In the most basic sense, international conflict means war between two or more nations. World Wars I and II were international conflicts, as was the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Traditional international conflicts are increasingly rare, replaced by numerous local conflicts between rival ethnic groups inside a single country. When those groups are backed by foreign powers, or when their conflict affects the wider region, it becomes an internationalised conflict. Bosnia and Kosovo are good examples of this. Finally, international conflict can be ideological. The Cold War was an ideological confrontation between the West, led by the United States, and the East, led by the former Soviet Union.
World Wars I and II
World Wars I and II involved many countries, caused the deaths of millions of people and brought unimaginable destruction and suffering. Both wars began because of the expansionist policies of Germany and a lack of effective global mechanisms for dispute resolution. Both wars had profound consequences on the world order.
The Cold War
The end of WWII led to an ideological confrontation between the winners, with the United States and Soviet Union each believing its own ideology (capitalism and communism, respectively) was the only way. This period, which lasted about 40 years, included many regional conflicts in which the warring parties had the support of either the Soviet Union or the United States. The Cuban Crisis in 1962 brought these two powers very close to direct armed conflict.
The end of the Cold War sparked numerous ethnic conflicts that had already been simmering. The disintegration of Yugoslavia was the most violent one. What started as civil war soon became an international conflict when those constituent Yugoslav republics seeking independence received international recognition. By producing hundreds of thousands of refugees in the middle of Europe, the Yugoslav wars threatened the security of many other nations and got major world powers involved in the search for resolution. The bombing of Serbia by Western powers in 1999 further blurred the line between a local and international conflict.
Iraq and Afghanistan
Both Iraqi wars, in 1990 and 2003, and the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 represent new types of international conflict, in which a single country is attacked by an international coalition. Afghanistan, in particular, represents a new concept, known as “war on terror,” in which a country is attacked for allegedly harbouring terrorists. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, the nature of the conflict changed from a clear military confrontation into counterinsurgency that started during the process known as “nation building.”