War is about power. It may be dressed up in a variety of clothing, but at the end of the day, men (it’s almost always men) argue about “Qui es muy macho?,” push comes to shove, and people die.
As the shape of power has shifted over the centuries, the rationalizations and recruitment theories (you always need to get a bunch of guys to fight with you) have shifted as well. Charisma can be important (see the St. Crispin’s Day speech in Shakespeare’s Henry V), sometimes money is the motivator, sometimes revenge (usually just deterrence to promote longer-term security…i.e. power). In feudal structures (applicable globally) hierarchical power and personal connections were activated to preserve social order (which usually meant keeping the elites in charge).
In the modern era (which arrived at different times for different countries), democracy (i.e., “power to the people”) and nationalism have been the critical and interlinked rationales.
The 20C was nominally marked by a nominal focus on fairly coherent ideology/belief systems. Some have argued that the set of three wars (WWI, WWII, Cold War) which dominated that era were really just three acts in a single tripartite drama between Communism, Fascism, and Liberal Democracy. (btw, we won). This ideological focus which characterized the epistemology of the 20C and therefore colored how we (Greatest Generation, Boomers, Gen X) think is emblematic of modernity and the conceit that we are motivated by rational ideals. It all made sense at the time, but from a larger perspective, ideological frameworks for war were superficial and an anomaly.
At the end of the Cold War, President Bush (41) proclaimed a “new world order.” Francis Fukuyama announced the “end of history.” It seemed that the triumph of the West was virtually complete. But we have been trapped in old ways of thinking. I’ve been doing research about the end of the British Empire in the mid-20C and their blindness to the changes in the world is quite remarkable. Sixty to eighty years later, the Brits still haven’t figured it out. Now that it’s our turn, it doesn’t look like we’re any more mentally deft.
We missed two key things: First, there were lots of folks who didn’t like Western liberal modernity and wanted to go backwards, and second, there were lots of folks who didn’t like Western liberal modernity and wanted to go in different directions. In the first group, radical Islam generated what we call terrorism to try to stop the process and many warlords/dictators were more interested in pre-modern luxury than in individual rights and democratic/economic development. In the second group, China got sufficiently modern to be competitive (i.e., to amass enough power to get everyone to pay attention to them) and has announced that they have a different vision of the future. We will see if India can muster either the strength or the vision to do something similar.
However, there’s an interesting argument, backed up by some “on-the-ground” research, that most terrorists (e.g. the IRA, or the German Baader-Meinhof Gang in 20C Europe, nor most flavors of radical Islamic terrorist groups (e.g. ISIS or al-Queda) are actually not about ideology. Instead, they may be more driven by the camaraderie of shared effort, as well as notoriety. Their aims are nominal. Even if there was a substantive kernel of an idea, its lost on most of the members of such organizations. In other words, they’re hard to defeat and prevent, and certainly not “convincible.” Their mode of warfare, being asymmetric as well, doesn’t fit into the normal modes of military assessment.
Nor should we confuse a Chinese future with an ideology. There’s no real indication that they believe in anything other than preserving order (i.e. keeping the current “Communist” oligarchy in power). Nor is there any intellectual coherence behind Putin. And India (and Brazil and Indonesia) will certainly dress-up their geopolitical aspirations in ideological clothing, but there’s not likely much there either). [One could argue, of course, that much the same could be said of Western liberal capitalistic democracy (some of which I have touched on in previous postings). The dominance of markets and the devotion to the form of legal, individual rights can be seen as merely a device to preserve the power of our own elites. So, we shouldn’t get too smug ourselves.]
Much of this analytic framework is old hat for aficionados of the international relations theory called “realism” (or its variants). In this view, ideology is a tool for the preservation/expansion of power; it’s not a goal in itself. Henry Kissinger (who just turned 100) is the current exemplar of this tradition, which also claims, Bismarck and Louis XIV as adherents. Some (many) find this approach distasteful and cruel.
Still, it’s good to at least consider an understanding of the world in which “they” are not out to get “us” because of what we think, but because everyone want the others to be like them and sign up for the system in which they dominate the world. A “new world order” which is stable and settled is also one in which those currently without power stay without power. Putin couldn’t stand it; so he started a war. China can’t stand that Taiwan is trying to escape Beijing’s control by hiding under the skirts of the West. Kim Jong Il threatens war not for any ideology, but because he knows the minute size of the pond in which he is the biggest fish. Iran cozies up to Russia because “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” casually disregarding Russia’s Communist/atheistic past. Until WWII, the US didn’t like the way the world worked, consigning us to the fringes. Over time, our growth (and growing power) forced a change. Since then (the last 75 years), we picked up the torch from the European “Great Powers” and the world has been “our oyster.”
Ideology is just window-dressing on the cycles of geopolitics; and this cycle may be over.