Look at media headlines on any given day and one will see dreadful news about a civil war in Africa, terrorist bombing in Europe, or a nuclear test in Asia. The world we live in has come to be characterised by the acronym VUCA – volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. Considering how wars and conflicts of some kind – the Napoleonic Wars of the early 1800s, World War I in 1914, World War II in 1939, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – have always been a part of human history, we cannot take for granted that there will always be peace in our lifetime.
Even Pope Francis of the Catholic Church weighed in on this age-old issue recently when he said “we must not be afraid to say the truth, the world is at war because it has lost peace”. The Pope was speaking of wars over interests, money and resources in the aftermath of terrorist attacks in Europe last year. And rightly so.
Global Political Climate: Gloomy Skies
A look at the present global political and security landscape paints a grim picture given the numerous conflict zones and potential flashpoints around the world that could spark a catastrophe. Where wars were once the sole domain of countries and their militaries, non-state actors such as terrorist groups and cyberterrorists are increasingly part of the picture.
The Middle East has acquired a reputation for being a tumultuous region roiled by violence and instability with numerous flashpoints scattered across the region. The long-standing Israel-Palestine conflict over territory that began in the mid-20th century continues to see persistent violence and disputes (short video on the conflict). The brutal terrorist network that calls itself the ‘Islamic State in Iraq and Syria’ (ISIS) poses a worldwide threat but has its epicentre in Syria and Iraq.
The war in Syria that started in 2011 represents the biggest conflict in the Middle East with the involvement of multiple parties each with their own agendas – the regime of Syrian president Basher al-Assad, anti-government rebel forces, terrorist groups ISIS and al-Qaeda, and external powers including the US and Russia. This quagmire has the potential to escalate as the conflict drags on and more parties get involved. The world’s sole superpower the United States (US) is identified as being part of the problem in the Middle East, accused of repeatedly intervening in the region’s affairs for its own strategic interests in energy (fossil fuels) by supporting regimes and rulers friendly to US interests and selling advanced weaponry to its allies in the region.
In Eastern Europe, military forces widely thought to be supported by Russia made incursions into territory in Georgia in 2008, and Ukraine in 2014. These actions, which are still ongoing, have been viewed by the international community as “aggressive expansionism”. The perspective of prominent international relations scholar John Mearsheimer is that such crises in Eastern Europe are the result of two decades of expansionism by the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), comprising the US and mostly Western European countries, up to the countries bordering Russia. This was in contravention of promises made to respect these boundaries between Russia and the rest of Europe at the end of the Cold War.
Asia too contains a number of potential flashpoints such as North Korea, Taiwan and the South China Sea. North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme is the most pressing threat that major and regional powers such as China, US, Russia, South Korea and Japan along with the international community are concerned with. North Korea has conducted nuclear and ballistic missile tests in the last few years in contravention of United Nations sanctions with the stated aim of being able to strike the continental US with a nuclear missile.
The South China Sea is also a site of competing maritime claims between China – which claims almost the entirety of the strategic maritime area – Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei. China has backed its claims with island-building and militarisation activities such as installing military installations on islands located in the disputed areas. Expressing its opposition to China’s moves, the US has sent military ships and plans near disputed islands in “freedom of navigation” operations to ensure key shipping and air routes remain accessible to the international community.
These conflict zones and potential flashpoints all exist in an environment where cyberspace is increasingly a key component in the form of cyberattacks that compromise national security and stability. Deep-seated and emotionally-charged notions related to identity and nationhood have also come to the fore with the rise of anti-globalisation sentiments and right-wing politics in the US and many parts of Europe as exemplified by the election of Trump as American President and Britain’s decision to leave the European Union. Taken together, all these ingredients are like a tinderbox that only needs a spark before WWIII breaks out. So, what are three plausible scenarios for a potential WWIII?
A Perfect Storm: Potential WWIII Scenarios
Asia has often been praised as the region-to-watch for socio-economic development and progress. However, with North Korea’s belligerent rhetoric and military actions, Asia is also where a potential WWIII could be triggered. North Korea continues to defiantly conduct nuclear tests – five since 2006 with two in 2016 alone. Under the rule of Kim Jong Un, it has also been conducting missile tests at an unprecedented rate in a bid to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) able to strike the continental US. Experts estimate that North Korea could attain this capability in four to five years. It is currently thought to be able to launch missiles as far as the island of Guam in the Western Pacific Ocean where US military facilities are located.
Conflict could erupt from attempts to prevent North Korea from becoming a fully-fledged nuclear power. The US, under the unpredictable leadership of Donald Trump, could launch a preventive attack on North Korea aimed at its nuclear and missile facilities. North Korea would invariably retaliate by striking neighbouring South Korea which houses US military troops. As was the case in the Korean War of 1950 (North and South Korea are technically still in a state of war from that), war on the Korean peninsula could easily draw in regional countries such as China, Russia, or Japan. China is an ally of North Korea and would not want the US military active in its own backyard. Russia could join the North Korea and China camp given its Cold War-era rivalry with the US. Japan would pair up with the US as a treaty ally. A devastating war scenario is on the cards with this many powerful militaries involved.
If WWIII were to start in the Middle East, it would likely originate in the war zone of Syria given the military involvement of the US and its coalition partners on one side backing the Syrian rebel forces, and Russia on the other side backing President Basher al-Assad’s government forces. The dynamics of the conflict are complex as the US targets ISIS and not Russian forces. Meanwhile, Russia assists the al-Assad regime by targeting terrorist elements and anti-government rebel groups. Syria holds important strategic value for the US, which needs to defeat ISIS and Islamist terrorism in the region. For Russia, Syria has high geopolitical value as it is one of Russia’s two key allies in the region along with Iran. Having a foothold in the Middle East is imperative for Russia to balance against US influence in the region.
Two Cold War adversaries, both in possession of the world’s largest nuclear arsenals and other advanced weapons systems, fighting a proxy war in Syria that also involves a brutal ISIS that embraces death and destruction is a recipe for disaster. And what could spark a potential WWIII is a military incident arising from a miscommunication or accident which then obliges both sides to escalate conflict to avoid being seen as weak or incapable. An unintended incident such as the accidental bombing of Russian or US coalition forces by the other party is not out of the question given the complexity of the operating environment in Syria. The war could really escalate once Middle Eastern rivals such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, which have vested interests in Syria, get involved.
It has been thus far been difficult to attribute conflicts in parts of Georgia and Ukraine directly to Russia. Instead of a conventional military invasion, Russia has used an indirect strategy involving proxies such as civilian protestors, armed militias and tactics like bombings to create instability. However, it is clear that in order to protect its sphere of influence in Eastern Europe against NATO’s encroachment from the West, Russia’s grand strategy is to weaken and break up NATO.
Experts think that after Georgia and Ukraine, Russia will next target the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, which are NATO members. This may prompt NATO, which now perceives a greater threat from Russia, to activate Article V of its agreement, calling for a collective defence of the Baltics by all 29 NATO members including the US. Article V essentially states that an attack on one NATO member is an attack on all of NATO. Conflict in the Baltics could spiral into a major war in Europe if Russia decides to retaliate. And given Russia’s capabilities in the cyber domain, this version of WWIII could well involve an all-out cyberwar that cripples critical military and civilian infrastructure, directly affecting millions of people.
Not All Doom and Gloom
All being said about a potential WWIII, it is important to bear in mind that as things stand, the reasons for countries not to go to war outweigh the reasons to go to war. Economic interdependence in a globalised world is a significant incentive to keep the peace. The Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) that could come from the use of nuclear, or even cyber, weapons provides a strong disincentive to go to war. And crucially, such discussions about a potential WWIII should be occasion to reflect on the mistakes of history for “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.