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READ: Conflicts Between Countries since 1945

Despite the suffering caused by the world wars, conflict between states still happens today. Why? And what can we do about it?

Conflicts Between Countries since 1945

By Trevor Getz
Despite the suffering caused by the world wars, conflict between states still happens today. Why? And what can we do about it?

War and history

Wars can seem to dominate history. They define generations and mark changes in government, become the stuff of national narratives and myths. They are also devastating and horrible to experience. People who went through the First World War were so traumatized that they optimistically called it “the war to end all wars.” Clearly, it wasn’t. In fact, there hasn’t been a year without war since the end of the Second World War, and some periods – including the years since 2000 – have seen 100,000 people or more killed directly in wars every year.
A chart showing the number of deaths directly from war, since the end of the Second World War in 1945. From Our World in Data.

Why do wars happen?

“So why do wars exist?”, you might well ask. “Can’t we prevent them?”
Well, we can begin to answer these questions by asking whether war is somehow innate for humans—that is, something natural within us. Scholars who work in the field known as social identity theory argue that humans innately like belonging to groups. Members of one group are happy to treat the members of another group with prejudice, even if there is no rational basis for their behavior. If you have any doubt about that, think about the violence that happens between fans in large sporting events, even though the fans of different teams who play the same sport usually have a lot in common. There is an ongoing discussion about why we evolved to behave this way, but there is compelling evidence that humans naturally have these emotional prejudices and allegiances.
Still, wars demand more specific explanations as well. Wars may ignite for economic reasons—to raise the standard of living of one nation’s citizens by forcibly taking the resources of another nation, or forcing them to adopt policies your country favors. Wars are also fought because of disagreements over key ideas, like religion. Their motives often have a long history behind them, such as revenge or the retaking territory once lost. Domestic politics can also play a big role. Rulers find that identifying an outside enemy, and making war on them, conveniently distracts people from troubles like a bad economy or corruption within the country.
Some scholars argue that we should see wars as a failure of normal situations, instead of something entirely natural. They argue that normally, humans are able to bargain with each other in some way. This is what defines diplomacy: helping states talk to each other about their needs and figure out situations that will benefit everyone. When bargaining fails, or breaks down, one result can be war. This theory assumes that people are normally rational, and so they must prefer to bargain, and that war only results when the bargaining fails. But remember that social identity theorists would generally disagree, as they see violence, including war, as part of our nature.
Let’s look at a couple of late-twentieth century conflicts to try to understand why they happened.


India and Pakistan are two states that became independent together in 1947 – 1948. That’s because they were both part of the same British colony. But when anti-colonial activists and shifts in public opinion drove the British out, that colony broke into several parts. The bordering regions of India and Pakistan were different in a few ways, but most importantly Pakistan was majority-Muslim and India was majority-Hindu. As a result, their populations had religious differences. In addition, they disagreed over who was to control a region lying on their border, with a very diverse population, called Kashmir. Finally, there was quite a bit of violence when independence came to the two countries, often between Muslims and Hindus who lived near each other, and this led to a cycle of revenge attacks in 1947 and 1948.
Map of India and Pakistan upon independence, showing the areas of conflict, including Kashmir. By RaviC, CC BY-SA 4.0.
The conflict between the two states decreased a bit in the 1950s, but broke out again in 1965. Questions about who controlled Kashmir, and rising feelings of nationalism in both countries contributed to this war. But another issue was a disagreement over who controlled an important resource—the water coming from mountains along the border.
Conflicts broke out again in 1971 and 1999. Many of the issues remained the same, especially the question of who should control Kashmir. Cold War tensions ramped up the pressure for a while, with US and Chinese support for Pakistan up against Soviet support for India. The two countries managed to avoid full-scale war, but in the early twenty-first century both developed nuclear weapons, making the potential for total war even more dangerous. Nationalist sentiment has continued to grow on both sides of the border, as has the persecution of religious minorities in each country. That makes conflict even more likely in the future.


Two other countries that have frequently been in conflict are neighbors Iran and Iraq. Both had diverse populations in the twentieth century, but Iran’s is mostly Shi’ite Muslims, while the Sunni Muslims governed Iraq for most of the twentieth century. Even in Iraq, though, the majority of its population are also Shi’ites.
The biggest cause of tension between these two countries in the late twentieth century, however, has been control over land and resources. Both Iran and Iraq have large deposits of oil, but both rely on the same river, the Shatt al-Arab, to get their oil out into the ocean and to markets. The two countries disagreed over who owned this region, and that contributed to a major conflict known as the Iran–Iraq War that was fought over eight years, between 1980 and 1988. Iraq also wanted control of a region where oil was produced. They attacked Iran during a period when it was just getting a new government. This Iranian government was a religious theocracy—rule by extremist religious figures—and it didn’t have a lot of support around the world. However, it was able to stir up nationalist feelings among the Iranian republic, and so they managed to avoid defeat and to prolong the war for eight years.
A map of the Iran-Iraq War, 1980-1988, showing oil fields that were one of the causes of the dispute. At the bottom of the map is the Shatt al-Arab waterway that both sides wanted to allow their oil tankers to get to the ocean and to markets. Notice how little territory ever actually changed hands, despite hundreds of thousands of deaths. By Maximilian Dorrbecker, CC BY-SA 2.5.
During the years of war, both sides made strong use of propaganda to get people in their country to hate or dislike the populations and governments of the other country. Over half a million soldiers died in the conflict. Many civilians were also killed, including those suspected of disloyalty merely because they belonged to ethnic or religious minorities. Despite a new government in Iraq today, tensions between the two countries—which share a 1,000-mile border—remain high.


Tensions also remain high between Taiwan, which is officially called the Republic of China (ROC), and the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which is the communist state covering mainland China. Taiwan had been a Chinese province, but became effectively independent when the Communist Party of China won a civil war in 1949. The Guomindang (Kuomintang), or Nationalist Party, retreated to Taiwan. The communist government of the People’s Republic of China still claims Taiwan today.
Taiwan and the east coast of China, with the Taiwan Strait in between. Map produced by the US Central Intelligence Agency, and held by the Perry-Castañeda Library. Public domain.
The conflict between China and Taiwan is not a result of religious difference. We could say that it has some of its roots in differences of ideas. Taiwan’s economic and political philosophy has mainly been in favor of capitalism and democracy, at least since the 1980s, while the People’s Republic of China has mainly followed communist economic policies and is very much a one party state. We could also say this is a territorial dispute, since China claims Taiwan to be part of its own territory, rather than an independent state.
Since the end of the civil war in 1949, this conflict has never re-emerged as outright war. In fact, such a war has historically been difficult to conceive. Taiwan is an island, and it is largely protected by the navy of its ally, the United States, which until recently was many times stronger than the navy of the People’s Republic of China. However, there have been periods of limited military activity, like the 1958 Taiwan Strait Crisis in which their forces clashed over smaller neighboring islands that each claim to control.

Can wars be avoided?

All of these wars are conflicts between different countries. We have not even mentioned internal conflicts such as civil wars, or wars between governments and insurgent groups. Unfortunately, there will probably be more wars in the future, especially as some natural resources become scarcer.
It is depressing to think that wars may be partly a result of human nature, or that we have not learned to bargain well enough to avoid breakdowns and war. But that doesn’t mean we should give up. Wars, and the damage they cause, will decrease when humans develop other strategies for shaping how we feel about each other, and how we bargain.
Author bio
Trevor Getz is Professor of African History at San Francisco State University. He has written eleven books on African and world history, including Abina and the Important Men. He is also the author of A Primer for Teaching African History, which explores questions about how we should teach the history of Africa in high school and university classes.

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