The Age of Grievance

How to Play Resentment Politics

Russian President Vladimir Putin at a ceremony marking "Defender of the Fatherland Day" in Moscow, February 2014. Maxim Shemetov / Courtesy Reuters

In the Middle East, terrorists are making a comeback. And with the exit of U.S. troops from Iraq and Washington’s continued absence in Syria, the momentum appears to be in their favor. The RAND Corporation reports that since 2010 the number of jihadist groups in the region has increased by 58 percent, the number of extremist fighters has doubled, and the number of attacks by al Qaeda affiliates has tripled. Recent events, meanwhile, provide little cause for optimism. In Iraq, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), an al Qaeda offshoot, has fought its way nearly to Baghdad.

The growth of such groups has not merely been a product of their brutality. Studies conducted in the past decade have demonstrated that they use carefully cultivated victim narratives to play on intense popular frustrations, especially during crises of governance. Al Qaeda is a case in point: from the beginning, Osama bin Laden emphasized the humiliation of Muslims at the hands of Western oppressors and called on his followers to reclaim their dignity as God’s chosen people. ISIS has invoked similar themes in Iraq, harnessing Sunni anger at the Shia government in Baghdad. Extremism in defense of Islam is often an ontological phenomenon, attracting people seeking to assert their identity and self-worth.

This new wave of terrorist activity, moreover, is not an isolated trend; rather, it portends a new era for international security, one that could be called an age of grievance. Increasingly, the driving forces of world politics are not merely geopolitical but psychological, as well.

This new dynamic is playing out for two primary reasons. First, the context of geopolitical rivalry has changed. Several trends -- including the deterrent effect of nuclear weapons, global economic interdependence, the declining utility of territorial aggression, and the strengthening of borders -- have lessened the value of realpolitik. Meanwhile, in the absence of geopolitical strife, cosmopolitan ideals, promoted through mass media, have worn away at indigenous cultures and values. In many countries, particularly

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