As UN secretary general, it is António Guterres’s increasingly frequent duty to warn the major powers they are rushing towards catastrophe. On Friday, on the eve of the US-led airstrikes, it was the former Portuguese prime minister’s turn once again to raise the alarm at the latest of a series of deadlocked security council sessions on Syria.
“The cold war is back with a vengeance and a difference,” Guterres said. The difference is that it is no longer cold. American troops are already a grenade’s toss away from Russians and Iranians in Syria, and this weekend, missiles and planes from the US, UK and France flew at the Syrian regime.
“The mechanisms and safeguards that existed to prevent escalation in the past no longer seem to be present,” the secretary general said. It is debatable exactly when the world last found itself in such a perilous situation. Perhaps the 1983 missile standoff in Europe, when a Nato exercise, Able Archer, almost triggered a panicked nuclear launch by the Soviet Union.
The level of paranoia has not yet reached that pitch, but other aspects of the current crisis are arguably more dangerous. There is less communication between Washington and Moscow and there are no longer just two players in the game, but a jostling scrum of major powers in decline and middling powers on the rise. Pursuing national agendas on such a crowded battlefield without colliding with others is increasingly hard. The precise targeting of the Friday night airstrikes was all about avoiding such a potentially catastrophic collision. But US defence secretary James Mattis and his generals were reportedly under pressure from the White House to use the strikes as an opportunity to take a swipe at Iran.