The 20th-century was certainly a bloody one. Over the course of two world wars, tens of millions of people were killed, countless economies collapsed, and some of the world’s strongest empires were brought to their knees.
These wars shocked the world so much so that most of the rest of the century was spent attempting to prevent such a thing from ever happening again. But have such provisions been enough to stop a third world war? If not, what could cause World War III? Let’s explore.
What could cause WW3?
War is, sadly, part and parcel of human history. As far as we can tell, humans have been at it for as long as our species has existed on this planet – and animals were in conflict before us. Some of the earliest evidence of warfare was unearthed in Kenya, where anthropologists uncovered remains of people who had died violently sometimes between 9,500 and 10,500 years ago – the earliest scientifically-dated evidence of organized human violence.
War could be a consequence of our biology, or a completely human construct initiated and maintained by organized societies. Like most things in life, the true underlying causes are likely a combination of the two schools of thought.
The triggers for war are pretty diverse but generally center around some common themes like the need for resources, conflicting ideas, expansion of territory, revenge for perceived wrongs, frustration with the status quo (i.e. revolution). The two major world wars of the 20th-century include some aspects of all of these, with the complication that WW1 was largely seen as an unsatisfactory end to the burning pressures between interested parties. This, according to some, laid the ground for WW2, and, to a certain extent, continued into the Cold War and beyond.
Today, the world is a different place, at least on the surface, compared to the 1940s. However, people, and by extension nations, can have a very long memory. And we’ve had some very close calls since the end of the Second World War like The Korean War, The Berlin Crisis of 1961, The Cuban Missle Crisis of 1962, and the Yom Kippur War of 1973, to name but a few.
And fears of a new world war are growing. According to some recent studies, nearly half of all millennials believe they will see the world plunging into a world war within their lifetimes.
While we cannot be precisely clear what might trigger WW3, there are some pressure points around the world that some think could kick things off.
1. The ebb and flow of great power and “Thucydides Trap”
First popularized by the American political scientist Graham T. Allison, many believe that another massive global conflict may happen in only a matter of time through a phenomenon called the “Thucydides Trap.”
The premise of it is that throughout human history, there is a tendency towards war when an emerging power threatens to displace an existing great power for regional or international hegemony. Today, that would apply to the growing power and influence of the People’s Republic of China and the decline of the power of the United States.
The term was coined in reference to the ancient Athenian historian and military general called, funnily enough, Thucydides. In his view, at the time of his writing, he suggested that the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta was inevitable because of Sparta’s growing anxiety over the growth in Athenian Power leading up to the conflict.
In Allison’s view, of the 16, or so, times that a similar scenario has arisen over the last 500 years, the outcome has been an outright war in 12 cases. In the other four cases, he notes, was avoided through either some imaginative statecraft or pure chance.
For example, one of the case studies that did not end in war was between the rising United States and the British Empire at the turn of the 20th-century. The United States would ultimately surpass and replace the British as a dominant global power but as an ally of Britain, not an enemy.
While this theory, of course, has its critics, it is a compelling argument and one that may predict all-out war erupt as China’s economic and military power continues to rival that of the United States.
2. Taiwan might be the straw that breaks the camel’s back
Taiwan is something of unfinished business for the Chinese Communist Party. After the conclusion of the Chinese Civil War in the 1940s, remnants of the defeated Kuomintang (KMT) controlled Republic of China (ROC) took refuge on the island, where they maintain a form of self-determination separate from the mainland.
The People’s Republic of China (PRC), to this day, considers Taiwan as part of China and does not recognize the legitimacy of the ROC. If China decides to invade the island, this could, some fear, trigger a chain of events that could escalate very quickly.
The PRC has been taking particularly belligerent actions recently, including violating Taiwanese airspace, which some analysts think could be a sign of things to come very soon. Of course, other parts of the world could also equally be the kindling for a new world war – Iran and North Korea being key areas to keep an eye on.
3. Prepare yourself for the water wars
The world’s population is around eight billion today. This is set to grow to at least almost 10 billion by 2050 if current trends are maintained. That’s two billion more mouths to feed and water. While some are confident technological improvements and management strategies can handle it, others are concerned that this might reach a tipping point in which demand outstrips supply.
If the pessimists are right, water and food shortages will likely not be taken lightly by much of the world’s population. After all, food scarcity was one of the major triggers for the French Revolution.
Many compounding issues, from environmental issues, water-hungry industries, and poor resource management from governments, may create a perfect storm where food and water supplies will not be able to keep up with the rising population to come. Not to mention the potential impact climate change could have on extreme weather events and droughts.
If this prediction is correct, then we may be entering a period of increased civil unrest, revolutions, and, perhaps, state-on-state struggles for control of basic commodities. It is not difficult to see how this could trigger a global war the likes of which we’ve never seen.
But, experts are more confident that intra-border conflicts will be more likely. If that is any encouragement to you? However, this doesn’t need to be the case. Technology could rise to the challenge as it often has in the past. Necessity is the mother of invention, after all.
4. Economic collapse and peace are bad bedfellows
Not a day goes by that some financial expert appears on our screens, or in the press, about an impending economic collapse “worse than ever before.” This is nothing new, and such predictions are usually overplayed or unfounded.
However, they have happened before, and do occur in ominous, almost predictable cycles – roughly every decade or so. But when they do happen, instability tends to follow in its wake.
While never usually the primary cause of global conflicts, events like depressions create the kind of social unrest that can lay the foundations for war. Around the world, many governments have turned on the printing presses to try to spend their way out of the crisis which will have serious consequences in the near future.
How this manifests itself in the global economy is yet to be seen, but it’s not looking good so far.
5. Electronics wars on the cards?
Our modern electronic world would not be possible without some key resources critical for making many of the electronic devices we use every day. From smartphones to your internet router, and everything in between, they all need basic electronic components to actually work.
Pretty much all electronics require a good deal of mineral raw materials and chemicals that, if supply were to dry up, would pretty much bottleneck electronic production. Typical common key resources include materials like copper, lithium, tin, silver, gold, nickel, and aluminum.
The pressure on these resources is also being accelerated with the global push to decarbonize and switch to renewable technologies and electrically power vehicles too.
Some of these key resources, like lithium, for example, are not universally abundant or available, and maintaining access to them has become something of a national security issue for many nations. One particular place that has some of these materials in abundance is Afghanistan.
The long-overdue and sadly controversial, withdrawal of the U.S. and international forces has put some serious doubt on the future control of these materials. If access to these materials is hampered artificially in any way, this could cause some very serious tensions around the world.
Perhaps enough to trigger a devastating global war?
6. Mass migration may spark the next world war too
Throughout most of human history, mass migration has been the result of, not the cause of conflict – the Hunnic invasions of the 5th-century being a prime example.
But some have warned that the kind of mass migration we have seen over the last decade or so could set the scene for conflict in the not too distant future. Some even believe we are only just entering an era called the “migration wars.”
The reasons for these large-scale migrations vary from civil wars to environmental disasters or economic desperation. And these issues are likely only going to get worse as populations rise.
In recent times, the ongoing war in Syria has resulted in tens of millions of refugees seeking safety in neighboring countries and in the West. Often taking incredibly perilous journies over land and sea to do so. But, it’s not just the West being affected.
Since 2017, around half a million Rohingya people have fled persecution in Myanmar to seek relative safety in neighboring states, notably Bangladesh, Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Mass migration is also becoming an issue for Western Africa.
The problem is also being accelerated by technology as access to information of the quality of life, or perceived quality of life, in other parts of the world, are now readily accessible.
Such large influxes of new people cause understandable trepidation and very real pressures on the infrastructure and economy of native populations. This can lead host nations to intervene overseas in an attempt to curb the flow of refugees. While this can be done peacefully, it is all too often violent.
Such interventions run the risk of sparking something much more serious. Not to mention making the problem worse.
We can never know if another world war is on the cards or not in the near future, but rest assured the world has gone through many trials and tribulations in the past. Only twice (arguably once with a two-decade ceasefire) has this led to an all-out war.
Some of the potential causes highlighted above can be resolved peacefully. After all, Einstein is credited as once poignantly saying “I do not know with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”
Food for thought.