The risks of world war III

Jun 6, 2024
Retro European battlefield with soldier

I have been thinking about the unthinkable. Maybe you have too?

Not since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 have we heard so much grim talk of the escalating risk of miscalculation or deliberate provocation leading to World War III.

Across Europe, the Middle East and Asia there is open discussion of the perceived heightened dangers of a catastrophic global war far worse than any before.

Writing in The Australian this week, former Foreign Minister Alexander Downer posits that we live in an ‘Age of Complacency’ about the heightened threats. He cites the Hoover Institution’s calculus that some defence experts see a 40 per cent chance of the world spiralling into global conflict.

It is more sobering that specific warnings from the world’s most powerful leaders about the risks of escalation to nuclear conflict and a Third World War are becoming so frequent that some start to see this as normal or mere sabre rattling.

I believe President Biden chose his words carefully when he warned that the risk of Armageddon was graver now than at any time since the Russians began to secretly install nuclear missiles in Cuba with the capability of surprise attacks on America’s largest cities.

If you read widely you will see that there is a growing assumption that we are in a pre-global war season. Comparisons range from the unexpected events triggering World War I to the instability caused by the Great Depression and military build-up before World War II. Some worry that China might be tempted to take advantage of the political division and uncertainty in the United States, moving to choke Taiwan’s sea lanes. But is this speculation overstating the risk of global war?

While it is often declared by political leaders that the best way to prevent war is to prepare for it, experienced generals know that the wisest course is to invest equally in diplomacy and, above all, deterrence.

There is considerable evidence that the West’s military strategists have not abandoned their belief in the MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction) theory on preventing nuclear war and instead have invested far more into a complex strategy of deterrence.

NATO has just concluded its largest military exercises since the start of the Cold War. From January to the end of May an estimated 90,000 troops took part in an extended demonstration of how NATO would respond against any Russian invasion of Lithuania via Belarus. The admission of Finland and Sweden to NATO has further strengthened this show of European unity.

Despite his extraordinary political situation at home, President Biden has walked a precarious line by continuing to seek adequate arms for Ukraine’s defence without triggering an escalation to direct NATO conflict with Russian troops.

When a Russian cruise missile crossed into Polish airspace as it did in March we saw the danger of just one misstep, miscalculation or incident of military overreach. Since the start of Russia’s war on Ukraine, Polish jet fighters have scrambled to their borders hundreds of times. The danger is ever present.

While President Vladimir Putin insists that he is not considering deploying nuclear weapons in the Ukraine war, he adds frequently that any direct conflict between US-led NATO troops and Russians fighting Ukraine would be a step closer to World War III. Putin has claimed that Russian forces have detected foreign soldiers speaking English and French, implying that NATO already has military personnel in that battlefield. France’s President Emmanuel Macron has said that he would not rule out deploying troops in Ukraine in the future.

When the United States and Germany signalled through leaked reports a qualified willingness to allow Ukraine to use Western weapons to defend itself against missile attacks launched from Russian territory, Moscow issued its sharpest warning yet that crossing this red line could lead to war with NATO forces.

Here is the difficult calculus between deterrence and escalation. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky has reminded us that failure to fend off Russian troops as they advance around Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, would likely lead to attacks on other nations. Confrontation with NATO forces might then follow, Zelensky said, and that ‘certainly means the Third World War.’

President Biden, US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken and CIA Director, William Burns, are simultaneously managing the complex challenges of supporting Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan. The $US 95 billion in new military and economic aid headed to these frontlines is a measure of the mounting seriousness of conflicts on multiple fronts.

Iran is providing Russia with the type of Shahed drones the Iranians fired at Israel. China, according to U.S. intelligence sources, is sending Russia propellant and engines for drones deployed against Ukraine. North Korea also provides the Russians with missiles and ammunition.

Diverse combatants across these very different warzones are involved in a mixture of open battle, shadow operations and rapid movement of weapons among hardening alliances. Look at the Western response.

The threat of China seizing Taiwan by force has prompted President Biden to suggest that the United States has a commitment to defend the Taiwanese, rather than merely arm them to try to ward off a menacing superpower. Despite his administration’s spokesmen downplaying that pointed warning, Biden’s words were, in my view, another calculated attempt at deterrence.

The AUKUS pact to build nuclear-powered submarines similarly is couched in language of deterrence. The United States also has dramatically deepened its military alliance with Japan and the Philippines.

This is a most significant strengthening of containment strategy, based on the conviction that China’s growing military power remains the gravest threat to US hegemony and the sovereignty of Western democracies.

When Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida addressed the U.S. Congress a month ago he warned that China’s ‘current external stance and military actions present an unprecedented and the greatest strategic challenge, not only to the peace and security of Japan but to the peace and stability of the international order. Ukraine of today may be East Asia of tomorrow.’

Defence spending currently by the United States and China (by some estimates over $700 billion US annually) does not reveal the extent of the secretive preparations for a war by these superpowers. Weapons in space, AI and numerous sophisticated ways to assault technologies that maintain modern life may shape a global war beyond anything we can imagine.

If the world is a chessboard at this point we are only watching the knights and rooks in play. There is a lot of bluff, boastful threats and doomsday predictions. We do not know whether Biden, Xi, Putin and the rest will ever return to negotiations and a genuine attempt to build 21st Century trust.

Rather than Alexander Downer’s characterisation of an Age of Complacency, this might be more accurately seen as the Age of Uncertainty.

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