This is something I’ve been stewing over for a long time, so I though I’d share it with you guys to get your thoughts on it.
At its core, what is a World War? The obvious definition is that it’s a war which encompasses the entire world in combat under the banner of a single conflict or one or two related conflicts. But in light of WWI and WWII, I think that definition is too simple. I think a World War is better defined as a. a global conflict which occurs because of the existence of empire and, b. the conflicts which arise from that distribution of power.
World Wars I and II were, at their core, about who was allowed to be, or have an empire, and about the quest for empire. It was the existence of empire which allowed these conflicts to become truly global in scale.
The end of World War II ushered in a massive period of decolonization throughout East Asia, the Near East, and Africa, the rise of Communism in Eastern Europe, and the creation of the Communist Bloc.
As time went on, the influence of the Communist Bloc spread from Eastern Europe to places such as East Asia and Cuba. And with that spread of influence came the defensive spread of influence by Western, democratic powers, and the fighting of proxy wars over which political form would win out. This is now called the Cold War.
So even though what we think of as “empire” technically ceased to exist after WWII, I would definitely count Soviet Union and the surrounding Eastern European polities as an empire and the Cold Was as a conflict over whether or not that empire would be allowed to continue.
At the end of the Cold War, we entered into a truly post-colonial/post-imperial global society. Imperialism still exists, of course, but I tend to categorize modern Imperialism as more cultural and economic in nature than physical. It could be argued that “The West*,” international bodies such as NATO, the UN, and the EU etc count as imperial bodies and actively participate in the spread of imperialism, but honestly, the existence of those bodies is far too recent in historical terms for me to really be able to assess their impact on the current global environment.
This brings me to the point of all this. Ever since the end of World War II, people have been talking about World War III; when it will happen, why it will happen, and which powers/ideological forces it will happen between. My opinion is that, because, we are in a post-imperial society, World War III is not going to happen, and if it was going to happen, it would have happened during the Cold War. Additionally, WWI, WWII, and the Cold War could all be seen as stages of the same exact conflict. And because I think that particular conflict is over for the reasons described above, it would be incorrect to label any global conflict which may develop in the future as a World War, even if it is technically a war which encompasses the entire world.
However, it is true that much of the world is still embroiled in conflict. The distinction between those conflicts—even the ones which could be defined as proxy wars— and the ones which occurred in the great conflict of 1914-1989 is that our current conflicts are a result of imperialism, and not because of imperialism
I have seen it argued that Radical Islam vs. Western ideology is the new Cold War. I disagree of that argument because, although Radical Islam as a philosophy which holds a lot of power in our current global society, it is not organized in the way the Communist Bloc was organized. Perhaps that will change in the future; I don’t know. I think the entire world is in a massive transitional state right now, and it is likely that it will remain that way for the majority of my—and probably your—lifetime.
So even if another war which spans the globe breaks out in the future, I think it would be inaccurate, perhaps even anachronistic, to label it as a World War because that conflict is over.
This post isn’t strictly historical, I know, and it is highly theoretical, and I hardly think that history can be used to predict the future or that history repeats itself (that’s another post), but I think we can use history to make important distinctions between the nature of various conflicts.
Umm. I think I just wrote you guys a history paper instead of a blog post? Story of my life.
*I use quotes here because I don’t like the term in question. How does one even define The West? Nowadays I think definition of what the West is has spread to nations which are not in the Western hemisphere and it’s just messy. However, I use it for the sake of convenience.