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Why do we still look at Conflicts through 19th Century Glasses?

By Rob Marchant – Senior Fellow.

17th September 2013, Human Rights and Conflict Resolution, Issue 3, No. 13.

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In the comfortable West we sometimes forget that, having lived 66 years without a major war, the geopolitical situation still changes in ways which directly affect us, one way or the other.  The most stark wake-up call we had of this fact happened almost 10 years ago in New York, but with the memory fading of this and the London bombings, we start to forget that it was a signal of a substantially changed world. We shouldn’t.

Think about this: in the 19th century, wars were naval and land wars, fought mostly with human and not material resources. The implication of this was, it matters if a country is a long way away from you. Rich countries didn’t really need to worry too much about fighting off long-distance foreign invaders, because it was too hard for them to attack. There was no air bombing, no medium-range missiles and no GPS localisation of targets. In simple terms, “far away” equalled “not a threat we need to worry about”. It was a comforting and intuitive way of thinking.

Funnily enough, in the 21st Century, the proximity argument for classifying threats has, perhaps counter-intuitively, become rather irrelevant. Because you can be attacked even within your own country, by people from a country on the other side of the world with precious few resources, as we found out to our cost ten years ago. Everyone is now a neighbour, whether we like it or not.

But still we persist in differentiating between an attack on, say, an EU country, which would elicit an immediate response from the international community, whereas one a few miles further away in North Africa would not. The awful reality is that all these conflicts now have the capacity to affect us, if not in the short term, then in the long.  This is not a new argument – it’s something that’s been around for a while – but strangely many of us persist in the “Chamberlain defence”.

Finally try, for a moment, to put yourself inside the twisted mind of Osama Bin Laden. If you were a terrorist leader, where would you be looking as the most fertile ground right now?  Of course – where there is discord and instability.  You would be training up volunteers to go to Libya, Egypt and Tunisia – just as, in fact, you trained them to go to Iraq, once you realised there was an opportunity there. It’s like an investment in a 12th century future: your little nest-egg against the encroachment of liberty and civilisation. And, be clear, this is not scaremongering: it’s what all the previous evidence, as well as current indications, leads you to expect.

In the 21st century, anywhere in the world where there are Moslems unhappy with the West, terrorists will be homing in and setting up cells. Count on it. It is just not good enough to think that that doesn’t affect us, and that we will be able to fix it all with a good round of judicious diplomacy.

Rob Marchant is contactable at:


Please cite this article as:

Marchant, R. (2013) ‘Why do we still look at Conflicts through 19th Century Glasses?’ Human Security Centre, Human Rights and Conflict Resolution, Issue 3, No. 13.

About Rob Marchant

Rob Marchant is a Senior Fellow at the HSC. He is a political commentator, management and communications consultant, Labour activist, social entrepreneur and blogger. He previously worked as a senior manager for the Labour Party through the 2001 and 2005 general election campaigns. He writes for The Centre Left and, as well as in the New Statesman,the Huffington Post and in his regular column at LabourList, publishes at LabourUncut, Left Foot Forward, Harry’s Place and Progress.