If we did accept an empire that was offered to us, and refused to give it up under the pressure of three of the greatest motives, fear, honour, and interest. And it was not we who set the example, for it has always been set down that the weaker should be subject to the stronger.” Thucydides, from The Athenian Speech in The History of the Peloponnesian War

The liberal international order (LIO) or the rule based international system has, in different forms, been around since the end WWII. It is possible to argue that the end of the Cold War strengthen or enhanced LIO. The LIO are based on multilateral institutions like the UN, WTO etc. The basic idea here is that these institutions have rules and protocol, also known as basic rules of how a member state behave in order to, in cooperation with the other members, solve different international issues. The rules can be understood as flexible but stable over time, or that is the general idea at least. The result of LIO can be found in the idea of free trade (movability of products, capital and people), where the term “free trade” means that within certain rules, it’s free. This is a pragmatic view.

The fundamental challenge lies in the inherent diversity among states, encompassing variations in natural resources, climate, geography, production capabilities, political systems, and cultural aspects of human life.  These disparities result in a foundational realization that all states possess distinct comparative advantages within the rule-based international system, and these advantages are prone to evolution over time. Consequently, interpretations of rules and renegotiations of existing regulations inevitably dominate a significant portion of the process. The primary objective of the Liberal International Order (LIO) can be encapsulated as the pursuit of creating prosperity for all, or at the very least, fostering increased prosperity for the majority.

An alternative view point of international relations is realism, in which the international institutions are seen more as an area for power struggles where the rules are much more changeable and flexible. The main focus here is each states security concern. Both LIO and realism have points and shortcomings but one may understand the world better through several different lenses or, as in this case, different theoretical viewpoints. Mutual for both these theoretical viewpoints is that they have a problem with fully capture the full dynamic of all changes in the world. As both deals with international relations, it is easy to state that there have always been conflicts between groups of people and/or states. The overall arch for any theory in this area is to better understand the dynamics all these relations and complexity linked to changes in general.

A simplistic view on general changes in the world could lead to that there are three major drivers and numerous smaller drivers/responses, that all are interconnected. The three primary drivers can be describes as changes in climate, technology and demographics. With climate, we can simplify this with when local/regional living condition changes, the people living there either need to adopted, die och leave. An historical example here is the wider climate change in the late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages which resulted in the Migration period. Changes in technology have long been used in history to describe a period in time, think of the naming of historical periods after a certain main material/technology (stone, bronze, iron or more resent silicon or IT). Changes in technology base of a society have always resulted in changes in other areas like, political influence, skewed distribution of wealth, etc. The strive for green tech in order to reduce environmental impact or climate change in today’s society will shake up the distribution of wealth as well as general political influence worldwide. The one (person, company or state) which controls tomorrows critical raw material will automatically be disliked or even opposed by the sure losers (the ones who controls todays critical raw material) of this development. The introduction of AI and drones are another technologies with the ability to change societies. Changes in demographics can both include overall number of people in an area or the composition (age, ethical, religion, gender etc.) of these people. Dramatic changes in demographic can be understood with the black plague in the 14th century Europe.

Mutual for all these three drivers are that they works intertwined and large changes in one of them may results in changes in the other two. When all three main drivers of change are active, like during the last 20-30 years (increasing changes in local/regional living condition, rapid development in new technologies, changes in demographic profiles in most countries), we should not be surprised that these changes also results in changes in international relations, trade patterns and political systemic behaviour. Discontent with the way prosperity is generated and distributed is one outcome of these trends. This dissatisfaction, in turn, contributes to a desire to reform the system, leading to a heightened sense of insecurity as global conflicts escalate. In all the, the drivers of changes presses people in different way all pointing towards stronger causes for conflicts.

According to Thucydides, there are three fundamental causes that underlie the initiation of conflicts: fear (of others), honour (adhering to a moral code), and interest (advancing the benefit of one’s organization or nation). Fear is often considered the primary catalyst for conflicts and is inherent in the imperative for all organizations to ensure their survival. Fear of losing a comparative advantage in world economics (the raw material you control will be less desired in the future) is a good example of fear disguised as economic development. Disinformation in form of AI generated digital content is another driver of fear, in this context. Honour can be interpreted as connected to a moral code and aligns with contemporary notions of credibility and legitimacy. This honour can also be linked to principles worth to fight for or viewpoints like, my enemies enemy is my friend. The third root cause, interest, encompasses both potential gains for own organization and potential losses for the conflicting partner. This implies a ”win-lose” scenario, where claiming victory is possible as long as the conflicting partner incurs greater losses. This leads to that conflicts can be started even when the initial actor more or less knows, that the conflict is going to lead to the own loss, but as long as the opponent losses more, it is still a win.

When put the three drivers of change together with Thucydides fundamental causes of conflicts throughout the lenses of LIO and realism, it is possible to point out a number of smaller changes that drives up the general conflict levels globally.

  • The weakening or distrust in international institutions (think the UN etc.) ability and capability to handle conflicts between states and/or non-state groups.
  • The trend that the world leave the unipolar world in favour for a multipolar world which leads to a movement for individual counties to enter into various alliances, primarily for security reasons.
  • The increasing usage of economic sanctions (regardless if they are well motivated or not) from one group of countries towards another, fuels the creation of a multipolar world which also leads to more smuggling and money laundering as trade always finds a way to bypass regulations if there is a demand with sufficient willingness to pay for the products.
  • Territorial disputes, which are common in conflict regions, generate violent solution attempts as the alternative (think the UN etc.) is slower and less reliant to lead to the “right” result.
  • The prolonged democratic recession in favour for more authoritarian domestic political systems. A more authoritarian country is more likely to trigger conflicts, with neighbouring countries but also they are more prone to internal conflicts.
  • The underlying change in technology base to more environmentally friendly technology threatens the long-term economic development of countries that today base their economy largely on fossil fuels
  • The swift advancements in drone technology are altering the foundations of military capabilities, favouring smaller entities such as non-state groups. This transformation further increases the likelihood of a multipolar world, characterized by a more widespread distribution of military power bases compared to historical patterns
  • The global rise in transnational organized crime. An international increase in trafficking of drug, weapons, human etc. is a destabilizing factor in politics and security
  • Increasing number of armed non-state groups in the conflict prone regions, linked to territorial disputes, religion and/or ethnical conflicts. The continued existence of these groups complicates solutions to conflicts, the focus of which ends up being the security of the group before the creation of prosperity for a larger group.
  • The interconnected world of social media results in that the different conflict narratives in local conflicts is distributed over the world and forces people/counties to take a side in all conflicts. This spreading of narrative also fuels terrorist activities outside the primary conflict zone.
  • Global climate changes put a stress on local/regional food insecurity, exposure of natural hazards and the lack of clear water which drives up conflict risks.
  • Global shortage of key raw material (think oil, copper, iron/steel, fertiliser, lithium, etc.) forces countries or alliances between countries to act in a more imperial way as control over these raw material must be guaranteed within each grand economic grouping of countries.

The list above is not complete and there can be factors that needs to be added. Nevertheless, there are more amplifier than attenuator to conflicts in the world today. This also increases the distrust between actors on the international stage which in turn also makes countries to choice security perspectives over prosperity goals.


Despite all the negative elements put forward here, it does not mean that the world is on the highway to WWIII, but the likelihood seems to have increased over the last years. It is however important to remember that one of the driving forces behind Imperial Germany’s willingness to start WWI was a strong belief that the war would come anyway and that they would have to strike while the relative conditions between thought-involved countries were in Imperial Germany’s favor. It is fair to say that Imperial Germany started WWI as a slowly weaker superpower, not a rising one. Losing influence is a strong driver for conflicts. This leads to an increased focus among countries to think of the world in more of terms of security then a place to increase its own share of generated prosperity. In order to generate security for individual countries, they will build up their deterrence ability through own military capabilities and as members of military alliances. They will also try to steer the international trade flows so that security concerns plays a larger part in relations with normal business elements (like price, quality, and international shipping lanes). The economic effects of these changes will likely to lead to lesser economic growth, lower general consumption, fewer countries will transform from developing to developed, and the flow of capital, humans and products will slow down. The sad point here is that most countries will be on the “losing” side in this process.

Mitigation proposals

Leaders and elites need to identify and implement mitigation strategies to counter the downsides of these developments. The most important, also the most challenging measure, is to restore trust in the international institutions, in order to keep the space for peaceful solutions open as long as possible. Secondly, governments must make it more difficult for illegal international trade flows to operate and bolster the judicial system to prevent money laundering. Thirdly, every stakeholder must encourage an open discussion about the societal changes that new technologies (indirectly) leads to. Lastly, supranational institutions like G7 and G20 need to focus climate changes through a more pragmatically lens as it is the different changes in local/regional living conditions, including links to world trade, which will force people to adapt, leave or die.

Daniel Ekwall, Professor at University of Borås and visiting professor at Swedish Defence University.
Freddy Jönsson Hanberg is chairman of the board of the Total Defense Foundation, board member of the Civil Defense Federation and Brandforsk, advisor to authorities, companies and politicians. He is exercise director for the NATO exercise NORDIC PINE.