Historically (and also taking care not to ignore the long history of terrorism), the concept of “war” has involved a series of battles between nation-states or, in the cases of ancient Greece and Rome, city-states. With regard to city-states, think in terms of Athens versus Sparta. When discussing nation-states, the history of warfare is hopelessly long. Modern history includes wars involving Germany, France, Russia, Great Britain, the United States, and so on. Germany, Japan and Italy waged war against France, Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union during World War II, the greatest and most destructive conflagration in human history. The United States fought in both world wars, fought against North Korea, which was supported by the Soviet Union and China, and fought North Vietnam, which was similarly supported by the Soviet Union and China. The United States has also waged war against governments of nation-states in Grenada, Panama, and Iraq.
The point here is that traditional notions of war involved nations fighting nations. (For the purposes of this discussion, we will ignore civil conflicts, such as the American Civil War and the Spanish and Russian Civil Wars.) When the Cold War ended following the fall of the Berlin Wall, Americans involved in discussions of national security began to focus less on traditional notions of war and more on what have been labeled as “low-intensity conflicts” and “asymmetric warfare.” What this meant was that threats to the United States were expected to originate less from animosities between nation-states and more from nontraditional actors, such as guerrilla insurgencies and terrorism. The tragic events of September 11, 2001, provided far more focus on the threat from terrorism than many had imagined possible. In this instance, there was no easily identifiable political entity defined by recognized borders and a central government. Instead, the war on terrorism was ill-defined. Terrorists could occupy small portions of land, or they could occupy no land. They had organized leaderships, but those leaders lived in hiding or existed within the protection of nation-states, as when West European terrorist organizations like the German Red Army Faction enjoyed the patronage of the Soviet Union and its satellite nations in Eastern and Central Europe.
Terrorism is a phenomenon that defies easy categorization. Motivations vary, as do the size of terrorist organizations and the training and sources of support they enjoy. The US “Global War on Terror” has been waged against Islamist organizations like Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), as well as other smaller and weaker organizations. Al-Qaeda was interested in eliminating all vestiges of Western influence throughout the Islamic Ummah (community), with short-term emphasis on the cradle of Islam, the Arabian Peninsula. ISIS adopted a more fundamentalist approach, which was similar to Afghanistan’s Taliban, in which the goal was to return to a form of Islam such as is said to have existed in the seventh century. These conflicts differ greatly from great power conflicts over territory, such as in instances in which powers squabbled over regions in Africa and Asia rich in natural resources or when powers struggled for locations that provided access to strategically important avenues like oceans, a major consideration for landlocked countries eager for access to major ports.