The world history is dotted with wars that have shaped the social, political, and economic patterns of the entire world. At the dawn of the 21st century, many historians and analysts started arguing about the changing characteristics of war with regard to the nature of conflicts that are reported across the world. During the 9/11 attacks, the USA declared a new form of war dubbed War on Terror that was distinctively different from earlier wars. For instance, war on terror was supposed to be legitimate under the international laws although the Security Council of the United Nations did not approve it. Most of the earlier wars from the 15th century up to 9/11attacks had been seen as a heroic act of protecting national boundary of one country against the other. Equally, they had also been used to simply affirm one country’s superiority over the other with the view of dominating them politically or economically (Smith 2005, p. 20).
Whether contemporary war has changed its characteristics or not can be understood from the meaning of what constitutes a war or conflict. Among the central challenges facing international relations, there is a lack of a clear cut definition of war. For instance, the Second World War was much different from the First World War on many fronts while the Cold War also played in its own league different from its predecessors. It was characterized by threats to use nuclear weapons and economic sanctions (Strachan & Scheipers 2011, p.312). The collapse of one of the only two world superpowers in 1991 also changed the understanding of war and peace as the U.S. took upon itself to be policing the world. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, wars have become unclear with no precise end. Equally, there has been an increase in the use of army forces to reject the classical understanding of war. The contemporary wars are characterized by the decentralization of violence, globalized war economy, and the politics of identity. However, despite these characteristics, new wars still share one significant feature: most of them have their roots in Europe (Gray 2005, p. 11).
The perceptions of old wars are based on the assumptions drawn from the Westphalia and the thoughts of Carl von Clausewitz in the 17th century who argued that war was basically an inter-state conflict. Clausewitz based his concept on the Napoleonic Wars where the expression of force was the driving factor that defined them. Holmqvist-Jonsater and Coker (2009, p. 17) note that most wars at the time were founded on the need to conquer others through expression of force but on the identified substantive objective. As such, these wars did not recognize any international laws that could hinder or prevent the perpetrators from waging them. It is because they were expressing their power against a perceived enemy. Michael Howard viewed wars as normal historical phenomena of conducting disputes between groups that are opposing each other politically (Mueller 1989, p. 56).
In general terms, war is seen as a state activity. According to Hobbes, who lived in the 15th century, man was inherently pre-disposed to aggression and competition in a state of nature. Thus, he is only capable of escaping the spiral of violence by ceding power to a sovereign that practiced use of force on behalf of the public (Holmqvist-Jonsater & Coker 2009, p. 31). The emergence of decrees and orders was predicated on the monopolization of war by the state. The Hobbes theorization of wars was summed up by Michael Howard. He noted that the root of all celestial organizations was the desire to sanction the use of force. In contrast to Hobbes views, Rousseau argued that the ideal man was natural and peaceful and that men did not fight wars as individuals but members of the state. However, Hobbes and Rousseau agreed that the state’s monopolization of force was a characteristic that is defined by war. In the modern society, states have come about as a result of wars. Many states emerged in the 20th century through revolutions and resistance to occupation by other states. The U.S. itself come about as a result of rebellion against the British rule and was defined by civil wars in the most of the 19th century. The first civilized empire, the United Kingdom emerged from the wars between England on the one side and Ireland, Wales, and Scotland on the other.
Immanuel Kant in Perpetual Peace noted that the practical politicians were responsible for war as they sought self-satisfaction through empty ideas that were a direct threat to the existence of peace. In a six article piece, Kant argued that peace treaties were only valid where they did not leave room, however tacit for possible future wars. He reasoned that peace treaties should be founded on solid grounds that eliminate all possible causes of wars including the occupation of the state by another one regardless of its political, economic, or military power. According to Kant, a state comprised of men that could not be commanded by anyone else. Therefore, any attempt to subsume another state was a violation of the essence of nationhood (Strachan & Scheipers 2011, p. 30). In contemporary terms, the Israel occupation of the Palestinian land to which the Israel-Palestine conflict is based is a classical example of how peace treaties have failed to eliminate any possible causes of war according to Kant. Kant noted that when states are founded on republican principles, they were bound to be common rational principles. Such principles are inherent freedom, single legislated law, and equality of all people before that law. Thus, free people, according to Kant, were less likely to consent to war because of the associated costs and calamities (Rudmin2010, p. 1).
Of the six articles, Kant summarized his perception of war as emanating from false reasoning of corrupt constitutions and self-seeking politicians. The first principle is that states were pre-disposed to the tendency to seize every opportunity to usurp the right of the state over its own people thereby giving itself the conviction of legitimacy. States that also committed war crimes against other nations were more likely to deny their fault and blame it on the nature of man that without force, they produce a force themselves against the others (Rudmin 2010, p. 1). Lastly, states used weaker states to conquer those that seem to oppose them. This is evident in the contemporary wars such as the Crimean conflict where Russia is embroiled in a diplomatic conflict with Ukraine over the Crimea. The U.S. involvement in the conflict can be viewed at the extension of its desire to conquer the world by supporting Ukraine against Russia.
Bruce Russett observed in 1993 that contemporary international system consisted critical concentration of democratic states that contributed to the undermining of the realist principle that dominated the practice of war since the 17th century. According to Russett, realism on war could not withstand the political systems that have a great impact on the states that are involved in a war (Murdoch & Sandler 2002, p. 99). Michael Doyle noted that the spread of democracy was the only panacea for elimination of war around the world. Realists disagree with Doyle’s conclusion noting that the internal process and political structures that produced wars have no related role in shaping the international behaviour of states towards war or peace. Realists note that the democracy is not responsible for serious wars that have occurred in mature democracies historically. They also argue that wars between democracies have existed on a grander scale than is told by the democratic peace theorists since warring states can also be considered as democratic. Realists argue that given the large number of the possible causes of war, wars are a rare phenomenon in the human history (Raknerud & Hegre 1997, p. 390).
War has for a long time been understood in terms of state-to-state confrontation. However, with the emergence of terrorism, came the state-to-non-state actors’ confrontation (Smith2005, p. 29). At the beginning of the 21st century, war on terror, starting from the 9/11 attacks, has witnessed a growth in numbers. This is especially so with wars that are perpetrated on the international stage with no official state actors and more with independent terror groups. Groups such as Al Qaeda, Tamil Tigers, Janjaweed, Chechen rebels, among many other are designated as terror groups for political reasons. However, they could claim a nationalistic dimension with regard to their objectives and spatial context where they act.
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The emergence of such terror groups has re-defined what is generally understood as an international war, with countries like the U.S. and UK waging war against these groups in Afghanistan and Iraq. The changing characteristics of war thus imply a change in actors and their objectives as some of these groups connect religious and political issues in their struggle. In the past, wars were confined to the expression of religious, political, or economic power. It was difficult to find these issues intersecting (Murdoch & Sandler 2002, p. 99). However, in the post 9/11 period, wars are started based on many intersecting issues that make them not only complex but also difficult to conquer. The competition and aggression are thus aggravated not by a lack of democracy but a failure by some actors to recognize the rights of other groups or people. Due to the scarcity of democratic peace, modern wars are characterized by a multiplicity of issues that make it difficult to fulfil or attain all of them.
The modern wars have taken on new actors and new forms. The conventional norms about war have been that it costs treasure and blood. Thus, it prevented the understanding from a realist point of view. The understanding of the war in terms of its evil and concomitant suffering shapes the expectation that people have during the time of war. During the 17th and 18th century, 10 percent of people killed in wars were civilians while the rest were soldiers. However, this has been reversed in contemporary wars. The reversal has brought about various interventions put in place to prevent further wars (Murdoch & Sandler 2002, p. 97).
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In conclusion, contemporary wars are shaped by a number of factors including the rise of new non-state actors known as terror organizations. These wars are fought at the national level as these actors wage wars against their governments in a sovereign state. The United Nations developed a charter to define when a country can resort to war according to the international laws. A good example is the self-defence. However, even this provision is ambiguous in the sense that self-defence is relative as it means the country should wait for attacks to occur before resorting to war. Moreover, the upholding of this provision came to test during the war on terror in 2003 where despite the U.S. not having been attacked by Iraq, it resorted to war without the approval of the Security Council. It also failed to meet the minimum requirements in the UN charter. Most recently, states are not inclined to declaring wars. The rising cases of non-international wars or civil war is a phenomenon that also deters countries from declaring war against other states given that there seems to be more recognition and regard for national sovereignty.