Why globalisation has not ended conflict

When the Iron Curtain collapsed across Europe and the flags of peace, freedom and democracy were waved, many people around the world thought these changes would be permanent. We were told that this was to be a new era of capitalism and prosperity, democracy and freedom, brotherhood and equality, peace and happiness. This was the end of history.

Except that it wasn’t. Certain things flourished. Capitalism will come to anywhere the elites can profit from it, and it will usually trickle down when the masses demand it to. Democracy and freedom were won in the early post Cold War years but both appear to be slipping away again. And peace, far from springing up from the ground, may be even further away than ever.

Globalisation, which helped topple communism and spread wealth to the post communist world, was supposed to have eliminated conflict by making us all interconnected. Trade has spread and deepened everywhere, creating middle classes that governments need to answer to. Countries would sacrifice wealth if they went to war, because it is now far more profitable to trade with each other than build empires. But we do still have war, don’t we? Why is that?

Globalisation has increased the costs of violent conflict but not removed the causes. The causes have always been multiple but now there are too many to count. And the biggest causes of conflict are more prominent today than ever. One is upheaval: big changes. Every person and every culture reacts differently to big changes; and change is fast and furious nowadays. Globalisation charges ahead, and brings with it climate change, inequality of wealth, the spread of ideas, migration and terrorism. And of course, each of these big changes begets more unexpected, unsolicited and, to many, unwanted change. Anything can happen after changes like this, including war.

A second cause of conflict that has increased is racism. Whether we realise it or not, we are still learning that we are different and better than each other. We learn ethnocentrism, intolerance and racism in school, in mass media, from politicians, from parents and from each other. We live in a world that still prizes loyalty to the collective: protect the group at any human cost. These problems still existed during the Cold War, but they were less complicated than they are today. Now, we are searching for meaning outside the left right divide and many do not know where to turn. They turn to their immediate groups. They find that their groups are superior. But again, things are more complicated: there are more groups and loyalties and each is fighting with every other one.

During the Cold War, there were three sides—side A (capitalist), side B (communist) and side abstaining (non aligned). Now, diplomacy is so difficult because sides are so mixed. In the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, for instance, according to the Economist, “The peacemakers barely know where to start. The old divisions, not just between Israelis and Arabs but also between rival Palestinian factions and their bickering foreign backers, have got deeper. Political rows are already muddling the urgent task of getting aid to Gaza, let alone efforts to secure the fragile ceasefire, rebuild the territory and forge a broader Arab-Israeli peace.” Everyone is arguing with everyone else.

And yet, globalisation has calmed one form of violence. Most war nowadays is civil war, or intrastate conflict. Before and perhaps during the Cold War, it was between countries, or interstate. Globalisation has made liberal democracy the norm in half the world, and though one can argue no end how liberal and democratic these places are, the major benefit has been a reduction in interstate violence. The question is, what will it take to eliminate war?

War, unfortunately, seems to go deep into our nature and satisfy a certain lust for blood. As much as we hate to admit it, many or most or all humans have a propensity for violence (to inflict or watch it), competition (which of course means winning any contest one can win at), a culture that prompts and rewards violence, distraction from more complicated issues, punishment, revenge and cruelty. My guess is that violence among humans will never end, not while we are the humans we recognise today. But war is one kind of violence. What will it take to eliminate war?

For my answer to that question, I will take you into the roots of discrimination, war and the search for meaning in a series of posts by examining the most important philosophical debate in history: individualism versus collectivism.