Are we on the brink of World War Three?

All of us need to reflect on what steps we can take to reduce global tensions and bring about more genuine peace in the world

Warli art - Photo credit: Wikipedia
London anti-war protest - Photograph: Wikipedia

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Most people would have heard former President Donald Trump’s pronouncement on 30 January that we are on the brink of World War Three.

The event that sparked Trump’s statement was the drone attack on an American military base, known as Tower 22, at the Jordan-Syria border. The incident killed three US soldiers and injured some 34 of them.

In retaliatory measures, the US has carried out strikes on 85 targets in Syria, Iraq and on 36 Houthi targets across 13 locations in Yemen.

When asked the question some weeks earlier during his campaign trail in Iowa, Trump replied: “We’re the closest we have ever been (to World War Three).” He took the opportunity to lambast President Joe Biden for his incompetency and failure to forestall events that brought the US to the current situation.

Trump’s pronouncements on the subject are self-serving and carry a powerful element of exaggeration. However, it is true that global affairs today have reached a precipitous historic moment.

In this newsletter, I would like to return to some points I raised in an Aliran piece last October. Please bear with me, given the importance of the topic.

Wars and unabated arms race

The world is indeed at a dangerous moment.

It took much less to spark World War One: the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of the Austro-Hungarian Empire on 28 June 1914 triggered that war.

As for World War Two, it arguably took much more for events to escalate into a world-wide conflagration: a cascade of wars perpetrated by Germany’s Adolf Hitler in Europe and the entry of Japan in the war in East Asia. The US entered the war rather late, after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Habor on 7 December 1941.

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So, the Tower 22 drone attack (allegedly linked to Iran) is an ominous incident, but surely it cannot be equated with the Pearl Habor attack.

What is true, however, is the escalation of wars today in which the US, Russia, Israel and their allies are now engaged.

Last October, I noted the 110 ongoing armed conflicts in the world. What has kept the so-called peace, in theory, is nuclear deterrence premised on the doctrine of “mutually assured destruction (MAD).

No nuclear power would want a war with another, which would bring about their mutual destruction. This has kept us from re-enacting ‘the Oppenheimer moment’ of the deployment of the first nuclear bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

However, have the circumstances in the 21st Century changed so much that the MAD doctrine has become a weak hypothesis? Consider the following developments of the past few years.

Yes, the nuclear arms race has escalated to a perilous level (see the map below):

Note that while there are two nuclear superpowers, many other nations possess weapons of mass destruction. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), a so-called triumph of superpower diplomacy, is not holding back ambitious states.

Allies of the US and Russia – Belgium, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Turkey and Belarus – also have nuclear weapons emplaced in their territories.

Thus, one can argue that the MAD theory has been weakened by the sheer proliferation of such weapons beyond superpower shores and control.

Who can say that a nuclear rogue state will not do the unthinkable? If there is a nuclear strike anywhere, a superpower ally is likely to be dragged into the conflagration.

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On 21 February 2023, President Putin suspended Russia’s participation in the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). This effectively means the end of arms control by the two nuclear superpowers

Another troubling development is that the big powers are also developing hypersonic weapons which can carry nuclear warheads that are difficult to detect by radar.

The Ukraine War, which began in February 2022 (although Crimea was annexed in 2014), continues unabated. Analysts have offered several scenarios, but my guess is that it will continue as a stalemate for many more years before we see any prospect of a negotiated settlement.

Some predict that a Trump presidency could bring about a settlement to this war The worst-case scenario is that the war could escalate into a full-blown European war. I would hesitate to predict anything specific except that this war will continue to fuel an extended arms race between the West, Russia and its allies.

Finally, the current war in Gaza has not just continued but created an unspeakable humanitarian disaster with the killing of over 26,000 Palestinian civilians. Israel has ignored the provisional rulings of the International Court of Justice in this ongoing genocide.

The fact that Israel cannot be stopped or controlled in its ambition to practically annex Gaza is alarming. Everyone can see the UN’s lack of capacity or even authority to alleviate the problem, let alone produce a ceasefire. It is a sad commentary on our human condition today.

So, if the Tower 22 incident sparks an escalation of conflicts with greater US involvement, it would produce more instability in the Middle East, along with the current Houthi activities in the Red Sea.

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Other possible flashpoints around the world include the standoff between the two Koreas, Taiwan and the South China Sea.

Trump may have his own agenda in pronouncing we are on the edge of World War Three, but its kernel of truth should not be ignored.

This should make all of us sit up and reflect on what steps we as sane individuals can take to reduce global tensions and bring about more genuine peace in the world.

Johan Saravanamuttu
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
6 February 2024

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.
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Dr Johan Saravanamuttu, a long-time Aliran member, is emeritus professor at Universiti Sains Malaysia, adjunct professor at the Asia Europe Institute, University of Malaya and adjunct senior fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University. He believes in politics as a vocation but is frustrated that it is often the refuge of opportunists and the morally depraved
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