Could We See World War Three in Our Lifetimes?
Three months ago, in this space, I asked whether, if present trends were to continue, we could find ourselves embroiled in something like a Third World War. Working from that concept and the thoughtful remarks of a number of readers, I decided to delve into the question a little more deeply and, as a result, have produced a new e-book entitled The Blast of War: A Narrative History of the Third World War. The book, a "future history," lays out how the present situation -- if carried over into the future -- could lead us into catastrophe.
The world situation today is as unsettled as it has been at any time since the late 1930s. Indeed, I believe that the underlying cause of this is the same as it was in that era: irresolute policies by Western leaders that will, if they are not corrected soon, leave nations with no choices except for abject surrender and all-out war. Time and time again world leaders have chosen to punt dangerous problems down the road rather than take the risks necessary to resolve them today. Some of these problems, such as China's reckless pursuit of short-term growth as a substitute for political reform, unsustainable global debt loads, Iran's headlong rush towards nuclear weapons, the illegal movement of ten million Mexicans into the United States, and Europe's lackadaisical economic integration, can and will have no happy resolution. The question is what shade of terrible the results will be.
Under ordinary conditions and in isolation, each of these problems might be manageable. However, as Mark Steyn points out in his excellent new book After America, there is another parameter that has created the conditions for an unimaginable disaster: the fact that the United States increasingly appears unwilling or unable to provide the sort of leadership necessary to move the world through these troubled days. It is well and good enough for neo-isolationists, such as Ron Paul and his supporters, to argue that the United States ought to disengage from international affairs -- and for liberals (and not a few conservatives) to argue for reductions in defense budgets -- but the reality is that, as Steyn points out, a world without American leadership will be an anarchic place where, without anyone able to assert himself, more and more states will be tempted to resort to aggression to achieve their foreign policy objectives.
Consider the following:
- China's economic growth is almost certainly the result of a bubble that cannot and will not survive forever. In the face of the degradation of Communist ideology, the sole reason why the party's authoritarian regime survives is because it has managed to take credit for economic growth. When the growth stops -- and it will -- and the party is suddenly sitting on more than a billion poor people (and the few hundred million wealthy ones seek the exits), how will the party seek to sustain its rule? If they were faced with a well-armed United States with a web of external alliances, they would have little choice but to take their chances on internal reforms of some sort. On the other hand, if faced with a distracted United States and a divided Asia, who is to say that the Chinese -- who, it must not be forgotten, will have, as the baleful legacy of their one-child policy, tens of millions more young men than women -- will not, in the time-worn fashion of endangered regimes throughout history, seek to resolve their problems through war? It is astonishing to consider just how little attention we have paid to such a truly dangerous situation. Here we have a powerful regime likely to suffer severe internal issues surrounded by weaker states filled with the resources that that nation needs. I think that, in the likely event of war, future historians will be amazed by how little attention was paid in advance.
- I think that the odds of a European conflict have been underplayed. The core nations of the European Union are incredibly invested in the euro and will, in my judgment, eventually be forced to accept some kind of fiscal union as its price. Ultimately, that will require the cooperation of a number of smaller states that will have strong incentives to defect -- some will want to opt out of paying for transfers, and others will want to avoid paying their debts. It is not difficult to imagine that, in the event that some smaller nation -- such as, say, Greece -- seeks to truly defy a pan-European consensus, some cause for military action against them might be trumped up by the Franco-German alliance.
- We have good cause to be worried about the potential of an Iranian nuclear bomb. However, I think that we have ignored another serious threat: the gradual transformation of Turkey into an Islamist state. George Friedman discussed Turkey as a potential antagonist in a mid-century conflict in his book The Next Hundred Years, but given the unsettled nature of the Middle East today, I think that we might well find ourselves in a shooting war with the a Turkish government, whose secret ambition appears to be the recreation of the Ottoman Empire, sooner than that.
- It is difficult to see how the enduring problem of Mexico will be resolved without some sort of conflict. Not only is Mexico in internal chaos as a result of an ongoing war between drug cartels and the government, but the more than ten million Mexicans illegally residing in the United States also create an issue that will not be easily resolved.
Each of these individual situations carries with it some danger of war. However, when you consider them as a whole, they create a real risk of a cascade of chaos that could consume the whole world. It is easy to imagine, as I have done in The Blast of War, how these problems -- without sober world leadership -- could escalate into an interlocking series of wars that would in combination result in the greatest armed conflict since the Second World War.
By no means should we place our faith in the ability of nuclear weapons to deter such a conflict. While these weapons were, to some degree, effective in preventing a direct war between the United States and the Soviet Union, none of the conflicts which menace the world today offers anything like that war's balance of terror. We would do well to recall that, in history's greatest war, the Nazis refrained from using chemical weapons -- even during the final battles in the dying days of the Third Reich -- for fear of Allied retaliation. War on a global scale is still possible.
War is, and always has been, nothing more than the continuation of politics by other means. As the global situation grows more dire, it will become an ever-increasing menace in all of our lives. The only way to preserve the peace today is, as Ronald Reagan reminded us, through strength. Only a prepared and engaged America can use its military power to stop wars before they happen or, failing that, ensure that aggressors are speedily defeated. As tired as some Americans may be of the burdens of global leadership, we would all do well to remember what the probable alternative is.