Conflict in the 21st Century

Author: Gary Hart

Urban warriorFor about 300 or 350 years most conflicts in the world, or at least the major ones, were between and among nation-states, that is one country fighting another or several fighting each other.  More often than not these conflicts were about boundaries, territory, aggrieved minorities, religious or ethnic friction, or simply raw power.

Conventional nation-state wars evolved into large armies wearing national uniforms, employing ever more sophisticated large weapons, often meeting in decisive battles in more or less open fields.  These conflicts created their own rules embodied in international law and Geneva conventions.

Beginning sometime in the post-World War II time of colonial disintegration, so-called wars of national liberation sprang up, one country trying to rid itself of an occupying power.  This produced guerilla tactics—non-uniformed, indigenous forces using light weapons, hit-and-run methods, and often hitting civilian targets.  These kinds of conflicts proliferated when the bi-polar lid of the Cold War was lifted.  We experienced this unconventional warfare in Vietnam as the Soviets did (and now the U.S. does) in Afghanistan.

Largely under the threat of weapons of mass destruction, nation-state wars are declining.  But irregular, unconventional conflicts are expanding.  History may record its inaugural date as September 11, 2001, but its roots are at least a half-century older.

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5 Responses to “Conflict in the 21st Century”

  1. Michael Carmichael Says:

    Thanks to Gary Hart for providing an encapsulation of the rapidly transforming techniques of warfare. Let us not forget that large scale terrorism of civilian populations was introduced by nation states – a horrific practice that began long ago, but accumulated momentum in WWI & WWII – reaching a critical mass in the introduction of blitzkrieg, the Blitz of London via V1 and V2 rockets, Allied bombardment of European cities and culminating in the most devastating criminal acts in the history of war – Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I hope to read more from Gary Hart about his vision of the future of the US military – an institution that now appears to be riddled with archaic and arcane methodologies in an age where it is rapidly becoming little more than an a costly and accident prone anachronism.

  2. C. Kasey Kitterman Says:

    I don’t know if the end(?) of the Cold War ushered in the terrorist attacks. Middle Eastern despots and Clerics, feeding self serving lies to a depressed and oppressed citizenry, would seem at least partly to blame. Wasn’t it in 1973 that the Fatwah was issued against the West? The difference between “light weapons” vs. Nation State weapons, seems moot, given todays reality. Weapons of mass destruction in the hands of terrorists, require a deterrent response, if indeed one exists. I postulate we got to this point by following a reactive posture to our Nation State competitors. I am not so sure that works with zealots and fanatics. Our future may be to suffer the pay back, for ignoring problems in the past. There does not seem to be time enough, to change course.

  3. Virgilio Perez Pascoe Says:


    The connections between power struggles within a nation-state and the balance of power relations inter nation-states has never been that hermetic, have they?

    The traditional century of balance of power international relations (from the Congress of Vienna to World-War I)was still subject to internal configurations (Napoleon’s demise, the rise of Victorian England, the American Civil War, the Russo-Japanese war affecting both Russia and Japan).

    Also, Collective Security didn’t work ’cause of lack of stability among the powers.
    Rather than general equilibrium we are looking at local, temporary equilibrium conditions. Not us and them, but one us against another us. How to operationalize, this–that is the question!

  4. DavidByron Says:

    What evidence is there for the statements made in this piece? It seems clearly false without the expression, “or at least the major ones”. I suppose you could just imagine only counting “big wars” like WW2 or WW1….

    But what about the American Civil War? That was the largest conflict in history at the time and it was not between nation states.

    Then again how about the Napoleonic wars? Again they were the largest conflicts in history to that date and although England and France were nation states, Italy and Germany were not. Any war fought across much of Italy or Germany — and there were many in the last 350 years — would also not be between nation states until Italy and Germany were unified.

    I am guessing only European wars count as, “or at least the major ones”. What about the Russian Revolution? Seems a fairly big war. What about the Boer War? The Indian Mutiny? The French and Indian War?

    Do you have any quantitative evidence for the statements you’ve made?

  5. Gary Hart Says:

    These are all serious and thoughtful comments of the sort I’d hoped this site would generate. To Mr. Byron I can only add to the Welcome plea not to raise the “I notice you didn’t mention…” another plea that brief blogs demand gross summary and do not permit detailed qualifications. I apologize for over generalization on the history of warfare. Your exceptions are noted. I should have said “predominately” or “generally” and will try to do so in the future. Nevertheless, the major point remains: nation-state wars are declining; unconventional war is increasing. And our military, at least until Afghanistand and Iraq, was configured for the former.

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