At the risk of sounding a little foolish, there is, sadly, much evidence that World War Three has already arrived, though not quite in the way so many futurologists of the past imagined it, as a clash between superpowers, their tanks chasing each other across the North German plain.
Nowadays, our planet is much more kaleidoscopic and asymmetric in its violence than that, and the world is pretty much in flames already, should we care to look. The question is whether all the present (relatively) little wars could actually mutate into, or trigger, a real superpower conflict involving the US, Russia and China, at the least.
We are probably not yet at the most dangerous pass since 1945: the 1962 Cuban missile crisis and the early 1980s felt more frightening in those terms, in truth much more than after 9/11, traumatising as that event was. But we are certainly in risky, unstable, uncertain times.
There are about 195 countries in the world. Only a dozen or so can be said to be properly at peace: Iceland, the world’s most peaceful country according to the Global Peace Index, followed by Denmark, Austria, New Zealand, Portugal, the Czech Republic, Switzerland, Canada, Japan, Slovenia and Finland. A tiny proportion of the world’s population reside in these outposts of calm. The list of conflicts, wars, civil wars, insurgencies and permanent states of terror is a much longer one, from the all-too-familiar agonies of Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Ukraine, Boko Haram in west Africa, and Yemen through to less well-covered conflicts such as the drugs wars in Mexico and insurgencies from Burma to Armenia and Azerbaijan to (until recently) Colombia. Britain, one way or another, has been in some sort of conflict every year since 1914, with the sole exception of 1968.
So the world is at war, and more so than at any point than in most people’s lifetimes. It is a way of life for most of humanity. Each conflict is different, of course. Slogans such as the “war on terror” or the “war on militant Islamism” fail to capture this reality. After all, many of these conflicts – as we see graphically in Syria and Yemen, for example – are between different groups of militant Islamists, with the Sunni-Shia divide more or less visible. Closer to home, in Northern Ireland, some of the bloodiest moments in the Troubles came when armed Republicans fought armed Loyalists, rather than the security forces. The tendency with al-Qaeda and Isis is for semi-autonomous or autonomous groups, or just random disaffected individuals armed with only a light truck or a smuggled gun, to “affiliate” themselves, often after the event.
The “clash of civilisations”, the famous phrase coined by Samuel Huntington a quarter century ago, has not materialised in the sense he envisaged – substantial blocs of nation states fighting conventional wars across “faultiness”. Instead, we have these fragmented, chaotic, unpredictable sets of “players” that vary in size and potency from the United States of America to a lone maniac with a machete on a train in Germany, or gangs of drunken child soldiers in the Central African Republic. There are proxy wars which defy easy categorisation into a pattern of “the West versus the Rest”. Where America wants to retain friendlier relations with Iran and Saudi Arabia, whose side is the US on in the proxy war between Tehran and Riyadh in Yemen? When the Hutu and the Tutsi attempt genocide, they do so for ethnic not geopolitical reasons.
Even so, the immediate danger now is Cold War 2, much more than a “hot” Third World War, though one could grow out of the other. The US-Russia relationship is on a pivot between progress and failure, more so than at any time since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Also unsteady are America’s and Russia’s respective relations with China, which, as has been true since the Sino-Soviet split in 1961 and Richard Nixon’s historic visit in 1972, can be categorised, in Huntington’s terms, as a “swing superpower”, and a better armed, active and richer one nowadays.
When America and Russia cannot act together in the face of a common threat on the scale of Isis, then there is certainly little cause for optimism. Putin won his war in the Ukraine with the annexation of Crimea and the de facto capture of eastern Ukraine, on the very borders of Nato and the European Union. Perhaps, had Donald Trump not been so enchanted by Vladimir Putin, we would have heard more about that particular failing by the Obama administration in the presidential campaign.
On that score, cosying up to Russia, President Trump might be better for world peace than the second President Clinton; but at what price? Trump has also made little secret of his essential isolationism, dismissing Nato and, implicitly, offering up the Baltic republics to Putin as a few morsels, as if they were not worth the bones of an American marine. Thus would Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania leave the European Union against their will and join a reborn Russian sphere of influence.
Others – the central Asian republics for example, and Georgia (where Russia has already fought a war of aggression) – might not be far behind. A Cold War would see aggressive, steady Russian expansionism accelerate, in a way we haven’t seen since the 1970s, or Hitler’s opportunistic land grabs. In that way we could be living through something similar to the “steps to war” every school child learns that the world trod in the 1930s; appeasement feeding the appetite of the beast.
Or it could arrive more rapidly, this transition from Cold War to hot war – more like the way it did in 1914, almost out of a clear blue sky. There are plenty of corners of the world that replicate some or all of the features of the Balkans in the late summer of 1914: the Baltic republics, Korea, the South China sea, Ukraine and the Middle East are the more obvious ones.
But a hot war would not mean Americans directly in hand-to-hand combat with Russians, either conventionally or through nuclear weaponry. The doctrine of mutually assured destruction still applies. More probable, as in the last Cold War, is that they will try to stay out and allow their proxies to fight the wars for them.
Every conflict during the Cold War was fought by armies or insurgents working on behalf of the Americans, Russians, or, occasionally the Chinese. Sometimes the superpowers committed their own troops – usually the US, as in Korea (under UN auspices) and in Vietnam, though the Russians went in in force to Afghanistan in the 1979 invasion, their own “Vietnam”. But Russians and Americans rarely, if ever, faced each other. The mujahedeen that resisted the Russians occupiers and their puppet regime in Afghanistan? Armed and advised by the CIA via Pakistan, including one Osama bin Laden. Wars in Korea, Vietnam, Angola (where the Russians sent Cubans and the Americans backed South Africa), and between Israelis and Arabs were or all, more or less, proxy affairs, where locals or the allies of the superpowers lost many more civilian and military lives than did the Americans or Russians.
The Second Cold War will most likely take on that sort of character, as it is already, but in more places, with more deadly weapons, more terrorism, a greater death toll, less respect for national borders and, thus, with more dangers of escalation attached. Let’s hope Iceland manages to keep out of the way; few others will.
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