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2019 crises to watch

The future of war: Robert Malley on the three conflicts to watch this year

Which crises are most likely to intensify in 2019?

Last updated 
Chief Innovation Officer, International Rescue Committee
Director of Innovation Strategy, International Rescue Committee

At the start of 2019, the humanitarian caseload is more complex and challenging than ever. 68.5 million people are forcibly displaced worldwide. The ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan, Yemen, and Syria together produced close to 100,000 reported fatalities last year. The number of locations that experienced armed conflict increased by 11 percent, and the number of actors participating in conflict increased by 16 percent.

Which crises pose the biggest threats to international stability and civilian wellbeing in 2019? And what are the common trends and drivers underlying those crises?

Displaced is kicking off Season 2 with a series of episodes on the Future of War, beginning with a discussion of the top crises to watch in 2019. Robert Malley is the President and CEO of International Crisis Group (ICG), an independent organization dedicated to conflict prevention and response. On this episode of Displaced, he identifies ICG’s top three conflict priorities for 2019: Yemen, Afghanistan, and U.S.-Chinese tensions.

Yemen is the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, with 24 million people in need of assistance. Afghanistan, in turn, is the world’s deadliest conflict; by one count, Afghanistan saw more than 40,000 fatalities in 2018, almost as many fatalities as Syria and Yemen combined. The rivalry between the U.S. and China has not yet boiled over into armed conflict, but escalating tensions are likely to reverberate elsewhere—especially on the Korean Peninsula.

Photo: Kevin Abosch

For Malley, all three conflicts are the products of a “scramble for influence” as U.S. hegemony wanes and international institutions are increasingly seen as illegitimate. “We are witnessing a changing of the guard,” he says, in which the U.S. and other Western powers are no longer able to impose order upon the international system. In this “interim period,” when it’s not yet clear which countries will be the dominant players, state and non-state actors “are struggling to figure out and to define what the rules of the game are going to be and how they can get ahead.”

The old Western-led order was hardly peaceful: Malley cites the humanitarian catastrophes in Afghanistan, Vietnam, and Rwanda. But, he argues, “each epoch has a different kind of crisis”—and today’s crises “have stronger regional and local dimensions over which countries like the United States have less purchase.” As a result, we’re seeing more proxy wars in places like Yemen, Syria, and Afghanistan, where various state and non-state actors are attempting to advance their own interests.

“It's hard to see the international system stabilizing around an acceptable order, with accepted rules of the game, accepted institutions, accepted forms of accountability.”

The conversation explores the nature of U.S. retrenchment in the international sphere, how drones and other new technologies will shape future conflicts, and whether we can really blame Donald Trump for the decline of the liberal international order. Does the “changing of the guard” open up new opportunities for effective conflict prevention and mitigation? Malley discusses opportunities for regional actors in Europe and elsewhere to take on greater responsibility in maintaining international peace.

 Subscribe and listen to this episode on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify, Stitcher, Overcast, Pocket Casts, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Related Reading

10 Conflicts to Watch in 2019 -- International Crisis Group

The Top Ten Crises the World Should Be Watching for in 2019 -- International Rescue Committee

Global Conflict Tracker -- Council on Foreign Relations

Seizing the Moment: From Early Warning to Early Action -- International Crisis Group

Twenty-First Century Proxy Warfare: A Briefing Document -- Candace Rondeaux and David Sterman, New America

How the War in Yemen Became a Bloody Stalemate -- and the Worst Humanitarian Crisis in the World -- Robert F. Worth, New York Times

Need a Refresher on the War in Afghanistan? Here are the Basics -- Daniel Victor, New York Times

Is the U.S. in a New Cold War with China? How Much Worse Could Things Get? -- Robyn Dixon, Los Angeles Times

Opinions and views expressed by guests are their own and do not reflect those of the International Rescue Committee.