For most of modern history, wars were fought between nations – France against Germany, Italy against Austria, England against France, Japan against China, America against Germany, Japan, North Vietnam, and so on. While the nature and character of each war differed, what they all had in common was the impulse and justification of nationalism.
During the colonial period, nationalism focused on controlling resources, shipping lanes, and commerce. During World War II, nationalism focused on the control of territory and the imposition of absolutist political systems. The cold war between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. was fueled and fed by nationalism and the belief that furthering or protecting the national interest was justification enough to risk war.
The world remains dominated by nationalism, the intention of the United Nations aside. Countries develop and pursue policies and strategies attuned to the specific aspirations of each county. Internationally recognized borders and increasingly available and sophisticated weaponry have further solidified nationalism as humanity’s conventional mode of national expression. And yet, for the past decade, most wars have not been between nations, but within them.
It is highly unlikely that England and France will wage war against each other ever again. And while Pakistan and India spend considerable time posturing and threatening each other, it is also unlikely that one will invade the other. A primary reason for this is the growing instability within sovereign nations; in many countries governments are at war against their own highly armed citizens.
The United States, having waged a brief war against Saddam Hussein in Iraq has spent most of the past decade trying to broker peace between Iraq’s internal Sunni and Shiite factions. In Afghanistan, the U.S. is allied with the Afghan government against Afghan Taliban insurgents. The Chinese army is suppressing Uighurs and Tibetans, Somalia and Yemen are embroiled in internal wars, Thailand targeted its Buddhist monks, Nepal is fighting its Maoists, and Russia continues its war against rebels in the Chechnaya region.
While much is made about the threat of Islamic terrorists in the U.S. little attention is paid to the probability of overt violence by radicalized ultra-right-wing Americans. As documented by Morris Dee’s Southern Poverty Law Center in its monthly Intelligence Report, extremist movements that challenge the legitimacy of the federal government and its agencies such as the IRS and departments of Education and Health and Human Services, pose a real and present danger to national stability. Combined with a fetish for weapons, hate-group ideologues and conspiracy-inspired extremists are murdering police, crashing planes into federal buildings and planning assassinations.
Just as war in the rest of the world has become largely internalized, so this same danger exists for America. The fear of foreign terrorism inclines our government to exercise greater control over the rights of individuals while domestic violence-prone fringe groups are heavily arming themselves and planning operations against what they see as illegitimate federal power.
Historically, nationalism and its imperatives have been used as an effective tool to divert and transform internal violence into violence against another nation and it’s likely that nationalistic wars will still occur. However, if little attention continues to be paid to the rapid growth of well-armed organized hate-groups and violent extremists, America, like much of the rest of the world, will find itself embroiled in its own internal war, and it will not be pretty.