Is World War III inevitable?

How worried should European citizens, including us Maltese, be considering that we have come to expect unprecedented levels of security and safety?

The subject of war, which had become a topic of conversion in the corridors of power in Europe subsequent to the invasion of Ukraine, could also emerge as an issue in the coming weeks of campaigning for the European Parliament elections in June.  Both big political parties in Malta seem to be intent on using the spectre of war in a battle to win an electoral advantage.

It all started with an attack on EP President Roberta Metsola, when she urged the EU to spend more money on defence to “prepare for any eventuality” and the Opposition endorsed her statement.  The Prime Minister immediately took up the cudgels when he exclaimed that, “Wonder of wonders, the Opposition keeps insisting that it wants to spend your money on weapons. Go trust them to lead the country. We need to work strongly to elect PL MEPs who truly believe in the value of peace.”

The battle lines have been drawn. The PL is casting itself as the party of peace, intent on avoiding war at all costs.  After all, we have neutrality enshrined in our Constitution. On the other hand, the PN says that, while it too wants peace and trusts in our neutrality, it is the PM who voted with other member states in favour of decisions that explicitly mention higher defence spending, the establishment of a European Peace Facility (EPF), and the EU acting as a global security provider.

To my mind, the controversy is not really meant to inspire a serious and thoughtful debate about peace and war in Europe.  The issues concerned have been the subject of debate in Europe for the last few years but were completely ignored in Malta by both the Government and the Opposition while we spent untold manhours discussing whether e-scooters should be banned.  So, to me, the war about a possible war is just an excuse to gain votes, after which we can go back to living in fairyland while we stumble through the minefield hoping that we are not maimed.

How worried should we be?

How worried should European citizens, including Maltese ones, be considering that we have come to expect unprecedented levels of security and safety?  If the many warnings currently circulating are to be believed, then the answer looks grim.

Leaked documents from Germany’s defence ministry suggest that Berlin is expecting Russia to extend the war that began in Ukraine in 2022 into Europe by 2025, forcing a major conflict with Nato. There are concerns that Russia will “escalate to de-escalate”, launching an attack that will be so shocking that liberal states will accept the new world order that Vladimir Putin wants to create as his legacy. 

Swedish politicians have warned their citizens to prepare for the possibility of war on their territory. Others – such as the historian Niall Ferguson – suggest that what we might be seeing is a series of global events that reveal a coordinated attempt to reshape the world order.

One might argue that there is an alarming parallel between the events of the first three decades of the 21st century and those of the 20th.  The mosaic is one of political calm, an economic boom, and regulatory complacency, followed by a deflationary recession, global pandemic, and regional conflict.  Meanwhile, political and economic uncertainty have allowed populist and fascist governments to proliferate around the world, especially where fiscal responses have caused inflation and more regional conflict. While the pattern is not identical, it rhymes to a great extent. Are we on the verge of a World War III?

Have we forgotten?

On of the headlines on The Journal in 2022 shouted ‘Third world war would be nuclear’, quoting the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.  Today, Europe is experiencing its most destructive military conflict in generations in Ukraine.  A ferocious fight between Israel and Hamas is causing great human suffering and instability across the Middle East.  Luckily, East Asia has so far been spared war. But it isn’t exactly peaceful, either, as China coerces its neighbours by amassing military power at a historic rate. If many of us don’t realise how close the world is to being ravaged by interlocking conflicts, perhaps that’s because we’ve forgotten how the last global war came about.

When we Maltese think of war, we typically think of World War II   ̶   or the part of the war that began with Italy’s bombing of Malta.  After that attack, the conflict was a life-and-death struggle between rival alliances on a global battlefield.  We tend to forget that World War II began as a trio of rather detached contests for primacy in key regions stretching from Europe to the Asia-Pacific   ̶   rivalries that eventually coalesced into a world conflagration. The history of that period reveals the foggy aspects of strategic interdependence in a war-torn world, which have a disturbing parallel to the situation we currently confront.

I can’t deny that there are some important distinctions. The most notable one is that nuclear bombs were developed and deployed at the end of that period in the 20th century.  Ironically, because the world learnt about their awesome destructive power, the resulting nuclear detente has led to a proliferation of conventional warfare.

Ready for war?

Recently, German Defence Minister Boris Pistorius caused controversy when he presented new defence guidelines setting out the goal for the Bundeswehr to become “ready for war” and for Germany to take a military leadership role as the “largest and most populous economy” in Europe. The assumption is that Europe could face threats from Russia by the end of the decade, and EU countries need to build up their defence industries to be prepared.

Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly threatened Finland because it joined NATO earlier this year even while he rejected US claims that Moscow will target NATO countries.  “[Vladimir Putin’s] threats against the Baltic states, Georgia, and Moldova must be taken very seriously. This is not just sabre-rattling. We could be facing dangers by the end of this decade,” said Pistorius.

European countries are facing the challenge of adapting to a changing geopolitical landscape, especially as the United States could reduce its engagement on the continent if Donald Trump becomes President and isolationist sentiments prevail.  Everyone acknowledges that it will take between five to eight years for the European defence industry to ramp up its capacities.

Ionela Maria Ciolan, a foreign policy and defence analyst in the centre-right Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies, says that after Russia’s war in Ukraine the post-Cold War European security architecture has collapsed and “we now face an authoritarian regime bent on challenging the very existence of the EU”.  Russia’s threat is perceived to extend beyond its eastern neighbourhood, as it seeks to redraw European borders by force, to absorb Ukraine and to dominate Central and Eastern Europe. “This aggressive stance is reminiscent of 19th-century imperial ambitions,” she says.

One big difference between the 20th and 21st centuries is that today’s wars are mostly about defending an identity or point of view, and less about the potential for large territorial gains. Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union went to war in the hope of gaining large territories.  Except for Ukraine, most of the current conflicts are about remote borders (India and China for example) or sparsely populated/uninhabited islands (China and Japan over Senkaku Islands). On the other hand, the Palestine conflict and similar other recent conflagrations are more about an attempt to co-exist with dignity even if identities and beliefs diverge substantially.


Warfare in the 21st century might resemble the tribalism mentioned by Samuel Huntington in his famous 1996 book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order.  He correctly predicted that much conflict in a post-Cold War world would be due to religious and cultural identities. Huntington argued that ideology-led wars were a 20th century aberration, and that the world would return to more primitive sources of conflict.  Though he has been widely criticised for his cultural determinism, he has largely been proven right.

Yet, Huntington’s rationale does not imply that the aggressors in such conflicts will be rewarded. It could also be that the world is entering a phase of lose-lose-lose wars  ̶   for the perpetrator, victims, and abettors on both sides. The only winners appear to be global companies that make weapons and munitions, with the top 100 firms producing €550 billion worth of military munitions and equipment in 2022.

What is depressing is that many assume that, in one way or another, there might be a war between the US and China and one between Europe and Russia.  Were that to happen, the probability is that they would coalesce.  Countless articles and analyses take the possibility as their premise. Books abound, one of the latest being 2034: A Novel of the Next World War by Elliot Ackerman and James Stavridis.

How likely?

It is universally acknowledged that this is the chief foreign policy question of the near future. But how likely is war?  Any answer is inevitably fraught by doubt.  Obviously, some important variables are by nature unknowable. Others are obfuscated on purpose by the potential warring parties.  Yet there are also straight-forward structural facts that can be observed without access to state secrets and add their weight to either side of the balance.

There are lots of reasons why the scenarios being used for war games might not happen. East Asia could remain at peace, because the United States and China have immense incentives to avoid a horrific war. The fighting in Ukraine and the Middle East could subside. But thinking through the nightmare scenario helps concentrate minds on the possibility that the world could be as little as one mishandled crisis away from pervasive Eurasian conflict.  This is one of the reasons why the Doomsday Clock is set at 90 seconds to midnight.

One factor militating against an imminent war is that both the United States and China on one side and Europe and Russia on the other would have great difficulty mobilising for a large-scale war, or even mobilising for protracted conflict while keeping allies supplied in others.  They might struggle to generate the vast magazines of munitions needed for great-power conflict or to replace ships, planes, and submarines lost in the fighting. They would surely be hard-pressed to keep pace with each other in a potential war.

Although ramping up military spending to face global risks is strategically essential, it seems politically and economically inexpedient for both China and the USA to do so, unless one of them suffers a jarring geopolitical shock.  The unknown in all this is that enhanced rivalry and shifting military balances make for a dangerous cocktail.  Great catastrophes often appear unthinkable until they happen. As the strategic environment deteriorates, it is valuable to recognise how eminently thinkable global conflict has become.

Acting within a historical context

When one talks of the military balance, naturally nuclear weapons feature greatly in the equation.  A great number of nuclear weapons does not necessarily mean a more effective deterrence. There is always a psychological element to deterrence, in that nuclear weapons are terrible and scary things, so it is hard to believe that anyone would use them.  There is no compelling reason to use nuclear weapons until the conventional battles, in which neither side is unambiguously favoured to win, take place.

Another factor in all the talk about war is that states do not interact in a historical vacuum.  Events determine the priorities of decision-makers, change their assessments of risk, colour their opinion of their adversaries, and influence their predictions about how their adversaries will behave.  In this, the current “Cold War II”, as it has been called by some, is very different from how NATO and the USSR entered “Cold War I”.

Eighty-five years since the last apocalyptic world war, we might not be as desperate to avoid a new one.  Many people do not have first-hand experience of the conditions that drove people to invent and use nuclear weapons.  While in the second world war and in the years afterward Russia and its Soviet Empire had extended its borders by annexing the whole of Eastern Europe, it has lost all.  Its problems in successfully doing the same in a small corner of Ukraine will probably dissuade it from further empire-building actions.

But the Chinese?  Perhaps they are underestimated.  Certainly, the China that most us have known has been a friendly China.  It became the West’s business partner. Although the USA and Europe are now confronting China’s entrepreneurial energy, the Chinese are not considered as militaristic as the Russians.  It has been more than forty years since they fought a war. Would they really start again with nukes?

A matter of leadership

James Stavridis, the co-autor of the book I referred to earlier and who led the NATO Alliance from 2009 to 2013 as Supreme Allied Commander, doesn’t believe a tragic outcome is inevitable.  In his view, leadership will define how the story turns out. Stavridis remains an optimist, a strong believer in democracy and its future. He also believes that Russia and China are not the natural allies they’re sometimes seen to be, given their resource disparities.

Meanwhile, the rest of us probably remain concerned that a spark could ignite a conflict.  We therefore welcome any book which sounds a strong warning that war would be utter folly.

Photo: Kirill Makarov/Shutterstock

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