Global capitalism will continue to expand in the 21st Century, and its center will increasingly shift from the West to Asia, but wars between the great capitalist powers is far less likely than an ongoing ‘clash of civilizations’ due to cultural and religious particularisms. There is no end in sight to the counterinsurgency and nation-building conflicts in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Middle East, which will probably drag on throughout the 21st Century or to Islamic terrorism. Cooperation between the capitalist and imperial powers will continue, despite certain periods of crisis, and even seems to have survived even the strains of the current recession. If they engage in military conflicts with each other, it will most likely be through proxy wars, such as Russia and China supporting Iran and Syria indirectly in their conflicts with the U.S. and the Western capitalist powers. These non-democratic powers have no interest in permitting the West to expand its influence and control over oil and other resources, but at the same time they are unlikely to support the Islamic terrorist movements.
After the end of the Cold War, the U.S. adopted an openly neo-Wilsonianism policy that called for the expansion of liberal democracy, capitalism and free trade across the globe. Of course, these were not exactly new policies for the U.S. but could be traced back to its pre-World War II interventions in Latin America and the Caribbean. In passing the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the World Trade Organization (WTO) and expanding NATO, Bill Clinton could claim that he was carrying out the Wilsonian project of globalizing liberal capitalism. Even both Bush presidents could at least attempt to make the same case as well in their various interventions in Panama, Haiti and the Middle East. NATO and the European Union continued to expand eastward, although Russia was displeased with this from the start and reacted sharply against it in Georgia and Ukraine. Perhaps the continued alliance among the liberal Western powers is best explained by capitalist self-interest and political and ideological affinity, rather than pure realism and concern with national security threats. Samuel Huntington took the realist position that nation-states remain the leading actors in world affairs, but also argued that cultures and civilizations were continuing to clash as they always had in the past. For example, the conflict between the Muslim, Western and Orthodox Christian civilizations in the Balkans and the Caucuses dates back centuries, long before liberal democratic governments existed anywhere in the world. This was also the case with conflicts between Muslims and Christians in West Africa or the Sudan.
Iran is one very likely flashpoint for a major war in this century, since politics, economics, ideology and control over Persian Gulf oil supplies are all in play, and the Russians and Chinese have always had an interest in limiting Western influence in this region while expanding their own. For the U.S. and other Western powers, oil supplies are the primary interest in this part of the world, and other than that they have no reason to be involved in the Middle East at all. As recent events have shown, nation-building wars designed to spread “democracy across the Persian Gulf” are not likely to be successful. Maintaining troops and bases there is counterproductive, while a policy of offshore balancing would best serve American interests, not nation building or democratization and gunpoint. Clumsy attempts at Muslim transformation by outsiders will only inspire many others like him to join the jihad against the West. No U.S. administration since 1979 has had any success in engaging the Iranian regime diplomatically, including Barack Obama, and the U.S. has had no formal diplomatic relations with the country since that time. In addition, the American public never forgot that the U.S. embassy was taken over in 1979 and its diplomats held hostage for over a year. From 1979 to the present, Iran has also been unwilling to “deal with the United States in an open manner”, mostly for ideological reasons. Because of the American sanctions and embargos over the last thirty years, which are clearly designed to destabilize the country or even cause it to disintegrate, “Iran lags far behind Turkey in terms of economic and industrial development” despite its oil revenue. Even so, Iran is continuing its efforts to acquire nuclear weapons, and if successful this would make Western military intervention far more difficult and dangerous.
In Afghanistan, Pakistan and other failed states in peripheral areas, terrorist wars and the clash of civilizations with the Western capitalist powers have already been ongoing for years and will likely continue throughout this century. Most suicide terrorists are “shadowy, hard-to-find creatures whose existence is rarely noticed until they strike”, such as Mohammad Atta, who was not even an Al Qaeda member until he visited Afghanistan. In the nation-building operation in Afghanistan, which shows no real sign of ending, very little has changed since 2001, including the corruption and drug dealing of the warlords, the poverty and despair of the common people or the lack of education and opportunities for women and children have really changed much in the last ten years. Just the opposite, the situation has probably grown even worse, except for the corrupt elites who regard this endless war as a lucrative business and source of profit. Ordinary Afghans have no real incentive to fight in this war for a corrupt government that is negligent of their needs and whose officials seem eager to escape the country with their ill-gotten gains once the foreigners are gone. In every way, the war and the entire nation-building exercise have been a complete waste and failure. Warlords, corrupt officials and well-paid foreign contractors and consultants still live in “sumptuous headquarters” while most of the common people are below subsistence level, hungry, poor and illiterate. (Stack 18). Several generations of children have grown up experiencing nothing but war, just like the adolescent mujahideen at Tora Bora, who did not even know their own ages, were poorly armed, fed and clothed, and lacked even the most basic medical care. They did not believe this was their war then nor do their successors believe it today.
Major military conflict between the capitalist Great Powers still appears to be the least likely outcome in the 21st Century. By the same token, intervention in the weaker states of the Global South by the liberal powers has been ongoing for two hundred years, and there has been no evidence that this has changed in the post-Cold War world. Just the opposite, if anything the interventions have been as blatant and imperialistic as any that that occurred in the 19th and early-20th Centuries, when empires openly seized control of supplies of rubber, tin, oil and other raw materials. This seems very unlikely to change in the future, even though some former colonial and peripheral states like China and Brazil might edge closer to actual admission into the Imperial Club in the years ahead. For this reason, there will be ongoing clashes of civilization, particularly in the resource-rich areas of Africa, Central Asia and the Middle East. In this context the most likely type of warfare will not be clashes between major powers, but counterinsurgency and nation-building wars against guerillas and terrorists in failed states like Afghanistan. Iran is a particularly likely flashpoint for a future war in the Middle East, for political, economic and ideological reasons, but in this case Russia and China will probably not fight the Western powers directly but continue to back Iran.
Brown, Michael. “The Flawed Logic of NATO Expansion.” Survival, Vol. 37, No. 1, 1995, pp. 34-49.
Hunter, S. Iran’s Foreign Policy in a Post-Soviet Era: Resisting the New International Order. ABC-CLIO, 2010.
Huntington, Samuel P. “The Clash of Civilizations?” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 37, No. 3. Summer 1993, pp. 22-49.
Pape, R. A. Dying to Win: the Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism. New York: Random House, 2005.
Stack, Megan K. Every Man in this Village is a Liar: An Education on War. Doubleday, 2010.