100 Years After World War I, Could A World War Happen Again?

The 100th anniversary of the start of World War I on July 28 is an opportune time to discuss the question, 'could there be another world war?'

Most observers believe that today's great powers are too economically interdependent with one another to risk their prosperity by fighting each other, but cynics point out that the world was equally interconnected in 1914, on the eve of the Great War.

To answer the question, we first need to define 'world war'. A world war is a conflict fought in multiple contents or regions at the same time, and one that affects or involves the world's most powerful economies. By that definition, there were many 'world wars' before World War I in human history. In addition, some argue that the Cold War (1945-1989) or the US's 'war on terror' after 9/11 were world wars in all but name.

In our view, a world war would at the very least need to involve the United States on one side, and a quasi-global power (in practical terms, Russia or China) on the other. The geographic scope would also need to be broad. So, for example, the Korean War of 1950-1953 does not count as a world war, for although a US-led multinational coalition fought on behalf of South Korea against Soviet- and Chinese-backed North Korea, the conflict was confined solely to the Korean Peninsula.

Possible Flashpoints For World Wars: An Assessment

Korean Peninsula: The Korean Peninsula is one of the most heavily-armed places on Earth, with 1.8mn troops (and many more reservists) facing one another. Even so, a new conflict today with similar antagonists to 1950-1953 would most likely be confined to the Korean Peninsula, meaning that it would not be a world war. That could change, however, if Pyongyang somehow managed to launch nuclear strikes on Japanese or US cities, prompting retaliation by the US against North Korea. Overall though, it would be a stretch to expect a new Korean war to become a world war.

China-Japan dispute over Senkaku Islands: Any conflict between the world's second- and third-largest economies could pave the way for a global conflagration. The US is committed by treaty to Japan's defence and could get dragged into a conflict with China, in the event that Tokyo and Beijing came to blows over the disputed Senkaku Islands (called Diaoyu in Chinese) in the East China Sea. In practice, though, the peripheral nature of these tiny, uninhabited islands to Japan and China means that both sides would probably contain any fighting there to the immediate vicinity. In other words, a Sino-Japanese conflict would largely be a naval one, similar to the 1982 Argentina-UK Falklands War, and would not necessarily see military strikes on their respective homelands. In our view, the US would not directly intervene in a Senkaku conflict due to the risks involved – i.e. a shooting war with China – but would provide Japan with logistical support. Even if China sought to attack, blockade, or invade Taiwan, an island with 23mn people, it is questionable whether Washington would risk war with Beijing.

India-Pakistan: A new war between India and Pakistan would not lead to a 'world war', because fighting would be limited to their own territories, and there would be virtually no reason why the US, China, or Russia would feel compelled to intervene militarily. In case of defeat, Pakistan could conceivably call upon assistance from its long-time ally China, but it is questionable whether Beijing would undertake such a risky move as war with India on behalf of Islamabad.

Middle East: A conflict between Israel and Iran, between Iran and Saudi Arabia, or Iran and Turkey, would be unlikely to escalate into a world war, because the scope for combat to spread beyond the Middle East is highly limited. For example, the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988 was certainly substantial, and involved the US, USSR, and several Arab countries as proxy players, but was limited in geographic scope to the Gulf region. While the US could get dragged into a new Middle Eastern war in Syria and Iraq as a result of the militant group Islamic State's advances, or against Iran if the present rapprochement fails, neither Russia nor China has the combined ability and willingness to intervene directly on behalf of Iran.

Armenia-Azerbaijan: A new war between the two countries could drag in Russia on the side of Armenia and Turkey on the side of Azerbaijan, due to respective mutual security pacts. In addition, since Turkey is a NATO member, the US and its NATO allies could become involved in support of Ankara. Iran, which has interests in the South Caucasus, could also join the fray. Even so, the 1991-1994 Armenia-Azerbaijan war was peripheral to the world's major economies, and although the importance of the Caucasus-Caspian Sea region has greatly increased since then, due to oil and gas pipelines, it is still difficult to see a Caucasian war spreading beyond the region.

Eastern Europe: The Russia-Ukraine crisis has raised the possibility (albeit still remote) of a war between NATO and Russia. This could happen if Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Eastern Ukraine, prompting NATO states to deploy troops in Western Ukraine (something which not even traditional hawks in the US are advocating). Even so, a NATO-Russia war in Ukraine would most likely be confined to that country, and resemble a European version of the Korean War. The real danger would be direct Russian military strikes against NATO members such as the Baltic states or Romania, or NATO strikes on western Russia – all of which would raise the spectre of a nuclear exchange.

Western Europe: Since the worsening of the eurozone crisis in 2010-2012, various European officials, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, have warned that a collapse of the currency union could lead to war in Europe. Overall, we find this scenario highly exaggerated. Below, we are republishing a Riskwatchdog (the former name of the Business Monitor Blog) blogpost from October 17, 2012, titled 'Would The Eurozone's Collapse Lead To War?':

Long Road From Eurozone Collapse To War

Overall, we find the talk of war overblown to say the least. There is clearly a risk of rising civil unrest, but this would fall far short of ‘war’. The Europe of the 2010s is vastly different from the Europe of the 1930s. It is far richer and politically mature. There are several stages the eurozone crisis would need to pass through before the continent would be even remotely at risk of war:

1. Severe deterioration of intergovernmental cooperation: This would require governments to tear up existing EU treaties and laws and potentially adopt protectionist economic measures.

2. Severe deterioration of economic conditions in European states: This could theoretically pave the way for extremist takeovers, although this would still be far from guaranteed. Severe economic crises in the Asian ‘tigers’ in 1997-1998, Russia in 1998, Argentina in 2001-2002, the Baltic states in 2008-2010, and Greece in 2010-2012 have not led to ultra-right wing or ultra-left wing governments being elected or seizing power (although Argentina has in recent years moved in that direction). Even for the economically marginalised, living standards today are far higher than in the 1930s.

3. Extremist takeovers in key states: Far-right or far-left parties would need to come to power. Even so, they would not necessarily lead their countries to war, since their immediate priority would be to restore economic growth. Conflict risks would rise, however, if a group of ‘moderate’ European states decided to sanction, isolate, or contain ‘extreme’ European states. The ‘extreme’ states could also conceivably seek to funnel their unemployed young people into their militaries, but this may not be affordable, financially. Military build-ups cost a lot of money.

4. Revival of old territorial disputes: Europe’s 19th and 20th century wars were primarily about land-grabs. Territorial disputes used to be the norm. Nowadays, though, most territorial disputes are largely resolved. These could conceivably gain a new lease of life through manipulation by provocative politicians, but it is unclear if they would stir the passions of the public.

5. Break-up of existing EU states: War could occur if an existing EU state were to break up violently. However, it is difficult to see the British or Spanish governments using force to prevent the secession of Scotland or Catalonia, or Belgium or Italy splitting up violently. All these countries and territories are much more politically and economically advanced than Yugoslavia was in 1990. However, if a group of EU states assisted the separation of a breakaway region, this could be a casus belli.

6. Dissolution or neutralisation of NATO: Some European doomsayers forget that NATO still exists, and that the US still guarantees the security of Europe by basing tens of thousands of troops in Germany, the UK, and Italy. The existence of NATO means that even if the eurozone and EU were to collapse, any hypothetical march towards war would still have a powerful brake. Potential warring states would have to leave the Western alliance first, or conclude that NATO and the US military presence are meaningless or unreliable. This is certainly possible, given that NATO has been weakened by budget cuts in its member states, but would still require a major political gamble.

Peripheral European War Risks More Plausible

Nonetheless, in the event that the eurozone/EU collapses, we do see a rising risk of war on Europe’s periphery, specifically in the following areas:

The Balkans: Although the region is at peace, the political status quo in Bosnia’s Serb Republic and northern Kosovo is considered unsatisfactory to many of the regions’ inhabitants. In addition, Western Macedonia almost experienced a separatist war in 2001. If the eurozone/EU collapses, the Balkan states would no longer have a policy anchor for converging towards Western European political, economic, and social norms. This could empower extremist politicians on all sides, potentially reigniting the wars of the 1990s.

Greece-Turkey: If Greece were to leave the eurozone, and if the EU collapses, then both countries would suddenly find two major restraints on their geopolitical competition removed. The Aegean sea and Eastern Mediterranean would be obvious flashpoints, especially given that the latter has considerable oil and gas reserves. However, the land border could also become a major issue, especially if a weakened Greece perceived Turkey to be encouraging the flow of Middle Eastern and Asian migrants to its territory.

Russia-Eastern Europe: A collapse of the eurozone/EU could present opportunities for Russia to reassert its influence in former Soviet satellite states in eastern Europe. Moscow could become more vociferous in opposing the US’s ballistic missile shield, or seek to cow the Baltic states into political submission, or push for the de jure separation of Moldova’s separatist region of Transdniestria.

Bottom line: Even if the eurozone and EU were to collapse, there would be little reason to expect a return to war in Western Europe. We would need to see a depression first, followed by extremist takeovers.

Civil wars in large countries: A new quasi-world war could also emerge if either China or Russia descended into civil war, which the spread to neighbouring countries and/or prompted foreign intervention. However, there are presently no clear triggers for such conflicts.

Simultaneous regional wars: Finally, a new world war could begin if two or more simultaneous regional crises, for example in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and the Asia-Pacific region, became increasingly interconnected, with the US forced to intervene militarily in two regions.

Greater Multipolarity Could Increase Major War Risks

Overall, as the world becomes increasingly multipolar, and more countries become integrated with the global economy, the risks of a major conflict could arguably increase, because there will be a greater number of powerful actors with a greater geographic scope of interests, meaning greater scope for disagreements or proxy wars to emerge. In addition, the age of cyber warfare means that decisions will need to be made faster, while the growing use of drones could lower the threshold for going to war.

The time will come when China and India will establish military bases overseas (potentially in the Gulf region) to safeguard their interests, and in doing so, they may sign defence pacts with their new allies. Meanwhile, the US and Russia will remain militarily powerful for the foreseeable future, and retain multiple alliances. Furthermore, there will be more middle-ranking powers, some of which will have close ties with major powers. This complex web of relationships would potentially be more dangerous than the Cold War, when the two superpowers largely understood their mutual relationship and modus operandi and exercised considerable restraint over their allies.