The New World Disorder: better, or worse?

Summary:  In today’s post Martin van Creveld, among our time’s top historians and military theorists, looks at the geopolitical state of the world. Are the doomsters right, and it is falling down? Or have we begun a new era of peace with the triumph of western culture around the world?  (1st of 2 posts today.}

The clash of civilizations

The New World Disorder

By Martin van Creveld
From his website, 19 March 2015
Posted here with his generous permission.

“A new world order” is in the making, said U.S President George Bush Sr. as the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union, its limbs broken, was lying prostrate. “The end of history” has come, proclaimed famed political scientist Francis Fukuyama. At the core of World War II, Fukuyama explained, stood a titanic struggle between three ideologies: liberal democracy, fascism, and communism. By 1945 fascism had been destroyed. Fifty-something years later, communism too had failed and would not rise again.

But that, Fukuyama continued, was only the beginning. As more and more countries became industrialized and developed a strong middle class, Hollywood and McDonald’s would spread the happy tidings. They would do away with all kinds of cultural relics, globalize the world, and make it safe for liberal democracy. Better still: since everybody knew that democracies never, ever fight each other, war itself would gradually disappear. The new world order, Fukuyama wrote, might be a trifle boring. But that seemed a small price to pay for the blessings of peace and, hopefully ever-spreading prosperity as well.

End of History - cover
Available at Amazon (1992).

A quarter of a century later, most of our dreams have been shattered. True, fascism and communism in their classical forms have not made a serious comeback. But autocracy, which is almost as bad, continues to govern large parts of the earth’s population. Some autocratically-governed countries, such as Belarus and North Korea, have done badly. One, Russia, is currently fighting what may be seen either as a war of expansion or as a desperate struggle to assert itself and avoid disintegration. And at least one, China, has done spectacularly well.

As a Chinese friend told me, this is the first period in Chinese history when almost everybody has enough to eat. In a country as large, and over long periods as poor as China used to be, that is no mean achievement. And as a Nigerian student told me: When the Chinese come marching into a “developing” country they do not waste their time preaching democracy and human rights as Westerners always do. Instead they bring dollars, lots and lots of them. Nor are they shy of paying bribes where they think doing so will grease the wheels. The outcome is that, in quite some places, Chinese autocracy, far from being denounced for its lack of democracy and freedom, is praised as a model to follow.

Another widespread belief which did not come true was that wealth, generated by new technologies and better, read less coercive, methods of organization, would keep spreading. It is not that the world has become poorer. Rather what has happened is that the distribution of wealth has changed. As the French economist Thomas Picketty in his book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, has shown, not since the early years of the twentieth century has the gap between rich and poor been as large as it is at present.

Clash of Civilizations - cover
Available at Amazon (1996).


The world has not become less diverse. In 1993, just four years after “The End of History,” the late Professor Samuel Huntington came out with “The Clash of Civilizations“. In it he argued that Fukuyama had been wrong. What rules the world is not ideology but identity. Shaped by “history, language, culture, tradition, and, most important, religion,” different identities make themselves manifest in the form of “different views on the relations between God and man, the individual and the group, the citizen and the state, parents and children, husband and wife, as well as differing views of the relative importance of rights and responsibilities, liberty and authority, equality and hierarchy.” “These differences,” Huntington concluded, “are the product of centuries. They will not soon disappear.”

Over the last quarter century struggles over just such identities have become the leading cause of armed conflict. Pace Fukuyama and many others, notably the American psychology professor Steve Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature (2014), the world has not become more peaceful. To the contrary: it has witnessed any number of ferocious armed conflicts in places as far apart as the former Yugoslavia, parts of Africa and Asia, the Middle East, and, most recently, the Ukraine. In all these wars far more civilians than combatants were killed. The total number of victims, men, women and children, runs into the millions.

So bad have some of these conflicts been that some of the states in which they were waged, far from advancing towards prosperity and liberal democracy, have simply collapsed. That includes Afghanistan, the Central African Republic, the Congo, Somalia, Iraq, Libya, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. Several others, such as Chad, Nigeria, and Pakistan have been left almost equally government-less and may turn belly up at any moment. Supposing immigration, and the problems it creates, is allowed to continue unchecked, even Western Europe may not be immune forever.

The widespread incidence of war, and the even more widespread incidence of preparation for it, explains why military spending did not enter a slow, steady decline as many people during the early 1990s expected to happen. According to figures provided by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, “spending in 2012 was… higher in real terms than the peak near the end of the cold war.” In fact it was only in Europe that spending went down at all. By contrast, Russia, North Africa, the Middle East, East Asia, and South Asia have all seen sharp increases. So, between 2001 and the “end” of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, did the U.S.A development that will bring the trend to an end does not appear anywhere in sight.

Peace and war

Briefly, the world is in a mess. But is the mess really worse than it used to be? Worse, for example, than it was between 1914 and 1945? Worse than it was throughout the Cold War, when each Superpower had tens of thousands of nuclear weapons ready for immediate delivery and a nuclear holocaust sometimes seemed to be just around the corner? Worse than it was in 1945-75 when the various Wars in Indochina, the War in Algeria, and civil war in Nigeria, to list but a few, killed millions? Worse than it was in 1958-76, when first the Great Leap Forward and then the Cultural Revolution killed an estimated 45 million Chinese? Worse than in the 1980s, when Iran and Iraq used poison gas against one another? Worse than in the 1990s, when the civil wars in Angola, Mozambique and Sri Lanka were still raging?

Whenever the mess was particularly great many people thought the world was coming to an end. But it did not. To deny the widespread existence of war, death, horror and hunger would be both foolish and counterproductive. And of course we should do everything in our power to prevent them as far as we can. Yet on the edge of many raging conflicts, often even in the eye of the storm, plenty of decency, generosity, altruism, and, last not least, love have always sprouted. Certainly no less so than in any previous age.

By one story I read long ago, people once asked Mao Tze Dong whether, following a nuclear war, there would still be a world left. To this he is supposed to have answered as follows:

The sun will keep rising
Trees will keep growing
and women
will keep having children.


Martin van Creveld

About the Author

Martin van Creveld is Professor Emeritus of History at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and one of the world’s most renowned experts on military history and strategy.

The central role of Professor van Creveld in the development of theory about modern war is difficult to exaggerate. He has provided both the broad historical context — looking both forward and back in time — much of the analytical work, and a large share of the real work in publishing both academic and general interest books. He does not use the term 4GW, preferring to speak of “non-trinitarian” warfare — but his work is foundational for 4GW just the same.

Professor van Creveld has written 20 books, about almost every significant aspect of war. Some of the best known are Technology and War: From 2000 B.C. to the Present and  Nuclear Proliferation and the Future of Conflict. He’s written books about the technical aspects of war, such as Supplying War: Logistics from Wallenstein to Patton, Training of Officers: From Military Professionalism to Irrelevance, and Air Power and Maneuver Warfare.

He’s written controversial books, such as Fighting Power: German and U.S. Army Performance, 1939-1945 (German soldiers were better than our!) and Men, Women & War: Do Women Belong in the Front Line? He’s written some of the most influential books of our generation about war, such as The Transformation of War: The Most Radical Reinterpretation of Armed Conflict Since Clausewitz (which I consider the best work to date about modern war) and The Changing Face of War: Combat from the Marne to Iraq.

His magnum opus is the dense about mind-opening The Rise and Decline of the State – the ur-text describing the political order of the 21st century. For links to his articles see The Essential 4GW reading list: Martin van Creveld.

For More Information

For a more analytical perspective on this see Francis Fukuyama’s “The End of History” in the Summer 1989 issue of The National Interest — expanded into The End of History and the Last Man (1992) — and Samuel P. Huntington’s “The clash of civilizations?“ in the Summer 1993 issue of Foreign Affairs — expanded into The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (1996).

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about history, all posts about Islam, and especially these about the real long war:

A closing note from the lords of the sky

From T. H. White’s The Once and Future King

“Dear me, you are a silly,” she said. “There are no boundaries among the geese.”
“What are boundaries, please?”
“Imaginary lines on the earth, I suppose. How can you have boundaries if you fly? Those ants
of yours — and the humans too — would have to stop fighting in the end, if they took to the
“I like fighting,” said the Wart. “It is knightly.”
“Because you’re a baby.”

Geese flying



25 thoughts on “The New World Disorder: better, or worse?

  1. What “rules the world” is not identity, but ideas .i.e. philosophy. Even the idea that identity rules everything is an idea. And no, “the world” has not got gotten worse, it has gotten better, in some places. But in large parts of the world things are as they have always been, but now with smart phones and AK-47’s. Only in the west, have things gotten worse, because of the abandonment of the Enlightenment ideals that made the west GREAT.

    1. Papaya,

      I, like many Boomers, as part of our childhood had drills for nuclear war. Crouched under our desks, waiting for the booms to fall. Watch the film “Atomic Cafe”, but remember it was real back then.

      There were several points at which we were on the edge of a war beyond imagining, most especially during the Cuban Missile Crisis. We have nothing remotely like that today.

      Also, the spectre of WWI-WWII like wars is gone, replaced by shadowboxing and proxy wars among the Great Nations.

      Even more broadly, the work of Steve Pinker and other has shown that the overall level of world violence has declined.

      That does not mean we live in Heavan, or that conditions cannot grow worse. Merely that we have lost a sense of proportion about the progress we have made.

    1. Following van Creveld’s logic, a messy world suggests that Indiana Jones or, perhaps, Crocidile Dundee would be better action hero role models than would James Bond.

      Following my “stew” thesis, this has implicatioins for 21st century cuisine. Anecdotally, I note that at the local shopping mall the Chipotle appears to be outselling the McDonalds. This is the sort of thing I am getting at.

  2. I imagine violence from war has decreased because of the decline of colonialism. Colonialism and the end of these empires, it was massively violent in places. I think the USA and it’s mid-east wars, they’re bad, but fighting off colonial control of places like Algeria and Vietnam especially, but there were many others, the body counts were spectacularly high. This is a standard of killing that’s difficult to measure up to.

    Also maybe it’s a tactical shift? So many of the deaths these days are indirect consequence of wars. That the American bombing lately targets water and power infrastructure, like in the Iraq war, but also Lybia. We’re destroying the nations and killing people with higher disease and infant mortality rather than directly with bombs. I haven’t read the Pinker book, but I’d be curious how it factors in the deaths over the ages from war and the deaths from destruction of these nation’s life support systems.

    1. Cathryn,

      If we widen the picture we see a pattern. Nukes ended the series of increasingly violent world wars — from the first world war (the 7 Years War, 1754-1763) to WWII. Then came the smaller but still violent colonial and neo-colonial wars — with Vietnam the end point.

      Those were followed by a series of still smaller wars, which I suspected ended with our post-9/11 wars.

      During all of this time there were bouts of massive internal violence: in the Soviet Union, China, Nigeria, Congo, etc — with little involvement of foreign armies.

    2. Thought of this.

      “On the contrary, war hysteria is continuous and universal in all countries, and such acts as raping, looting, the slaughter of children, the reduction of whole populations to slavery, and reprisals against prisoners which extend even to boiling and burying alive, are looked upon as normal, and, when they are committed by one’s own side and not by the enemy, meritorious. But in a physical sense war involves very small numbers of people, mostly highly-trained specialists, and causes comparatively few casualties. The fighting, when there is any, takes place on the vague frontiers whose whereabouts the average man can only guess at, or round the Floating Fortresses which guard strategic spots on the sea lanes. In the centres of civilization war means no more than a continuous shortage of consumption goods, and the occasional crash of a rocket bomb which may cause a few scores of deaths. War has in fact changed its character. ”

      From is Chapter III of The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism by Emmanuel Goldstein (in George Orwell’s 1984).

  3. Big huzzah for cross posting blogs with such a mighty scholar as van Creveld. I hazard he will be quoted as “the” sage of our times in histories published centuries hence.

    (Tongue in cheek re wayne and garth) We are not worthy!

  4. You are right by every material metric we are doing much better than ever before. But philosophically and politically everything has collapsed, what dominates the west is not self confidence in itself but guilt, skepticism, and subjectivism.

  5. Certainly puts things into perspective. But zero war, which I imagine would come from a rule-of-law among nations — both are ideals. Like zero crime or zero disease — though both of the latter are obviously impossible, you have to make a steady effort, and it’s worth it.

    I think like a lot of other people I’m appalled by the folly of the Fukuyama “end of history” view, in particular the version of the Pax Americana that was to come via the path of “exceptionalism”. (exceptional as in exempt-from-rules, rather than as in uniquely-blessed). And most of all appaled by the “new american century” neocon version, where careless use of force was justified to maintain “primacy”. This was both stupid and wicked at the same time.

    Despite that, right before the neocon way took over, around the time that Fukuyama’s unrealstic vision was getting traction, there was still something real there, this idea of progress.

    That western civilization did in fact learn some kind of lesson from WWII and the cold war. With the huge caveat that the violence got exported, into proxy wars pushed out just beyond the edges of western civ. And maybe added to that, a more recent understanding that forcing western cultural values doesn’t work out so great, at least not without a lot of destruction to make room for it.

    I’d like to think that we can still back up to that fork in the road, pre-neocon-takeover, at that moment when communism just ended, the stability of the bipolar world order was gone, and things were free to go in any number of directions.

    I’d like to think that if you back up to that fork in the road, and reduce your ambitions for a world order by acknowledging the glaring above glaring imperfections of western civilization’s progress (exporting it’s bad habits) — that you would still be left with something useful — this zone of understanding about the futility of all-out total war, or the kind of war that results in the near total destruction of the country where the battle is happening, and some bit of that understanding could actually be universal and grow to cover the whole earth.

    I’d like to think that we can still have a stable multipolar world, a peace brought about not just by defeating all enemies, but by a mutual wisdom among adversaries (if not a deliberate system of international law and cooperation, which might be too naiive). This would involve salvaging some bit of that hope for post-WWII, post-cold war progress.

    And that’s why recent US foreign policy is such a huge awful disappointment. It looks like it’s on its way to blowing it all, and reverting completely to a might-makes-right mode, where if we do have peace, stability, and prosperity, it comes only from maintaining an equilibrium in a violent relationship we have with rival civilizations. That combined with the tendency to alienate the “other” at every turn and make more enemies each year. Obviously this isn’t sustainable, so you would eventually end up with another cold-war like balance. But it’s just such a disappointment.

  6. For a large segment of the population in the US things have definitely gotten worse. Examples of the basic security in the period roughly 1948-78: 1) aLmost every job came with complete medical coverage with no co-pays (a term coined later), 2) real salaries and wages followed productivity at about 3.2÷ per year and doubled roughly every generation 3) state colleges were virtually free and much of the additional expenses could be paid out of a summer job. (Pay for these was roughly $2 to $6 /hr or about $11 to $33 in current money.) 4) work hours were relatively fixed and were really 40 hr/week.
    Yes I hid under my desk too.. But I think we have a good chance of WW3 now.

    1. Social,

      “For a large segment of the population in the US things have definitely gotten worse.”

      Since the 1970s, yes. The white blue collar (aka lower middle class) segment. I don’t know about this income segment for minority households. But MvC is speaking about the world — and on a global basis things have improved at the fastest pace since the invention of fire — both in reduced violence, better nutrition, longer and healthier lives, and higher income.

      “I think we have a good chance of WW3 now”

      There is no way to determine this. IMO it’s just another bout of hysteria. Like the “we’re all going to die of AIDS” and “the coming mass deaths from Ebola”. I see zero evidence that a WW3 is likely. The fear-mongerers talking about Ukraine as an ignition point are nuts, just like the last 3 dozen times that warned of WW3. There has not even been a close call since the Cuban Missile Crisis.

      I have written about this many times.

      1. What happens when a nation gets nukes? Sixty years of history suggests an answer.
      2. The first rule of American war is not to believe what we’re told. — About the fear-mongering concerning Ukraine.
      3. Good news about the fear epidemic: we’re learning! — Also looks at the urban legend about the Pak-India close call.

      I have articles like this – debunking the fear merchants — for 12 years. Before that I have similar speeches for 20 years. That experience has taught me that America’s leaders can easily evoke terror in the public, and that no facts or logic can calm their fears. Sad, but that’s who are we today.

  7. FM is correct on all counts.
    As for the claim that “For a large segment of the population in the US things have definitely gotten worse,” it’s complicated.
    50 years ago women were much worse off than they are today. Single women typically could not open a bank account without getting a co-signer, and employers were extremely reluctant to hire single women even in menial jobs. The employers assumed that women were only in the workforce until they found a husband, at which point they’d quit, leaving their employer high and dry.
    Blacks and Latinos and Asians and gays were enormously worse off than today. COLOREDS ONLY restrooms and drinking fountains, anyone?
    So it’s a mixed picture. As FM mentions, for blue-collar middle class white males, things have gotten worse in America since 1970. For college grads without advanced degrees, things are starting to trend badly (starting around the year 2000). For highly educated white males, particularly for graduates with advanced degrees from the elite Ivy League schools, things have never been better.

  8. “Pace Fukuyama and many others, notably the American psychology professor Steve Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature (2014), the world has not become more peaceful.”

    In 2005, a group of scholars from Canada, Italy, and Scandanavia addressed this question in starkly quantitative terms. The UN Report on Human Security, to the contrary, found that by every measure, and even at the the height of fighting in Iraq in 2007, its scholars found that violence was in decline – whether measured by size of conflicts or numbers, declined relatively and absolutely since World Two, and since the end of the Cold War.

    So, when sweaping genralizations are made and those careful enough to examine them in detail, like in Steven Pinker’s vast tome, are ignored or not engaged like int he Report above, I have to think that the author doesn’t really want us to believe his claims. He’s merely making us stuff.

    1. Orson,

      I see your point, but I think that’s too harsh. First, MvC didn’t ignore Pinkerton and the others in that field. He cited them and said he disagreed. Second, I think he was hitting the limits of what a brief essay can do (I’ve grappled with this hundreds of times). As a result I suspect he expressed himself poorly (ditto).

      My guess (emphasis on guess) is that he’s saying that we are substituting intense conflicts (e.g., WWI, WWII) with more frequent low-intentsity-conflicts (LIC’s). The body counts drop, but frequent widespread conflicts like this are disruptive in their own way. And the mechanisms we’ve built to deal with State to State conflict don’t work well with these, whether we intervene (Afghanistan 1979 to now) or ignore them (e.g., Rwanda).

  9. FB,
    Things have gotten worse in west because of rise in preacariat. It is not only US where there is rise of low wage labor. Even Germany is seeing this increase;and it is just but one example.
    West is also seeing rise of aging population with little savings. Of course is going to be one with an outsize problem in this regard. Already majority of most public school students are low income.
    And we are finding out how poverty affects the brain:

    What Poverty Does to the Young Brain

  10. What has Crevald to say about Clean Break? ME tragedy due to Lobby influence on US and you can clearly see influence of Clean Break.

    1. The world was right about Iraq– though Israel got its ‘Clean Break’” by Matthew Taylor at Mondoweiss, 14 June 2014.
    2. The consequences of the Neocon’s war in Iraq” at Blog for Arizona, 12 June 2014.

    Iraq, Syria, Libya, all part of “Clean Break”. This is why:

    1. More Evidence of Israel’s Dirty Role in the Syrian Proxy War” by Steven MacMillan at the Ron Paul Institute.
    2. The Chaos In Iraq Is By DESIGN” at Zero Hedge, 26 June 2014.
    3. Obama’s True Foreign-Policy ‘Weakness’” at Veterans News Now“, 24 June 2014.
    4. Neocon Kagan: Hillary Clinton Is One Of Us” at Moon Of Alabama, 16 June 2014.
    5. THE ISRAEL LOBBY AND U.S. FOREIGN POLICY” by John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt (Professors of Pol Science at U Chicago and Harvard, respectively), Middle East Policy Council, Fall 2006.
    1. Winston,

      That’s quite a variety of information, from a wide range of sources — from right-wing extremists to tabloid nonsense to high quality academics. I wonder if you can sort them out into some useful form. Theories are only as sound as their weakest link, and with sources like that some weaknesses are almost inevitable.

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