The present world says the 19th and 20th centuries are dead and buried, but its antagonisms belie the illusion of pacifying trans-national modernity. Between 1914 and 1945, conflicts arose out of a competition for a region or for colonies. That process was still at work when the US and the USSR fought each other by proxy. The same cannot be said of the repeated bloodshed in (and around) Palestine, of the India-Pakistan feud, of the fighting in the Balkans, of the series of wars in Africa... which were born out of endeavours to grab a territorial slice, initiated by "ethnic" and/or religious identity, in any case by a group that claims a territory as its own. The aim is not so much to invade one's neighbour to get the upper hand, but to gather a space of one's own and to entrench oneself in it. In the past, imperialism (small or big) opened up to the exterior to conquer it. The objective is now to lock oneself in. We won't dispute here the validity of the theses that say the era of the formation of nation-States was over in 1914 or in the 1970s, but a striking feature of the present situation is prenational movements operating on a smaller and smaller scale. Germany is the only nation that has
recently achieved its unity. Kosovo and (Iraqi) Kurdistan get a semblance of existence not by integration, but by separation.
In 1914 as in 1939 and after 1945, there were rival imperialist forces, with domination plans for at least a continent or a whole region, like Japan vying with Britain and the US for the Pacific. Now only the US has the means to act on a world scale, but without a project adequate to its overpower,- and there lies the contemporary geopolitical predicament.
The deep cause of a war is exceptionally also the event that triggers it off. Armed conflict often occurs in spite of or against a large part of the wealthy, who (rightly) fear that war will result in their losing money and power. War happens when the political structure, born out of social structures but autonomous from them, goes into armed conflict with other States because it hopes to defend or promote its own interests as central power.
War is not inevitable because it would be necessary to destroy in order to rebuild: otherwise, it would be enough to remake all buildings and roads every three years. If violence remains "the midwife" of historical change, it's because it shakes or shatters structures and habits. The New Deal created the framework that helped the US become the world arsenal of democracy in 1939-45, but the New Deal only finally proved its worth on the ruins of World War II. Keynes wrote The End of laisser faire in 1926, yet it took fifty million dead to force the planet into a reorganisation of trade and currencies.
Nothing prevents democracies from going to war against each other. In the 17th century, Britain fought the Netherlands which for a while came close to being the first European power. Later Britain confronted the US at the beginning of the 19th century. Islamists were not the first to wreak havoc upon a US metropolis: in 1814, His Majesty's soldiers destroyed the Capitol and the White House, after US invaders had set fire to the Parliament of York (then Canada's capital) the previous year.
Thirty or forty years ago, one could reasonably regard the risk of a direct US-USSR confrontation as minimal, and think that the political rebirth of rivals like Germany and Japan (until then, political dwarfs) would eventually reopen the possibility of major imperialist conflicts. The analysis was right, except it did not expect the implosion of the Eastern bloc (and German reunification) would come so soon, nor did it foresee the ascent of Asia. In 1995, documented surveys of globalisation merely included China in the "Asia" group, and were still more interested in South Korean and Taiwanese growth.
Europe and then the US have only dominated the world for about five centuries. Economists reckon that a thousand years ago, 2/3 of world production came from Asia, compared to 1/10 from Europe and 1/10 from Africa (and in 1700, 1/4 from China). Figures don't have the same meaning in 1000 and in an internationalised economy where the US and Europe each account for 1/3 of world output. The rise of Asia already modifies the balance of power.
The US now faces the risk of losing against what is no longer a Third World the social war they formerly won against the USSR and its satellites. The US, European and Japanese bourgeoisies were all too happy to find cheap labour in Asia. Now India and China are disrupting the globalisation pattern set by what were (and still are) the strongest capitalist countries. Asian multinationals have begun to buy chunks of big Western companies, and now penetrate the finance and banking sector. No sharing of the world is for ever: in 1850, few envisaged the advent of the US and Germany as first rank powers. And no great power, and even less so a dominating one, ever voluntarily (or peacefully) leaves the world stage: it does its best to delay its downfall, at the price of more convulsions, as Britain tried to do until the mid-1950s.
The interruption of the first globalisation coincided with a world war of then unheard-of proportions, the instability of the 1920s, fascism, Stalinism, and an even more devastating second
world war. The pre-1914 globalisation was broken up by the conjunction of the crisis of three continental empires, of nationalities that were intermingled without being able to coexist: this uncontrolled collision between modernity and archaism created a thirty year "European Civil War". Surely the past never repeats itself. Yet, if the internationalisation of capital did not bring forth a peaceful world a century ago, today's "strategic partnerships" won't do any better. War is never the direct effect of economic competition. Neither millions of draftees in 1914-18 and 1939-45, nor the now smaller numbers of professionals go to war to restore a profit rate, to grab natural resources or to conquer markets. But competition is always carried on in some way or other in the political sphere and on the battlefield.
Behind the smokescreen of the "War on Terror", new (i.e. old !) plays are being staged. Al-Qaida won't threaten US (or Russian, or Chinese...) power. "9/11", to use current newspeak, merely broke down the imagery of a post-Berlin Wall or post-USSR self-pacifying planet. The multi-polar world often wished for by European bourgeois is a surer road to war than the one-sided US hegemony they deplore.
What's back on the historical stage differs from the Cold War (however hot it was in terms of casualties) and from post-colonial conflicts kindled by the US-USSR rivalry: it's the prospect of war between large and medium powers, with the possibility of some level of nuclear strike. The exacerbated competition between ageing but still strong countries and ascending but unstable rivals gets us nearer to military confrontations. It's because China is about to be a big power while becoming socially unstable, that the risk of war is growing. As usual, the organisation of productive and institutional structures portends the organisation of destruction on a large scale. When well-wishers call for continental domestic markets, they pave the way for huge economic-political units, some of which will one day turn into blocs that will try and solve their internal and external contradictions by unleashing the potential violence contained in their industrial potentials.