On the Prospects of a Third World War

Frederick the Great remarks somewhere that diplomacy without force is like music without instruments. He forgot to add: when the music is off-key, one must attend to the instruments. In today’s world, diplomacy has repeatedly faltered. As a result, states have been compelled to sharpen the tip of their missiles, with humanity being lurched from one crisis to another.

Despite repeated Russian warnings, the Ukrainians went along with their suicidal attempt to join the NATO: the Russia-Ukraine War has continued to claim lives ever since. With dwindling military aid, Zelenskyy refuses to surrender, and armed with a great military-industrial complex, Putin refuses to talk peace. Similarly in West Asia, Israel’s Netanyahu is averse to let go of his invasion of Gaza after the October 2023 Hamas missile attacks. Not least, since the Israeli missile strike on the Iranian Embassy in Syria, and Iran’s retaliatory measures against Israel, the newspapers have been rife with ominous reminders of humanity constantly staring at the unwholesome countenance of a Third World War.

Cold War 2.0

For the last decade or so, the world has gradually split up into two great hostile camps directly facing one another—the liberal-democratic led by the United States and its global allies and the authoritarian under the leadership of the China-Russia-Iran axis. With this emergent bipolarity, humanity has witnessed the return of localised armed conflicts and ‘international’ wars. As a reaction to America’s global hegemony, Russia, China and Iran have been claiming their respective neighbourhoods as their exclusive spheres of influence; whereas, the United States has continued to assert global geopolitical predominance, despite a significant decrease in its influence and appeal.

The major powers are modernising their respective nuclear arsenals in fear of who will launch the ‘doomsday’ weapons first; newer ‘smart’ weapons, and cyber capabilities are being developed; small arms are increasingly proliferated in volatile continents and regions like Africa, South and West Asia. There have also been exchanges of threats involving the use of nuclear weapons since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Relations among key global players—like India and China—as well as geopolitical challengers such as Iran, Pakistan and North Korea are riddled with armed conflicts and threats of war.

Within this divided world, the smaller states are being coerced into choosing between the emergent blocs for ensuring their own survival. There have been civil wars in Afghanistan, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen in which the US and Russia have supported rival warring factions. In West Asia, Israel continues to enjoy American support, while China and Russia have been vocal against the Israeli genocide of unarmed Palestinians in Gaza. Yemen, Iran and Saudi Arabia are also repeatedly clashing over geopolitical issues. In West Asian geopolitics, ethnicity, religious rivalries, oil, conventional wars, insurgency and terrorism, covert nuclear capability, and foreign influence make for an explosive concoction. Once a spark is introduced to such a concoction—potentially bringing the US, Russia and China into its vortex—the resultant conflagration can destroy humanity as we know it. To make matters worse, crisis diplomacy among states has plummeted to an all-time low and the United Nations has once again proved itself to be quite dysfunctional. Taken together, today’s crises point to this: it may not be too long before the lights go out, forever.

Analysing Probability

However, all may not be lost. The world has witnessed the scare of a Third World War ever since the end of the Second, but several factors in the past have been instrumental in reducing its probability. Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the West has been instrumental in pushing the ‘Third World War’ narrative, which has reached a fever pitch since the recent Iran-Israel skirmishes. The US has assumed these as indirect challenges to its global influence. Vested interests in the media have, therefore, perpetuated the fears of localised or dyadic wars escalating into a ‘World War’—with predictions made by ancient soothsayers as evidence—since these crises are engendered by states that are unanimous in their understanding of American power being the primary obstacle to their geopolitical objectives, and have thereby, striven to undermine the US, even at the cost of competing with the other supporters of the liberal international order. The fear psychosis engendered through media frenzy is thereby aimed at preserving the self-same order from revisionist challengers.

It may be argued, in the obverse, that contemporary international crises synthesizing into a ‘World War’ is quite low for the relevance and influence of the following factors. 

First, in decisions of war and peace, reason trumps blind animosity. Rational actors—state or non-state—hardly ever decide on waging wars in the absence of a political object or concomitant cost-benefit calculation. The present set of major powers have no political object to be gained by joining coalitions that may snowball into a larger conflagration. 

Second, as outright state-on-state warfare of the old kind has become less useful and less affordable—evinced by the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine—war has assumed an unprecedented hybridity resulting from the symbiosis between its military and economic aspects. Since globalisation the political object of war has been complemented with the economic motive, whereby major powers—despite pursuing low-level militarised conflicts that can be quickly terminated—have largely resorted to the weaponization of economic instruments for achieving geopolitical goals. Given the large-scale destruction that the next World War is likely to engender, states have been cautious to compete over geopolitical issues not on the battlefields but ‘indirectly’—through mechanisms of trade, investments, manufacturing, and economic sanctions. 

Third, the war-fighting weaponry presently at the disposal of states is likely to bring caution and not the thirst for a ‘total war’ that may lead to the mutual annihilation of the attacker and the defender: it must be remembered that the ongoing wars are being fought with limited means on a limited scale, with diplomatic channels constantly open, and for the ultimate objective of securing geopolitical gains. Put into perspective, the comparison of Israeli and Iranian force structures by the media is a misnomer, especially since that crisis has de-escalated as abruptly as its escalation in early April 2024.

Finally, states have become much more insular in the post-pandemic world. This essentially negates the functionality of collective security alliances, augmenting instead, the viability of issue-based strategic partnerships in which major powers assisting their minor partners in military-strategic affairs shall decline to stake their own survival upon conflicts that do not directly threaten the security of their respective homelands. In short, cutting across the panic of doomsday, it may be surmised that the same states locked in a situation of permanent crisis shall be unwilling to enunciate a larger conflagration in the form of a Third World War because of very geopolitical and geoeconomic reasons impelling such crises.

[Header image: Ukrainian T-72AV with a white cross during the 2022 Ukrainian Kharkiv counteroffensive. Credit: AFU StratCom, via Wikimedia Commons]

Dr. Souradeep Sen is Assistant Professor of Political Science, University of North Bengal, India. His current academic interests cover geopolitics, strategic culture, international security, and military history. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

NATO’s Uncertain Future: Navigating the Challenges in a Changing Global Landscape

As The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) observes its 75th anniversary in Washington, The General Secretary of NATO writes that the outcome of the...

Struggling for OECD membership, Indonesia Needs to Re-understand the Contestation in Global Tax Politics

In the summer of 2023, Indonesia initiated the intention to join the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Following a year, in the...

Is India Moving in the Direction to Have A Strategic Culture as Understood in the West?

Mohandas K. Gandhi (1869-1948), known for his contribution to turning mass mobilization against British imperial rule into non-violent movements for Indian independence, also used...