21 Jun 2023

Will the coming years be defined by warfare?

Many fear that the coming years will be marked by increased conflict between the world’s major powers. But war is not inevitable – if we are prepared to work at it.


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A few years ago, the idea of a major war in Europe and the threat of a war over Taiwan or even a civil war in the US would not have featured very high on most people’s lists of predictions. Even during the height of the Covid-19 lockdowns in 2020, the prospect of a major war would not have featured as a genuine threat in most people’s minds.

Yet what was unthinkable two years ago is now uppermost in most people’s minds. At the time of writing, the war continues to rage in Ukraine, with a swift resolution looking highly unlikely. Meanwhile, as tensions between China and the US continue to rise, an invasion of Taiwan by the former can no longer be regarded as a fanciful idea. At the same time, the Middle East, one of the theatres of ongoing conflict since World War Two, could see further hostility, perhaps between Iran and the likes of Saudi Arabia and Israel.

How did we come to this? Is further war inevitable or can we avoid further bloodshed and turmoil?

To answer this question, we perhaps need to look back at human history and the last 80 years or so in particular. For much of human history, particularly since the introduction of agriculture and the creation of nation-states, war has been an almost constant phenomenon.

However, the end of the bloodiest war in history, the Second World War, ushered in a period of relative peace. The psychologist Stephen Pinker, in his 2011 book ‘The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined’, argued that humankind has become more peaceful over time, thanks to historical factors such as commerce, institutions, the spread of knowledge and more cosmopolitan societies, that have allowed us to cooperate and use methods other than violence to resolve our problems.

These factors were all allowed to take hold after the Second World War, especially in the West, as the world emerged from the destruction caused by the fighting between the Allied and Axis forces. Western Europe, in particular, shocked and scarred by the wreckage and death that it had just seen, resolved to do better, and turned to trade and cooperation rather than warfare, learning quickly that nations that traded freely with one another were less likely to go to war, at least not with each other.

Many of the institutions that have helped build peace were born in the post-war years, including the free trade agreements that were the forerunners of the European Union. The result is that there have been no wars in Western Europe since then.

The United Nations was also born in the post-war period and, despite its flaws, has done a far better job than its predecessor, the League of Nations, in keeping the peace.

Furthermore, the two sides in the so-called Cold War that marked the decades after the Second World War generally fought out their differences in smaller conflicts and proxy wars, rather than in direct conflict. Arguably this was the result of the consciousness of the destruction that a direct war would have caused: the fear of a nuclear war – also known as mutually assured destruction – undoubtedly played its part in preventing outright war between the West and the Soviet bloc in the latter half of the 20th century.


The deadliness of wars – average battle deaths per conflict by decade, 1950-2016


ave number of deaths

The decline of wars between ‘Great Powers’


decline of wars


Today, however, this Long Peace, as historians have dubbed it, is under threat and we need to start looking at what a less peaceful time might hold in store for us.

Two concepts perhaps help us to make sense of this. One is a thesis about how national rivalries resolve themselves, while the other is a generational theory. We cover each in turn.

From Athens and Sparta to Washington and Beijing

In 2012, Graham Allison, a US political scientist, coined the term the Thucydides Trap, to describe a tendency toward war when an emerging power threatens the domination of an existing power. The name comes from an ancient Athenian general and historian called Thucydides, who wrote in ‘History of the Peloponnesian War’ that “it was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable”.

Allison was referring to the growing rivalry between the emerging power, China, and the currently dominant power, the US, and expanded further on the concept in his 2017 book, ‘Destined for War’.

Allison identified 16 cases of the Thucydides trap over the last 600 years, most of which have resulted in war, as detailed in the table below.



Source: Belfer Centre for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, 2017


While the picture painted by Allison is a chilling one, there is a glimmer of hope. As noted above, humans have become better at avoiding war in recent times than in previous periods of history, partly out of fear of the destruction war causes, but also due to what Pinker called the “civilising” effect of trade and the exchange of ideas. Where lucrative trade and investment projects are at stake, nations are less likely to settle their differences through conflict. Similarly, shared ideals about democracy and culture can play a peacemaking role between nations.

(As an aside, Ray Dalio, in his recent book ‘Principles for Dealing with the Changing World Order: Why Nations Succeed and Fail’ looked at some of the social and economic factors that cause nations to become dominant and then lose this dominance, often culminating in conflict with a rising power. Many of these underlying, non-military forces determine the outcomes.)

Generational changes can also play a role in the conflict between and within nations, which leads us to our next theory.

The Fourth Turning

In 1997, Neil Howe and William Strauss wrote a book called “The Fourth Turning”, which pointed to 2020 as the midpoint of an important phase in history. 

The Fourth Turning referred to in the book (about which, more further below) is a once in every 80 years point in history (US history in particular) usually marked by war. In 2020, at the height of the pandemic, such a notion of military conflict seemed far-fetched. However, the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, alongside increased global tensions between the US and China has changed all of that.

“The Fourth Turning” pointed to 2020 as the midpoint of an important phase in history. The book expanded on a previous book by the authors, called “Generations”, on which a great deal of our thinking about generations is based (the authors were the ones who coined the term millennial, for example).

Broadly, the books talk about the cycles of societal change in the world, using human generations as a base. The books are heavily focused on the Anglo-American world and the US in particular, but they are relevant to other societies as well.

Howe and Strauss set out a generational theory built around generational changes (or turnings) which take place every 20 years or so, during which there is a fundamental shift in ideas, thinking and the ways that people see themselves. These then make up a cycle of four such turnings, or a period of about 80 years, which the authors call a saeculum.

They explain the four turnings that make up a saeculum thus:

  • The first turning (which we can equate to spring) is a high, characterised by an optimistic era of strengthening institutions and weakening individualism when a new civic order is established and the old values regime decays.
  • The second turning (summer) is an awakening, a passionate era of spiritual upheaval when the current civic order comes under attack from a new values regime.
  • The third turning (autumn) is an unravelling, a more downcast, cynical era of heightened individualism and weakening institutions. Here the old order is in decay and a new values regime come to the fore.
  • The fourth turning (winter) is a crisis, an era of secular upheaval when the values regime propels the replacement of the old civic order with a new one.

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An opportunity to reset

The fourth turning of each saeculum has historically culminated in a major war, which brings great destruction, but also an opportunity to reset. 

Howe and Strauss explain in some detail the saecula relating to Anglo-American history, going back to the 15th century. Historically, the fourth turning of each saeculum has culminated in a major war, which brings great destruction, but also an opportunity to reset. The authors note the wars that marked the fourth turnings of the last three saecula in the US:

  • The American War of Independence of 1776 to 1783, which culminated in the birth of the US.
  • The American Civil War of 1861 to 1865, which ended slavery in the southern states of the US.
  • The Second World War of 1939 to 1945, in which the Axis powers were defeated.

Each of these wars was a culmination of a period of great upheaval and discontent among the people toward their governments. For example, while the American War of Independence was sparked by the American colonies’ dissatisfaction at having to pay high taxes to the British crown, it was also an expression of the extent to which the colonies having developed the “critical mass” to break free from British rule. The years building up to the Second World War had also seen the Great Depression, the rise of fascism in Europe and a general decline in cooperation between countries.

Are we now at a similar point? This is where the words of Howe and Strauss in 1997 seem eerily prophetic, given events and trends like the Global Financial Crisis, the rise of populism, trade wars and no a real war in Ukraine and the threat of a new war in Taiwan:

“Political and economic trust will implode. Real hardship will beset the land, with severe distress that could involve questions of class, race, nation, and empire. Yet this time of trouble will bring seeds of social rebirth.

“Around the year 2005, a sudden spark will catalyse a Crisis mood. Remnants of the old social order will disintegrate. Political and economic trust will implode. Real hardship will beset the land, with severe distress that could involve questions of class, race, nation, and empire. Yet this time of trouble will bring seeds of social rebirth. Americans will share a regret about recent mistakes—and a resolute new consensus about what to do. The very survival of the nation will feel at stake. Sometime before the year 2025, America will pass through a great gate in history, commensurate with the American Revolution, Civil War, and twin emergencies of the Great Depression and World War II.”

A civil war in the US?

To the above theatres of actual and possible war, we can add another – a possible civil war in the US. A recent survey revealed that some 43% of Americans believe that a civil war was at least somewhat likely in the next 10 years, as political differences become entrenched and fault lines widen. In such a scenario, where some states and regions feel that their values and rights are at odds with those of the central government, they will seek to secede.

Speaking in November 2020, Howe said the following:

“The fifth scenario that we described — and hasn’t happened yet (remember we wrote this book in 1997) — is a secession crisis. I think that possibility is still on the table. If it does happen it won’t happen among the blue zone states. It would be a red zone movement, and that’s something to watch for.”

Despite the horrors that a possible war could hold for us all, Howe and Strauss made a positive assertion: “As the old civic order gives way, Americans will have to craft a new one. This will require a values consensus and, to administer it, the empowerment of a strong new political regime. If all goes well, there could be a renaissance of civic trust, and more: Today's Third Turning problems—that Rubik's Cube of crime, race, money, family, culture, and ethics —will snap into a Fourth Turning solution. America's post-Crisis answers will be as organically interconnected as today's pre-Crisis questions seem hopelessly tangled. By the 2020s, America could become a society that is good, by today's standards, and also one that works.”

How reliable and useful is the four turnings model for understanding our increasingly complex world? The model is certainly heavily Anglo-American centred, which may make it less relevant in a world where demographics in other parts of the world are becoming more important, such as China, India or Sub-Saharan Africa. Nonetheless, it’s a useful template for assessing the patterns of change.

As Pinker asserts, a more peaceful world is not inevitable, but nor is a lurch back into a more warlike world. Sanctions against Russia may well help to contain the war in Ukraine. The civilising role of trade and the realisation of the economic and human cost an invasion will incur may dissuade China from war with Taiwan. Civil war in the US may not be as inevitable as is made out by the polls.

Nonetheless, we have no reason to be resting on any peace-induced laurels. The next decade could be a crucial one in human history.

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