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.


Send your comments to Clem

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.


- News24

NEXT ON NEWS24X

SHARE:

Read News24’s Comments Policy

24.com publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
99 comments
Add your comment
Comment 0 characters remaining
 

Inside News24

 
/News
 
Traffic
Lottery
 
  • Monday Montague Gardens - 10:02 AM
    Road name: Montague Drive Northbound
    DELAYS between Bosmansdam Road and Racecourse Road due to roadworks
  • Monday Mitchells Plain - 08:01 AM
    Road name: Wespoort Drive
    TRAFFIC LIGHTS not working at Merrydale Street
 
More traffic reports...
 

Jobs in Cape Town [change area]

Property [change area]

Travel - Look, Book, Go!

Magical Massinga

Spend 5 nights at the gorgeous Massinga Beach Lodge in Mozambique and only pay for 4 from R13 220 per person sharing. Includes return flights, accommodation, transfers and romantic turndown. Book now!

Kalahari.com - shop online today

2 TV Series for R250

Get 2 TV Series box sets for R250 and save up to R148! Offer valid while stocks last. Shop now!

Mind blowing deals on beauty & fragrances

Save up to 30% off beauty and fragrances. Offer valid while stocks last. Shop now!

Up to 50% off hair care products!

Save up to 50% on professional hair care products at kalahari.com. Offer valid while stocks last. Shop now!

30% off academic books

Score a mind blowing 30% off academic books! Offer valid while stocks last. Shop now!

Mind blowing deals on electronics!

Save up to 35% on electronics. Offer valid while stocks last. Shop now!

OLX Free Classifieds [change area]

Samsung Galaxy s4

Mobile, Cell Phones in South Africa, Western Cape, Cape Town. Date October 24

Best bargain in big bay

Real Estate, Houses - Apartments for Sale in South Africa, Western Cape, Cape Town. Date October 25

VW Golf 6, 1.6 Trendline (Excellent condition)

Vehicles, Cars in South Africa, Western Cape, Cape Town. Date October 25

Nokia X6

Heralding the new Xseries range, the Nokia X6 is the...

From R2414.53

I'm shopping for:

Horoscopes
Aquarius
Aquarius

There is a strong emphasis on relationships. Obsession, emotional disputes, retaliation or competitive actions are highlighted....read more

There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.
 
English
Afrikaans
isiZulu

Hello 

Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.


Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire 24.com network.

Settings

Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.








Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.