Menu Close

Beyond the Beltway

Has World War Three begun?

Russian war planes in the sky over Syria. Omar Sanadiki/Reuters

A pallid version of a peace agreement is supposed to go into effect in Syria February 27. We wait with bated breath to see if the aid convoys can deliver relief to thousands of starving Syrians who have been awaiting food for months.

In principle, it should be a time for a degree of optimism, if not rejoicing. But, as we know, few of the parties to the conflict have signed on. And some notable ones, like the Islamic State (or ISIS), by design, have not.

Meanwhile, the violence rumbles on as Turks fight Kurds, Saudis execute Shia clerics and America’s involvement in the war spreads to Libya.

This conflict is like trying to stuff an oversized balloon in a box. As some semblance of peace appears possible in one part, a new dimension of violence breaks out in another.

So, stepping back from the everyday events and looking at what’s going on from 20,000 feet, we have to ask a question: has World War III begun and we don’t even know it?

Are we in a world war already?

The answer to the above question should be simple: “No.”

After all, we know what a world war looks like. It has a global geographic scope. It is fought between armies. It involves the mass mobilization of whole societies.

We generally concur that there have been two world wars. And it is reasonable to suggest that the current circumstances look like neither one of them. Yet there were important differences in the character of these two world wars – ones we forget.

In the First World War, the sides generally fought for the formal control of land and markets. With the exception of the Americans, these were empires fighting to establish domain well beyond Europe’s shores. But the war was largely centered in Europe, fought between conventional armies in which civilians were generally, at worst, collateral damage.

The Second World War was a clash of values – democracy, communism and fascism. It had a far more global scope, extending to Africa and the Middle East, although the war was centered in Asia and Europe. Like the First World War, it was fought between armies – but often against civilians.

All targets became permissible as the “rules of war” were ignored in favor of total victory. And the search for total victory required total mobilization.

Stalin, for example, shipped millions of men across the Soviet Union to stand, often essentially defenseless, in front of German tanks to slow them down in their quest to reach Moscow before winter.

World wars we haven’t even noticed

There have been other conceivable world wars that the West hasn’t even noticed.

Author Gérald Prunier,, for example, has documented what has been proverbially termed “Africa’s World War.” Centered in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it spanned over a decade and cost millions of lives. Dating from the 1994 Rwandan genocide with its 800,000 deaths, there were estimated to be up to six million dead and over two million displaced between 1998 and 2003 alone.

So why would I ask if we are now risking a third world war?

In fact, war casualties for the last two decades have been declining. That is, of course, great news.

Despite the growling that goes on between Washington and Moscow, there is little evidence of an impending “great war” conflict on the horizon, the kind of wars that kill people in huge numbers.

World war in slow motion

The point I want to make is that we may have been entering a new form of global war for the last three decades – in slow motion. This war is similar in some respects to prior incarnations, and significantly different in others.

First, all wars have a geographic fulcrum. This one is in the Middle East and North Africa. Its epicenter spreads from Libya and Egypt to the Persian Gulf and Turkey.

Its origin is contestable. It might, for example, be dated from the Gulf War in 1991, when a coalition of states intervened to stop Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait.

America’s military presence in the Middle East has grown since the formal acquisition of its military based in Bahrain from the British in 1971. American troops had seen limited action before, such as in Lebanon a decade earlier. But 1991 was the first example of a full-scale mobilization. And subsequently American forces remained militarily active in the region, notably in enforcing a no-fly zone over Iraq under Saddam. Still, there was no massive American military mobilization for a decade after the defeat of Saddam in Kuwait.

But things then really erupted in the new millennium, beginning with the invasion of Iraq in 2003. In contrast to its lack of military engagement before 1991, with little respite, American troops have now been embroiled in ground and air warfare in the region for well over a decade. And, pointedly, no presidential candidate talks seriously about withdrawing from the region’s fight. President Obama vowed to end America’s involvement in the wars, tried – and failed.

Who is back? Who is new?

In the meantime, the number of participants is growing.

New countries are increasingly being drawn into the conflict and, again, nobody is withdrawing.

Some are familiar: Western European powers like France and the U.K.; the Russians and the Iranians; the Turks. So all the old empires are back – albeit in their modern nation-state forms. Further, like the First World War, there are nationalist groups, like the Kurds, who are eager to fight to establish their sovereignty. And again, like the First World War, there are numerous countries who are only formally involved but don’t participate much.

But this conflict is also attracting new potential participants, like the 20 Arab and Muslim nations from as far away as Africa (Djibouti, Senegal and Sudan) and Asia (Malaysia and Pakistan) who were part of Saudi Arabia’s recent annual war game. The group’s message was clear: the Saudis and their allies will not be bullied by Iran.

Yet this a world war that differs from the prior ones in some key ways.

Many of the key actors, like ISIS, are not states, although they, like Hamas and Hezbollah, do control some territory. This war is as much about religious identity as anything else. And the elements of the war that have spread beyond the region – from Bali to San Bernardino, from Jakarta to Jerusalem, and Paris to Potiskum in Nigeria – are terrorist attacks using irregular warfare rather than conventional wars.

But no region, with the possible exception of Latin America, has been spared. Then again, Latin America was largely spared from the violence during both world wars.

Still, although its tentacles are growing, most of the violence is contained in the Middle East. Sure, there has been no total mobilization of western states. Rather, we are mostly witnessing states disintegrating, among the more recent being Libya and Yemen. The Egyptian government is hanging on, at a cost to its citizens’ human rights.

But as more countries become embroiled, and the opportunities for an eruption increases along multiple fronts, it is becoming harder to see how the violence can be quelled. Most of President Obama’s prospective successors want to deepen America’s engagement in these wars, not reduce it.

The holding of a ceasefire in Syria would be a good start. But it is hard to envision how regional peace breaks out in the next year. It is much easier to see how more countries might enter the fray.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 161,400 academics and researchers from 4,585 institutions.

Register now