Iranian-made drones operating at night. Picture Credit: Naeblys / Alamy Stock Photo
The Critic Essay

WW3 and the end of history

The age of world wars is past, the age of global civil war has come

A crumbling world order

Are we headed for WW3? As cruise missiles howl over the middle east it’s hard to escape the sense that large scale war feels more possible today than it has for decades. Russia has invaded a large European country, in a conflict that has turned into a full blown proxy war between NATO and Russia. This at the same time as China has become a substantial military and economic rival to America, especially in the Far East. Obama’s “pivot” to Asia has swiftly fallen victim to brute geopolitical fact — America cannot ignore a major threat in Europe, and can be compelled to fight a war on two fronts if China and Russia combine their efforts to form a Eurasian bloc, however pragmatic, self-serving and transitory the alliance. 

Even as Russia seeks to forcibly re-integrate former Soviet territory, China has its own revanchist ambitions in Taiwan. Neither power intends to stop there, and both have clear designs on becoming regional hegemons, as well as frustrating US influence further afield, with China especially spreading its power across Asia, Africa and Latin America. 

But the threats to American hegemony are not limited to great power competition. Israel has fast transitioned from a controversial but useful regional ally to a vast liability for the West. Perceived by foes as the last European colony in the Middle East, Israel is at once, for historic and political reasons, a country (and liberal democracy) that America and its allies feel compelled to support when it is threatened, but at the same time a religiously nationalist state that is frequently embroiled in ugly clashes with its neighbours, and helps drive collective hostility towards the West across the Islamic world. 

Where once the West commanded influence and alliances with Iran, Pakistan, Egypt, Iraq and Turkey, all of these states are now either uncertain friends or outright foes. Even as the West has found itself sanctioning a brutal bombing campaign in Gaza that is unpopular amongst its own citizens, in the name of Israel’s right to self defence, Armenia has been left to be gradually whittled away by Azerbaijan, with thousands of Armenians bombed, displaced and persecuted. 

As a direct result of Israel’s actions, and the West’s support of Saudi Arabia’s even more brutal carpet bombing of Yemen, the Houthis have menaced shipping in the Red Sea, adding to the global disruption already caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the sanctions it provoked. In the latest escalation, Iran has directly attacked Israel in retaliation for a bombing of a consulate in Syria, unleashing hundreds of missiles and drones. 

The attack has been largely foiled by missile defence, and with the help of America and Jordan, but there are understandable fears of escalation, with speculation that Israel might do what it has long threatened, and bomb Iran’s nuclear reactors. With Iranian proxies in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, the possibility of open conflict could potentially draw in much of the Middle East, and some fear, ultimately America, Russia and China. 

With threats to American hegemony in both Asia, the Middle East and Europe, the relative economic and cultural stagnation of the West, and deep political polarisation wracking the US and its allies, it is tempting to paint a picture of a waning liberal international order, and an emergent multi-polar world. Such predictions are, however, premature. 

The end of history?

In 1992 Fukuyama predicted liberalism’s final triumph. Via Wikimedia commons

When Francis Fukuyama suggested in 1992, that we had come to the end of history, and that liberal democracy and the free market were here to stay forever, there seemed a more than surface plausibility to the idea. Liberalism had defeated fascism and communism, the latter simply collapsing under its own contradictions. Fukuyama never claimed there would be no backward steps, but argued that, in the long run, liberalism would ultimately reemerge and triumph. 

A year later, in response to this idea, Samuel Huntington suggested, quite to the contrary, that the world could be understood as rival civilisational projects; one rooted in religion and tradition. Whatever the influence of Western liberalism, he thought, it was the deep reality of the civilisational worldview that would always reassert itself.

In 2024 it is tempting to say that Huntington has been proved right — but we might risk being as deceived by the conditions of our current moment as Fukuyama was in 92’. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union and its allies represented not merely a geopolitical rival for the West, but the only alternative ideological project. For as long as it existed, the West had an “other” against which it could define itself. 

The shape of things to come? In contrast to Fukuyama, Huntington proposed a world of civilisational conflict, divided along religious and cultural lines. Via Wikimedia Commons

Whatever the material threat offered by a Eurasian bloc comprising Russia, China and Iran, there is no ideology that unites them. Russia and China are merely oligarchies, wielding nationalist and anti-Western rhetoric, but offering little by way of a universalising vision. China’s great challenge to American hegemony is simply the absence of ideology — they promise to provide military and economic support regardless of what allies or vassals think, believe or do, so long as they assist Chinese interests. It’s not merely that China lacks the means to usurp US cultural and ideological power outside their own borders – it’s that they lack even the ambition. 

Even Iran, the closest to a true ideological rival to America, differs little from any other modern country in its actual material and social conditions. Unlike the Soviet Union, Russia, China and Iran essentially have market economies, and populations with similar lifestyles and desires to those living in the West. The Ayatollah can denounce Western decadence and consumerism all he wants, but he has been helpless to stop its spread in Iran, let alone anywhere else. It is Fukuyama, not Huntington, who appears to have been vindicated by the past decades, at least when it comes to liberalism’s rivals: there are none.

World War Never

What does this mean for global conflict? Self serving nationalist oligarchies with market economies can certainly start some very bloody wars, especially in battles for territory or resources. But the potential for genuinely extreme escalation, or a world war in the true sense is, I believe, gone. Properly speaking, a world war is an ideological and imperial conflict. The Russian Empire in 1914, or Nazi Germany in 1939, and for that matter the British Empire in both conflicts, were civilisation states in the real sense of the word. Radically different programs of economic organisation, codes of law and accounts of the human person were at stake. 

The war for civilisation: the World Wars were grand imperial conflicts to determine the future culture of the world. In the end, American liberalism and capitalism won. Via Wikimedia Commons

Some have expressed surprise that WW1 broke out at a time when the world was more united than ever before, but this was, in fact, the deep basis for the war. As technology was drawing the world together into a whole for the first time, consciously or otherwise, there was a realisation that the race was on as to which civilisation would constitute a world culture. WW1 was the “war to end all wars”, a utopian conflict just as much as WW2, even for Britain and France, over who would shape the future of humanity. The Cold War was a struggle between the two victors to finally determine the outcome. In the end America won — and has determined the course of world culture in every aspect of our lives from international law and to sexuality to economic organisation.

As a nation state, even the most powerful nation state on Earth, America can be challenged, even defeated. But as a civilisation state, it is without rivals. Once upon a time the Soviet Union could come knocking at its door, as it did when Castro nearly stationed Russian nuclear weapons in Cuba. It is unimaginable today to think of Cuba, or any American neighbour, acting as a nuclear satellite for China. It is not merely a changing balance of calculations — it was as much against Cuba’s national interest to become a staging post for Russian missiles in 1962 as it would be today, and Cuba has suffered decades of crippling sanctions partly because of it. It was ideology — Castro and his government’s genuine commitment to Communism, their belief in worldwide revolution — that made the most extreme escalation of the Cold War possible. China can only offer cash, guns and amorality. It isn’t enough. 

Dystopian liberalism

Does this mean Fukuyama’s optimistic vision of a humane liberal world is destined to be realised? Not quite. Whilst America successfully universalised its culture, it has not universalised every part, still less the best parts. American hucksterism is visible all over the world, and you can find Chinese teenagers playing at being American gangsters. You won’t, however, find American self-help, community spirit or town hall democracy flourishing in Romanian villages or Chinese apartment blocks. Consumerism may have conquered the Iranian high street, but the American constitution hasn’t even managed to reach Europe. 

Worst of all, not only has American culture been fully deracinated and married to authoritarianism outside the West, but within the “core” of the American Empire — its allies and Americanised global elite — liberalism has abandoned its own classical and humanistic ideals. Freedom of speech, the single most basic revolutionary idea that has fueled the American mission for good and ill, is now an increasingly despised concept, along with freedom of religion, association and the right to privacy. Instead of a futuristic project, America has become myopically backwards and inwards looking; obsessed with and fragmented by intractable issues of race, sex and identity. 

In both the West and the Global South, liberalism is transforming into something totalitarian — either a self-hating, moralistic, anti-democratic technocracy, or an amoral authoritarian oligarchy. Neither social democracy nor a robustly dynamic free market have emerged victorious; rather there is a trend towards a sort of “corporate socialism” in which big business and big government manage resources and populations. There is little room in this model for individual genius or participation, and the individual is offered, instead, endless “choice” to define the limited scope of her own life and identity, which only serves to further isolate and atomise her from other individuals. 

Global civil war

Liberalism has triumphed, but in the process of losing its ideological rivals, it has covertly absorbed their dystopian tendencies. The emergence, for the first time, of a single world culture has disturbing implications. The Spenglerian logic of a civilisational and cyclical pattern to history is disrupted or at least complicated by such a phenomenon. Liberal Western civilisation can decline in this context, morally, spiritually and practically, but there is no vigorous barbarian horde waiting just over the horizon to restart the clock, nor any rival civilisations standing by to provoke renewal through external challenge and exchange. The loss of multipolar ideology will in no way be changed by shifting balances of military and economic power, so long as such power is built on the same fundamental foundations as American imperial power. Indeed, it may only serve to reinforce it. 

This creates a situation in which technological and economic “progress” can continue, even as social, moral and political decay deepen, leading to ever more inhuman governance, and surreal, performative politics. 

The key to understanding this new world is not Fukuyama’s globalist optimism, nor Huntington’s civilisational essentialism, but rather a far sharper observer of modernity: Giorgio Agamben. Biopolitics — the regulation of humans at the biological level, rather than as religious or political citizens or subjects, is the key concept for understanding what both nominally liberal and illiberal states have converged on following the fall of the Soviet Union. 

The second key concept, outlined in Agamben’s book of the same name is stasis — the ancient Greek term for civil war, which has the simultaneous significance of internal division, war and paralysis. In a world in which no civilization is “external” to Americanised liberal modernity, the only mode of opposition is necessarily “internal”. Conflict, even intense, large scale conflict, can in this context be understood as a mode of global civil war. 

Botticelli’s The Tragedy of Lucretia, depicting the collapse of the Roman Kingdom and the rise of the Republic. When ancient polities fell into “stasis”, they momentarily ceased to be communities of common sentiment, and became fragmented, contested worlds in flux, very much like our own.

Consciously or otherwise we can reappraise many of the most dramatic events of the past 30 years as a battle of ideas; attempts to shift or reposition a shared world order. 9/11 is just such an event, as is the neoconservative response. Likewise, Iran’s recent missile and drone attack, and Israel’s probable response fits this paradigm exactly: we can sense they are playing to a gallery. Just as Western liberal culture has globalised itself so, paradoxically, have reactions to it been themselves globalised, from religious reaction to nationalism and anti-globalisation itself. Nor does this paradigm of “civil war” have to be ideological — in the most classic sense of the term, it is typically a struggle between different self-interested factions or classes to advance their power, wealth and status within a shared system. 

In this “postmodern” world, hot wars between states are certainly possible, even likely. But as is no less evident, they increasingly take on symbolic and performative elements that only fully make sense if we understand them as taking place in a “shared” civilisational space. Hence the surreal scenes of Western brands being sold under darkly comic mirror world names in Russian shopping centres. On the one hand, this was a “victory” for Russia that demonstrated trade sanctions could not cripple it. Yet at the same time, civilisationally, it was a reminder of how utterly American-style consumerism had triumphed in a country where a pair of blue jeans were once forbidden contraband. 

Deep civilisational narratives are still there of course — as many have noted Putin justified his invasion of Ukraine with medieval ecclesiastical history — but they no longer have the power to challenge the West ideologically, only materially and rhetorically. They no longer offer an alternative way of life, just a different aesthetic and identity, however resonant and appealing.

That said, the possibility of such an ideological challenge has by no means disappeared — and the increasingly dystopian quality of modern liberalism, and its oligarchic rivals, has the potential to drive profound discontent on the basis of class, religion and basic human dignity. Such a humanist rebellion against a global Leviathan will, paradoxically, need to be in some ways as global and universalist as the system it opposes. 

In short, we should worry a great deal less about apocalyptic fantasies of a new World War, and much more about the concrete, but overlooked, reality of how our everyday lives, language and environment are being reshaped around us — and how we can take back control. 

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