How does (if at all) the 'War on Terror' represent a different era from the 20th century's conventional wars?

Essay, 2007

11 Pages, Grade: Distinction


IRPG 831 The Politics, Law, & Morality of International Political Violence

How does (if at all) the “War on Terror” represent a different era from the 20th century’s conventional wars?

Sebastian Plappert

Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, in the USA, no other event has generated more public interest than terrorism and its consequences for global politics and the conduct of political violence (Neumann & Smith 2005, p. 572). America’s response, the so called ‘War on Terror’, maintains this high level of attention, in particular because of the ongoing military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Despite the considerable brief and easy military operation, victory in the sense of a stable peace is still far out of sight. On the contrary, both countries are beyond political control (Porteus 2006, §§ 1-4), bombings and repeating attacks are happening on a daily basis, and the potential number of adversaries is growing (Scheurer 2007, § 25). In the effort to provide course corrections for the ‘Long War’, among other things, the applicability of conventional military operations came in question of living up to the given task (Roxborough 2006, pp. 49-50). Whereas some experts, concentrating on traditional threats, opt for only minor tactical alterations, others believe that the scope of warfare has fundamentally changed (Hirst 2007, pp. 178-179). However, this essay will argue that despite the persistence of traditional threats, the current ‘War on Terror’ represents the transition of the mode of conflict into a new era of warfare. After shortly reviewing the traditionalist position, the paper will examine the characteristics of current warfare in the effort to combat terrorism. Thereby a closer look will be taken at the nature of potential enemies, their operational setting and the role of information and media, before drawing on the evaluation of modern warfare in an age of globalisation.

Old wine in new bottles

Emanating from a traditional perspective, war of the last centuries differs from current or future war only in its technological progress, which in turn only led to minor tactical changes (Arquilla 2007, pp. 371-378). A cornerstone of this point of view is the unchanging nature of war itself (Clausewitz 1976, p. 606). War always remains subject to politics, applied to enforce political will on others (Clausewitz 1976, p. 605). In order to achieve this aim, war is waged with a variety of methods and strategies.

Terrorism is considered as just one method among others (Fromkin 1975, pp. 692-693), which “has been a part of war for a long time” (Arquilla 2007, p. 382). Following Arquilla (2007, p. 377), modern terrorism is strategic, and, “though, waged by small hit squads, may have much more in common with strategic bombardment than with small-unit tactics”. Like conventional aerial bombings, terrorist strikes are designed to undermine “the will of enemy civilians to support their government […]. Both forms of war [… conventional and irregular] seek to impose severe and growing economic costs on their targets” (Arquilla 2007, p. 377). Throughout history humans have employed conventional and unconventional methods alternately, moreover, as sudden as terrorism appeared in different contexts, it did so only transitory, playing a minor role in international relations (Ikenbery & Kupchan 2004, pp. 42-44). As an outstanding modern example the Vietnam War illustrates how irregular tactics were applied, but eventually disappeared after the conflict (Asprey 1994, pp. 792-829). Terrorist strikes are not the rule, but the exception in war fighting. Since traditionalists do not observe any indication that terrorism is “bound to be the dominant trend in the future” (Grey 2005, p. 19), it ”should be added to the list of more traditional priorities, not come at their expense” (Ikenbery & Kupchan 2004, p. 43). Consequently, the ‘War on Terror’ does not seem to alter the scope of warfare.

Great Powers remain

Additionally, traditionalists refer to nation states as the most powerful actors in the international arena. Even if terrorism is the primary security issue momentarily, “conventional state to state conflict is not so improbable that we can afford to dismiss it” (White 2005, p. 261). On the contrary, traditionalists emphasise that “the defining threats of the century most likely will stem from a dangerous combination of the return of great-power geopolitical rivalry and an accelerating global environmental crisis” (Grey 2005, p. 23). “Over the course of the next decade, Japan may tire of always following America's lead, China will emerge as a major power, and Russia, India and Brazil are poised to become stronger and more assertive players” (Ikenbery & Kupchan 2004, p. 41). Given the rising demand of energy and further economic disputes between states (Mearsheimer & Brzezinksi 2005, p. 46), conventional military and deterrence will prevail over momentarily occurring terroristic incidents (Ikenbery 2002, pp. 48-54). Compared to those traditional concerns, the terrorist strikes of 11 September are perceived to be just not important enough to have decisive influence on the future of warfare or even represent a new era.

The new world order

However, there are serious arguments as well as developments indicating that conventional 20th century war fails to address the complexities of the 21st century and, therefore, a new era of warfare is at its dawn. Thereby, it is not the inherent nature of war that has changed, but, to put it in Clausewitz’s (1976, p. 606) terms, its “grammar”. First of all, the strategic environment has fundamentally changed. Whilst interstate war is in decline, irregular warfare and civil conflicts are spreading (Englhart & Kurzman 2006, p. 1957). Given the economic enmeshment and interdependence resulting from the forces of globalisation, war between nation states “has become not only politically but also economically unattractive for the developed countries [… because] the costs outweigh the returns” (Münkler 2003, p. 12). Precisely those countries who posess the necessary means to fund expensive technologies and large conventional militaries, have the least interest in deploying them, because, being “fully integrated into global capital markets [, they] are unwilling to risk the economic disruptions that war inevitably brings” (Dupont 2003, p. 62). Poorer states on the other hand “are preoccupied with the problem of governance and national survival” and, as Dupont (2003, p. 61; p. 63) observes, they lack “the resources to mount invasions or cut trade routes” in the first place. As the ongoing ‘War on Terrorism’ exemplifies, current conflicts are increasingly asymmetric and unconventional.


Excerpt out of 11 pages


How does (if at all) the 'War on Terror' represent a different era from the 20th century's conventional wars?
Macquarie University
IRPG 831 Politics, Law & Morality of International Political Violence
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
532 KB
short essay 7 pages text 3 pages sources no index
War, 20th Century, War on Terror, New Wars, Conventional Wars, International Relations, 21st Century
Quote paper
Sebastian Plappert (Author), 2007, How does (if at all) the 'War on Terror' represent a different era from the 20th century's conventional wars? , Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Look inside the ebook
Title: How does (if at all) the 'War on Terror' represent a different era from the 20th century's conventional wars?

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free