Ever since 9/11, terrorism receives much attention in both the scholarly literature and the public discourse. I argue that terrorism will be of much less interest in due time. The big threats in international politics still stem from interstate war and conflict, and recently the international security environment has been heating up considerably.
Terrorism is something of a buzz word since 9/11. The public has flocked to the topic just as scholars have. The literature about terrorism is inflationary. But terrorism is as old as mankind. Terrorism can loosely be defined as a strategy of an organized group that tries to achieve a certain political objective through violent and – much more importantly! – terrifying means. Such strategies have been employed ever since. One of the more famous and “recent” examples is given by Gavrilo Princip, the Bosnian-Serb student and member of Young Bosnia, who assassinated Franz Ferdinand of Austria. Young Bosnia is a group that could today easily be defined as a terrorist group. Neither is terrorism the biggest threat to security these days. Terrorism is best at what it received its name for: terrorizing. Not killing. Sure, terrorism is more lethal than before. Globalization and technological innovation allow terrorists to conduct world-wide attacks of high destructive power. But still: comparably few people die from terrorism.
In history, interstate wars posed the biggest security threats, and they do so these days. Major interstate wars are absent at the moment, but the question is why. Some scholars argue that economic interdependence, international institutions, the spread of democracies and liberal values – or all these facts combined – explain the absence of major wars. Other scholars argue that it is the supremacy of the United States that explains it. I agree with the latter explanation. World War II and the Cold War left the United States as the only superpower. No-one could challenge the U.S., and it in turn could act as globocop.
Interstate conflicts are “the next big thing”. The US’ position is weakening, as other powers are rising. (Very) slowly, the world is turning multipolar – again. This means no good. History and theory teach that multipolar systems are competitive and conflict prone. Already, world wide security competition is heating up. Security is a zero-sum game. Interstate war is back on the map of all major states. Just have a look at the military expenditures and military build-ups world wide. China and India have plans to build strong, power-projection capable Navies. Japan reengages in its “defense forces”. Brazil modernizes its armed forces to catch up with its great power aspirations. Europe is developing a strong and independent security pillar. These are no signs of the perpetuality of interstate peace.
In short, terrorists gained in professionalism and destructive power, but the reason they receive so much attention to find mainly in the fact that interstate relations stayed low-profile in recent years. When struggling with major interstate wars, terrorism just won’t seem that important anymore.