Great power rivalries created the conditions in which the First World War became possible, but the war itself was set off by an isolated and intrinsically unimportant act of terrorism by a Serbian nationalist. All that followed was driven by nationalism in the warring countries, except in Russia and the United States from 1917 on — both of which became victims of the illusions of internationalism.

The Second World War had nationalist sources deriving from the horrors of 1914-’18 in Europe and the economic crisis that followed, as well as economic and commercial sources in the Far East, but it was deliberately launched by Nazi Germany for reasons of racial ideology and national ambition.

When that war was over in 1945, the geopolitical outcome was the great bipolar political and ideological rivalry between the Soviet Union and the United States, which ended in 1991 by the collapse of the Soviet system. The victory, as often has happened in the past, proved an illusory one, inspiring notions of global political and military domination, otherwise known as hubris.

The war that was supposed to follow the Cold War, according to the late Samuel Huntington, was to be a war between civilizations, with Islam and China improbably allied against what Huntington called Western Civilization, by which he meant the United States. His was a simple projection of a past that he had personally lived through. He thought wars between nations, followed by wars between ideologies, would logically end in a third and even greater struggle between religions and cultures.

Today, a retrospective view of this forecast would likely say there was something in it. The bombs that ended the Boston Marathon in April were planted by young Muslims who had come to the United States as immigrants, rejected America as a civilization, and then attacked it, leaving behind a message of religious war.

According to CBS News, the surviving bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, wrote a message in the dry-docked boat where he had taken shelter, asserting that the bombings had been retaliation for the U.S. crimes in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. Sources say the note included stateements that the victims of the Boston bombings were “collateral victims” in the same way innocent victims have been collateral damage in American wars around the world. Tsarnaev is said to have written that, “When you attack one Muslim you attack all Muslims.”

This was written during a time when the president of the United States was personally directing the drone warfare killings of individual Muslims, their associates and often their families. These were Muslims who had been identified by American-gathered evidence as enemies of the U.S.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev versus Barack Obama cannot, however, be taken as representing a war between civilizations. These are individuals; one eminent in power and the other lowly; the first influenced by a political ideology of a millenarian American national mission and political destiny; the other in the grip of politicized religion, with a mission to sacrifice his life for his beliefs.

In the beginning, such conviction produced the 9/11 attacks. These were followed by a futile but devastating war in Iraq, enormously costly in material destruction and human lives, and the invasion of Afghanistan, a war that now goes on for reasons generated within Afghan society and in its relationships with Pakistan and India. These events have caused an upheaval in the political perceptions and passions of a large part of the Muslim world, contributing to the internal struggles now occurring in Syria, Lebanon, the Maghreb, Yemen and Bahrain, as well as the uprising in Egypt, all revolutionary in political effect, and many of them sectarian, throwing Sunnis against Shiite in a struggle manipulated by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Iran.

In short, the West is at war against Islam, and the Muslims are defending Islam against American aggression, while also at war among themselves. The attack from the West is widely cited in the Islamic states and widely believed by the radicalized young Muslim activists who dispatch their messages, preachings and advice by Internet. It has been voiced not only by the Boston and (would-be) Times Square bombers, but also by the young Muslim immigrant in France who last year killed three French soldiers (two of them of Muslim origin themselves) and attacked children and teachers at a Jewish school in Toulouse in southwest France.

Yet in the Middle East today, there is a war among Muslims themselves over orthodoxy in religion and for power and leadership. This takes place within the larger perspective of struggle with the West — the attacks from France against jihadists in Mali, and in support of the revolt against Gadhafi in Libya, and attacks from America in support of the revolt against Gadhafi, drone attacks against Islamic jihadism in Yemen and the Sahara, and funds and encouragement to the rebel forces in Syria, so as to control the outcome.

Where is Israel in all this, the original Western-sponsored irruption into historical Palestine and Islamic history? Where are Barack Obama and his predecessor, George W. Bush? They have taken seriously the idea of the war of civilizations and have been confident that America would have the ultimate victory. Other Americans see the U.S. undermined by the destructive political currents that military defeat and frustration have set loose in American society.

The path from hubris, according to the Greeks, leads toward nemesis.

Visit William Pfaff’s website for more on his latest book, “The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America’s Foreign Policy” (Walker & Co., $25), at

© 2013 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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