The topic of today’s brief contemplation is inspired by a series of references to the idea that today’s dramas around the world in terms of international security might not be isolated cases, rather elements of a larger and broader picture: the unfolding of WWIII in front of our eyes.
Causes of War
First of all, just as with anything, the beginning is the place to start. How has this WWIII been put in motion? Difficult to say. Has it to do with the Arab Spring, the revolts, the successful or unsuccessful attempt to oust existing powers, the actual or potential change in the regional balance of power around the Arab world, the spread of extremism there where a vacuum has been created? This might be one of the causes. But the events around the world go beyond this geographical scope, doesn’t it?
One could include the crisis in Ukraine in this portrait of a war. Trying to come up with an explanation for what has been going on there is also not an easy task. Is it Putin’s imperialist dreams or his KGB-inspired behaviour? Or maybe it is indeed NATO’s enlargement at the expense of Russia’s perceived security. What about the economic aspect of it all, namely a possible integration of Ukraine in the European block, as opposed to the Eurasian market? Answering all these questions would still not be satisfactory because we would still not have exhausted the analysis of this global World War.
The tensions in the Asia-Pacific remain to be clarified. Are we witnessing the resurgence of China as an empire, and the American response in the form of containment for the well-being of all of us (freedom of the seas and open global markets)? Or was Mearsheimer right when he suggested that America does not tolerate peer competitors on the basis of its selfish national interest?
And finally, terrorism. Simply listing the existing explanations for this phenomena would constitute a book in itself. Not our task for now.
What is to be understood at this point? That only history will be able to define the most probable one-liner cause for this WWIII, if there even truly exists one underlying cause for all these tense and conflictual episodes. Just to throw a dice, I might go with globalization as the one thing linking everything and everybody together.
Configuration of War
When thinking of a World War, we might have in mind a global conflict, meaning the involvement of most if not all the states on this planet, a conflict actually taking place on the whole planet. Some disagree with this view, and argue that a war happening in a remote geographical area could still be understood as global if the participants involved represent the main powers of the day. Some examples would be the Seven Years’ War or the Napoleonic Wars. Another example could have been a war between the US and the Soviet Union.
How about today? Well, as mentioned above, we have Asia, Africa, and Eastern Europe as stages for the tragedy. As for protagonists, we have the US, China, Japan, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States, Israel, Egypt, Turkey + the other NATO countries, and let’s not forget North Korea. The list is of course not exhausted. I would personally consider the scope of whatever is happening at the moment as global.
If this were World War III, how would the goal differ from the previous ones? The first remark would be that this is surely not a total war. The complete destruction of the enemy, and the conquest of its territory is not the main driver of any of these conflicts. Why is that? I would go for the nuclear deterrent as the main explanation. All the nuclear powers taking part in this sad play are aware of the primacy of their own survival as opposed to that of the total annihilation of the enemy. As a consequence, the goals of each of these conflicts vary. For instance, they might have to do with maintaining influence on parts of regions or sectarian groups, with maintaining favourable alliances, with containing emerging powers, with balancing threats, with prestige and making a statement, with perceived insecurity, with access to resources or the blockage of alternative energy routes, and so on. One could hint at either bringing about multipolarity as opposed to unipolarity, or to revisionism as opposed to the maintenance of the status-quo. But I think the variety of objectives and interests make it difficult to point out just one overarching goal.
What conclusion can be drawn at the end of this discussion? I would say that we cannot yet say if this is indeed the unfolding of a war, its prelude, or simply a state of affairs that we will have to get used to from now on.
If this were indeed the actual war, it would be interesting to notice how war has changed! The fact that we are not even sure if this is a World War shows the way strategy is being conducted. There has been no clear declaration of war from one government to another. There are treaties that could be seen as the foundations for alliances, but more often than not we see ad-hoc constellations of interests.
We see leaders trying to hide any proof that might make their public opinions think that they are actually engaged in wars. Military conflict is being officially repudiated around the globe as an instrument for peace or for the pursuit of self-interest. Humanitarian intervention and peace enforcement are the names of the game, with a solid basis in international law and principles. And there is of course the concept of hybrid warfare, which blurs the line between peace and conflict.
If this is only the prelude to an upcoming WWIII, I am scared of what is around the corner.
Finally, if this were simply the new state of affairs, maybe it would not be so new after all. Political realism would remain a useful tool for understanding the international relations of most areas of the world. An exception would still have to be made for the EU, hopefully for a long time to come. As for the other regions, let’s hope that at least a stable balance of powers will be found soon, while the transformative power of ideas brings about the democratic peace.