This is the third and final part in my series exploring the various dimensions of World War III and its place in our consciousness–even though it hasn’t happened. Part I, trying to make sense of the historical reasons why a third world war has not occurred to date, is here. Part II, in which I discuss various literary and film depictions of World War III, is here. In this final segment I’ll offer some thoughts on what a third world war might actually be like, given the historical precedents and the current state of the world and where it’s going.
Predicting the future is always a tricky business, especially for someone primarily tasked with studying the past. Naturally the subject of a hypothetical World War III involves the future, but understand that I’m not making predictions about what I think will happen, but offering thoughts on what might happen. These are two very separate things.
Could a World War III–defined, as I said in the first installment, as a war involving significant combatants (most likely at least one superpower) in multiple parts of the world for a sustained period of time–actually happen? I think the answer is yes. The most common objections I hear are, first, that such a war is unthinkable because it would involve the destruction of human civilization, essentially the suicide of humanity; and second, that the world is too globalized and economically interconnected to permit a large-scale conflict. I’ll get to the first objection in turn, but the second I think is simply flat-out wrong.
World financial markets are extensively interconnected today. Is that enough to prevent a global conflict? Possibly, but I doubt it.
What we call “globalization” is hardly new. Nations and economies have always been heavily interdependent upon each other, and it’s no more or less true today than it was centuries ago–but we don’t need to talk about centuries past. Just one will do. On the eve of World War I in 1914, all the European economies were very interdependent upon each other, and they upon that of the United States, to whom most European countries owed a lot of money. Yet despite these close links, World War I broke out anyway. It happened again in World War II. Example: who was Japan’s number one trade partner in 1941? It was the United States, against whom they launched a war with the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. (In fact the Japanese did this in part for economic reasons). A nation entering into large-scale war must totally retool its economy, not merely to gear up for war production but also to replace losses from trade. This is exactly what would happen if a major economic power like the United States, China, Britain or Russia went to war against a major trade partner. So I don’t buy the argument that economic links would prevent a major world conflict, even between countries with close economic dependencies.
The “end of civilization” objection is fair, but it is by no means certain that a World War III would be fought primarily–or at all–with nuclear weapons. Personally I believe a third world war fought with conventional weapons is far more likely than a large-scale nuclear holocaust. Nuclear weapons work very well as a deterrent, but history shows they aren’t very useful in practice; none have been used in combat in over 70 years. Nuclear powers who wind up in a war with each other would certainly be tempted, but it’s easily conceivable that they might not give into temptation, especially if the result is overwhelming nuclear retaliation. A sort of tacit agreement not to “go there” might undergird such a conflict.
Despite the number of nuclear weapons they have, for some reason superpowers keep investing in conventional weapons–like this Chinese aircraft carrier launched in 2012.
For example, let us presume, just for the sake of argument, that China decided to take over Taiwan with a military operation. This has often been supposed as a potential trigger of World War III, because the United States has treaties specifying it would defend Taiwan in this instance. (I don’t think a mainland takeover of Taiwan is very likely, but that’s beside the point). If China’s attitude was, “I dare you to nuke us, United States, but if you do you’ll suffer total retaliation from us,” the more rational choice would obviously be to try to defend Taiwan by conventional, and not nuclear, means. As I pointed out in Part II, Tom Clancy’s 1986 novel Red Storm Rising depicts a plausible non-nuclear World War III between major superpowers, so it’s certainly possible.
What might be the ultimate issue in a third global conflict? History provides us with some clues. In at least one school of thinking, World War II was less about ideologies–fascism vs. liberal democracy or Communism–than about colonialism. At the end of the 1930s Britain, France, and the United States controlled significant possessions and satellite countries around the world, from which they gained resources, labor and wealth. Germany and Japan’s aggressions can be seen as an attempt by those countries to get into this exclusive club and be able to share these resources, possibly by ejecting the club’s other members. Nazi Germany’s attack on the USSR was an attempt to set up Russia as a colony of Germany providing food and slave labor. The attempt didn’t work, but this is a plausible interpretation of World War II.
Previous world wars have been caused by colonialization and competition for global resources. Is there any reason to think future wars won’t also be?
Just as the “unfinished business” of World War I caused World War II, the “unfinished business” left over from the second conflict might ultimately cause a third. World War III might then be about decolonialism, or the aftermath of colonial domination by Western countries. The Vietnam War was very specifically about this, and one can argue that numerous wars over the past few years–the Falklands (1982), Iraq (1991 and 2003), the wars in Africa (1997-2003)–have also been about that. If World War II was essentially a war among colonizers for the spoils of the rest of the world, I could easily see a World War III being a war between the former colonizers and their former colonies: countries in the developing world who decide they want a greater share of First World wealth and resources, or else countries who feel they’ve been unfairly and unequally saddled with the costs of industrialization and technology without being able to share its benefits.
This, I think, is the most likely scenario for a global conflict: not superpowers like the US, Russia and China against each other, but they in a coalition facing a vast array of nations (and possibly non-state actors) trying to gain access to their wealth and resources. A World War III of this nature might not even involve nation-states in the traditional sense at all; it could be concentrations of power or resources, like large business interests perhaps allied with governments (or political factions) versus some sort of loosely-organized global insurgency. An organization like ISIS/Daesh might be the blueprint for that sort of enemy, but it wouldn’t be alone, and likely the sides of this war would not be unified in their ideology, leadership or identity. But a war of “have” countries versus “have not” countries is entirely conceivable. I would nominate climate change as the most likely trigger for such a conflict. Already the UN, the U.S. Pentagon and other entities have repeatedly identified climate change as the largest potential source of conflict and political instability in the world today.
Though ISIS/Daesh itself may or may not be involved if a third world war happens, some of the participants in such a war may resemble them in some ways.
So will it happen? Obviously I hope not. The horrific experiences of the world wars of the 20th century should have taught us that large-scale military conflict is an extremely risky and inefficient means by which to enact large sweeping changes. Wars are the fever crises of major global change. Obviously such change is coming. Hopefully we have the wisdom to accomplish it peacefully.