Understanding global conflict

To get a handle on what’s happening in the world, read books like Paul Rogers’ Losing Control.


How can you make sense of world affairs? There are so many countries, politicians and power plays. If you follow the news, you hear about developments concerning tariffs, wars, elections and bombings. But how does it all fit together? The news tells mostly about events, with seldom anything much deeper to help put the events into context.

I’ve found that I learn far more by reading a book by a well-informed author, one that provides a framework for understanding. To aid my comprehension, whenever I read a book I take notes on it, including bibliographic details, a summary of the contents and specific points (with page and paragraph numbers) that are relevant to my interests. Sometimes the notes are just half a page; sometimes they are many pages long.

Going through my files recently, I came across my notes about a book by Paul Rogers titled Losing Control: Global Security in the Twenty-first Century. Published in 2000, I read the book two years later, and wrote in my notes that Rogers was remarkably prescient: his analysis seemed to have anticipated world events. In particular, between publication in 2000 and when I read the book, there were the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001.

Looking at my notes in 2020, I was again impressed with Rogers’ assessments. Losing Control was a useful guide to understanding world affairs. I decided to read the book again, in the process discovering that there had been a second edition in 2002 and a third in 2010. Conveniently, these new editions were the original book with supplementary chapters.

Nuclear war-fighting

Losing Control starts off with a detailed analysis of nuclear politics during the Cold War. This may now seem irrelevant given that the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 as did concern about nuclear war. Actually, though, it is a useful reminder that, for several decades, that the world was worryingly close to devastation. Furthermore, Rogers goes on to point out that, contrary to the impression you might get from the news, the threat of nuclear war has not disappeared. Governments have been “modernising” their arsenals, namely making them more effective.

Rogers says that the major nuclear weapons states — US, Russia, UK, China, France, Israel, India and Pakistan — have no intention of ever relinquishing their arsenals. Instead, hypocritically, political leaders roar with indignation should some other state seek to acquire nuclear weapons. Just think of the attention given to the possibility of Iraqi, North Korean and Iranian weapons.

During the Cold War, the standard theory concerning nuclear weapons was that they served as a deterrent against attack: US and Soviet nuclear forces, by being poised to destroy each other’s population centres, discouraged initiating an attack. This was called mutually assured destruction. However, unbeknownst to most members of the public, both sides had strategic plans and targeting policies that were based on war-fighting: they hoped to be able to destroy their opponent’s communication and weapons systems in a first strike, thus winning a nuclear war.

            Back in the 1980s, I studied the effects of nuclear war and read about plans for nuclear war-fighting. The information was available but not widely known, with the result that most people did not appreciate how dangerous the so-called strategic balance was in those years. Rogers, in recounting these matters, provides a corrective to mistaken ideas about past and present nuclear threats.

Three drivers

Rogers argued that international conflict over the next two or three decades would be driven by three factors. The first is economic inequality, which is exacerbated by neoliberal economic policies. Inequality is a source of tension: some of the have-nots may want to challenge the dominant order violently; others may seek to migrate to more prosperous regions, triggering tensions over immigration.

            The second factor is environmental constraints. The massive expansion of human activity puts strain on land, water and the air. Resources, especially oil, become bones of contention. The wars in the Persian Gulf are partly resource-related. Rogers was initially writing in 2000, after the first Gulf war in 1991 but before the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Today the most obvious environmental constraint is climate change. Already in 2000 Rogers identified this as a crucial factor in international conflict. Affluent industrialised countries have generated the most greenhouse gases, yet they want to keep consuming despite the looming dangers. It is at this point that environmental constraints interact with economic inequality.

            The third factor is the commitment by dominant powers to address these issues by attempting to maintain the status quo, if necessary by force. Instead of addressing inequality and environmental constraints, Western governments have tried to subdue challengers, especially those that use force themselves. The context is that groups with relatively little resources and technological expertise have the capacity to wreak havoc in rich developed societies. Putting this another way, industrial societies have developed in ways that make them vulnerable to attack.

Security paradigms

Rogers describes two security paradigms, namely assumptions and ways of thinking that guide action. The first paradigm, which he dubs “old,” is based on attempting to maintain control. This is called “liddism”: the dominant powers attempt to keep a lid on the discontent stimulated by continuing economic inequality and escalating environmental impacts. Rogers’ second paradigm is quite different. Instead of trying to maintain the status quo and keep a lid on discontent, this alternative “new” paradigm involves addressing the roots of conflict: inequality, environmental impacts and military deployments to maintain them.

Rogers gave considerable attention to the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center. A truck filled with explosives was driven into an underground parking station and detonated. However, the plotters had not positioned the location quite right to achieve their goal of bringing down the tower. If they had succeeded, 30,000 people might have been killed. Concerning this possibility, Rogers rhetorically asked “… would it have resulted in any rethinking of security? Probably not. A more likely result would have been a massive and violent military reaction against any groups anywhere in the Middle East that were thought to have had even the slightest connection with the attack.” (p. 118)

Damage from the 1993 World Trade Center bombing

            How’s that for a prediction made in the year 2000? We now know that this is the security trajectory followed after 9/11. There was a declaration of a “war on terror” with no possibility of peace envisioned, the invasion of Afghanistan, the invasion of Iraq, a continuation of neoliberalism and economic inequality and a slow and tepid response to climate change. In contrast, the new-paradigm response to 9/11 would have been to treat the attacks as a criminal matter. It didn’t happen.

The 1993 attack highlighted the interaction of the three factors that Rogers identified. Resource factors, namely the location of cheap and abundant oil in the Gulf region, led to US military involvement in the Gulf, including troops stationed in Saudi Arabia. The quest for control over energy supplies aggravated the perception of inequality, with Western affluent countries seeking control. The attack did not lead to any change in ways of thinking about security.

Learning from Rogers

There is a lot to learn from Losing Control. It contains all sorts of information about international security, from nuclear arsenals to political grievances to neoliberalism. The information is presented in a coherent way, enabling an appreciation of trends and impacts.

Paul Rogers

            More important than the information is the framework that Rogers developed to understand the driving forces underlying the security environment: economic inequality, environmental constraints (especially Gulf oil politics and climate change) and the old security paradigm of trying to maintain control. Grasping these three factors and their interactions provides a remarkably powerful way of understanding geopolitical developments.

Reading and digesting Losing Control offers a way of making sense of the crush of current affairs. You could spend years watching or reading current affairs in the news and still have less idea of what it all means than by spending a few hours reading this book. Alternatively, if you prefer shorter treatments, Rogers writes a regular column for openDemocracy.

This speaks to a more general issue. By acquiring an understanding of patterns and driving forces, it’s possible to make sense of the world far more efficiently and accurately than by taking in one event after another. If you can find the right book or article, one that cuts to the core, you can know far more with far less time and effort.

To find works like Losing Control isn’t easy. If you want to acquire powerful conceptual tools for making sense of the world, the initial challenge is to find lucid, insightful expositions. This can take a bit of effort. Then it’s a matter of spending some time reading history, politics, psychology or whatever fascinates you and of keeping doing this despite the temptations to read the latest headlines and social media commentary.


How’s this for a prediction made in 2010, in the third edition of Losing Control, before the emergence of Islamic State?

 “Even if US troops are largely in barracks, they can still be readily represented by al-Qaida propagandists and others as ‘ghost’ occupiers of a major Islamic state. Given the decades-long timescale of the al-Qaida movement’s aims, and the potentially decades-long significance of Persian Gulf oil, the value of Iraq to the al-Qaida movement may be far from over.” (p. 168)

There may be a fourth edition in 2021. Stay tuned.

Brian Martin