Pathways to World War III
Sunil Yadav, Senior Fellow, VIF
Understanding ‘World War’

A world war is an international conflict that involves most or all of the world's major powers. The Oxford English Dictionary cited the first known usage in the English language to a Scottish newspaper, The People's Journal, in 1848 which described it as a war between great powers. The term "world war" was used by Karl Marx and his associate, Friedrich Engels in a series of articles published around 1850 called The Class Struggles in France. The term "first world war" was first used in September 1914 by German biologist and philosopher Ernst Haeckel, who said that the course and character of a likely 'European War' will become the ‘First World War’ in the full sense of the word[1].

To get an understanding of what may constitute a World War, we have a look at different perspectives and facets that lend weight to WW I and WW II being termed as World Wars.

World War I

The term “First World War" (Welt Krieg), as mentioned above first appeared in Germany in 1914. The French and British referred to the war as the "Great War", but also adopted the term "World War" later in the conflict[2]. In the US, it was originally referred to as the “European War”, until the US joined the war in 1917. In a letter dated 31 July 1919, President Woodrow Wilson made a recommendation that ‘World War’ would become the official name of the war and it was adopted thereafter[3].

Scale and Magnitude

From the very outset of the war the Germans felt that the world was against them as they perceived themselves to be fighting against the global empires of Britain and France. Thus to the Germans, the term World War expressed the scale of fear the conflict unleashed.

There are also arguments that the terms "First World War" and "World War One" are debatable. In the past too, the Seven Years War, the mid-18th Century battle for supremacy among Europe's big powers, and the Napoleonic Wars too had a global character as they were also fought on multiple continents and caused severe disruption to global trade. Moreover, if contrasted to WW II, which saw widespread fighting in Asia and the Pacific, then the WW I appears to be more like a European conflict as the main fronts that would decide the outcome of the war were all in Europe.

But the war was definitely global in reach, notwithstanding whether it was the first of its kind or not. In 1914, the key belligerent states automatically brought their colonised possessions into war with them. Together the British and French empires covered much of the globe, including almost all of Africa and Australasia; the Russian land-based empire too spanned from Siberia in the North to the Caucasus and to Vladivostok in the East. Japan which was on the side of the Allies invaded German colonial territory in China in 1914. The Ottoman Empire too brought resources from its colonies in the Middle East into the conflict. Eventually when the US and Brazil joined hands with the Allied powers, the continents of ‘North’ and ‘South’ America got involved and the war had truly acquired a global character.

World War I was also global in terms of the range of ethnicities and nationalities involved in the war[4]. The British mobilised more than a million Indian men for the war. They made up nearly one third of the British army on the Western Front in 1914 and also fought in East Africa and in Mesopotamia. The French, meanwhile, brought soldiers and labourers to Europe from overseas, including Indochina, Indo Pacific and Africa. The Germans too mobilised black colonial troops but only for use in Africa as they were opposed to using non-white troops in Europe due to reasons of maintaining colonial racial hierarchies.

The term "First World War" can also be considered appropriate because it was perhaps the first industrialised global conflict that was followed by a second industrialised world war of similar scale and magnitude between 1939 and1945.

Casualties

The casualties suffered by the participants in World War I were considerably higher than those of previous wars. As per the US Census Bureau, the total number of military and civilian casualties in World War I was around 40 million. There were approx. 20 million dead and 20 million wounded.

Global Impact: Geo Political

WWI had tremendous geopolitical impact throughout the world. One of these impacts was the fading of big colonial empires. The Austro-Hungarian Empire dissolved. The same happened with the Ottoman and Russian Empires. Their territories were integrated into new countries that were added to the European map. Among the new nations were Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Estonia, Yugoslavia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland. Upon surrendering and signing the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, Germany had to return large number of territories that belonged to other countries and several of their overseas colonies.

The war had a profound impact on global narratives as well as attitudes. Japan called for a clause on the equality of all races to be inserted into the League of Nations pact after the war. Though it was unsuccessful, but the demand showcased changing mindsets and attitudes. The first African Congress, held in Paris in 1919, advocated that African people should govern themselves. The war gave rise to new global ideas about the rights of people to self-determination and the need for a global system of international co-operation, which was fundamental to the League of Nations[5].

Global Impact: Economic

Before the war, Britain and France were the world's largest economic powers. Despite winning, the impact of WWI affected their economies negatively. France was economically devastated primarily due to the reason that the Western Front had been fought entirely on French territory, and its costs were enormous. Russia, a former Allied power that left the war in early 1918, saw revolution erupt largely due to its weakened economy. Germany went into an economic crisis after being forced to pay for damages. The staggering sum, roughly $31.5 billion at the time it was decided in 1921, was considered by many to be too high[6]. By the early 1920s, Germany could no longer make payments on the war debt and was experiencing hyperinflation. This generated anger and discontent in the population which would later become one of the reasons for starting of WWII.

The United States emerged as the leading economic poweras it took advantage of being part of the winning side and had of bearing lesser costs as it did not fight battles on its own territory. The war’s biggest economic impact was that the global capital of finance shifted during the conflict from London to New York.

It was a war that greatly altered the world in terms of global geopolitics and global economics, and in this regard, in the sheer scale of the changes it brought, it was certainly a first.

WW II

Along with World War I, World War II was one of the great watershed events of 20th-century geopolitical history. It resulted in the extension of the Soviet Union’s power to nations of Eastern Europe, enabled a communist movement to eventually achieve power in China, and marked a decisive shift of power in the world away from Western Europe and towards the United States and the Soviet Union.

Scale and Magnitude

The World War II conflict involved virtually every part of the world during the years 1939–45. The principal belligerents were the Axis powers—Germany, Italy and Japan; and the Allies—France, Great Britain, the United States, the Soviet Union, and, to a lesser extent, China. The war was in several aspects a continuation, after an uneasy 20-year period, of the disputes left unsettled by World War I.

World War II supposedly commenced on 1 September 1939, when Germany invaded Poland. The United Kingdom and France declared war on Germany on 3 September. From late 1939 to early 1941, in a series of campaigns and treaties, Germany conquered or controlled much of continental Europe, in a military alliance with the Axis powers. Major military campaigns were fought in North Africa and East Africa as well, primarily between the European Axis powers and the British Empire. In June 1941, Germany opened the Eastern Front, the largest land theatre of war in history, when it invaded the Soviet Union.

In December 1941, Japan attacked American and British territories with near-simultaneous offensives against Southeast Asia and the Central Pacific, including an attack on Pearl Harbour which resulted in the United States joining the war on side of the Allied powers. German defeats on the Eastern Front in 1943 cost the Axis powers their initiative and forced them into strategic retreat on all fronts. In 1944, the Western Allies invaded German-occupied France, while the Soviet Union regained its territorial losses and pushed Germany and its allies back. The war in Europe concluded with the liberation of German-occupied territories, culminating in the Fall of Berlin to Soviet troops and the unconditional German surrender on 8 May 1945.

Following the refusal of Japan to surrender on the terms of the Potsdam Declaration (26 July 1945), the US dropped the first atomic bombs on Hiroshima on 6 August and Nagasaki on 9 August forcing Japan to sign the surrender document on 2 September 1945[7].

It is clearly evident that the scale and magnitude of WW II was unprecedented and was spread across all continents making it a truly global conflict.

Casualties

Estimates for the total number of casualties in WW II vary, because many deaths went unrecorded. Most studies and records suggest that approx. 60 million people died in the war, including about 20 million military personnel and 40 million civilians making it the bloodiest conflict, as well as the largest war, in history.

Global Impact: Geo-political

The outcome of the war had deep effect on the course of world history. The old European empires collapsed as a direct result of the punishing costs of the war and in some cases, their fall was caused by the defeat of imperial powers. The United States emerged as the dominant global superpower, along with its adversary and ideological opponent, the Soviet Union. The two superpowers exerted political and military influence over most of the world's nation-states for decades after the end of the WW II. The outcome and impact of the war had a direct bearing on creation of the modern international security, economic, and diplomatic system.

Institutions such as the United Nations were established for a global consensus based approach on international affairs, with the explicit goal of preventing another outbreak of general war. The war had also greatly changed the course of daily life. Several technologies that were developed during the war for military use had a profound effect on civil life as well, such as advances in jet aircraft, nuclear energy, computers and medicines.

Global Impact: Economic

The global economy suffered heavily from the war, although participating nations were affected differently. The United States emerged much richer than any other nation, and by 1950 its GDP was much higher than that of any of the other powers, and it emerged as the most dominant world economy. The Allied powers pursued a policy of industrial disarmament in Western Germany from 1945 to 1948. Due to interdependencies in international trade, this policy led to an economic lull in Europe and delayed European recovery from the war for several years.

At the Bretton Woods Conference in July 1944, an economic framework for the post-war world was drawn up by the Allied nations. It resulted in creation of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD), which later became part of the World Bank Group[8]. Economic recovery in Europe, especially that of West Germany was due to the liberalisation of European economic policy that was induced by the U.S. Marshall Plan[9] economic aid (1948–1951) both directly and indirectly. Italian and French economies experienced an economic boom while surprisingly the United Kingdom experienced very slow recovery for several decades despite receiving nearly a quarter of the total Marshall Plan assistance, more than any other European country. The Soviet Union, despite huge human and material losses, also experienced rapid increase in production in the immediate post-war era, having seized and transferred most of Germany's industrial plants as well as recovering large percentage of war costs from its satellite states. Japan recovered much later - being on the losing side, as well as due to the adverse impact of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

From the above discussion it can be concluded that wars can be termed as World War if the scale and magnitude of the war has a global imprint and the impact of the war has the propensity to make profound changes in the global geopolitical and economic landscape.

Is WW III on the Horizon?

Two world wars which claimed tens of millions of lives were followed by the Cold War that shaped everything from geopolitics to economics to entertainment to sports. The Cold War era was interspersed with a number of events such as the Berlin crises, the Cuban Missile Crises, the Yom Kippur war, the Strategic Defence Initiative which could have escalated into serious global crises. But with the disintegration of USSR; end of Cold War; emergence of a unipolar world order in the 1990s, plausibility of World War III seemed to be very low at the start of the 21st century.
Yet, unfolding of events in the past few years indicate that the risk of the world plummeting into a global conflict seems to be higher than ever before. Rising tensions in the Middle East due to the Israel Hamas war, amidst a global outcry against the humanitarian excesses and various anti-Israel regional players threatening to open new war fronts has raised serious concerns of the conflict widening into a regional one with possibilities of escalating into a World War. Russian military operations in Ukraine and regular flights of Russian military aircrafts probing Europe’s borders have put NATO at its highest levels of alert since the end of cold war. In the Indo Pacific, the U.S. and a resurgent, powerful and assertive China are engaged in a show of strength and an arms race that is riding on high and disruptive technologies. The concern is that the increasing competition of the US with China and its partner Russia could at some point turn volatile and may cascade into a military action having profound global impact.

Fault Lines for a World War III

Wars start through any number of pathways: one world war happened through planned and deliberate action while the other was a crisis that spiralled out of control. In the coming decades, a war might ignite accidentally, such as by two opposing warships of big powers getting into an arms exchange in disputed waters or it could simmer for a while and then erupt as a consequence of rearrangement of the global order in the late 2020s, the period by which China’s military build-up is likely to pose serious challenge to the US military might. Let us look at some of the existing fault lines which could precipitate into a World War III like situation.

Middle East Crises

In the Middle East the fragile, uneasy and mostly adversarial relationship between Israel and Iran is the biggest security threat which has the potential to unsettle the whole region. Israel has always remained concerned about Iran's nuclear programme and has threatened to take military action several times in the past. In the ongoing crises in Gaza whether Israel takes military action against Iran or not ultimately depends on whether the current, limited conflict in Gaza broadens out to a wider war in the Middle East involving regional power Iran through its proxy Hezbollah in Lebanon.

As has been evident till now, there seems to be little desire shown by US and Iran for a regional conflict, but given the intensity of Israel's bombardment and ground operation the scope for miscalculation is huge. The war in Gaza is disrupting the already delicate calculus of a long existing ‘Shadow War’ between Israel and Iran, and the longer the conflict continues, the more it will reduce the prospects of normalcy between the two nations and raise the risk of an Israeli-Iranian conflict.

Seeking to act as a deterrent against a further escalation, the US has continued its troop build-up in the region. Two American aircraft carriers are already in position in the Eastern Mediterranean. The conflict can only spiral into a regional conflict if Iran gets involved in it. The path to escalation via a Hezbollah-led second front from Lebanon is not very likely, as Hezbollah also seems to be very circumspect and cautious in its approach to the crises, but any US military intervention against Hezbollah hasthe potential for the war to spread to Iran itself, which perhaps is neither desired by the US or Iran.

It may be important to note that the Yom Kippur war in Oct 1973, fought between a coalition of Arab States (supported by the Soviet Union) and Israel (supported by the US), increased tensions between the two superpowers, with American and Soviet naval forces coming close to firing upon each other in the Mediterranean Sea[10]. The superpowers had been pushed to the brink of war, but tensions eased with the ceasefire brought in by the UNSC. As compared to the current crises the Yom Kippur War had direct involvement of State Actors while the current crises, thus far, involves State Vs non State Actors. Thus, at the moment, with Russia involved in its own war against Ukraine, Arab Nations divided in their positions, and China keeping a low profile on the crises, it seems unlikely that the current Middle East crises will precipitate into a global security crises.

Russia – Ukraine Conflict

Russia's invasion of Ukraine, which began in February 2022, has been described by some analysts as more dangerous than anything Europe has seen since the end of World War II. Russia's hopes for a quick victory have turned into a protracted war of attrition, and the conflict is at the risk of turning into a stalemate.

With European leaders seemingly reprioritising their attention and efforts towards the conflict, and resistance growing in the United States to an open-ended support, Russia may be seeking to divert Western support and attention away from Ukraine. The war in Gaza may have come as the perfect opportunity for Russia to drive this advantage. However, any serious adverse situation in Ukraine could easily slide into a global crises. Ukrainian President Zelensky, in his talk with the CBS warned that with Russia increasingly emboldened, Western war weariness could lead to the fall of Ukraine and, in due course, a Third World War.

Throughout the invasion, several senior Russian politicians, including President Putin, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and party leader Dmitry Medvedev, have made a number of statements widely seen as threatening the use of nuclear weapons, while several officials from the United States and NATO, including US president Joe Biden have made statements reaffirming NATO's response in the event that Russia attacks any NATO member state or uses nuclear weapons. In early 2023, President Putin suspended Russia's participation in New START, the last remaining nuclear treaty between Russia and the US, and later announced plans to install Russian tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus[11] which resulted in further deterioration of relations between US and Russia.

At the moment the war seems to be in a state of slow grind with neither side making any significant progress and a military end state appears to be in far distance, with consequently fewer chances of the crises spiralling out of control. However, the Russia - Ukraine war is a conflict between two nation states and any perceived existential crises of state/ideology for either side during the war will have serious global security implications.

US – China Confrontation

The greatest threat to geopolitical stability today is perhaps the growing tensions between China and the US, with relations at their lowest point in decades. Continued economic growth is fast making China a rival centre of geopolitical power to the US however, at the moment there is considerable asymmetry between the military powers of the two nations which restricts China to pose any serious challenge to US military interventions. Nonetheless, Taiwan continues to be a Chinese sensitivity that could be a flashpoint for a military confrontation.

Beijing sees Taiwan as an integral part of a unified Chinese territory. It has, in recent years, adopted an increasingly aggressive stance towards Taiwan. At the same time, the US under President Biden has ramped up its support – financially, militarily and rhetorically – for Taiwan's continued independence. In recent months there has been an attempt, by both sides, to cool the hostile rhetoric and find common ground. In a recent summit between President Xi Jinping and President Joe Biden in San Francisco in Nov 2023, the two leaders agreed to work towards co-operating in areas of shared interest, and responsibly managing competitive aspects of the relationship including resumption of military to military talks. These developments are indicative that both nations are wary of the pitfalls of a confrontational relationship and are keen to work towards normalising relations. It certainly augurs well towards minimising risks of two big powers getting involved in a military conflict. However, the relations are so fraught that re-establishing the stability and balance of yester years will take much more effort and political will.

Failure to de-escalate and continue with a confrontational approach in mid to long term is fraught with risks. Consider a scenario, in which China imposes a blockade on Taiwan which draws in the US and later North Korea, South Korea, Japan and Russia too, tumbling the region into conflict and subsequently escalating into WW III. The devastating human costs aside, even if fought by conventional methods, a military conflict between the world's two biggest economies and their supporting nations would lead to complete breakdown of global supply chains and would have catastrophic economic consequences that could result in the second great depression.

A Volatile South Asia

Southern Asia — India, Pakistan and China — is the only place on earth where three nuclear-armed states have recently engaged in violent confrontations along their contested borders. The problem of security and stability in Southern Asia is getting harder to manage because of several geopolitical changes, such as rising India-China border tensions, religious fundamentalism and internal instability in Pakistan and Afghanistan and rising military capabilities including growing nuclear arsenals.

A return to serious India-Pakistan crisis could be just one terrorist attack away. India has been firm in its response to terrorism and in recent times has carried out strikes on terror camps and infrastructure across the LOC. In Pakistan, neither the civilian nor army leaders can afford to look weak in the face of Indian attacks, especially when its Army in recent times has been under fire for the ongoing political and economic mess in the country. With Pakistan’s will (and capacity) for keeping a check on cross-border terrorism under serious doubt, a Pakistan sponsored terror attack that crosses the threshold of Indian tolerance could spiral into another India-Pakistan war.

Pakistan also has to deal with serious problems on its western borders. Relations between Islamabad and Kabul have deteriorated drastically ever since the Taliban swept back into power and relations with Iran have always been uneasy. Rather than controlling Afghanistan through its favoured militant proxies, Pakistan is suffering a surge in violence on its own soil, mostly by the anti-state Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan. Such violence, along with national political turmoil and economic crisis, raises concerns among many about threats to the safety and security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal and regional stability.

Events along the contested border between India and China have led to deterioration of relations, giving rise to prospects of military escalation. The ‘Galwan’ incident in 2022 was a serious planned confrontation by China which could have resulted in military escalation as thousands of troops were stationed not very far behind. Indian Ocean, albeit a region of peace today, has the potential of serious escalation as China’s increasing naval presence and influence on India’s smaller neighbours is a matter of growing concern.

Thus in view of China’s growing military power and belligerent actions, and Pakistan in a state of perpetual internal turmoil, the South Asian region remains a potential hotspot for military flare up that could escalate into a regional security crises and eventually into a global crises considering the fact that two of the world’s top five economies and three nuclear powers are in military confrontation.

Climate Change and Environmental Degradation

Besides the realms of geo-politics, it is the aspect of climate change that could be one of the most destabilising factors to global security and peace.

Today, climate change threat has global dimensions, crossing not only geographic boundaries but impacting other geopolitical risks at the local, regional, and international levels. Disparities in efforts to reduce emissions, petro rich states resisting energy transition, and competition over clean energy technologies are already contributing to geopolitical tensions. Existing flash points such as resource competition and migration are likely to be intensified by climate change.

Even though there are several climate change issues that have potential to be triggers for confrontation between states, one probable flashpoint is discussed here to highlight the importance of climate change as a possible global security risk - the emergence of the Arctic region as a new centre of great power competition. As the Arctic is warming faster than predicted and its thick ice barriers melt away, opportunities in shipping and mineral exploration become increasingly feasible. Ice melting will expand Arctic shipping routes, shortening distances between Europe and Eastern Asia, as well as between Alaska and the Eastern US. Ice melting will also make it technically easier to start exploring natural resources (oil, gas, and minerals).

The prospect of huge economic benefits in the Arctic is likely to lead to intensified power competition between Russia, China, and the US. Russia has already begun commercial and military investments to strengthen its presence and ability to control the Northern Sea Route. China too has shown keen interest in the region and has declared itself as a “near-Arctic” power and has made significant investments in shipping and transportation infrastructure in Iceland and Greenland. At the moment the US is putting few resources into developing the capacity to exploit natural resources or take advantage of the new shipping lanes, but sooner than later the US will enter into strategic competition in the Arctic region. Direct competition between the three big powers could result in serious security consequences.

WW III: What if it Were to Happen

Most experts agree that the world will not allow the outbreak of World War III, as its consequences will be irreparable, however in a hypothetical situation if it were to happen the thoughts of its likely consequences are quite chilling. World War III will bring about a loss of trust amongst most nations which would strain diplomatic relations across the globe and lower thresholds of tolerance, which could trigger manageable disputes into full-blown catastrophes.

A conflict of such enormity would induce chaos in financial markets, disrupt trade, and threaten the stability of even the most robust economic powers. Stock markets worldwide would nosedive and set investors into panic. Existing trade agreements could collapse overnight and global supply chains would face dire challenges. The ramifications a WW III might have on our economy will be humongous and could result in the second great depression as mentioned earlier.

In a WW III, some of the most cutting-edge technology would be brought to bear, with catastrophic results for humanity. Arguably the most frightening thought of a modern world war is that nuclear weapons could be employed, dramatically escalating the conflict's magnitude and devastation. Even though Weapons of Mass Destruction are considered as guarantees to prevent wars but if a WW III were to happen, with thresholds lowered and tolerance levels reduced across nations, irrationality could lead to their possible use. Even if all-out nuclear war were prevented by mutually assured destruction, smaller-scale nuclear accidents or incidents could lead to devastating consequences.

WW III will not only be spread across the traditional domains of physical combat i.e. land, air and sea but will also be fought in domains of Cyber and Space that will make the character of the war more hybrid. Cyber warfare will target communication networks and critical infrastructure resulting in widespread power outages and unprecedented disruption of essential services such as hospitals, public transportation systems, water supply plants etc. Technological advancements and innovations in weapons and delivery systems such as drones, autonomous weapons, hypersonic missiles, directed energy weapons etc will result in attacks being carried out with deadly precision and large scale destruction. In short, a third world war would undoubtedly exploit technology in ways unimaginable to past generations, not just on battlefields but also in every aspect of our lives.

The consequences for humanity would be nothing short of catastrophic that would result in unparalleled level of suffering and devastation on a global scale. From large scale casualties to displacement of millions to severe food security crises, humanity would face unprecedented challenges that would seriously impair and strain our capacity to respond.

Conclusion

The world today is seemingly in a state of conflict as we witness violent struggles between state vs. state and state vs. non state actors across continents. Tensions in the Middle East, South China Sea and Eastern Europe are fuelling fears of World War III if the crises continues and further deepens.

At this stage however, a WW III seems to be unlikely but if any of the above discussed fault lines manifests in their worst possible state, such as China using force to decide the issue of Taiwan/ Ladakh or Russia faced by the possibility of unanticipated adverse results in war with Ukraine decides to attack a NATO state or Ukraine’s existence is under threat or the Israel Hamas war spirals into a regional conflict or a black swan event such as a Weapon of Mass Destruction is used by North Korea on South Korea – accidently or otherwise, could send the world tumbling into a global security crises of unprecedented magnitude and scale.

References

[1]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_war
[2]https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine- WW1: Was it really the First World War?
[3]https://www.euronews.com/culture/2023/04/28/culture-re-view-how-did-world-war II-get-its-name
[4]https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine- WW1: Was it really the first world war?
[5]https://www.britannica.com/event/World-War-I
[6]https://study.com/academy/lesson/economic-social-political-consequences-of-the-great-war
[7]https://www.osti.gov/opennet/manhattan-project-history/Events/1945/surrender
[8]https://www.worldbank.org/en/archive/history/exhibits/Bretton-Woods-and-the-Birth-of-the-World-Bank
[9]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marshall_Plan
[10]"The little-known US-Soviet confrontation during Yom Kippur War". The World, 26 Oct 2012
[11]https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/ - Russia suspends participation last remaining nuclear treaty with US -2023-02-21

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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