21st Century Conflicts: Has the turn of the century heralded a new kind of war?


On Tuesday 23rd January, Donald Trump cruised to victory in the New Hampshire primary, clearing the hurdle this election posed to his presidential dreams. With growing calls for his final rival, Nikki Haley, to drop out of the running, it seems pretty clear that this vote has all but assured him of the Republican nomination. Now, whatever your opinion of the man, I think it’s apparent that much of his proposed foreign policy cannot be described as anything other than radical; perhaps even ‘anarchically neoteric’ is an apt description. If he were to go on to win the Presidential race, Trump may, as he has often hinted at, remove the United States from NATO. His avowed isolationism would be initiated. It is not so unfathomable, therefore, to imagine a world in which Russia is thus freed to act upon Eastern Europe, or China upon Taiwan. In such a turbulent global political clime as we are now in, conflicts abound. So, have the voters of New Hampshire started us down a new road to nation state wars?

If he were to go on and win the Presidential race, Trump may, as he has often hinted at, remove the United States from NATO

The answer: maybe. It’s certainly possible that one man could shape the future of 21st century conflict, especially one such as Trump who has proven himself to be the exception to the rule with surprising frequency. And certainly, the nature of conflict since the turn of the century has shifted.

Wars of the 20th century were fought along far more overtly national lines: nation state versus nation state, like the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. Unsurprisingly, it is the First and Second World Wars which prevail in narratives of 20th century conflict, obvious examples of distinct confrontation between nation states. But with the increasing proliferation of media and greater competition for resources, toward the latter half of the century arose the increasing prevalence of proxy wars across the globe. The Korean War was one such conflict, with the US and its allies fighting against North Korean communism and its supporters.

‘Proxies’ have continued to be fought in this century, from the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen against militias supported by the UAE, to the proxy war between the US and Russia in Syria. In this sense, no hard line can be drawn between the two centuries of conflict. Unlike the 20th century though, the 21st century has been dominated by far more localised and civil conflict. An effect of the legacy of 19th (and 20th) century imperialism, these wars are driven by nationalists, irredentists and religious extremists coming to blows over disputed territories. Take Ukraine – however you consider Russia’s invasion, Ukraine was indisputably part of the USSR, and before that the Russian Empire. But by no means is this a justification for Russia’s invasion.

Unlike the 20th century though, the 21st century has been dominated by far more localised and civil conflict.

Following imperialism came the eventual withdrawal of imperial powers, leaving men wielding rulers and pens to draw on maps their falsely imposed boundaries. Examples of post colonial conflict, such as in Kashmir, abound because of the imposition of artificial borders. 21st century conflict is not only the legacy of centuries past, it is also in part unique. In my own lifetime I’ve seen the waging of an ideological war by Islamic State and, following the 9/11 attacks, George W Bush’s ‘War on Terror’. Clearly, more abstract forms of conflict have presented themselves this century, again beyond the nation state wars traditional in history. Even technological developments have aided less traditional methods of conflict this century: from drones used in bombing raids, to cyber warfare used by China and Russia. But it has been realised that despite technological developments, powers still need boots on the ground if they want said ground to be occupied; no drones can replace the actual presence of men – at least for the moment.

I suppose that, ultimately, there is no way of knowing for sure how or for what conflict will be waged. Changes are inevitable, but so is some continuity: wars have been and always will be fought over control. Resources such as water will be key but so will previously uncontested areas like the ocean or space. This will be especially true if Trump is successful: a return to conflict between nation states awaits us. In whatever form, war is central to history – it is inexorable.

Image: Ministry of Defense of Ukraine via Wikimedia Commons

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