Skip to Content

Tomorrow's enemies

Gwynn Thomas argues that since the end of the Cold War, conventional war has become more likely.

Since the emergence of a recognisably modern Europe after the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648 international relations have been based on the political sovereignty of states in which war became the politically-motivated use of force by generally recognised authorities. Wars between dynastic states became wars between nation states. Wars of state formation and consolidation were replaced by wars of unification and of imperial conquest.

In an era of European global expansion built on the technological and military superiority of industrial capitalism, clashes also occurred between Europeans and the indigenous populations they conquered. For more than two hundred years wars between expanding European states were motivated by economic necessity driven by the need for access to markets, exploitable populations, and sources of raw materials. The growth of European (or "Western") influence was carried out with a sense of civilising mission and justified with ideas of racial superiority.

The carnage of the First World War called the whole project into question. For the next ninety years the existence of state systems and their international relations were debated largely in terms of ideology. They were interpreted as titanic struggles firstly "against fascism" while the Soviet Union built its own brand of state capitalism, and in the post-World War II period "against communism". The European withdrawals from direct rule over former colonial territory in the face of indigenous nationalist movements after 1945 were interpreted ideologically as wars of "national liberation".

The centrally planned economy version of capitalism eventually succumbed to its more efficient liberal free-market variety. The implosion of the Soviet Union was greeted with joy among the NATO allies and we were promised a golden age in which to spend the "peace dividend." Spending on armaments by the major powers actually declined. However the euphoria was soon dissipated and the world was confronted with wars of disintegrating states, and continuing wars in the not quite and the not yet states.

It has become increasingly difficult for politicians and others to explain these conflicts as having anything to do with high ideals such as defending democracy. Increasingly the more perceptive observers and commentators are labelling the "small wars" of Africa and Asia as "wars of oil and diamonds", and those of Latin America as "drug wars" characterising them as piratical acts carried out in states incapable of enforcing the rule of a centralised authority. Even so-called "peaceful" Europe had its own backyard war in the Balkans as tensions previously held in check by Cold War priorities erupted into bloody armed conflict.

End of History?

Two influential interpretations of what is happening in the post-post-cold war world have appeared since 1989. They attempt to set the boundaries within which political debate takes place and try to avoid political questions some might find upsetting regarding the true nature of present-day society.

Commenting in 1989 on the end of the Cold War Francis Fukuyama, a policy planner in the US State Department, identified a feeling abroad "that something very fundamental has happened in world history." He characterised this as "the Triumph of the West", a situation in which economic and political liberalism having first seen off Absolutism and Fascism had finally seen the end of Marxism-Leninism. The Soviet Union was disintegrating and this demonstrated "The total exhaustion of viable systematic alternatives to Western liberalism." It was, he said, "the end of history as such" (Francis Fukuyama: 'The End of History?' The National Interest. Summer 1989 pages 3–18).

Oh sure, stuff would still actually happen but what had been reached was the endpoint in mankind's ideological evolution. The ideals of the French and American Revolutions had triumphed, their theoretical truth "is absolute and cannot be improved on." The failure of "Marxism" he said was in large part a "failure to understand that the roots of economic behaviour lie in the realm of consciousness and culture." Consciousness he said "is cause and not effect" and went on to argue for the "autonomous power" of ideas. For Fukuyama it is ideas and not interests which drive historic change, which seems to imply that we have had capitalism simply because some thought it a good idea.

Further he argued that "the class issue has actually been successfully resolved in the West" and that the roots of present inequalities are not to be found in the legal and social structures of society which are fundamentally egalitarian and moderately redistributive. The problem is not the form of society as "with the cultural and social characteristics of the groups that make it up." These groups are themselves a legacy from the pre-modern period. This, it will be noted, is a classic piece of blame the victim excuse-making which makes the poor responsible for their poverty. It is a popular view in some circles as it fits in well with the prevailing capitalist apologetics. It represents the triumph of individualism over collective action.

And where the West had led the world would follow. Fukuyama pointed to post-1945 Japan's transition from fascism and government intervention to being a political and economic beacon of light fostering free enterprise economic liberalism in Asia, and in particular to China. He could identify no serious challenges from e.g. nationalism or religious fundamentalism, Western consumerism and the human need to be valued as an individual were too powerful to be resisted anywhere for long. True, the Third World was still mired in history and will in his view be "a terrain of conflict for many years to come." In addition the Soviet Union was not likely to join the developed nations of the West as open societies "at any time in the foreseeable future."

This was of course written prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall but reading it now one is reminded of the Astronomer Royal who said in 1957 that manned space flight was "impossible", and we wonder if the State Department now thinks they were getting their money's worth.

The problem with this approach is that it is mistaken as to what constitutes history and historical agency, as to what that brings about major historical change. For Fukuyama it is economic and scientific developments and their culmination in the fulfilling of an abstract idea of "human freedom".

Absent from his account is the collective political action by human beings in pursuit of their interests. By his account human actors on the stage of history are expected to accept their allotted roles. The contradiction between production which is collective and ownership which is private is ignored. The consequent class domination and exploitation seem not to enter the picture. And what happens when capitalism continues to fail to meet real human needs? For all its prodigious productive capacity capitalism only produces what can be sold at a profit leaving the many hundreds, if not thousands of millions in varying degrees of poverty and insecurity. Surrounded by a plethora of consumer goods many in "the West" appear to suffer what the American poet Randal Jarell called "A sad heart in the Supermarket."

Clash of civilisations?

With the supposed "death of ideology" and the emergence of a post-modern world a new rationale for arms spending and a new bogeyman had to be found. One was not long in coming. A heavyweight journal, read mainly by academics and policy makers, published an article outlining the thoughts Harvard Professor Samuel P. Huntington on the matter. ('The Clash of Civilisations?' Foreign Affairs Summer 1993).

The collapse of the former Soviet Union and the emergence of a multi-polar world dominated by the USA as the only superpower was not in his view the end of history but rather it heralded a return to traditional rivalries. The divisions of the post-cold war world will, he said, be cultural ones between civilisations. He identified eight or so based mainly on religious systems of thought. Clashes between nations will be replaced by clashes between nations and groups of different civilisations. Civilisations have as their most important determining characteristic not history, language, tradition or culture but religion. Except for micro-level clashes over the control of adjacent territory the clashes of civilisations will not be concerned with the protection and promotion of vital interests so much as with the advancement of particular political and religious values.

But even here he is inconsistent. Among "civilisations" are four non-religious classifications: "Western" (by which he seems to mean Northwest European Protestant, and possibly Catholic, and their North American and Old Commonwealth descendants) "Latin American" (also mainly Christian but with an admixture of African and indigenous peoples), "Japanese" and "possibly African". Another oddity is his hiving off of one group of Christians, the "Slavic-Orthodox" (possibly because they are for him not "real" Christians, and possibly because of their "ethnic" roots they are not "really" Europeans either?). On the other hand he seems willing to lump together all of those of the Islamic faith Arabs, Africans, and Indonesians alike while ignoring the important divide between Sunnis and Shiites. And he ignores the major clashes both between and within Islamic states (Iraq against Iran as an example of the first and the breakaway of East Pakistan to form Bangladesh an example of the second).

Civilisations have, he says, existed for far longer than nation states as organising principles. As economic modernisation and social change erode long-standing local identities, civilisations are left as the largest possible identifying principle. They will replace ideologies such as liberalism, free enterprise, fascism, communism etc. as belief systems around which alliances can be formed and enemies identified and demonised. Conflicts will in future occur "along the cultural fault lines" separating the world's eight or so civilisations from one another and will become the dominant form of conflicts in the world with the ever present danger of escalation to a global level.

Huntington's analysis does not of course explain the many wars started within his proposed "civilisations"—those of Christian Europe or Confucian China for example—nor those regions where different civilisations co-exist relatively amicably for long periods.

For those of us too dim to see exactly where he is going, he identifies Islam as the new (old) enemy as a continuation of the "centuries-old military interaction between the West and Islam [which] is unlikely to decline. It could become more virulent." Ignoring the British conquest of part of South Asia (partly Muslim and partly Hindu), its occupation with France of areas of the Middle East and North Africa (almost entirely Muslim in faith), and the Dutch empire in Indonesia (also largely Muslim), Huntington has the gall to warn his readers that "Islam has bloody borders."

He gives as an example the war in the Balkans which followed the break-up of the former Yugoslavia. This area occupied the supposed "fault line" between the (Christian) Habsburg Empire and the (Muslim and Orthodox) Ottoman Empire. (Remember that for Huntington the Greek Orthodox is not "really" Christian.) But while the wars of Yugoslav succession were fought between and by people who happened to identify themselves as Orthodox or Catholic or Muslim or "Communist", that is not why Yugoslavia broke up. This conflict had powerful economic motives and arose over the division of incomes and revenues between provinces having differing degrees of economic development.

Historically the proclaimed identities of the Balkan contestants were worked out by academics and intellectuals and in the main imposed on the populations by nationalists. These identities were subsequently manipulated by political elites when it suited their agendas. Bosnia fell victim to a land grab by two other Yugoslav provinces which prompted the intervention by NATO forces to "restore peace". Turkey, a member of NATO, and the only one with a common border with the former Soviet Union against whom NATO was formed, while nominally a secular state, has a population the majority of whom identify themselves as Muslim.

What then is Huntington's agenda?

Huntington puts forward what he calls his "plausible hypothesis" warning that the economic and military strength of the "non-western" civilisations will increase relative to that of "the West". This new situation "will require the West to maintain the economic and military power necessary to protect its interests in relation to these civilisations" [emphasis added]. It will not go unnoticed that this thesis fits perfectly with the need to re-demonise the populations of the Middle East for example as Arab, Iranian, Islamic and "other". What it does is provide a "respectable" theoretical justification for the continuation of the warfare state that can be repeated ad nauseum in the popular media.

Huntingdon's thesis can be shown to be flawed on a number of other grounds, the chief of which is that for at least the past two centuries the modern world has been organised around the exploitation of wage labour. No matter what the political, religious, or ideological label reads the principal economic drive has been the production of wealth for sale on the market in the hope of profit. Capitalism is now by far the dominant mode of wealth production throughout the globe. It is the needs of capitalist economies that drive a state's foreign policy as its relations with other capitalist states.

Conflict over access to and control of vital resources by competing nations have for the past one hundred years been rendered respectable by the cloak of capitalist ideology. They are no longer capable of being so masked. And as Margaret Thatcher observed, the end of the Cold War and the subsequent reduction of the threat of nuclear conflagration between the two super-powers has made the world much safer for conventional warfare as a tool of international relations.