Are we heading towards World War III?Short Answer:
1. Possible? Yes. Nuclear? Probably not.
2. When: if it happens, best guess is around 2050.
3. Players: at least the US, China, Japan, & India.
1. The Instrumentalities of World War III
Is a Third World War possible? In a universe of possibilities, the answer is obviously yes. However, I don't think we can take for granted that the Third World War would play out like it's popularly conceived: 1) a brief conventional skirmish in a disputed region, 2) gradual escalation with conventional forces, and eventually 3) a nuclear exchange that results in the collapse of global civilization. It's still possible, of course. However, this conception is fixed on Cold War paradigms and Cold War-era technology. If we begin to analyze how such a conflict plays out in 25-50 years, the future becomes murky. Mutually Assured Destruction seems like eternal dogma now. However, trench warfare probably seemed like the new face of combat in 1914-8 and many French and British military planners assumed that nothing would be any different in 1939. Then German armor rolled into Paris.
The Cost of Nuclear War
A war between great powers breaking out now, in 2015, would quite possibly result in a nuclear exchange. A great power war occurring in 2025, 2030, or 2040? The answer becomes more unclear. Part of that might be because technological developments might alter the balance of power against nuclear weapons. However, another reason might be simply because nuclear weapons are a rather poor weapon of war. Carl von Clausewitz defined war as, "an act of violence intended to compel our opponent to fulfill our will." How can an opponent yield if they're virtually annihilated? Additionally, any benefits in additional resources or land are tainted as a result of radioactive fallout. It's an incredibly poor weapon that functionally exists only as a national insurance policy.
Clausewitz would argue that war is about finding and attacking an enemy's "Center of Gravity"--the central force or element around which the enemy's efforts revolve. That center of gravity varies based upon the nation and time period involved. During Clausewitz's time, the center of gravity was usually an army as it constituted the nation-state's ability to best leverage power, and thus win a war. Thus, in Napoleonic Warfare, winning a war was about crushing your enemy's field army. However, centers of gravity have diversified considerably. Debatably, the most decisive factor contributing to the German Revolution and its spread was the Royal Navy's economic blockade that contributed to widespread starvation in Germany. That blockade helped sever the bond between the German public and the military government, and this method didn't require mass armies of millions of men. What this suggests is that attacking the centrifugal forces that hold together the enemy's will to resist does not require, per se, million-man battles and nuclear exchanges. What it requires, instead, is the right tool applied to the right structural weakness.
I know that many scholars and commentators have spun apocalyptic narratives on the threat of cyberwarfare. The threat of cyberwarfare is not that it is necessarily more destructive than nuclear warfare, but that it can potentially inflict massive damage on command and control, infrastructure, and economic activity at virtually little cost. Think of how the United States would be able to function with a huge chunk of its population without power for potentially months at a time? (Electricity Grid in U.S. Penetrated By Spies) A well-timed and executed cyber attack could potentially inflict massive economic damage on a technologically developed adversary without radioactive fallout, without infrastructural damage, and without million-man armies. To make matters worse, cyber attacks can directly attack the very mechanisms that can quickly the attacker. Finally, cyber warfare does not have the ironclad playback that dictates tit-for-tat responses. When nuclear missiles start flying from X, both X & Y know that Y will respond with nuclear weapons in kind. How do you respond to a DDS attack? A stealthy infiltration like Stuxnet? A major "Pearl Harbor" style mass cyber attack? From my limited knowledge in the intricacies of cyberwarfare, although most nations reserve the right to respond militarily, most tend to respond in kind with retaliatory cyber attacks. That strategic ambiguity would probably embolden state-actors.
World War III By Proxy
In many ways, I am fond of Russian historiography which views the Cold War as a Third World War. If there is a Third World War, I would imagine that its most likely form would be a system of alliances led by the United States, China, and other future actors using units of highly-mobile professional light infantry and para-military groups to chip away at some nation vital to one alliance system's interest. The point wouldn't be geopolitical conquest as much as it would be to 1) fight over spheres of influence and 2) create a military quagmire for the opposing power like a Vietnam or Soviet-Afghan War. Proxy wars certainly predate the nuclear age and occur in eras where great powers want to be geopolitically assertive without the cost of full-scale war. For me personally, I think this conception misses the mark of the character of a world war. I have argued before (Why is the Great War called the First World War despite the fact that the Seven Years' War was also fought all over the globe?) that a war waged across the world is not quite the same as the world being at war. Even though it might not be a true "world war," I would say that proxies wars will be the most likely form of conflict between great powers.
The Odds of 'Classic World War III'
I view most international actors as fundamentally rational. I also tend to see nations more as systems of bureaucracies and cultural elites rather than pieces of geography led by leadership cults. There is always the odd exception, but for nearly all of the major international actors I think this is the case. The problem with the risk of nuclear war is not whether a state is led rationally or not. The problem is information asymmetry and lack of perception of intentions. This problem is exponentially greater the more countries one has to factor in. If you look at the First World War, the beginning of the conflict is full of leaders acting mostly rational based upon the limited information they had available. However, if it's difficult enough to calculate the moves of one opponent in chess, imagine trying to calculate the moves of teams of opponents--some of whom might not have even noticed the last move.
World War III, if and when it happens, could take a variety of forms. While there will be an omnipresent threat of nuclear war--particularly if one side gains a decisive advantage--this is the least likely method unless there are a series of incredibly foolish mistakes. Alternative methods of retaliation seem more cost-effective and impose less risk.
2. When World War III Happens
Some answers suggest that a new world war will primarily involve, and occur, in Europe. That is certainly possible, but I would submit that history shouldn't be a tool to profile "the usual suspects." It's fascinating how the Balkans were a source of continuous, but localized wars, for a huge chunk of the 19th and 20th centuries, but only one of these random disturbances resulted in the First World War--involving the assassination of a very unpopular and not-very-mourned heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. The reason that underwhelming event inaugurated a world war is because it was a type of "Goldilocks" moment: a revanchist military bureaucracy in Austria-Hungary, a German Kaiser that was over-eager and a German Army that was increasingly bellicose out of fear of Russia and France's growing military potential, a French Army that was unjustifiably confident in its offensive 'Plan 17,' a Russia that had linked pan-Slavism with the interests of the Russian Empire, and a British Empire that was once again ready to intervene on the European continent. There was a domino effect, but the way in which they fell was not necessarily predictable. Britain might well have stayed out of it. The Ottomans might not have intervened if not for Admiral Souchon's bit of daring-do with at the helm of a battlecruiser. I think if there's a point to be made, it's the very fact that while certain events make war likely, it only takes the shape of inevitability in hindsight.
World Wars seem more likely when there's a security dilemma coupled with a shift in balances of power.
Mere years after Germany 1) displaced the UK as Europe's largest economy and 2) decided to outbuild the Royal Navy, the two nations would be at war. British security since approximately the 16th century has, rightly or wrongly, been linked to 1) naval superiority and 2) containing any would-be hegemon on the European continent. Germany, which has feared Russia since even before the Russians took Berlin during the Seven Years' War, invaded Russia during the Second World War. In the years leading up to Barbarossa, the Russian economy toppled Germany's in size, and the Red Army itself had grown to almost 6,000,000 strong, including 25,000 tanks (many were modern and quite heavy, and another 18,000 aircraft.
Certainly, this isn't an "ironclad" rules and a few examples that happen to correlate should not imply that there is a causation. The fact that there have only been two world wars is wonderful for the human race and history, but ironically a tragedy for those of trying to look at case studies to extrapolate upon. Still, I think the theoretical framework for understanding the relationship is fairly self-evident.
Interestingly, however, I don't think there is a major strategic shift going on as of right now. Naturally, we are witnessing smaller nations and alliance groups quarreling for position: most notably Saudi Arabia's client states versus Iran's and its proxies. However, these localized disputes don't alter the fundamental truth of US hegemony (yet). Truthfully, if long-term economic trends hold true, I don't think we will see that kind of economic and military shift until about 2050. At that point, we might see China with the economic, political, and military clout to challenge the US.
3. World War III Whodunnit
The only thing I know for sure is that it will inevitably involve the US. I am terrified that this is the function of being a narrow-minded American, but truthfully it's because America has adopted all of the British Empire's international roles with only a fraction of Britain's internationalism. It is the overwhelmingly dominant naval power, the arbiter of international trade, the keeper of the "global commons," and still the principal manager of most of the important global institutions. Any global conflict would necessarily involve the United States in some capacity.
I know that Americans--and by extension the rest of the world--wail about the impending demise of American superpower status. Americans could frankly put Gibbon to shame. However, American the fundamentals of American superpower status are actually fairly solid. It has a global alliance system, the largest economy in the world, solid demographics, a wealth of natural resources, and a virtually unassailable geographic position. If Egypt was the gift of the Nile, the United States is the gift of the twin moats of the Atlantic and Pacific. That's not to minimize America's problems (which are still considerable), I just don't think America's problems are larger than its potential adversaries.
I think the main adversary right now would be China, but China has some very large social and economic problems that is must solve before it can dream of hegemonic status. These problems could be a cause of a Third World War if China feels the need to externalize to alleviate internal pressures. However, right now China has few regional allies committed to its vision or security interests. Furthermore, its population demographics don't look too inspiring. Finally, the days of China wielding industrial dominance is over; its economy has to diversify and become somewhat consumer driven. However, growth and wealth has been so concentrated along the coast and urban areas that most of the population won't be able to participate in that consumer economy. Obviously the South China Sea is one of the global hotbeds, and virtually every nation in the region has some form of claim on every natal rock and pebble around. I would also say that one shouldn't discount the possibility that regime instability in North Korea could lead to a source of conflict, particularly if China doesn't clearly delineate what its position would be in the event of a general war on the Korean Peninsula (I suspect there's still a great deal of internal debate on this point).
If Russia is involved, it will probably be involved as a satrap of China. Russia's long-term demographics don't look great, and its economy was already in trouble before the crisis in Ukraine and sanctions. Furthermore, it has essentially eroded most of its global goodwill for at least a decade. Its military is still quite powerful, but that power is a function of size to some extent--and the sheer quantity of equipment is mostly a legacy of the Soviet Union.
I would anticipate that the European Union would be involved as a member of separate states with separate foreign policies rather than as a monolithic entity. I think if the EU manages to coast past this surge of nationalism and right-wing sentiment, then it has a good chance of remaining relevant into the 2050s. However, this is a very different EU from the center-right German one we know today. At this point, German economic dominion has yielded, bizarrely, to an Anglo-French entente as the latter two are tipped to eventually exceed Germany's population and GDP (this point should be seen as ironic in lieu of the UK's flirtation with EU withdrawal). If it fails to do this, the EU will probably begin to drift even if it never officially winds up. Poland, the Baltics, and Western Ukraine will probably form ever-closer ties with one another and the United States as insurance against Russia.
India is an interesting case because on the one hand they have an increasingly powerful military, a growing economy, they are surrounded by omnipresent security threats. On the other hand, they have a cherished history as a non-aligned power and have had historically close relations with Russia. While I think India wants allies, I think they are much more inclined to seek local Asian allies like Japan rather than join a US security arrangement.
Other powerful players in the 2050 Third World War includes Japan, Turkey, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia. Later I might play chess with myself, figure out the allies and sides involved, and who wins based on future tech.
World War III has been ‘about to happen' since the end of World War II, and yet it never has. And I doubt it ever will, at least not in our lifetimes.
The potential belligerents simply have too much to lose, and a self-preservation instinct that would prevent them from trying. Let's look at the potential candidates:
- China is finally catching up to the rest of the world economically, and they rely on trade with the major powers to accomplish that. So long as nobody pokes them with a stick, they will remain as insular as they have always been. Have you ever read of China involving itself in conflicts beyond its sphere of influence? No, because they generally just let the rest of the world get on with things.
- America loves wars against (seemingly) easy opponents, but whenever the opportunity has come up for them to engage a foe that could challenge them, they have hesitated to get involved, or tried to find a diplomatic solution. They will never go to war with China because they know they couldn't win, and they value their trade too much to try. And they will never go to war with Russia because THOUSANDS OF NUKES THAT'S WHY.
- Russia is a bit of a loose canon lately, but they are more concerned with building up their own little sphere of influence in the old Soviet Bloc, and propping up long-standing allies, than they are with waging an actual, existential war. To deter anybody from even trying to provoke them, they have written a nuclear ‘first use' policy into their military doctrine - if anybody attacks Russia, and they think they might lose, they will break out the H-bombs. Hence, nobody attacks Russia.
- Even North Korea, that mad little tinpot dictatorship that we all love to read about, isn't going to trigger a global war. Kim Jong Un values his personality cult too much to risk it all on a war he knows he couldn't win. And he knows that China would swiftly abandon him. So long as they stick to rattling sabers, America will leave them alone. Because invading North Korea would involve the aforementioned stick-poking-of-China, and we all saw how well that went last time.
- A war in Europe because of Brexit is one of those absurd stories that the ‘Remain' camp (and I voted Remain) conjured up to try and scare people. There categorically isn't going to be a war because of Brexit. It's just that Greggs sausage rolls will end up costing twice as much as they used to.
So no. I very strongly doubt that we are anywhere close to World War III. The closest we have ever come was during the Cold War, and despite what the media says, things are much calmer in the world today than they have ever been.
Here is the state of the world now (only highlights).
North Korea- Has missiles and Nukes in its stockpile. Their missiles do not have enough range to reach continental US. Even if they somehow manage to strike a few Nukes at the US, it will only affect the impact zones immediately. So it will result in the total wipe out of NK in the US's retaliation. North does not want to nuke the south coz their first goal is to take over the south and unite the Koreas. It does not want to attack any of its neighbors simply because there are no compelling reasons to do so for North. So there's no real threat.
Russia- She has a lot of technologically advanced weapons. Some even better than the US. She has a stock pile of Nukes and intercontinental ballistic missiles. But they have one thing working against them. Their own economy. Their economy is weak. They cannot keep the supplies alive to support an all out war or an invasion. No place can be dominated or occupied without boots on the ground. So there's no real threat.
China- She has the largest army. Lot of hardware, strong economy, many missiles and long history as well. What is working against them is their size and their political leadership. Most of the weapons in their arsenal are old and reverse engineered stuff from the Soviet era. They are modernizing however, but not at the rates they want. Also their navy and air force does not have enough hardware to back an invasion. So no real threat.
India- Certainly a large number of people, large army. Relatively modern Air force and Navy. India is historically peaceful and non-aggressive they have stood their ground against aggressors but never pushed back. Also the air force does not have the infrastructure to support an invasion. Navy has inadequate number of modern vessels. Submarine fleet is aging. Modernization is happening at a snail's pace. Political leadership is not helping with the process either. So no real threat.
Europe- Collectively, very powerful and has strategic advantage over the rest of the world due to sheer strength and size of hardware of individual members and the collective strategic knowledge and experience. However, Europe is not as united as they wish to be. Member nations have trust issues with each other due to leftover emotions from previous two world wars. Also there is an impending financial crisis and a social crisis due to the refugee movement. So no real threat.
Africa-Individual nations(some of them) may be strong enough to defend own territories against invaders, however none of the African nations are strong enough to launch a war or an invasion against even their Asian neighbors; let alone European or American. Also, most of the continent is torn apart by countless civil wars, racial and tribal conflicts and regional disputes. There is not enough reasons for an outward spill-over of the conflicts. So no real threat.
South America- Same as Africa. Third world countries, slow or crippled economies, poverty, smaller, largely inadequate military forces. There are no compelling reasons for them to cause a large scale conflict, let alone global. So no real threat.
Middle East- There are a few who can put up a real tough fight against an invading foreign military.Their situational awareness, familiarity with terrain and guerrilla tactics are all advantageous but only works withing the region so they are only good at defense. Certain countries possess good hardware and moderately large modern armed forces. However, none of the Middle Eastern countries possess the military strength to lead an invasion on foreign land or sustain the defense of their own territories for a long time (including Iran). Also they are not synonymous with the modern equipment that they possess. This is because of lack of experience in large scale multi-face, multi-theater warfare and lack of trust between troops. This seriously undermines the collective efforts. So no real threat.
Last but not least,
USA- Uncle Sam checks off all items on the list when it comes to size, numbers and weaponry. Certainly strong, economy wise. Has a global reach and has lead countless invasions, successfully. They are already the dominating force and has a firm hand of control over the world with many military bases in strategic locations across the entire planet. She is ruling the world now, at least by a big margin (Economically, politically and strategically). So she wouldn't do anything that would start a third world war and cause a global meltdown. Because once the world goes in to the chaos of war, the balance of power might tip against them. Off course she will get involved in many other small scale conflicts, trying to bring down a dictatorship or install a new one, home-delivering freedom and democracy to the needful. Still, no real threat.
Unless something dramatic plays out anytime soon or some nut job decides to let some nukes loose willy-nilly, we are certainly not heading towards a third world war. So just relax and have a cold beer.
P.S: I considered all that I have researched on this state to say the following......
Pakistan- Certainly has nukes, missiles, sizable armed force, reasonably modern equipment, external support from powers like China and US. This state is involved in a relentless fight against terrorism both within the state and outside. However their intelligence service(ISI), through its extended networks has a history of both working with and against many extremist groups in the region. ISI along with the Army has an agenda of their own and does not always stay within the control of the democratically elected government. This is clear from the military coups and intelligence leaks from the past. This lack of security certainly is a catalyst for trouble. Especially the extend of domestic terrorism in the state and the struggle the government had to keep it under control. I really hope that they have good fail safes for their Nukes and missiles. Because all it needs for a nutcase to take control of all that is a series of unfortunate events. This threat will gain more momentum as US has recently chosen to withdraw its support and financial aid for Pakistan and has decided to move towards cornering it for its apparent involvement with terrorist organizations in the region.
I sincerely hope and pray that it doesn't come to that.
No. This may be an unpopular answer. If we can look past the Trump hysteria and focus on what he's doing, you'll understand there is no threat of WW3 in 2017. He is a negotiator, first and foremost which means he's all about diplomacy. And any seasoned negotiator knows you can't bargain from a point of weakness. The military needs to be bolstered for this reason. The budget cuts under Obama hurt our readiness severely (I have already answered a question on readiness). Let's look at potential theaters of war.
Middle East: Trump's whole plan is to have the Middle East take care of their own. He campaigned on ‘safe zones' in the Middle East. His travel ban (based on Obama intelligence), targeted brewing hotbeds of terrorism. Buy doing this, it makes it a Gulf State problem, not a U.S. problem. Upon doing this, he had 3 conversations: one with Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi and Egypt. They all committed to creating safe zones. For the cost of resettling 1 migrant in the U.S., 12 can be be settled in Mid East countries. It makes economic sense, it makes cultural sense. Everybody wins. This cooperation will ease any war tensions there.
Russia: The U.S. and Russia have no desire to go to war. Neither wants the cost and besides, it would be pointless. All tension with Russia started when Obama/Clinton went into a regime toppling mode, for God knows why. First it was Egypt, then Libya (that military stockpile ended up in ISIS hands), then Syria and then Yemen. Problem was, is that Syria is allied with Russia. Clinton had started the harsh rhetoric about Russia. Trump is trying to stop it. Now that the American war machine is not toppling regimes, and all of the horrible Russian rhetoric is dying down, the two superpowers can now work together to destroy ISIS and ISIL. Cooler heads will always prevail.
China: Technically, they are still a developing country. They do not posses the military might or technology to take us on. They may boast, but that's all it is.
Iran: See above.
North Korea: Sticking with communism has left this country in the dark ages. Seriously, look at a satellite map of N. Korea at night... China and S. Korea are lit up like carnivals, N. Korea is blacked out... no electrical infrastructure. If this piss-ant country raises a violent head, it will get thumped down immediately.
If we remain powerful, with a negotiator in charge, no country would dare want war with us. In the military we called it "Peace through superior firepower". (I've also answered questions on how we rate militarily in the world).
The only war I can forsee in 2017 is a 2nd U.S. Civil War. This unfounded, cult-like hysteria about Trump has to end. If he's not successful, vote him out in 4 years. If he violates the law, impeach him. But for now, let the man do his job.
I totally agree with the answer provided by Joseph Koppenhout. Is it likely to have a WW3 in the next 10 years? NO.
A world war will have to be fought between major powers on a global scale. They have to declare war on each other and go all out. The first and foremost reason for it not to happen will be the nukes. There are a handful of countries with nukes and some of them are more willing to use it than others if need be. But nobody wants a nuclear war. Nuclear wars work on the theory of Mutually assured destruction. As the name suggests, if you use a nuke, both you and your enemy will be destroyed. Unless some eccentric dictator with absolute power decide that doomsday is due, it is not likely someone would prefer to initiate a nuke attack. Honestly, I dont think even North Korea is that eccentric.
Even if we assume that we are using only conventional weapons, that war will be very costly. Even with all it's military might, US and NATO wouldn't be able to occupy and control a major military power like China or Russia. They couldn't even keep Iraq or Afghanistan. And also war is bad for business. It will kill the economy. Nobody wants to starve to fund their soldiers overseas.
But there is one possibility. Say one major power develops a comprehensive defense system that guarantees 100% protection from enemy nukes, irrespective of the number of warheads or their trajectory approaching homeland. That renders MAD theory useless. That nation could, theoretically, go ahead and nuke or threaten to nuke every other nation. That is why balance of power is so important. However, the chances establishing that shield is very less.
So as of now, our world is safe,well relatively. But yes, there will be wars. Like the smaller ones in the middle east. There will be asymmetric wars, like terrorism. There will be proxy wars between major powers. Wars will be there as long as it is in our nature.
I don't believe WWIII will happen in the sense that nuclear weapon use between NATO and Russia would happen because it would practically be the end of the world as we know it. No one wants that unless they are insane. In that sense, nuclear weapons are actually obsolete because you can't use them unless you want to end humanity. Even if a junior nuke country attacks anyone with a nuke, it would escalate into everyone nuking each other. Some studies say that there may be survivors who live in remote places. However, what kind of world would that be like? Zombie nations?
However, conventional wars between nations are still alive and well with new weapons like hacking banking, business, communication, false information, fake news and even the minds of people. Need I mention the culprits?
Russia has now reinstituted chemical weapon use as well. They will pay a price for breaking the rules of war and they will cry foul once they are attacked with a new weapon that will disable their nation without causing a single death called sanctions and American resolve. This won't happen until Trump is gone. Stand by. That is coming shortly because he is on his way to single handedly destroying the republican party to total extinction. I hope the republican party survives his onslaught because it is equally bad to have one party running the country unopposed. All the incumbent republicans will be finally jumping his sinking ship like the rats they are for not standing up to his disastorous administration.