Imagining WWIII

One of the panels at the recent (17-19 May) Astana Global Challenges Summit 2018 had a title ‘How to prevent World War III?’. As one of the participants of the panel alongside with luminaries such as François Fillon or Vladimir Yakunin, I also tried to reflect on whether such a apocalyptic event is at all imaginable. My short answer would be that it may indeed happen, especially if too many decision-makers cannot imagine it happening. However, before getting down to the question of how to prevent a WWIII, it would be necessary to look at those underlying trends that may lead to, and mechanisms that may trigger, such a conflict.

Considering the geopolitical configuration of the world, its main fault lines, a WWIII would be a war where the United States becomes involved in a military conflict either with China or with Russia or against both. Hence, such a war necessarily involves the US, whom Hubert Vedrine, the then Foreign Minister of France, in 1999 defined as ‘hyperpower’, which has since somewhat lost its unique status, and at least one of above-mentioned superpowers, which, on the contrary, are both strengthening their geopolitical positions. Although the theatres of war as well as events that may trigger military conflicts between Washington and Moscow, on the one hand, or Washington and Beijing, on the other, differ, there is the same underlying tension that makes military conflicts between these powers imaginable. However, first some preliminary comments.

Differently from WWI and WWII, which lasted years and involved, in one way or other, most of then existed states, a new conflict will foreseeably be much shorter and encompass a limited number of participants. In terms of time and number of participants such a conflict may be even more limited than some of the ongoing regional conflicts. In the case when prudence and wisdom (precarious commodities in today’s world) prevail, a military clash between superpowers may stop relatively quickly without crossing a nuclear threshold. This would mean that the nuclear deterrence would have worked. However, if a conflict between superpowers passes a nuclear threshold, it won’t last long either, though in such a case the survival of the humankind will be questionable. Such a war would not really be a world war in the sense of the number of participants and the duration, but certainly in terms of devastating consequences for the humankind and the Planet Earth.

What is this tension that may lead to a war between the superpowers? This is mainly a tension between the two different understandings of the dynamics of the current geopolitical configuration of the world. While the United States, followed by its allies (subordinates), tries to perpetuate the unipolar moment, transforming it into an American century, the two ‘usual suspects’, Russia and China, as well as several regional powers, aim at the strengthening of multi-polar foundations of the international system (during the panel discussion in Astana, it was correctly mentioned that instead of speaking of polarity – a term that has confrontational connotations – it would be better to speak of, for example, polyphony or of a polyphonic international system, where different voices, excluding some extreme ones, would be accepted). However, there are also significant differences between the US-China and the US-Russia tensions. If the US-China rivalry can be defined as a ‘Thucydides’ trap’, referring to the main cause of the Peloponnesian war of 431-404 BC between Athens and Sparta, the US-Russia tension is exacerbated by the unfulfilled expectations, or rather illusions, of the 1990s that the history had ended and the so-called ‘liberal international order’ under the auspices of Washington would last forever. Observing the virulence of anti-Russian rhetoric in Washington and other Western capitals, as well as the volatile and explosive situation in the Middle East, I would submit that in a shorter run a military conflict involving the United States and Russia seems to be more plausible, while in the longer run a war between the US and China looks more likely and even somewhat natural.     

Writing about a war that devastated the two leading city-states of classical Greece two and a half millennia ago, Thucydides explained: ‘It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable.’ The Harvard historian of international relations Allison Graham, in his recent study, analyses sixteen cases of the change of the balance of power out of which twelve, including the one between Sparta and Athens, ended in military conflict. He observes: ‘China and the United States are currently on a collision course for war — unless both parties take difficult and painful actions to avert it’.[1] Of course, this does not mean that a war between China and the US is inevitable. However, if one were to believe that the maritime disputes in the South China Sea, say, between China and Philippines or China and Vietnam are bilateral quarrels between these neighbours, one does not understand the dynamics of international relations. They are first of all manifestations of rivalry between the rising Beijing and the relatively declining Washington, between the presence of the US 7th fleet in Beijin’s backyard and the Chinese anti-access/aria-denial strategy.

When Russia was at the brink of collapse in the 1990s, when oligarchs were pulling the strings, where chaos, not democracy, reigned (in the West it was considered that Russia was on the right track towards liberal democracy and free market), NATO was moving closer and closer to the borders of the country. Moscow’s meek complaints were brushed aside as a nuisance. In the 1990s many, especially in the West, believed that the ‘end of history’ had arrived and under the leadership of the United States the world would soon become liberal democratic where the free market reigned supreme. The promotion and export of democracy and liberal values either by persuasion, bribery or use of military force were meant to create a unified and uniform world. For a while it may have indeed seemed that the world was moving in that direction. However, already at the beginning of the 2000s emerged first signs indicating that Washington was overstretching itself and things were not going as imagined. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq did not go as planned (and how could they have gone so?). Attempts to democratise ‘the wider Middle East’ and to ‘drain the swamp’, where terrorist allegedly flourished, destabilised and destroyed those societies thereby creating conditions for the emergence of the so-called ‘Islamic state’ and other Islamist terrorist movements. Instead of achieving the end of history, the world had made a step towards a clash of civilisations. Meanwhile China continued its peaceful economic rise and started, as should have been expected, also claiming an adequate place on the geopolitical map of the world. In the 2000s, Russia – the victim of ‘shock therapy’ of the 1990s – started coming out of the coma, induced by Harvard educated economists and administered by Boris Yeltsin’s advisers. In the eyes of many crypto-Fukuyamians, however, these developments and tendencies were not at all what the 1990s had promised. There was a lot about what to the United States and its allies could become frustrated. However, the long decade of the 1990s was an aberration in the history of international relations. The periods when a single power dominated without being counter-balanced had been rare, usually short and always spatially limited. It was for the first time in the 1990s that a single power had arrogated for itself the right to dominate the whole world.

A wake-up call, both for the Kremlin as well as to the West, came when in August 2008 Georgia, to whom the NATO membership was promised, invaded its break-away territory South Ossetia, collaterally killing around fifteen Russian peace-keepers. A 2014 coup d’état in Ukraine, another aspiring NATO member, was another red line for Russia that meanwhile had become stronger both economically and militarily. Kremlin’s responses (annexation/reunification of the Crimea, support for rebels in the Eastern Ukraine) were used to further strangle Russia economically. When President Putin in his 1st of March 2018 address to the Federal Assembly demonstrated new strategic weapon systems, which had been developed in response to Washington’s denunciation of the Antiballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, the Wester political elite hit the roof. How could somebody so blatantly challenge the ‘liberal’ [2]  and ‘rule-based’ international order?

Of course, Russia and China were doing exactly what all the US national security documents, either implicitly or explicitly, had undertook not to allow at any circumstances and had promised to prevent using all available means. So, already in 1992, the New York Times had summarised the US Defence Department’s national security document in the following words: ‘The classified document makes the case for a world dominated by one superpower whose position can be perpetuated by constructive behavior and sufficient military might to deter any nation or group of nations from challenging American primacy.’ The leaked document itself stated that: ‘Our first objective is to prevent the re-emergence of a new rival, either on the territory of the former Soviet Union or elsewhere, that poses a threat on the order of that posed formerly by the Soviet Union. This is a dominant consideration underlying the new regional defense strategy and requires that we endeavor to prevent any hostile power from dominating a region whose resources would, under consolidated control, be sufficient to generate global power. These regions include Western Europe, East Asia, the territory of the former Soviet Union, and Southwest Asia. [3]’Take a note, it was declared already in 1992 when Russia was already down, and China not yet up. In December 2017, Donald Trump’s National Security Strategy makes it clear that ‘after being dismissed as a phenomenon of an earlier century, great power competition returned. China and Russia began to reassert their influence regionally and globally. Today, they are fielding military capabilities designed to deny America access in times of crisis and to contest our ability to operate freely in critical commercial zones during peacetime [4]’. Of course, those who have some knowledge and understanding of history of international relations should have also known that sooner or later power centres would emerge that would start counter-balancing American dominance. It has always been so that arrogance of one superpower has been challenged and checked by other superpower or a combination of them. International law cannot do it on its own; it may only serve as an instrument grounded in the balance of power. Therefore, Martti Koskenniemi’s ironic remark that ‘to apply Schmitt’s description of the new Nomos [law] to the behaviour of the Western Powers in Kosovo and Iraq, the 50-year interlude may be explained by the Cold War having prevented a full-scale moralization of international politics. Ironically, then, for a century, the Soviet Union may have taken the role of the Schmittian Katechon – restrainer of the coming of the Antichrist’.[5] Of course, Moscow did not play the role of an idealistic restrainer to Washington’s arrogance but one of the effects, or side-effects if you will, of the relative balance of power between Moscow and Washington was certainly that it put limits on the use of force in international relations, and not only between the two superpowers; it had restraining effects also beyond.

Besides these structural factors that lay the foundations for a war between superpowers, creating ‘conditions in which otherwise manageable events can escalate with unforeseeable severity and produce unimaginable consequences’[6], there are sparks or trigger-mechanisms that may set off a world-wide conflagration. There are quite a few of them in the conflict in the Middle East, centered today in Syria, but potentially making the whole region a powder-keg for a WWIII. For the time being less acute, but in the longer run even more dangerous, is the situation in the South China Sea. The conflict in and around Ukraine may also serve as a tinderbox for a super-power conflict. The world is getting ready for a war between superpowers. To step back from the brink following measures may be recommended.

Hugh White, an Australian author, writing on the need of Washington to accommodate a rising China in Asia (neither confronting China nor withdrawing from Asia) observes: ‘Balance of power is what emerges naturally […] By contrast, a concert is an agreement to minimise the risk of war that is inherent in the balance of power system. A concert of power does not happen naturally. It has to be carefully built and maintained, and this is not easy’.[7] Henry Kissinger observes in the same vein: ‘The challenge in Asia is the opposite of Europe’s. Westphalian balance-of-power principles prevail unrelated to an agreed concept of legitimacy’.[8] What is needed, in his opinion, for South and South-East Asia is a regional concert based on the balance of power among the main actors. Moreover, such a system is urgently needed at the global level, and today we do not have, primarily due to NATO expansion, such an agreed-upon balance, even in Europe.

While there is a structural stand-off between the US and Russia, currently intensified by Washington’s use of the Russian card in its domestic political showdown, there is no reason for such a stand-off between Europe and Russia. The current EU-Russia tension is serving American geopolitical interests and is highly detrimental for both Europe and Russia. On the contrary, their cooperation would benefit not only them. They together may be even able to talk some sense into the American foreign policy. Such a cooperation would be particularly necessary in the light of Trump’s renunciation of the Iranian nuclear deal and unconditional support of all anti-Iranian forces in the Middle East. French expert on geopolitics, and reserve colonel, Caroline Galactéros has recently written: ‘Great changes are taking place in the world. Anxious America attempts to consolidate the West under its flag by playing dangerous games. Blinded by its anachronistic structural hostility towards Russia – a natural part of the West, Washington may isolate itself from the rest of the world, if Europe, becoming self-conscious, joins Moscow, Beijing and their allies resisting the American empire’.[9] Obviously, the rapprochement between Europe and Russia would also facilitate finding solutions to the crisis in and around Ukraine.

More effective international law, at least in the world as it is today and not in any utopian imaginations, can be based on three interrelated phenomena: multipolarity, balance of power and concert of powers. If the first two may naturally emerge due to the uneven development of societies over relatively extended periods, their relative (or sometimes absolute) rise and decline, the third phenomenon needs to be built by way of cooperative efforts and has to be accepted by participants as legitimate. Using language familiar to international lawyers, there should be opinion juris sive necessitates (a belief that an action was undertaken because it was a legal necessity) of the balance of power, and not only a de facto existing situation of balance that contesting participants, believing that it is them who are on the right side of history, try to break.

[1] A. Graham. Destined for War: can America and China escape Thucydides’s Trap? (Kindle Location 45). Scribe Publications Pty Ltd, Kindle Edition, 2017.

[2] In my latest book Dawn of a New Order: Geopolitics and Clash of Ideologies (I.B. Tauris, 2017), particularly in the conclusions, I argue that the international order (or disorder) that emerged in the 1990s was neither liberal nor rule-based.

[3] 'US Strategy Plan for Insuring No Rivals Develop’, New York Times, March 8, 1992.

[4] National Security Strategy of the United States of America, December 2017, p. 27.

[5] M. Koskenniemi, ‘International Law and Political Theology’, 11 Constellations, 2004, No. 4, p. 493.

[6] A. Graham, Op. cit., empl.135.

[7] H. White, The China Choice: Why America Should Share Power (Black Inc., 2012), p. 1781.

[8] H. Kissinger, World Order (Penguin Press, 2014), p. 367.

[9] C. Galactéros, ‘Nucleaire iranien: “La sortie des Etats-Unis est une chance pour la France », Le Figaro Vox, 10 mai, 2018.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.