Why is so much of the world engulfed in war? Typical explanations seem wrong. We often presume that wars are launched to grab valuable territory, seize resources, or protect economic interests. That doesn’t fit in Gaza, a barren strip with no tangible value to anyone. Nor does it fit in Ukraine, which has lost much of its population in recent years and will likely be an environmentally devastated pit of hatred for generations. Serbian troops are massed on the border of Kosovo, and Azerbaijan is set to grab another piece of land from Armenians, but there is little of material value in any of the disputed territory. China has its eyes on Taiwan, but not for anything it desperately needs there.
Today’s wars are often motivated not by the search for riches, but by something far more potent: history. Lines on maps send nations into violent conflict. Decisions made by one generation’s statesmen bathe another generation in blood.
Nations should logically do whatever is in their best interest. When they don’t, it’s often because of mistrust or hatred that is rooted in their past. History keeps logical partners apart. It can make neighbors hate each other with a passion they never generate for more distant enemies.
The war now unfolding in Gaza is one of many results of the United Nations’ decision to create Israel in 1947. That decision drew new boundaries, which led to a series of further border changes in subsequent decades. One side accepted those changes. The other did not. Conflict between Israelis and Palestinians stems largely from that fact.
The same is true of the war between Russia and Ukraine. Borders between them were drawn and redrawn repeatedly over centuries, most recently during the birth of the Soviet Union. Had they been placed elsewhere, today’s war might not be happening.
The stranglehold of history shapes geopolitics in other parts of the world as well. India, Pakistan, and China have fought repeatedly over borders that were ill-defined by departing colonialists. Russia and Poland detest each other because of wars they have fought since the Middle Ages. Recent coups in three African countries were sparked in part by anger over the legacy of French colonialism. Sectarian violence in Ireland can be traced back to the 1690 Battle of the Boyne, which consolidated British Protestantism in what had been a Catholic country. Algeria and Morocco, which share the same language, culture, and religion, have been in constant conflict since their 1963 “Sand War,” have closed their border and no longer maintain diplomatic relations. During the Balkan wars of the 1990s, some Serbian soldiers said they were fighting Bosnian Muslims “to avenge Prince Lazar.” He was killed while fighting a Muslim army in 1389.
The United States is hardly immune from this syndrome. Our current overwhelmingly negative view of Russia is shaped most acutely by its invasion of Ukraine, but hating Russia has been a reflex for Americans over more than a century. We have also been on the receiving end of historical resentments. In Latin American countries as different as Mexico, Cuba, and Chile, nationalism is heavily tinged with resentment over violent American interventions.
Not all these long-lasting grudges are natural. In many countries, including the United States, demagogic politicians seek votes by railing against the perfidy of foreigners. This stirs up hatreds that might otherwise fade. Knowing history is vital, but it’s also possible to overdose on history. Remembering the past is good. Being trapped by it is not.
Entire religions and schools of moral philosophy have been built around the value of forgiveness. That would not be necessary if forgiving were easy or common. It is, however, possible. The sterling example in today’s world is Vietnam.
Over the course of the 20th century, Vietnam suffered a harsh occupation by Japan, fought an eight-year war against French colonialists, and was the victim of a near-genocidal assault by the United States that devastated its land and killed more than a million people. Then, for good measure, it was invaded by China. Few countries have more basis for hatred, especially with these wounds so fresh. Yet Vietnam has taken the opposite path. Today, ordinary Vietnamese seem to carry no rancor toward the countries that brutalized them.
Neither does their government. Top leaders of Vietnam and Japan have met repeatedly and shaped a friendly relationship. In June the Vietnamese prime minister met with Chinese leader Xi Jinping to celebrate their countries’ “comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership.” Three months later, President Biden was feted in Hanoi and heard Vietnam’s president salute the “truly pride-worthy and striking achievements in our cooperation.” President Emmanuel Macron of France hosted Vietnamese leaders at a state dinner and, according to the Vietnamese press agency, “spoke highly of achievements in bilateral cooperation in all fields.”
Vietnamese seem more interested in enriching their future than in remembering past outrages. That makes them rare in today’s world. More often, nations sacrifice their children to redress old wounds. “History is a dream from which I am trying to awake,” says a character in James Joyce’s epic “Ulysses.” For many countries, it is a nightmare.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.