Declining giants are dangerous. They use force to preserve the international respect they got used to at their peak and are unable to preserve by economic activity. Another newly risen empire, acting as the world’s policeman, could shorten those pangs.
Rising tigers are dangerous, unless they are very open economically and trade with the targeted countries a lot. New economies, often undemocratic and with few welfare demands, accumulate unusually large amounts in government coffers, allowing for military build-ups. As such economies peak, popular and government ambitions irreversibly outstrip capabilities and are channeled into politics and eventually into warfare. Depredation on weak neighbors is not as easy as before. Efficient transportation has allowed weak countries to acquire out-of-region sponsors capable of projecting their military power. WMD arsenals and world opinion also deter aggression. Global society offers better opportunities for increasing influence through trade and assistance rather than through war. Proclaiming warfare no longer economically rational before WWI was no mistake; it just took people some time to realize it. The economic irrationality of wars does not preclude them. The reasons given for wars often only rationalize a struggle for power, hatreds, ambitions, and plain masculine aggression. When no other pretext is found, civilizational issues go in.
Rationalist societies are potentially aggressive, since suffering has no place in rational calculations. The moral rationalism of the Enlightenment was a backlash against religious obscurantism; social rationalism reacted to the inability to comprehend the complex mechanics of social interactions. Rationalism emerges in global politics as large but irrelevant nations justify their claims to dominance.
Countries that get rich incidentally are arrogant and aggressively seek their place in world affairs to compensate for their inferior development. When incidental wealth is concentrated with government or oligarchs, poor and envious people do not fear mild international confrontations, even welcome the conflicts to sublimate and vent their discontent. Rome advanced through painstaking military labor and was remarkably tolerant; Saudi Arabia promotes jihad.
A sluggish economy leads to moral decline, while prosperity through work reinforces ethical values. People in poor or declining economies cannot realize their ambitions through market activities and resort to politics, radicalism, and war. Poverty or raging ambition override moral restrictions; affluent people can afford more of them, if only to feel safer.
The family is the strongest group. The broader a group, the weaker it is. Civilizations, the broadest groups, are weakest. Muslim countries join together only in declarations. People avoid helping a community and do not fight for civilizations.
The stronger a group is, stronger are the attachments and hatreds inside it. No Muslims hate infidels as much as some spouses hate each other. People sublimate myriad forms of discontent into hatred and make the people nearest by its objects. Most similar people invent distinctions among themselves to justify their hatreds. Ukrainian cynics summed up the reasons for dissolution from Russia as “They ate our bacon.” Group boundaries appear when needed.
Civilizational identity, though weak, is real, and cannot be changed at whim. Turkey is still Islamic after three generations of Western secularist governments. A change of identity, a temptingly simple solution, is often counterproductive: if Turkey succeeded at Westernizing, Europeans would be called to protect a weak “cultural relative,” while Muslim Turkey—moderate because economically open to Europe—is a viable buffer against the many failed states of Central Asia and the Middle East.
Humanity depends on inter-group competition for evolution. Inter-civilizational interactions are few, and civilizations do not compete significantly. They cannot, therefore, provide for evolutionary competition. Most competition—and conflict—takes place inside civilizations, which accordingly consist of antagonistic sub-groups. A world consisting of inwardly homogenous civilizations would cease to compete and develop.
Civilizational identity arises when no other identification is available, usually in times of social transition. The American melting pot showed that people of conflicting religions, cultures, and history eagerly shed their past to participate in a prosperous future.
People rarely identify themselves with nations, let alone with civilizations. Europeans warred among themselves for all their history, but the popes had a hard time assembling crusades to fight aliens. Except for rare, short wars induced by propaganda, people fight about urgent interests, and conflicting interests occur mostly among people of the same civilization who interact—and fight. Often. Inter-civilizational conflicts are almost exclusively about borders and of little practical concern to those living farther away—but they tickle people’s xenophobia and make headlines. Inter-civilizational skirmishes in Bosnia roused the Europeans; millions dead in intra-Muslim conflicts left them unconcerned. Fighting over real interests is fierce and short; xenophobic wars are mild, indecisive, and thus prolonged, creating an impression of permanence.
Civilizational wars are rarely orderly because governments and businesses have little interests in alien lands, unless they include valuable resources, in which case the wars are unrelated to civilizations. Rather, border—including internal borders—conflicts are mob violence erupting when impunity is likely. The violence could occur along lines of property, class, religion, ethnicity, or just about any other visible trait. Impunity is critical: people do not risk their lives because of xenophobia. Clashes cease when the silent majority, quickly satiated with slaughter, implicitly revokes its support of the perpetrators. Radicals rarely influence politics; in matters of importance and consequences, the silent majority opts for moderation.