Clem Sunter

The Possibility of World War III

2012-01-18 12:45

Clem Sunter

At several presentations that I have done on the long-term outlook for the world economy, I have been asked the following question at the end: why do you not include the possibility of a third world war? After all, the last century had two world wars. This leads to an interesting debate as to whether the 20th century was an aberrant one when mankind went temporarily mad and such behaviour will not be repeated. The alternative view is that war is built into our DNA and the air has to be cleared by a monumental fight every so often. Equally, it’s a good excuse for reviving the economy if it is in recession. Conscription lowers unemployment, defence industries boom and if there is a lot of destruction going on, infrastructure has to be replaced.

Before examining the type of scenario that might lead to an all-out global conflict, let’s define what one means by a world war. We have had plenty of wars around the planet since 1945, but none of them qualifies as a world war. Here are my conditions:

1. The war has to involve the great military powers on opposing sides. For me that means America, Britain and Europe (Nato) on one side and Russia and China on the other. Plenty of other countries may also participate as allies on one side or the other and the combination of the great military powers may be different. But the war has to start out as a fairly even contest, though some would argue that no combination can measure up to the awesome military might of America if it was prepared to go all the way with its nuclear arsenal;

2. The war has to be fought on several continents at the same time as was the case with World War II; and

3. Each side uses its complete portfolio of weapons including nukes and other weapons of mass destruction. There is no self-restraint. Maximum force to win is the rule of the game.

Given that estimates of military and civilian deaths caused by World War II range from 50 to 70 million and global population has more than doubled since 1945, the body count from World War III could easily exceed a quarter of a billion people. Nuclear weapons are far more devastating now than the ones dropped on Japan at the end of the last world war. Every missile has multiple warheads, each with an ability to knock out a medium-sized city. Destruction would be on a scale that has never been seen before in the history of mankind. Indeed, World War III could be relatively short compared to its two predecessors.

The next thing to consider is what would cause it. The condition precedent to World War I was the imperialistic ambitions of the great powers of Europe; while the trigger was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian throne, in June 1914. The conditions precedent to World War II were the harsh conditions imposed on Germany by the Treaty of Versailles in June 1919 and the rise of Adolph Hitler during the 1920s. The trigger was the invasion of Poland by Germany at the beginning of September 1939.

In retrospect, triggers (or proximate causes) are pretty arbitrary and unpredictable: so there is no point in pondering on the actual event that could precipitate World War III. Rather one should look at the conditions precedent which would make a nation overlook the principle of mutually assured destruction: if you nuke me, I’ll nuke you; so let’s be sensible and not nuke each other.

I can only think of two which are strong enough candidates: religious rivalry and climate change. On the first condition precedent of religious rivalry, my reasoning is not that the great military powers are religiously antagonistic towards one another. It is that they will get sucked in on different sides if, for example, Israel goes to war with Iran. The temptation for a regional religious showdown to turn into a global confrontation will also rise, should there be any acts of nuclear terrorism on Western cities.

The second condition precedent of climate change will very much depend on the severity of the regional consequences of climate change. If there are big winners and big losers in terms of rainfall patterns and water availability; if some countries benefit hugely from additional crop production while others starve; if, with rising sea levels, highly populated land starts disappearing under the ocean; if diseases spread; if some of the large emitters of greenhouse gases are perceived to be doing nothing about the problem while others take responsible measures: then tensions in the world could boil over into a massive conflict.

Remember a World War III scenario is at this stage no more than a hypothesis. Nevertheless, it cannot be ruled out entirely because it has already happened twice – in the last 100 years. As a species we are still capable of unthinkable aggression. Moreover, human error is an ever-present factor. Kennedy and Khrushchev nearly blundered into a flat-out nuclear exchange in 1962 over Russian missile sites in Cuba. On the other hand, we live in a much more interconnected world with so much more to lose and so many more channels to communicate.

On balance, I don’t at present give the scenario the kind of odds to rate it as a major cause for anxiety in the real world. But it should be kept in mind as “the sum of all fears” other than an asteroid demolishing our planet. It is logically conceivable.


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