Sunday, 1 June 2014

Is A Third World War Brewing?

In this essay I discuss the possibility that the current situation in the Ukraine and Syria would escalate into a third world war. I take the model of war and peace cycles, the current international geopolitical game and the situation in Syria into consideration. I also discuss the when-question.

The year 2014 is both the 100th commemoration of the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 as well as the 75th commemoration of the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939. And suddenly talk of war is back in the air. Suddenly, after Russia's annexation of Crimea in the Ukraine on 21 March, Europeans and others around the world are considering the unthinkable: war can once more encompass Europe and even the world.

Western leaders have reacted in saying that Russia's actions are a breach of the post-Cold War security arrangements on the continent. The acting Ukrainian prime minister, Arseny Yatseniuk, has accused Russia of wanting to start a third world war. He told his interim cabinet in remarks broadcast alive: "The world has not yet forgotten world war two, but Russia already wants to start world war three... Attempts at military conflict in Ukraine will lead to a military conflict in Europe".

Although the world is certainly at this stage not even close to a third world war, it is surely in order to consider the possibility of such a war. We have become so used to peace that the possibility of war seems unreal and even farfetched. There is, however, good reason for informed readers to give it serious consideration. Long before the present escalation of conflict in Ukraine I wrote that we must seriously consider the possibility of another great war, comparable with the First and Second World Wars, breaking out in the next few years [1]. I based that on the work of one of the greatest minds in the history of political thinking, namely professor Nicholas John Spykman (1893–1943) of Yale University.

In this essay I consider strategic, geopolitical and historical reasons why another great war is a real possibility. In this regard we should not only focus on Russia; we should consider the bigger picture in the world. This picture includes the Ukrainian and Syrian conflicts, the standoff with Iran as well as China. We should consider the likelihood of a broad network of strategic alliances being formed between opposing factions without which such a war would not be possible (although regional wars would obviously be possible). Only when all these aspects are integrated into our considerations, are we in a position to evaluate the current threat to world peace.

War and peace cycles

In 1942 Prof. Spykman published a study entitled “America's Strategy in World Politics”, sponsored by the Yale Institute of International Studies. In this he made the astonishing claim that war and peace follow a cyclical pattern. Although there are many wars in the world, he arranged them (especially those in which the British participated) into a pattern, showing that for the past 150 years (at that stage) all major wars could be classified into three types, with one of these, the truly great wars, somehow adhering to a cyclical pattern. In my own study I have confirmed that this pattern persisted even after the Second World War and statistical analysis predicts that, if this is true, then the period around 2014 is the most likely date for another great war. This does not mean that such a war will break out this year; rather, it suggests that if there is indeed such cycles of war and peace, then another great war can be expected in the next few years. 

I first discussed these war and peace cycles and the possibility of another great war breaking out in the next few years in my book Die Arabiese Opstande (2011). In early 2012 I posted a more detailed analysis of war and peace cycles on this blog [1]. In that essay I considered the last 100 years in some detail, focusing on the characteristics of both the war and the peace phases of such cycles. In this period I found four war and peace cycles, commencing on average every 25 anew, which adhered to the same characteristics. The great wars during this period were the First World War, the Second World War, the Vietnam War and the climax of the Cold War (which had some unique characteristics due to the fact that the opposing powers both had nuclear weapons). 

In all these wars there were worldwide networks of opposing military alliances which included all the major powers in the world. Britain's participation in such wars was subsequently replaced by that of the Anglo-American establishment, about whom another well-known historian, professor Carroll Quigley, wrote the very informative book The Anglo-American Establishment (1949). This alliance holds to this day and NATO became its military arm. The characteristics of the war and peace phases of these cycles which I discerned in my previous analysis are:

The war phase of the cycle typically commences with a financial crisis, followed by a recession/depression and a period of economic stagnation. Thereafter occurs a great war against one of the most important imperialistic competitors of the Anglo-American establishment. Sometimes the initial crisis is followed by short period with some economic growth, but eventually it results in a recession, after which the war starts. During the war there is a concerted effort (not always successful) to restrict and reduce the power of their most important political and economic competitors and to promote the Anglo-American political-territorial interests. A new balance of power is also established with the purpose of keeping the most important role players in check.

The peace phase starts directly after the war. It is typically characterized by a post-war recession (a “reconversion crisis”), followed by a prolonged period of economic growth and boom. During this period some mild economic downturns may occur, but on the whole it is a long period of growth. Although it is called a peace phase, some of the other types of war (mentioned earlier) do occur during this period, through which the scene for the next great war is set up. During the peace phase the objective is to include as many countries as possible in the framework of world trade with the purpose of maximizing the gains of the Anglo-American financial magnates, who pursue a policy of free trade.

In that essay I came to the conclusion that Iran would be the primary opponent in such a war for the simple reason that it poses a major threat for Anglo-American interests in the Middle East which are closely interwoven with that of Israel. And the fact that Iran does not have a nuclear weapon makes them a soft target. But this does not mean that Iran would be the only country involved in such a war. For it to be a major war, compared with the ones mentioned, other major powers will have to be involved also. In this regard Russia, with its close ties with Iran, would seem to be an obvious partner as part of the network of military alliances opposing NATO in such a war. Russia's possible involvement, as well as that of other countries such as China, must, however, be considered in geopolitical terms. 


Another important aspect of the war and peace phases, is the play between stability and instability during those phases. The peace phase is characterized by a stable balance of power between the world powers, with the winners of the previous great war dominating the scene. When the war ends without a clear winner among the great powers, such stability rests on the even balance between those powers (for example, after the Vietnam War when the West and the USSR were evenly balanced). Towards the end of this phase, however, some of the other powers become real imperialistic competitors of the Anglo-American establishment. 

During the war phase, which typically commences after a great financial and subsequent economic crisis (these economic crises were in 1907-8, 1929-33, 1957-58, 1980-82, 2008-9), the world suddenly becomes more unstable. The reason for this is that the stable balance of power in which one superpower dominates a mono-polar world (empirical Britain or the US) or two powers are evenly balanced in a bi-polar world (the US and USSR), makes way for a multi-polar world in which various players actively participate in the pursuit of power - when the great powers try to maneuver themselves into positions of power. This happened before all the great wars which I mentioned. It is now happening again with the other powers sensing that the Great Recession has damaged the financial power of the West and with it its ability to project power. And they are preparing strategies to assert themselves in ways unthinkable a few years ago.

One of the most important factors which determine such actions are geopolitical concerns. This is when countries take geography into consideration in their political ambitions to expand and project their power. Again, in this area Prof. Spykman is probably the most important thinker of the past century. His theory of "containment" to this day plays a central role in the thinking of all the war strategists of the major powers. I discussed his theory (as well as those of Mahan and Mackinder) in an essay that I wrote earlier this year (posted on 2 February) in which I focused on the present international pursuit of geopolitical power [2]. 

In my discussion of the major players in this game, namely China, the EU, the US and Russia, I mentioned that the eastern expansion of the EU has placed enormous geopolitical pressure on Russia and that the eastern partnership program of the EU, had it been signed with all the earmarked countries (the Ukraine, Moldavia, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan), would have contained Russia beyond the Ural mountains. I wrote that "such a Russia is effectively stripped of all geopolitical possibilities to expand its power". Since Russia is cornered, one should not be surprised by the "strong armed" tactics of the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. No wonder that (shortly after my writing) Russia initiated its program to take control over the Crimea, where its Black Sea fleet is stationed in Sevastopol. This followed directly after the successful uprising against the Russian-favored Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych.

 I will not here repeat the things discussed in that essay (which is now even more relevant than before). In the same manner that Russia is strangled by the expansion of the EU, China is encircled by US allies or partners (South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia). In the same manner that Russia has annexed the Crimea, China has also annexed certain reefs in the South China Sea in recent years. In November 2013 China even proclaimed a new air defense zone which includes the Senkaku islands (called Diaoyu by the Chinese) which belongs to Japan. In January 2014 it further announced that it would this year take over control of the Philippine-occupied Pagasa island (the second biggest island in the Spratlys). 

The main difference between Russia and China is that Russia is a declining power, struggling to keep its options for future power projection open, whereas China is a growing power who's strategic interests are coming more and more in direct conflict with that of the US. China's rise would result in it becoming a major sea power (see the mentioned essay) and its projection of power into the East and South China Seas will become more asserted. Both Russia and China are at a paradigmatic moment regarding their geopolitical interests and would use every possible opportunity to take control of surrounding areas which they consider of strategic interest. If they work in concert, and initiate sudden moves which do not endanger US core interests, thinking they can get away with it (testing the waters), the worldwide situation can easily escalate towards more confrontation. 

The recent 400 billion dollar agreement between these countries, according to which Russia would supply China with gas for 30 years, must be seen in this context. This can be the beginning of closer ties between these countries against the US and its allies. Russia is clearly preparing for war insofar as its military budget is concerned, which has just surpassed that of the US in GDP terms. For a large scale confrontation with the West, to try and secure its geopolitical interests, Russia would need China; China can gain a lot from such an alliance in its growing confrontation with Japan and other Western allies and partners in that region. 

 The theater of war

We should not see the events in the Ukraine in isolation. Russia is not only under pressure in its own backyard; it is also under enormous pressure in the only other important part of the world where it still has some influence after the fall of the USSR, namely the Middle East. There its partners Syria and Iran are under great pressure. Syria is involved in a civil war and Iran is strangled by sanctions. In a certain sense the conflict in Syria stands at the center of the geopolitical confrontation between Russia and the West. If the Syrian regime falls, Russia will not only loose its Mediterranean naval base at Tarsus, it will be effectively excluded from the Middle East (except for its relation with Iran). This is why Russia so fiercely defends its ally, both in the UN Security Council and on the ground where it provides the Syrian regime with weapons and even training. 

Already in December 2011 in an essay on this blog I predicted that Russia would stand by Syria and that it would not follow the path of the other Arab Spring countries where revolutions had been successful (that is before the counter-revolutions in some of those countries). I also mentioned that Iran would probably become involved and that the Syrian conflict can eventually escalate into a wider Middle Eastern war. Although other neighboring countries have not thus far become directly involved, Iran did and today the Iranians play a very important role in steering the Syrian war effort with its allies Hezbollah and other Shiites from Iraq. As in the case of Russia, Iran also has a lot to loose would the Syrian regime fall. Not only would the important Iran-Syria-Hezbollah Shiite axis, which allows Iran to project its power all over the Middle East, be broken and its ally Hezbollah be left isolated, it would also make it much easier for the Israelis to attack Iran on its home ground. 

I seems to me quite possible that the conflict in Syria (which includes Iran) could eventually become the theater where the next great war begins - if it comes to that. Although such a conflict would also play of in other areas of the world (near Russia or China), I think the epicenter would be in the Middle East. It seems very unlikely that such a conflict would ever be fought on Russian soil (because of its nuclear weapons); it is, however, very possible that it would, at least in part, be fought in Syria and Iran. Not only are Russia and Iran already supporting the Syrian regime, the West are slowly but steadily increasing its support for the rebels. Over the last few months funding, weapons and training of certain moderate rebel groups have strengthened their relative power in rebel circles.

In a major foreign policy speech on 28 May at the United States Military Academy at West Point, President Barack Obama recently announced a five billion dollar “Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund” to train local forces in the Middle East and Africa. Obama reversed his past opposition to large-scale American arming and training of Syrian rebels and said that strengthened moderate rebel groups could serve as a counterweight to radical Islamist groups. The US, Saudi-Arabia and others are already training the rebels for some time in Jordan (at least since 2013) and the CIA played a major role in establishing Brig.Gen. Abdul-Illah al-Bashir, an important leader of the Free Syrian Army, in the Golan town of Quneitra. They have also started providing the rebels with heavy weaponry.

The Syrian conflict and Russia's involvement in the Ukraine would probably with time become closely intertwined. The US would try to force Russia's hand in Ukraine with threats of providing the rebels with even better weapons. We can see Obama's speech in these terms. Furthermore, Russia and Iran are not only close friends which are involved in the same conflict in Syria, both are now also under Western sanctions. This would bring them even closer to each other and it is quite possible that Russia (and China) would in future break ranks with the West on Iranian sanctions if the nuclear negotiations do not succeed. Russia and Iran also recently announced a 20 billion dollar oil-for-food deal and they are in talks about another 10 billion dollar energy deal. One can easily see how Iran can become part of a Russia-China-Iran axis of powers opposed to NATO.

When can such a war be expected?

The important question is: If the war and peace cycles and geopolitical concerns suggest that we can expect a major war over the next few years, when will it commence? This is an extremely difficult question to answer, but I can mention some of the factors that would play an important role in this regard. I ranked them from the most to the least importance. 

1. The war phase. We can consider the details of the war phase of the cycle more closely to see what precedes the outbreak of such wars. These phases typically begin with a financial crisis, followed by a deep depression or recession and a prolonged period of stagnation thereafter. The present cycle clearly commenced with the financial crisis of 2007 which was followed by the Great Recession of 2008-9 and the period of stagnation (especially in the EU) ever since.

In two of the previous cycles this involved another recession just before the war starts. Since this did not occur in all the cycles we cannot in general take it as signalling the outbreak of war. The average period from the financial crisis to the outbreak of war is 7 years. In the period which preceded the Second World War, it, however, took 10 years (the longest period registered) from the financial crisis in 1929 to the outbreak of the war in 1939. This means, statistically speaking, that the chance for such a war is the greatest over the next three years (2014-17), but it is always possible that it can take even longer before it starts. 

2. Iranian nuclear negotiations. Although the present negotiations between Iran and the six world powers are not often described in those terms, they are probably the last effort to avoid direct confrontation between Iran and a US-led alliance (that includes Israel), which can easily escalate into another great war. Without a deal Iran poses an existential threat to Israel and the Anglo-American establishment will not tolerate that. A breakdown in negotiations can therefore lead to war with Iran, which in my opinion can easily lead to another great war in the cycle of such wars.

As long as the talks proceed it seems unlikely that the situation in Syria would escalate into direct Iran-US-Israel confrontation. One can furthermore expect all the parties to the talks to do everything in their power to come to an agreement. The problem is that such an agreement must not only satisfy Israel, it must also satisfy the Iranian security establishment. Although the current Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, is a moderate, he face growing criticism at home. A coup against him would change everything and can dramatically escalate the conflict between Israel and Iran. The Iranians have all reason to think that giving up their nuclear deterrent would leave them exposed to Western attack [3]. This would make an agreement very difficult to reach.

3. The Obama administration. I have previously discussed the strategic interests of the US, Israel, France, Iran and Russia regarding the situation in Syria [3]. Since the US is the leader of the Western nations, they will not go to war without her. The Obama administration, however, will do everything to avoid war. They are nonetheless under enormous pressure in the US because of the perception that the enemies of the US are taking advantage of Obama's reluctance and even aversion in war. It seems, however, that Obama will not easily take the US into another war. If they are not overtaken by events, it will probably fall to the next US president to decide on this. But remember President Woodrow Wilson, who promised peace and then took the US into World War I.

4. Oil and gas supplies. One can expect that a great war with its epicenter in the Middle East will have a dramatic impact on the oil price and can destabilize the world economy. This will count in Russia's favor, who is a major oil and gas exporter. Also, Russia is in a strong position because of the EU's dependence on it for its fuel. The EU imports about 39% of its gas and about 33% of its oil from Russia. Since the Ukraine crisis the EU has been actively exploring other options. They have access to other fuel resources but some of these are also under pressure, for example in Libya.

There is, however, a very important change in world fuel production in progress which would impact on the situation. Gas-fracking has changed the fuel market beyond recognition. The US is already self-sufficient and will probably start exporting in the near future. The EU leaders have even talked to President Obama about getting fuel from the US. He mentioned that this is subject to the successful conclusion of the free trade agreement between the US and the EU. One expects that the Western nations would try to solve this problem before deciding to go to war.

5. The US-EU free trade agreement. For some readers it would seem strange that I mention this point. I, however, think that this is a very important issue which will decide whether and when such a war breaks out. The reason is that such a great war would generate a common enemy for the EU on a scale not seen before. This will propel the EU into further integration in the same manner that the economic crisis did. Such a war, which includes Russia as aggressor on its eastern border, will bring the EU nations together and allow the Euro countries to proceed with further integration. Those right-wing groups who have done so well in the last EU election, and who view President Putin as hero, will come under enormous pressure to be "patriotic" and loyal to the EU. The reason why the US-EU trade agreement is important, is that the US would not like to see the EU become so powerful if it is not safely imbedded with them in one economic zone. The US would probably want to see at least substantial agreement on trade issues before going into a large-scale war.  

In my opinion the Vietnam War in important aspects provides our best precedent for the current situation. Both then and now we see a proxy war which escalated (or can escalate) into a war in which all the major world powers participated (or participates). In that case the conflict between the Viet Cong and the government of the anti-communist South began in 1955. The US sent the first support troops in 1961 and became directly involved only in 1965. The current Syrian conflict started early in 2011 and the US have only recently announced that they would become more actively (but not directly) involved. One can expect that particular incidents would serve as reason for deeper participation, but that is obviously impossible to predict. I do not think that we can take the timescales of the US involvement in the Vietnam War as basis for projections (one example cannot count as statistics), but I do think that the present situation can follow at least that pattern in the run-up to such a war.


There have recently been talk about a "third world war". Leaders often engage in such talk for reasons of their own. In this case, however, it seems that there is reason to think that the present situation in Syria and the Ukraine can easily escalate into a major war which involve the major powers around the globe (if not The Third World War). The most important reason why I think that such a war could very well be on hand, is that the present circumstances fits perfectly with my model of war and peace cycles. The events in Syria and the Ukraine are not isolated instances; they are closely connected in the geopolitical game currently underway in the world. An analysis of the geopolitical situation shows that more such conflicts can be expected and that it can easily escalate even more. Of central importance in this regard is that Russia, China and Iran are moving closer to each other. Their short term goals are closely linked and they all experience some form of Western containment which strangle them.

When would such a war break out if it comes to that? This is an extremely difficult question to answer. I have mentioned various factors which are important in this regard. On the whole it seems that the West is not yet ready for war. Although the situation can change fast, it seems that such a war will not easily start under the Obama administration (but remember President Wilson!). The most important factor which will determine what will happen and when, is the nuclear negotiations with Iran.We can take it as an important barometer regarding a possible future war which could include not only Israel and Iran, but also the other major powers.

[1] Click on Predicting a war against Iran? - an inquiry into war and peace cycles
[2] Click on The pursuit of geopolitical power in an emerging multi-polar world
[3] Click on War-clouds darken over the Middle East

Author: Dr Willie Mc Loud (Ref.

See also: A New Iranian Empire is rising.