Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts World Eras, Revolution, and War: Modern to Postmodern

World Eras, Revolution, and War: Modern to Postmodern

In his September 20, 2001, address to Congress, President Bush described the goal of Al Qaeda as nothing short of “remaking the world and imposing its radical beliefs on people everywhere.” But if the war on terrorism is truly, as President Bush described it, “civilization’s fight” against a revolutionary movement that seeks to overturn the existing world order, it is only the latest such conflict over the course of modern civilization.

Since the Enlightenment several historical phases and developments—industrialization, nationalism, the rise and decline of imperialism, communism, and now globalization—have been accompanied by revolutionary backlashes. The economic, social, and political pressures that accompany these epochal shifts often sow instability, revolution, and ultimately larger international conflicts. These upheavals also bring demagogues and violent fringe movements to the fore and, on occasion, even allow for the single revolutionary leader—a Napoleon, Lenin, Mao, or bin Laden—to tip the scales of the entire world order.

As the notion of a “free world” worth defending reemerges, a fresh look at the modern relationship between “revolution” and “war” is needed. In analyzing these terms, however, one is not dealing with Ptolemaic certainties. Theories of modern revolution are as manifold as they are conflicting. Despite this lack of consensus, modest lessons from the past can be drawn. Revolutionary wars, for instance, in their origins, progression, and outcome, are distinct from conflicts that stem from great power rivalry and expansionism. The strategic considerations shaping the Arab alliance in the war on terrorism are far different than those of the Gulf War. At the same time, one must be cautious with historical parallels. Today’s global conflict, shaped by civilizational fault-lines and colored by religio-ideological zealotry, is fundamentally different from the Cold War, which was essentially a secular, politico-ideological schism within the West.

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