When Russian forces began moving into Crimea, one of the questions a great number of people began asking was whether we were seeing the beginning of another world war. The last century was marked by large scale international conflict, be it the World Wars or the Cold War (which, though not a traditional conflict, saw a great deal of proxy fighting and international alignment between the two superpowers). For decades it was reasonable to believe that, either through an act of aggression or simple misunderstanding, World War III would be started by the U.S. and the Soviet Union and their insane nuclear arsenals.
As the Cold War fades further and further into the past, the possible instigator of the next massive conflict is not clear. But perhaps what could cause World War III to suddenly erupt is the wrong question. Maybe we should instead be asking whether today’s global order could allow for a war on that scale. Basically, is it even possible for us to have a World War III?
Our Uni-Polar/Multi-Polar World
World Wars I and II took place at a time in history when a great deal of power was held by a few countries, many of which had treaties that tied them together militarily. In some ways, it was a more egalitarian order. You had a more even keel between countries—sure, Great Britain was in charge on the water, but the military might of any one country didn’t entirely dwarf that of another.
Unlike today. Our world is a very different one in a couple of key ways. First and foremost, the United States is the military power. Between the amount of money we spend on defense and the level of military technology we have, no other country could reasonably expect to stand up against the full might of the U.S. That’s not to say we couldn’t be bested—guerrilla tactics have long proved a boon for troops in the field, be it in Vietnam or in Iraq. But let’s be real, if the United States put all its efforts into toppling, say, a Hitler-like government, that regime would have no chance whatsoever.
We are also living in a world with a far less centralized authority. In the first half of the 20th century, colonization was still in full swing, leaving huge populations under the control of countries in Europe. You also had the Ottoman Empire still in play, which stretched across the Middle East. There are more sovereign states on the board now, making it difficult for the huge kind of alliances we saw in World Wars I and II to come into being. That also brings into question the ability of at-war states to secure resources, something the Allies were able to do in large part through networks running through colonies and protectorates.
Military Sovereignty and Economic Dependency
A century ago, treaties were largely based on the idea of protection. Countries vowed to go to war to defend allies, something that played a key role in making World War I a global conflict. During World War II, political ideology was in play, bringing similarly minded regimes together rather than binding military treaties. Today, perhaps in part due to the outcome of the once robust and intricate treaty system, countries retain a level of military sovereignty that allows them to bow out of conflicts despite otherwise close ties with an at-war state. Although alliances like NATO exist to provide safety nets and do create situations in which states are obligated to defend one another, in most cases countries have largely chosen to keep the final say in their own hands when it comes to engaging in combat. An example of this is the U.S.-led war in Iraq, a conflict a great number of allied nations chose to sit out.
What we have instead is a complex and intertwined global economy. As demonstrated by the Great Recession of 2008, economic strife in one large country can have profound impacts on the rest of the world. Maintaining the flow of trade, in resources, financial transactions, and goods, is imperative to keeping the global economy on the path to recovery. And, of course, to keeping the pockets of the elite and wealthy in any given state well-lined.
Imagine, for a moment, what a global conflict hinging on a U.S.-China split would mean. It’s nearly impossible to fathom the impact that could have on the world economy. Large scale conflict, though possibly a huge windfall for manufacturing (as the U.S. saw during and after World War II), would be devastating in many ways. The knowledge of that could be, in part, why we have not seen a massive global conflict emerge despite tensions around the world.
Would WW III Be The End Of The World?
One of the main reasons the Cold War was so terrifying was due to the fact that one small misstep could result in a full-scale nuclear attack. Considering the size of the American and now Russian arsenals, let alone the nuclear arms held by other states, it would be possible for an escalating conflict to get out of hand and literally destroy Earth. This is part of the concern with so-called rogue states having nuclear technology—could their use of a nuclear weapon trigger the massive, global nuclear defense systems designed to rain down nukes on high population areas?
It may seem impossible that things could ever get to that point, but the very existence of nuclear weapons makes it worth considering. Imagine if Hitler had nuclear technology near the end of the war, when it was clear Germany would be defeated. Is it entirely unthinkable that he might have ordered the detonation of the most destructive weapons in human history? If it’s still hard to imagine a country deciding to use that kind of weapons, remember this: The only country in history to use a nuclear warhead was the United States against Japan in order to end World War II’s operations in the Pacific.
But What Could Cause Another World War?
As you can see, another world conflict is probably unlikely at this point. Although nothing is ever set in stone when it comes to international politics, it’s probably a safe bet we won’t be rationing to support the war effort any time soon. We’re too connected, too dependent, and authority is too dispersed to effectively rally another massive, all-encompassing global war. The system is just not built up in a way that would support that kind of effort.
But let’s consider, for a moment, what could spark such a conflict. Most likely, when the next world war comes, it will be brought about by water. Or rather, access to it. Water has always been a determinate of power, stability, and trade. We built cities on water for that reason. But today we are seeing a huge water crisis, with millions without reliable access to clean water on a daily basis. Control of water in places like the West Bank is a contentious political issue, and we’ve seen large droughts around the world make agriculture impossible. Climate change is only going to make it worse, while rising sea levels due to melting ice caps could force millions of refugees inland. This could very quickly lead to other resource scarcity and widespread instability as countries struggle to meet the demands of large refugee populations. That kind of instability, coupled with the opportunities created for extremists in places where economic opportunity is further threatened due to lack of resources, could become a powder keg at a dizzying speed.
So, when it comes down to it, Putin is unlikely to spark the next massive global conflict by poking around in former Soviet territory. Although we could possibly see World War III in our lifetime, chances are it will brought on by environmental disaster rather than the actions of a belligerent regime. Depending on how you look at it, that could be more or less terrifying. But the only thing that is a certainty is that, regardless of how or when it happens, World War III will greatly alter the way we live, think, and interact with the world around us.
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