Is World War 3 About To Break Out?
Probably not — but this is still the most dangerous moment in world history since 1983.
Heh, so, the third world war did just become a whole lot more likely thanks to Russia’s nuclear threats. I’ll write a piece on the real threat of nuclear conflict and how it will likely go soon. For now, just know that the answer to the question in the headline remains the same, but you aren’t wrong to be more than a little afraid.
The world is now in an unprecedented place. If the people trying to pretend Putin is a god-king with sole responsibility for all that transpires in Russia are right, then his mistake in going for all-out regime change in Ukraine may well lead to nuclear weapons use.
Odds are though that Putin does have checks within the Russian system and the attack on Ukraine was planned using bad intelligence. Wouldn’t be the first time, for Russia or America. If so, he remains rational and motivated by survival, so won’t go full-scale nuclear except as a last resort.
Regardless, even setting nukes aside the situation is now dire. A single errant missile hitting a NATO country could force a dramatic escalation that might drag it into a full-scale conflict across the scope of Europe.
Interesting times. Sadly.
A few months before I was born, the world quite nearly plunged into an apocalyptic war — entirely by accident.
Only the actions of a few military officers who disobeyed their standing orders stopped equipment malfunctions from convincing Moscow and Washington the other was about to launch a nuclear strike.
The truth about the Cold War is that the thing itself was a giant screwup that neither side ever wanted to let proceed anywhere near a shooting war.
Neither the Soviet Union nor the United States had any interest in destroying the other — at least not after Stalin died.
But nationalism is a vicious social cancer allowing a lucky few to get rich and powerful by getting people to imagine the worst of some other. Political leaders play their part by latching onto whatever explanations keep them in power, and because the real threat a foreign foe poses isn’t something you ever want to see scientifically proven they rarely get called out for it.
The nonsense being pushed by the high and mighty these days about the modern world being caught in some global competition between democracy and autocracy is a continuation of this ancient scam.
It’s a modern myth meant to distract us from the real pressing challenges like environmental degradation and social inequality that the powerful don’t want to address because doing so would threaten their wealth and privilege.
That’s the basic problem all around the world: some people have too much power. It doesn’t matter what they claim is the reason — the existence of substantial power imbalance creates self-reproducing feedback loops that amplify it over time. Eventually the community fractures and turns against itself before dividing into new polities.
How intense the conflict becomes depends on the stakes. The existence of nuclear weapons have dramatically raised them for all players in the grand game of global power politics.
What is really happening in the world right now is an age-old process: the balance of power is shifting as America’s declines relative to the rest of the world.
This was always inevitable, as America’s years at the top of the global garbage heap that is power politics was a function of the fact most of the world was effectively a rubble pile after the Second World War.
But change is hard, and opens up opportunities for anyone who disliked the America-dominated world system of the past 30 years. America is divided, distracted, and has relied far too long on bluffs to maintain its global prominence, refusing to adopt a sane, scientifically-informed foreign policy.
The danger in a moment like this isn’t that someone is going to try to conquer the world and destroy America.
As much as America’s leaders probably deserve to be overthrown after generations of atrocities that have forever stained the nation’s legacy beyond hope of redemption, that isn’t this country’s fate. Self-immolation is far more in the American style.
The trouble is that working to maintain its bluff of having more raw military power than it truly does has put America’s leaders into a terrible strategic bind.
America is expected to be actively engaged everywhere, and pretends it is in charge right up until the boot of reality lands on its face. Ukraine, Taiwan, Afghanistan up until the moment the US-backed regime in Kabul fell to the Taliban — they are all linked by the presumption that the United States must maintain the ability to dominate any opponent, anywhere.
America’s retreats from Afghanistan and now Ukraine do not mean that Taiwan is next — but it does prove that America isn’t the quite superpower it’s leaders pretend.
Voicing that truth, almost as taboo to admit out loud in polite circles as the very real possibility America might split apart, is enough to get you tagged as being a paid troll of Beijing or Moscow in the weird neo-McCarthyism America is succumbing to.
But that doesn’t make it any less true. And pointing out how America’s dumb foreign policy wonks are is doing the country a service in the long run.
This severe disconnect between America’s true power and the capabilities its politicians insist it has that makes the present moment so very dangerous.
It basically means American military forces are exposed all over the world. They routinely encounter Russian, Chinese, and Iranian ships and sometimes aircraft or personnel. Not every service member’s training will be perfect or hold up under stress.
Right now, as Ukraine grips the attention of most policymakers in D.C., Russia is holding global naval exercises and buzzing American patrol aircraft. China routinely shadows American aircraft carriers operating in the South China Sea, sometimes targeting escort vessels that stray into waters Beijing controls.
Most encounters end without undue stress, letting both sides take cool pictures of each other’s kit.
There’s an old saying among military types that wars aren’t too bad so long as everyone fighting them is a professional — trouble is, the world is full of amateurs.
Mistakes happen in tense moments even when pros are involved — that’s why airliners have been shot down by Russia, Iran, and the United States over the years, killing hundreds of civilians who had nothing to do with the squabbles taking place below.
The more folks from each side who are in close contact, the greater the odds of some amateur making a fatal error.
When leaders misperceive the situation or become trapped by their own public rhetoric horrible things can happen no one dreamed possible.
In the summer of 1983, the Soviet Union and United States alongside NATO held intensive wargames like countries sometimes do to demonstrate their military capabilities — like Russia says it’s doing along virtually all of Ukraine’s borders right now.
But this time the Soviets thought something bigger might be happening, and for understandable reasons.
The new American president Ronald Reagan had embraced strident anti-Soviet rhetoric from his campaign onward, even joking in a hot mic moment that the USSR had been outlawed and bombing was set to begin. New nuclear weapons were developed and deployed while American military spending was boosted and talk of anti-missile defenses turned into tests.
Russia’s elderly leadership caste at the time thought Reagan might be serious, apparently forgetting the dude was an actor and Americans are miseducated into mindless nationalism from a young age.
But nuclear threats are rather total by nature, and from the Soviet perspective Reagan was taking the exact steps you’d expect to see before a war.
So they ramped up their own rhetoric and military deployments and watched anxiously as Able Archer 83 went so far as to include a simulated NATO nuclear release.
Right in the middle of it all a Soviet officer named Stanislav Petrov sees his computer telling him several American ballistic missiles are inbound for Soviet territory.
His standing orders were to report all such signals straight up the chain of command —at this point a paranoid group of old men in the Kremlin waiting for a sign like this to herald the start of a war. But Petrov also knew that his computer was glitchy and that America was unlikely to start a war by firing just four missiles.
So he did nothing. The signal disappeared. And the Kremlin didn’t know any better for days.
Had he followed orders, it is likely they would have at least sent their nuclear forces to the highest alert even if they didn’t panic and launch their whole arsenal for fear it would otherwise get blown up on the ground — this, by the way, might still be standing US policy with its 450 Minutemen III ICBMs.
A move that would have instantly been spotted by America and NATO, its cause totally unknown and coming at a moment of high tensions.
Seeing how ready the Soviets were, the Pentagon was also on high alert that summer. And as it turns out, an American officer had much the same experience. He too failed to strictly follow his orders and report a signal indicating incoming attack.
Accidents too often begin wars — in fact, most probably begin because someone miscalculated. Pure random dumb luck or fate, if you believe in it, often rules the day.
World War One famously began because the car carrying Archduke Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary was ambushed by a Serbian nationalist, Gavrilo Princip.
What most people don’t know is that the car encountered him only after escaping a prior failed assassination attempt with a bomb. Gavrilo simply got incredibly lucky when the Archduke’s driver inadvertently gave him a second chance to make it work.
Lucky for him, perhaps, but the world? Not so much. We are still living through the last aftershocks from the First World War, which spawned the Second and the Cold War after.
Even World War Two broke out the way it did in part by accident — up until 1939 Hitler’s foes had consistently appeased him, training him, in a way. When he ordered the invasion of Poland after secretly agreeing to partition Eastern Europe with the Soviet Union he thought France and Britain would back down like they had when he took over Czechoslovakia earlier that year in defiance of the Munich Agreement.
When they declared war instead, he was surprised and enraged. Had France and Britain attacked Germany right away, when Hitler’s entire military save a a skeleton force was locked in battle with the valiant Poles for six weeks, the Second World War and his reign of terror would have ended then and there.
In neither world war was anyone actually prepared for the multi-year death struggle that came after. Nazi Germany went through great pains to avoid letting the war effort directly impact the average German until 1943, after the Soviet victory at Stalingrad forced the Nazis to adopt Total War to compete.
Even the would-be conquerors of Europe and beyond underestimated the savagery and length of the conflict they themselves unleashed.
World War One was likewise supposed to be over by Christmas, the leaders on all sides sincerely believing a longer conflict was impossible. The world was interconnected and companies did business across borders all the time in 1914 — the idea of the global trade network falling apart was considered laughable.
Also, once Germany was cut off from global trade and the exploited colonies all the European great powers relied on to fuel their bitter war on the continent it no longer had access to vital ingredients needed to make explosives.
No nitrate imports, no boom-booms. So what did Germany do?
Develop the Haber-Bosch process which is still sometimes used to convert atmospheric to usable nitrogen for fertilizer to this day. Need brought innovation — and the war went on.
Instead of negotiating peace after everyone’s expectations of the length of the conflict were proven incorrect, democracies and monarchies alike happily sacrificed a generation to the war.
Then they did it again thirty years later!
For a people obsessed with history, Europeans sure don’t learn from it, do they? Doesn’t seem to matter what continent we colonize.
It’s notable that very few in 1914 or 1939 thought the conflicts then breaking out would become global, total wars. That’s why I can’t completely rule out the possibility that 2022 is set to become one of those years remembered long after we’re all dead and gone.
Though absolutely no one wants a third world war, warped incentives driving the leaders of every powerful country are keeping the world dangerously close to the brink.
That’s why its always dangerous when the big military exercises begin in border areas — and why invading a country like America did to Iraq in 2003 or Russia has done to Ukraine since 2014 is so terrible.
Something that should always be globally opposed — with force if necessary.
Yes, I believe that in 2003 America’s invasion of Iraq needed to be deterred with military force. If it had, the world wouldn’t be as hellish a place as it is today.
Same logic is true of Russia in Ukraine in 2022 — but the way the great power dance works this won’t happen. Instead, simmering conflicts will be frozen in place, threatening every year or two to burst into an actual major war when the children in the playground play rattle-the-saber with nuclear arsenals.
All that has to happen is a single screwup, one solitary accident, to trigger an escalation cycle that once unleashed will consume the world.
America and Russia have a habit of flying bombers potentially armed with nuclear weapons close to each other’s borders to show they can. Just the other day Russia reported forcing an American submarine out of its waters near the Kuril Islands in the Pacific.
Countries test each other like this all the time — and, as was the case when Britain sent a ship close to Crimea in 2021, the offended party sometimes sets off explosives or fires warning shots to warn of what could happen if the intruding vessel does not vacate the area.
All it takes is someone screwing up the demonstration and accidentally blowing up a ship to start a war. Remember the Maine was the rallying cry that led America to war with Spain, a conflict that turned America into a global empire with actual subjected colonies it ruled with extreme brutality.
It, contrary to what the American papers insisted at first, was not destroyed by sabotage but an accident. An accident made America an empire — an accident might well end the country entirely under a hail of nuclear warheads launched because of human error.
A conflict spiral leading to a third world war likely goes nuclear because if anyone has time to think hard or negotiate they’ll almost certainly work out a way to stop conflict from escalating in the first place.
Nuclear weapons give the State incredible power, effectively allowing a small leadership cabal to hold the whole world hostage like North Korea does.
This is why only a few countries have abandoned nuclear arsenals once developed — and right now Ukraine certainly wishes it hadn’t disposed of its own inherited from the Soviet collapse.
Ironically, nuclear weapons also make the State incredibly vulnerable — all its physical infrastructure can be vaporized with ease in mere minutes. Even if the leaders survive — and they in fact might, given that the two countries with the biggest arsenals also point them mostly at the other side’s own nukes — it is doubtful their people will leave them in power.
In fact I suspect that would be the immediate end result of any nuclear exchange: military coups that prevent politicians from taking further action. If after an initial round of exchanges the leaders got desperate and started hitting cities global habitability could be threatened.
And beating climate change with nuclear winter is… somewhat less than optimal.
Luckily, it is highly probable that no one is stupid enough to let a conflict escalate very far.
But accidents can and do happen.
And like leaving half the planet unvaccinated while a novel pathogen rages, allowing a small group of people to hold such extreme power is fundamentally insane.
One way or another, humanity has to get all these damn States under control. If we don’t, sooner or later they’ll kill us all.