How have armed conflicts been shaped by the 21st century so far?

Considering that the start of the 21st century was dominated by the ‘9/11 wars’ in conflict terms, which has no morphed into a ‘generational struggle’ against Islamist extremism, we thought it worth discussing how the progress of the 21st century has affected conflicts.

First are some thoughts and discussion we had at our reading group, which is followed by some individual thoughts.


  • There has been a shift in conflict towards non-international armed conflicts against non-state actors, rather than inter-state conflicts. The ease at which groups with an axe to grind can acquire harmful capabilities is greater than in previous years. This means that groups which previously would never have been able to acquire weapons now can, which creates multi-polar conflicts between states and multiple non-state actors simultaneously. Conflict has become far messier in this century than before.
  • Modern wars are much smaller than their predecessors. It seems quite often that they are not full-scale wars in the sense of what was previously understood as. Potentially, these more counter-insurgency/counter-terrorism conflicts could be seen as being more within a blurred line, or crack, between war and peace. This raises significant issues for whether to apply the law of armed conflict or not.
  • Although rebel groups in wars of decolonisation gained territory, that was for the express intention of starting new states. Gaining of territory in 21st Century wars appears to be simply for the ejection of the state in order to create space to practice ideals the group believes are utopian. Only ISIS and the Taliban have gained territory with an express intention of creating a new political entity. Thus, highlighting it is the desire for groups to control people in their territories that drives territorial acquisition, rather than a desire for political legitimacy.
  • In terms of spaces in which the law of armed conflict applies, a strict reading would apply it to the entire territory in which a conflict is happening. However, it is often only really applied in the areas of conflict. Thus, highlighting that it is the belligerent nexus which is now a key factor in the application of the law of armed conflict, rather than location.
  • The development of international law governing conflict seems to have had the influence of NGOs reduced, or even removed in comparison to the post-WWII era. A re-negotiation of the Geneva Conventions, or the creation of set-piece law of armed conflict conventions is unlikely, despite a more ‘humanised’ approach to the law of armed conflict sometimes appearing. NGOs are unlikely to push for re-negotiation the law of armed conflict for fear that states would make it much more permissive in order to deal with the messier conflicts they find themselves in. However, if the law of armed conflict were to be made more permissive, it would be much clearer when breaches occurred. The current mix of old and new treaties, customary law, and different national policies can sometimes obfuscate whether a breach has occurred or not.

News media has had a massive impact on armed conflicts this century. In much the same way as the television had an impact on the Vietnam war, and brought the war ‘into the living rooms’ of the American people, so the 24/7 news media culture – coupled with trends in social media – has greatly influenced the way wars are waged in the West.

British readers will be familiar with the scenes of the people of Wooten Bassett standing out on the streets to pay their respects as members of the armed forces killed in Iraq and Afghanistan were repatriated to the UK. For many, this remains one of the most resonant images from the two conflicts, as every day a small number of the deceased were driven through the town to appear on our screens. The nature of this news story, and the way it became synonymous with the war doubtless had great impact on British strategy – and is symbolic of a wider problem facing the armed forces of the West.

All of which begs the question: how do you deal with the inevitability of war casualties in a 24/7 news culture, where every death becomes a political tool? Are drones and air strikes really the answer? But then, what other alternatives are there?

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University

De-monopolisation of violence, and democratisation of technology have enabled non-state actors, and less-powerful state actors to attain destructive power on a level approaching that of major powers in tactical, but not strategic terms. This means that small wars are fought against a reasonably powerful enemy in the battlespace. But, this equality of arms does not extend to the strategic level, where major powers still dominate.

This means that non-state actors and small-powers can only really create harrassing violence against major-powers, with no strategic victories. But, this doesn’t mean their impact is small. Al Qaeda spent $500,000 on the 9/11 attacks, killing 2977 people. Although all of those deaths are tragic, they are minimal in comparison to full-scale wars. Indeed, the drawing of the US and NATO into wars in the Middle-East has created far more destruction than was really required to deal with a bunch of angry and fanatical extremists. I guess it also comes down to the issue of whether people want safety, or do they want to see what they believe will keep them safe?

Because terrorists strike at unknowable moments, people are always scared (which links in with fear-driven 24-hour news and social media sharing). But, if security strategy was re-orientated towards positive peace, i.e. building equitable societies with conflict resolution focussed on creating social systems which serve and include all persons to avoid all forms of violence, rather than just the absence of war, nefarious individuals who could be tempted towards radicalisation would lack the grievances to attack the state – thereby not only removing the reason for terrorists to want to harm people, but removing the risk of attack as well.

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University

Let us know what you think

One thought on “How have armed conflicts been shaped by the 21st century so far?

  1. Hi Mike, I think your point on deaths becoming a political tool is interesting. As the activities of Special Forces and spies are kept secret, we never know of their deaths and so they avoid being a political tool. This is true even when their deployments are the main (or only) thrust of extraterritorial political action. Indeed, it would seem that their deaths are hidden precisely so that they do not become a political tool, either for adversaries abroad or for critics at home.


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