Historical patterns show that societal progress or prosperity doesn’t necessarily eliminate conflict, challenging the idea of a peaceful modern society due to education and wealth.
The relative peace post-World War II was not due to societal mindset shift, but the dominance of superpowers USA and USSR, with nuclear war threat preventing direct confrontation.
With diminishing American global influence and the rise of powers like China and Russia, historical trends suggest we could be heading towards another world war, potentially resulting in a higher death toll and protracted conflict.
Today’s great powers, unlike during the world wars, are defined by aging populations, industries dependent on foreign imports, and a lack of loyalty to the state, leading to an inability to fully mobilise for war and instead resulting in low-intensity, long-lasting conflicts.
The potential upcoming world war could mirror the 16th century—a time of high inequality, distrust of authority, and factionalism—which led to significant population declines due to economic downturn, epidemics, famine, and societal collapse, shaping the new world order much like the 30-year war shaped the modern West.
A common mistake we make about history is to narrow our perception of the time frame we reference.
We blind ourselves to the more lasting patterns that define how our societies evolve and progress.
One of the biggest mistaken assumptions we make is our modern society, being more educated and prosperous, would be free of conflict.
However, 80 years, by the standards of humanity’s long history, is merely a glancing moment.
It was not long that educated people from industrialised nations were embroiled in the world’s deadliest conflict.
The ’peace’ that emerged was not due to a shift in the general mindset of society but because the two superpowers dwarfed the rest of the world by a wide margin so it made sense for nations to align with one or the other rather than oppose them.
And as for these two powers, they avoided a direct confrontation due to nuclear arms ensuring a mutually assured distraction.
And once the USSR collapsed, there really was no one that could challenge the USA so peace enforced by the sole superpower followed.
That, now, as shown by an increasingly confrontational China, Russia, and others, is changing.
Many say that, especially as America’s global influence declines, we might be heading towards another world war.
Indeed, this is what history tells us.
In 12 out of 16 times in the past 500 years, the relative decline of a ruling power has led to a conflict with one that is rising.
But this coming war won’t play out as we tend to imagine it.
Rather, it would be far worse in terms of the death toll.
Instead of mass infantry supported by mechanised divisions engaged in decisive battles to quickly conclude the war, fighting would be piecemeal and drawn out.
Victory would not be a result of any decisive battle but rather the inability of a faction to commit any further to the fight.
The conditions that allowed for a ‘total war’ scenario simply aren’t there.
Nations involved in the world wars had young populations, industries largely self-reliant, and possessed deeply nationalistic societies that could be mobilised for full commitment to the war effort.
In contrast, today’s great powers all have aging populations, industries (or lack thereof) reliant on foreign imports, and a general society that harbours little loyalty to the State.
No great power today can expect to mobilise itself entirely toward a conflict.
And this isn’t my hypothesis.
Considering the real world, look at the Syrian civil war, for example, which has been going on for more than 12 years.
The same situation is emerging in the Ukraine–Russia conflict where the war front has effectively frozen.
Almost all wars of the 21st century feature low-intensity fighting and tend to last for years.
If a war were to break out between China and the USA, instead of a nuclear exchange or heated total war, it would be a long-drawn-out conflict, with more and more states slowly dragged into the conflict as it progressed.
And seeing the emerging trends, I cannot help but draw a comparison to the world of the 16th century, which, much like today, was characterised by high levels of inequality, growing distrust of authority, and growing factionalism.
While not discussed in history textbooks, this period saw one of the worst declines in human population as a direct result of man-made disasters.
The 30-year war, for instance, depopulated regions by as much as 50 percent (and by comparison, the worst impacted nation in World War II, the USSR, only lost 12% of its population).
Most people died not as a result of the war itself but the resulting economic decline, epidemics, famine, and collapse of social order.
The aftermath would define the new world order that emerges after just as the 30-year war came to shape the modern West.
And so, I pray:
O Almighty God, our Lord, the Alpha and Omega, hear the cries of your children, yearning for peace.
Breathe, O Breath of Life, upon the winds of the world, disperse the shadows of hostility and pride, that we may see our kin, not enemies, in your Light.
For those consumed by avarice and power’s allure, illuminate their paths with the lamp of discernment.
By the wounds of Christ our Redeemer, Transform the instruments of war into tools of peace and harmony.
As the mustard seed grows into a mighty tree, let the seeds of peace flourish across nations.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
George Christensen was a Member of Parliament from 2010 - 2022 who popularly represented the federal electorate of Dawson in north Queensland for the LNP, part of the Government coalition. He explores both the big philosophical questions of our time and current events from a conservative worldview. He comes from a farming family and his background is in journalism and business.
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