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Is the Era of Imperial Global Powers Over?

With no new great power contenders on the horizon, it seems the imperial foreign policy of the 20th century is waning.

| Mon Mar. 3, 2014 4:22 PM EST

War: Missing in Action

Now, let's move on to an even more striking and largely unremarked upon characteristic of these years. If you take one country—or possibly two—out of the mix, war between states or between major powers and insurgencies has largely ceased to exist.

Admittedly, every rule has its exceptions and from full-scale colonial-style wars (Iraq, Afghanistan) to small-scale conflicts mainly involving drones or air power (Yemen, Somalia, Libya), the United States has seemingly made traditional war its own in the early years of this century. Nonetheless, the Iraq war ended ignominiously in 2011 and the Afghan War seems to be limping to something close to an end in a slow-motion withdrawal this year. In addition, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has just announced the Pentagon's intention to cut its boots-on-the-ground contingent significantly in the years to come, a sign that future conflicts are far less likely to involve full-scale invasions and occupations on the Eurasian land mass.

Possible exception number two: Israel launched a 34-day war against Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006 and a significant three-week military incursion into the Gaza Strip in 2008-2009 (though none of this added up to anything like the wars that country fought in the previous century).

Otherwise when it comes to war—that is, to sending armies across national boundaries or, in nineteenth-century style, to distant lands to conquer and "pacify"—we're left with almost nothing. It's true that the last war of the previous century between Ethiopia and neighboring Eritrea straggled six months into this one. There was as well the 2008 Russian incursion into Georgia (a straggler from the unraveling of the Soviet Union). Dubbed the "five-day war," it proved a minor affair (if you didn't happen to be Georgian).

There was also a dismal US-supported Ethiopian invasion of Somalia in 2006 (and a Kenyan invasion of that mess of a country but not exactly state in 2011). As for more traditional imperial-style wars, you can count them on one hand, possibly one finger: the 2013 French intervention in Mali (after a disastrous US/NATO air-powered intervention in Libya destabilized that neighboring country). France has also sent its troops elsewhere in Africa, most recently into the Central African Republic, but these were at best micro-versions of nineteenth century colonial wars. Turkey has from time to time struck across its border into Iraq as part of an internal conflict with its Kurdish population.

In Asia, other than rising tensions and a couple of ships almost bumping on the high seas, the closest you can get to war in this century was a minor border clash in April 2001 between India and Bangladesh.

Now, the above might look like a sizeable enough list until you consider the record for the second half of the twentieth century in Asia alone: The Korean War (1950-1953), a month-long border war between China and India in 1962, the French and American wars in Vietnam (1946-1975), the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in 1978; China's invasion of Vietnam in 1979; and Indian-Pakistani wars in 1965, 1971, and 1999. (The Bangladeshi war of independence in 1971 was essentially a civil war.) And that, of course, leaves out the carnage of the first 50 years of a century that began with a foreign intervention in the Boxer Rebellion in 1900 and the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 and ended with the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In fact, judged by almost any standard from just about any period in the previous two centuries, war is now missing in action, which is indeed something new under the sun.

Driving With the Lights Off

So an imperial era is on the wane, war in absentia, and no rising great power contenders on the horizon. Historically speaking, that's a remarkable scorecard in an otherwise appalling world.

Of course, the lack of old-style war hardly means no violence. In the 13 years of this new century, the scorecard on internal strife and civil war, often with external involvement, has been awful to behold: Yemen (with the involvement of the Saudis and the Americans), Syria (with the involvement of the Russians, the Saudis, the Qataris, the Iranians, Hezbollah, the Iraqis, the Turks, and the Americans), and so on. The record, including the Congo (numerous outside parties), South Sudan, Darfur, India (a Maoist insurgency), Nigeria (Islamic extremists), and so on, couldn't be grimmer.

Moreover, 13 years at the beginning of a century is a rather small sampling. Just think of 1914 and the great war that followed. Before the present Ukrainian crisis is over, for instance, Russian troops could again cross a border in force (as in 2008) along the still fraying edges of the former Soviet Union. It's also possible (though developments seem to be leading in quite a different direction) that either the Israelis or the Americans could still launch an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities, increasing the chaos and violence in the Middle East. Similarly, an incident in the edgy Pacific might trigger an unexpected conflict between Japan and China. (Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe recently compared this moment in Asia to the eve of World War I in Europe and his country and China to England and Germany.) And of course there are the "resource wars" expected on an increasingly devastated planet.

Still, for the moment no rising empire and no states fighting each other. So who knows? Maybe we are off the beaten path of history and in terra incognita. Perhaps this is a road we've never been down before, an actual new world order. If so, we're driving it with our headlights off, the wind whipping up, and the rain pouring down on a planet that may itself, in climate terms, be heading for uncharted territory.

Tom Engelhardt, a co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture, runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com. His latest book, co-authored with Nick Turse, is Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050.

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