mutual rapprochement of those who feel so strongly challenged. Despite the historical grievances of the past, the divergent interests of the present and the frictions that are certain to arise in the future, Beijing and Moscow find good reasons for closer ties in their shared adversary. This explains the repeated efforts, mainly by France and Germany, to seek lines of understanding, at least in certain areas, with neighbouring Russia. Efforts that are rejected outright by some European partners13.



The main cause of this global conflict is the struggle for world hegemony between the former hegemony holder, the United States, and the challenger, China. It would be naïve to expect the challenger and the challenged to give up their respective ambitions. Moscow, seeking a seat at the big table, is aligning itself with Beijing and playing its cards very skilfully. China welcomes this harmony and secures an invaluable source of raw materials and hydrocarbons of which it is an avid consumer.

The result of this three-way game is generalised instability, which multiplies the stimuli for confrontation, kinetic or otherwise, from which it is very difficult for the other countries to escape. When the challenges shared by all humanity (climate change, cybercrime, terrorism, organised crime, nuclear proliferation, pandemics...) demand cooperation, at least in these fields, the road ahead is fraught with obstacles. Realistically, the most that can be aspired to is coexistence, understood as a difficult balance between collaboration, when necessary, and acceptably regulated commercial and technological competition.

In this worrying and complex scenario, with new tools (technological and commercial) for confrontation in old and new spheres, especially in cyberspace, all international actors are affected by unleashed "21st century" conflict. The two great powers, or three if we include Russia, as daring mus players, have not only "seen" the challenge, but have decided to go further and have chosen to up the ante. No change of course is in sight in the "Great Power Competition" and, as such, it will be difficult to reverse so many and so many different conflicts: commercial, technological, geopolitical... and also wars.

Francisco José Dacoba Cerviño*
Brigadier General ET Director of the IEEE @fran_dacoba

  1. 1 En este sentido, ver un detallado estudio de la regresión de las democracias en el mundo en: LINDBERG, Steffan y KOLVANI, Palina. “El virus autocrático”, Política Exterior, mayo de 2021. Disponible en:
  2. 2 DACOBA CERVIÑO, Francisco J. Después de la tempestad… tampoco vendrá la calma. Documento de Análisis    IEEE    25/2020.
  3. 3 MARÍN DELGADO, José Alberto. Guerra de drones en el Cáucaso Sur: lecciones aprendidas de Nagorno-Karabaj.    Documento    de    Opinión    IEEE    21/2021. caso.pdf
  4. 4 “Washington y Pekín constatan sus divergencias en una tensa cumbre en Alaska”, El Periódico, 20 de marzo, 2021. Disponible en: unidos-11592999
  5. 5 “Biden llama asesino a Putin y dice que ‘pagará un precio’ por la injerencia rusa en sus elecciones”, Euronews, 17 de marzo, 2021. Disponible en: a-putin-y-dice-que-pagara-un-precio-por-la-injerencia-rusa-en-sus-elec
  6. 6 “Biden y Putin: 3 puntos de encuentro y 3 desacuerdos que quedaron claros en la primera reunión entre los dos mandatarios”, BBC, 16 de junio, 2021. Disponible en: internacional-57504805
  7. 7 PARRA PÉREZ, Águeda. ¿Retos pospandemia?: China pide paso. Documento de Opinión IEEE 80/2020.
  8. 8 “India prohíbe Tik Tok y otras 59 aplicaciones chinas ‘por seguridad’”, La Vanguardia. 1 de julio, 2021. Disponible en: aplicacion-prohibiciones-seguridad.html
  9. 9 “El Libro Blanco de la República Popular de China sobre la Defensa Nacional en la nueva era 2019”,
  10. DSN. Disponible en:
  11. 10 A este respecto, se puede ampliar información en: DACOBA CERVIÑO, Francisco José. Autonomía Estratégica    Europea:    ni    contigo,    ni    sin    ti...    Documento    de    Análisis    IEEE    13/2021.
  12. 11 "A Genève, Joe Biden et Vladimir Poutine entament un dialogue stratégique à pas comptés", Le Monde. 17 de junio de 2021. Disponible en: biden-et-vladimir-poutine-initient-un-dialogue-strategique-a-pas-comptes_6084459_3210.html
  13. 12 “‘Get to work’: US defence chief tells Pentagon to sharpen China focus”, The Guardian, 10 de junio de 2021. Disponible en: tells-pentagon-to-sharpen-china-focus
  14. 13 “La UE rechaza la cumbre con Putin propuesta por Alemania y Francia”, La Voz de Galicia, 25 de junio, 2021. Disponible en: putin-propuesta-alemania-francia/00031624641199324941599.htm