After WW2 and Vietnam there was an era of relative peace as the two major superpowers stared at each other, laden with nuclear weapons, through proxy states and alliances. During this era, the major powers continually upped their weapons' capabilities, but rarely tested them, and not against one another.
Certainly there was war of various sorts throughout the world, but the sort of "conventional" warfare analogous to WW2 battles with armor, air power, and crushing violence rather than guerrilla tactics was far from the norm.
The additional, tacit assumption, was that many of the modern democracies were far removed from the front lines and as such they let their military traditions die. In fact, many openly scoffed at the military as wasted dollars, or used their military spending substantially for the purpose of protecting local jobs and / or technologies along with export markets (see Airbus and most of Europe).
The world was on a hair-trigger of nuclear annihilation for so long that the thought of a conventional war became archaic and not normally contemplated. Alongside that was the general feeling that the borders of the nation state were inviolate and while occasional splits would occur (Czech's and Slovaks, etc...), the vast majority would occur without violence and the transition would mainly involve economic concerns.
While the US, Russia and China would be loathe to directly face off head to head due to the very real sense of potential world destruction, everything else has become fair game. Russia takes Crimea, parts of Ukraine, and threatens the Baltic states. Is it conceivable that Putin would move in and take over one or more of the Baltic states - absolutely. This sort of thinking would have been viewed as the raving of a lunatic ten years ago.
In the Pacific China is aggressively expanding in the seas outside its borders, fortifying islands and using their sea and air power to protect their claims. A clash between China and Japan now is not unthinkable, in fact it might be a more likely than not scenario. This, too, is a brand new way of thinking of these sorts of possible events.
States are effectively collapsing. There is no way that a multi-religions / ethnic state will ever be put together in Syria or Iraq. Libya, too, looks as if it will never be re-joined. These breaks are permanent, and the way to expand or move your borders involves ethnic cleansing and displacement on a grand scale. Turkey and Lebanon and many other states may soon be in the same place.
The powerlessness of the militarily weak is something else that is noticeable. China couldn't care less about what any campaign says regarding Tibet; all those protest concerts and sit-ins accomplished exactly zero. The Dutch were stricken when Russia basically shot down a plane full of their citizens over Ukraine; Russia was unmoved.
Africa is in an unstable place; Nigeria could be an economic powerhouse but is instead riven by a north / south split that likely will grow. It was a great thing that their recent elections involved a peaceful transfer of power, something that is rare in Africa, but it would take a lot of optimism to imagine that ultimately these states will ultimately be able to function with their co-mingled ethnic / religious groups should the era of low commodity prices go on indefinitely.
What is war? is another question. Is it a civil war today in Mexico between the government and the criminal enterprises that bring drugs into the USA? At what point do we stop pretending that it is a police action? How many deaths until you declare "war"?
This isn't an article about nostalgia or about the choices America has made to enter wars in Iraq and elsewhere; the concept that the US could intervene somewhere on a large scale is always in our head - but the idea that a long, drawn out, "conventional" war alongside terrible treatment of civilians (across religious or ethnic lines) is a real and tangible possibility is a new one.
For years I figured my knowledge of military campaigns in Libya, the Crimea, and the Pacific might as well be consigned to the dustbin of history; but all of the sudden, they were once again useful. And the ruthless, state-destroying wars of the types that produced India / Pakistan or the successor states of Yugoslavia are now front and center in the middle east and parts of Africa.
If the context was happier, it would be good to end on "what's old is new again".
Cross posted at Chicago Boyz