Home Military Geopolitics in the 21st Century: Why Go to War?
Geopolitics in the 21st Century: Why Go to War?

Geopolitics in the 21st Century: Why Go to War?

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By Jeremy Burkett, student, International Relations at American Public University

Throughout human history at the end of conflict and war, nation states would change their borders according to who won. However, over time, it has become an international norm not to keep territory gained in war. If the goal of war is no longer to gain territory, what are the benefits of engaging in conflict?

The answer lies in the strategic nature of international politics in the 21st century. States seek to continually enhance their power, security, and power projection capabilities by engaging in an arms race with their neighbors. States that follow this strategy attempt to gain security in a zero-sum environment, where one state gains security and power at the expense of other states in the international system. In other cases, states enhance security by projecting power through strategic alignment.

Pursuing Strategic Alignment

Strategic alignment is the basic measure of whether a state adds to, or detracts from, the security of another state. When states are said to be aligned, they enhance or contribute to the security of each other when making a gain in their own security. For example, consider the United States and England. These states provide security to one another in a positive sum environment, or where one state’s security generates security for the other state. Specific examples of this include cooperation on issues that both deem important. The US will help England maintain economic viability even after it leaves the EU in the next few years. In addition to this, England will help the US project its power further than the US otherwise could in the world. This takes the form of US troops fighting alongside English troops in recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

When states are opposed in alignment, they take security from another state. A consequence of this is potentially war, a military conflict, or an incursion between states. The goal of these conflicts is usually to temporarily take territory from the opposing state, control it, and administer laws until peace is made. Then the territory is returned to the original state.

A recent example can be found in the 2006 conflict between Israel and Lebanon. Israel did not keep its territorial gains from Lebanon after its war against Hezbollah. Instead, what Israel got was something it needed more: Lebanon’s strategic alignment. Since this war ended, Israel has reduced the power of Hezbollah within Lebanon, making Lebanon less of a threat to Israel. Lebanon, when secure enough, will not attack Israel.

But why would a state align with another that has defeated it in war? The primary reasons require one to look inside the state itself and determine how security is provided within a state.

Within a state, I theorize that military units provide the hard power required for security. When a military unit is at peace, they hand over power to a leader, whether that be a general in a junta, or the president or prime minister in a democracy. When a military unit is confronted by a second military unit, conflict between the states ensues to determine which state provides security and holds power. That said, these units will never leave until a power can replace them and they are destroyed. This is because that would create a power vacuum, or a lack of security in an area, which usually is filled quickly by another military group that forms in the area to provide security. This means that the power head of the unit that administers the area in war will administer in peace, if the military unit’s loyalty holds. If so, these leaders eventually become part of the state’s inner workings in peace time. In cases of civil war, they will often eventually hold positions in government, like the current power sharing agreement in South Sudan that led both parties in the civil war there to office.

After peace is made, the composition of the state’s government is now different, due to the influence of the war-time administration. With peace at hand, these governments will often allow themselves to be influenced by war time administrations in return for the monopoly on legitimate violence being returned to the state in question along with the territorial control of the state in the whole. This, therefore, realigns the state to favor the policies of the conquering state, or the state that wins the war.

While in some instances this does not totally happen, it is the process that is followed in conflict and in its aftermath, with the potential for frozen conflict and other hold ups keeping a state broken or failed. Frozen conflict can happen during the war or after peace is made power might take a while to be redistributed. The army may stay and occupy, and may even eventually become legitimate, or as in the case of Iraqi Kurdistan, which fights ISIL in Iraq today, it can be part of the state, and even contribute during wartime.

About the Author:  Jeremy Burkett is a third-year student at American Public University, pursuing a bachelor’s degree in International Relations. He lives near Dallas, Texas and is hoping to continue his education further by pursuing a graduate degree in international relations theory. 

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