A new volatile multipolar world order is taking shape while memories of past major wars start to fade. It is high time for a new anti-war politics that could meet the challenges posed by this evolving global landscape.
In the modern world, history writing orbits around the nation. Historians identify and organize their subject matter with reference to nations; histories are often about the development of nations and nation-states, even distant pasts conceived as preliminary to present-day national sovereignties; the study and reception of histories take place in national academies and civil societies; and the subjects of those histories, the people they are about, are forever talking about nations, and perhaps even fighting for one. Of course, there are many exceptions to these generalizations. But one can see here how a particular image of world politics, a world of nations and nation-states, organizes knowledge about history. This image of the world functions as a potentially unexamined assumption.
To be sure, the contemporary world is international; its primary actors are sovereign and national states. But this has not always been the case, even in the not-too-distant past, which saw a world of empires and colonies undermined by the half-century of the two world wars. More fundamentally, as global and transnational historians hasten to point out, even in a world formally organized in terms of nation-states and international governmental organizations (IGOs, like the UN), constitutive relations cross all manner of borders, interconnecting people and places, states and societies.
I make these points to draw out how an image of world politics, a presumption about international order, organizes a field of knowledge and practice and can do so behind our backs without aforethought. Nations and nationalism similarly organize thought and practice about war. Here, too, there are obvious exceptions, not least the militant networks that occasioned the Global War on Terror. But that war was declared and conducted by nation-states and alliances of nation-states and largely fought by national armed forces.
A major part of the West’s response to terror attacks by transnational networks operating under the banner of global Islam was to invade two sovereign states, Afghanistan and Iraq, and to attempt colonial-style nation-building under fire. The networks are not all on the side of the militants, however, for professional soldiers — even ones in contemporary national armed forces — are also a transnational class, with rich interconnections and entwined histories. As with history and historical knowledge, we have in war a field defined in terms of nations but underwritten by transnational constitution.
I draw this parallel between history and war in order to tease out some of the ways our thinking about war too readily presumes a world of nation-states, even when we recognize that conflicts are some combination of local, transnational, and global in character. This presumption risks misunderstanding the social and political terrain across which wars are fought as well as the ways in which wars potentially rework this terrain. Reflexive and critical thinking about war, the basis of any serious anti-war politics, needs to attend to the way in which images of world politics organize knowledge and practices of war. This is to put my point abstractly. Let me give it some exemplary flesh.
From the Imperial to the International
The “national liberation” trope hangs over thinking about the post-1945 wars of decolonization. The wars in Indochina that saw off the French empire and their American successors are often conceived as wars of Vietnamese national independence. Indeed, the liberal left critique of the American war in Vietnam repeatedly emphasized that the Vietnamese communists drew their political strength from Vietnamese nationalism and that the US was essentially at war with a national people seeking liberation from empire. Even when they claim otherwise, such arguments conceive national peoples as immutable subjects of history, across time and circumstance, ultimately irrepressible by even the mightiest of empires.
That is not a convincing historical sociology of any nationalism, much less one that tries to make sense of Indochina and its wars. The teleology of the nation-state organizes interpretation of the past. In fact, Vietnamese communists, in their conduct of the war and the course of the war itself, produced a Vietnamese nationalism and state. Rather than a war fought by a nation in being, it was a nationalizing war, a distinction crucial to understanding the conflict (and to anti-essentialist inquiry).
Note additionally the way the national binaries — France/Vietnam, USA/Vietnam — shape our perception. One dimension that drops out is the multiethnic imperial forces, regional allies, clients and mercenaries, and even the White Commonwealth — in the form of Australian and New Zealand troops — that helped prosecute the war. West and North African colonial units, and Foreign Legion units filled with German veterans of the Second World War, fought for the French empire in Indochina, while South Koreans, Thais, Cambodians, Laotians, indigenous peoples, and others assisted the Americans and the South Vietnamese regime they sought to stand up.
The way that imperial armed forces of the last century disappeared from national military memory and history in the West works similarly. Even the British are prone to forget that the Indian Army fought alongside them in two world wars or that they still have a brigade of Gurkhas.
From the perspective of world order, wars of decolonization create international relations out of imperial relations. In 1919 and 1944-45, the great powers, particularly the Anglo-Americans, sought to shift the colonial question to International Governmental Organizations (IGOs) in the form of the League of Nations and the United Nations (UN).The Nazis had discredited racial hierarchy as a legitimate organizing principle of world politics; colonial public spheres demanded self-governance and social welfare; and anti-colonial resistance increased security costs.
Better to have a world of small, penetrable sovereign states tied informally and economically to former colonial powers —as in FranceAfrica —than to bear the political and economic burden of maintaining colonial empires. The US had trialed this kind of anti-colonial, informal imperialism in Latin America. Direct and expensive occupation was only for extreme circumstances. Better to intervene with espionage, covert action, and assistance to like-minded political parties and economic elites, along with military advice and support, to keep the subordinate but formally independent state in line.
This plan for a “UN world” was only ever partially successful. The Soviet and Chinese communists and their allies offered a significant challenge, while the formally colonized states became adept at using the UN system to their own advantage. They created a non-aligned movement and played off the superpowers against one another. Many anti-colonial thinkers grasped that “national sovereignty” was a paltry reward for a century or more of murderous and exploitative colonial rule. Worse, they understood that the colonial powers would seek to hand over their government and its economic monopolies to a class of clients, keeping everyone in line with colonial military and police forces rebadged as national authorities. Frantz Fanon reflected this thinking in the early 1960s when he quipped during the Congo crisis, “quick…[d]ecolonize the Congo before it turns into another Algeria.”
Far from national liberation, from the point of view of imperial powers, decolonization was potentially a tactic for continued international hierarchy. As the French started to lose the war in Vietnam, they partially decolonized Indochina, creating Laos, Cambodia and a state of Vietnam within a French Union. More generally, from 1945, many wars in the so-called Third World were formally understood as “civil wars” or internal conflicts, in which foreign powers assisted clients in either taking or maintaining power. Properly interpreting these wars, I have been arguing, requires attending to their world-order dimensions.
This UN world, or the American-centered world order, is far from dead. Its great institutions, NATO, and the array of IGOs grouped around the UN and the WTO are still very much alive. The Ukraine war — a war of decolonization from Russian empire — has breathed new political life into it. Human rights, international law, and humanitarian intervention are all bound up in the array of institutions that make up the UN world. These are the primary vehicles through which activists and liberal political forces seek to contain war, limit its violence, and provide assistance and refuge to its victims.
They do so through a variety of legal and political means that are defined in terms of a world of sovereign and national states governed by overarching liberal principles. The imperial background of this world and its role in maintaining informal imperial relations along with racial hierarchy is only dimly grasped. Indeed, the UN world is often understood by liberals as the very opposite of empire, a world in which nations are free.
The Waning UN World and the Future of Anti-War Politics
While the UN world may not be dead, it is in relative decline. It lacks the grip on the Global South that the West maintained through the Cold War, neoliberalism and the debt politics of the 1990s, which it attempted to reassert in the War on Terror. FranceAfrica is no more, while the formally colonized countries have failed to rally around Western support for Ukraine’s struggle. Perhaps more importantly, the liberal politics I have been describing, of rights, law, and humanitarian intervention, no longer pulsate through the world’s masses or even through Western publics.
Indeed, the West has turned inward, involved once again in a potentially existential struggle with its own far-right and White supremacists. The days when Western teenagers sang en masse the humanitarian rock anthem “Do they know it’s Christmas?” are long over. This has left a professional class of NGO activists, IGO staff, international lawyers, and their allies struggling to uphold the UN order’s efforts to contain, constrain, and limit the harms of war. Meanwhile, those who make war are availing themselves of new politics and technologies, from resurgent fascism and social media to drones and the mass use of precision-guided munitions, while major war and a one-thousand-mile front return to Europe.
Two upshots emerge from this discussion. The first is that understanding a war, whether to fight it better or to end it, requires understanding its relations with world order. To be sure, some wars are merely local, while others are only tangentially connected to questions of world order. Either way, war has a way of consuming the political and social relations which give rise to it, producing new politics and taken for-granted truths, transforming societies and cultures in the process. This is true of war’s relations with local and global orders.
My second conclusion is that our anti-war and humanitarian politics are fatally bound up with the UN world. As such, they have increasingly less political purchase and often confused understanding of the wars they oppose and try to ameliorate. Ukraine is a struggle deeply connected to the American-centered world of formally independent but subordinate states. Ukraine desires admission into key Western institutions like the EU and NATO, and its war effort is being sustained through the modalities of advice and assistance to a sovereign state. This allows the US and its allies to support Ukraine without being “formally” involved in the war. This war has utterly disorganized the anti-war movement.
Many on the left in the West blame NATO expansion for the war and want to stop Western support for Ukraine. Certainly, the West’s shock capitalism response to the breakup of the Soviet Union played an essential role in setting the stage for the war. But is the point of anti-war politics to grant a victory to Russian imperialism and to countenance what would become a violent occupation?
Liberals want the war to be fought cleanly and according to international law, opposing cluster bombs to Ukraine while Russian forces lay thousands of mines, many plastic. This stance, entirely in line with the UN world, has the paradoxical effect of othering Russia, demanding that Putin and his generals be tried in criminal tribunals and that Russia be expelled from the political and economic institutions of the free world.
This has potentially escalatory effects, the language of war crimes closing off routes to a negotiated settlement. Such a settlement requires accepting Russia as a legitimate power. It is one of the only ways the fighting might be brought to a stop short of disastrous escalation involving fighting beyond Ukraine or the use of nuclear weapons, or both, or the collapse of Putin’s regime and a catastrophic Russian civil war.
Such contradictory, ineffective stances and their potentially unintended outcomes demand a new anti-war politics and new modalities of opposing and limiting war’s violence. These new politics must adapt to the decline of the UN world and creatively respond to the dangerous, unbound multipolar world into which we are emerging. A world where living memory of the world wars has nearly died out, and new generations find themselves in the grip of war’s diabolical excitements.
 “’History’ as a knowledge system is firmly embedded in institutional practices that invoke the nation-state at every step.” Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), p. 41.
 See e.g. Sebastian Conrad, What is Global History? (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017).
 For discussion and citations on this point, see Tarak Barkawi, “Decolonizing War,” European Journal of International Security, Vol. 1, #2 (July 2016), pp. 199-214.
 See e.g. Neil Sheehan, Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam (New York: Vintage, 1989).
 See e.g. Christopher Goscha, The Road to Dien Bien Phu: A History of the First War for Vietnam (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2022); Christian Lentz, Contested Territory: Dien Bien Phu and the Making of Northwest Vietnam (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019).
 Michael Geyer and Charles Bright, “Global Violence and Nationalizing Wars in Eurasia and America: The Geopolitics of War in the Mid-Nineteenth Century,” Comparative Studies in Discourse and Society, Vol. 38, No. 4 (October 1996), pp. 619-657.
 Mark Mazower, No Enchanted Palace: The End of Empire and the Ideological Origins of the United Nations (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013).
 On these points, see e.g. Neil Smith, American Empire: Roosevelt’s Geographer and the Prelude to Globalization (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2004).
 See e.g. Adom Getachew, World Making after Empire: The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020).
 Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1967), p. 55.
 See e.g. Stephen Hopgood, The Endtimes of Human Rights (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2013).