World Wars from the 17th to 20th Century

In this section I theorize the nature of the modern world system as integral to the nature of world conflict and war.  War, conquest and subjugation of have been constant threats since 1415, when the Portuguese began their maritime explorations of the Atlantic a constant threat and disciplinary function of enforcing modern world capitalism upon defeated and subjugated regions. This threat and the reality of its devastation forces a discipline on regions that have been vanquished and so attempts to discourage dissent and enforce various types of hegemony that range from maritime and commercial empires that used various phases of mercantile, plantation-slavery and industrial capitalism and ultimately a free trade system of globalization.

If we consider Immanuel Wallerstein’s theses in The Modern World System (vols. 1-4) that the Thirty Years War, 1618-1648 and the Napoleonic Wars 1792-1815 constituted world wars, we would have to expand our conception of the violence and dangerous conditions of competing empires in modern world history.  In the blogs below I summarize the thinking about these two earlier wars as extending our notion of world war as preceding the First World War (1914-18) and the Second War (1939-1945).  Wallerstein actually links the First and Second World War as the third of what he sees as long 30-year cycles of war caused by the modern world system and its aggressive system of expansion and violence.  One probably should add to this a consideration of the Seven Years War crisis that envelopes the New World and Europe between 1756-1763.

Wolfgang Reinhard in his monumental new study of the European World System, Die Unterverfung der Welt (The Subjugation of the World, 2016) offers a related theory of world war as having longer and earlier periods in world history, including the entire period from 1684-1763 when the British-French and Dutch were rivals and engaged in an extended form of world war (Reinhard 2016).

Conservative historians and writers of International Relations (IR) assume that the rise of modern sovereignty following the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 minimalized direct conflict and war.  These historians ignore or minimize discussions of the continuing conflicts and wars over the Baltic Seas, and the Anglo-Dutch wars, and the wars of maritime empires and sponsored piracy that was a sponsored system of plunder on the seas and coastal areas of the world system.

The Westphalian System as it is known is actually a myth.  Successive wars and outbreaks of violence can be found in various parts of Europe and certainly in its colonies throughout the second half of the 17th century. For example, the King of Sweden Charles X Gustav (1622-1660) declared and started the First and Second Northern Wars (1655–1660) that included invasions against Poland and Lithuania and then against Denmark. This included a remarkable winter attack in which the Swedish army was able to cross a frozen portion of the sea that ice solid enough to support a surprise invasion of Jutland in Denmark from Sweden. In response the Swedish diplomatic delegation to Denmark was held in prison for eight months. (Seidler 2015).

Another period of nearly continuous international conflict, war and crisis may be seen between 1873 and 1919.  This period includes the subjugation of the American continent by the United States after the Civil War, and the division of Africa after the Congress of Berlin with resulting invasions and colonization of the African continent and violent battles and wars, the Zulu Wars and resistance to the British in 1875; the Mahdist State and revolt in the Sudan in 1885 up to its final defeat and dismantling after the Battle of Omdurman in 1898.  These are only a partial list of these continental-wide conflicts.


Reinhard, Wolfgang. 2016. Die Unterverfung der Welt: Globalgeschichte der Europäischen Expansion 1415-2015 (The Subjugation of the World: Global History of the European Expansion 1415-2015). Munich: Verlag C.H. Beck.

Seidler, Michael. 2015. Pufendorf’s Moral and Political Philosophy. Edited by Edward N Zalta. Winter. Accessed July 30, 2016.

Wallerstein, Immanuel. 2011. The Modern World-System II : Mercantilism and the Consolidation of the European World-Economy, 1600–1750. Berkeley: University of California Press.