Home » Agony Uncle » The Tipping Point: What do we mean by ‘The Third World War’ and how will we recognise it when it starts?

The Tipping Point: What do we mean by ‘The Third World War’ and how will we recognise it when it starts?

What will define the term ‘Third World War’?

I think, only the terms First, and Second World War. Both are numerical conventions, assuming as they do that there were clear start and end points to the events so named, and a single, defining characteristic to the years between. ‘Third World War’ is a crudely ordinal description that thus may be applied retrospectively to a similar type of conflict now or in future. Is such a conflict even possible in the modern era?

We had the main events, so to speak, of the 20th century, two ‘world wars’, and so another major international conflict would possibly define the term Third World War today. But how, in advance of the main event, and without foreknowledge of how it is to develop, given the changing nature of warfare, are we to recognise that it has actually begun?

Large parts of the world were not directly involved in the first and second world wars, or were so peripheral to it that they could not be counted as combatants. So they were not in the fullest sense ‘world’ wars, albeit that they occupied a number of theatres and led to enormous casualties. They were, to use an analogy borrowed from geology, catastrophic events: the sudden, massive ruptures of geopolitical tectonic plates, releasing the stored energy of hundreds of years of slow crepitation.

And some historians would argue that, while there were clear starting-blocks in both, neither conflict was ever so sufficiently resolved as to have an endpoint; especially in relation to the so-called Cold War. This continued for decades after the Second World War as a face-off between the victorious powers – although it can be suggested that such a condition suited the political and economic interests of both sides and empowered what Eisenhower called the ‘military-industrial complex’ of many nations and was thus an invented, rather than a real, conflict.

Embedded in the Cold War were a few ‘hot’ wars: Korea, Vietnam, Aden, the Malaysian insurgency, Israel, Lebanon, Cyprus, the war between the Nationalists and the Maoists in China. There were minor wars whose roots lay in the previous major conflicts: Israel/Palestine and India/Pakistan, to name but two. Many such conflicts remain unresolved to this day, and occasionally flare up. So it is hard to say that either the First or the Second World War has definitively ended.

But given that we have these ideas of major, quasi-global conflicts that can be put into an envelope of time, historically speaking, then any ‘Third World War’ would to future historians, if any survive, have had to have had a fairly well defined starting point, and (hopefully) a settled outcome. At the moment, no such defined points can be said to exist, and so there is no ‘Third World War’ to speak of.

In truth, however, the unresolved nature of those past conflicts, many dating back to the early corporatist expansions of the 17th century, is creating an extraordinary period of instability today. If we can describe anything as a ‘world war’, short of an all-out mobilisation of great powers aligned in mutually opposed hostile blocs, leading probably to a globally devastating nuclear exchange, then it must surely be a world in which social unrest combined with complex political alliances appears to be getting out of hand, just as it did in 1914. Brushfires are raging, situational conflicts in many countries are on the verge of turning into all-out warfare: which I define as any conflict between armies and affecting civilian populations across national borders.

The multipartite conflict now raging in Syria, for instance, has snowballed into a pitiless free-for-all as a result of the intransigence of the al-Assad family, a secular, self-imposed dynasty, in the face of demands originally from a mass movement of unarmed, nonviolent citizens determined to obtain a more just and democratic society. It can be argued that such movements are in part the product of economic inequality, in which even the middle-class now feels increasingly dispossessed, where states have failed to grant their citizens a sense of empowerment. Once Assad’s snipers began firing on peaceful demonstrators, and his secret torture chambers started to fill up with university students, insurrection became inevitable: there was no-one with the necessary clarity of vision or purpose to stop it.

For in Assad, we saw only the contradiction that here was an apparently charming, diffident, Western-educated, secularist Islamic leader, a professional man from a minority caste, who was behaving in a very unWestern, unliberal, unacceptably violent way, slaughtering his own people without compunction* ; while to support the fragmented moderate Islamic opposition groups loosely arrayed against him would clearly be to let in the Devil of Saudi-sponsored, Sunni jihad in the spectre of al-Quaeda militias and the like. How to intervene, in a post-Iraq, post-Afghanistan, post-Libya climate of war-weary opposition among the voters at home?

Meanwhile, in the Security Council of the UN, Russian and Chinese diplomats, aligned with Iran and with an interest in maintaining Syria as a client state, were obdurately opposed to any military invention against Assad by the US, allied with the former administrative powers of Britain and France; whose furtive Sykes-Picot accord of 1916 had created the faultlines in the first place. A detailed examination of the complex matrix of rival loyalties in Syria would take a book; ultimately, it was too much for anyone outside the conflict to build a credible policy framework for ending the carnage.

Indeed, the countries most affected by these so-called ‘Arab Spring’ movements have been former protectorates whose postwar boundaries were artificially defined by colonial administrators caught up in the rush to decolonise. Their immediate postcolonial regimes were artificially imposed and subsequently manipulated by the major powers, to settle traditional inter-tribal rivalries and to support the development of regional economies, in the names of ‘liberal democracy’, and ‘freedom’, to help fuel corporate expansionism as the economic drivers of their own domestic consumer cultures were seen to be waning.

Before Damascus and Homs, similar ‘Arab Spring’ movements had been erupting all over the Middle East, that had their roots in earlier mass public protests, so-called ‘velvet revolutions’, in places like the Ukraine and, earlier still, East Germany and Czechoslovakia. These were essentially anti-governmental protests, rather than revolutionary class-based or religious schisms; a sort of disaffected middle-class anarchy, you might ally them with the Tea Party movement in the USA, although the soccer-moms of middle America are more heavily armed!

In sum, the ‘velvet revolutions’ are protests of mainly the rapidly increasing numbers of the newly educated middle class, finding their voice and wishing to demonstrate their newfound maturity and independence of mind in the face of narrow, ideologically dated, paternalistic governance; opposed to egregious corruption and foreign clientism, threatened by medieval theocracy and feeling disempowered.

Three factors ensure the failure of such mass movements:

  • The lack of a cohesive, focussed ideology and recognisable leadership
  • The intransigence of the Old Order, its willingness to resort to violence to remain in power (and the willingness of the major powers to sell arms to them indiscriminately)
  • Contemporaneously, the growing economic and military weakness of, and divisions among, the former ‘policing’ world powers.

Lastly, we have to take into account perhaps the most troubling factor of all: the rise of Islamic jihad. This is affecting many countries where inter-tribal or social factionalism has created or exposed faultlines capable of exploitation by terrorist groups and insurgent militias dedicated to the violent overthrow of decadent Western capitalism and the global imposition in the 21st century of a crude fundamentalist version of religious law, customs and practices derived from a 7th-century text. (Off the record, were it not for the latter tendency, they might paradoxically find greater support among those opposed to the global, corporatist agenda.)

The following is a rundown, incomplete, compiled at random and off the top of my head, of current zones of actual or potential armed conflict. It is a shocking list, as there are now more countries in or on the verge of conflict than at the start of either of the two previous world wars, complicated by all the factors listed above. There is little hope of resolution coming from the underfunded, irresolute UN or – the former world’s policeman – Obama’s USA, itself currently in traction as a result of the bitter division between rightwing Republicans and moderate centrists.

There are some chinks of light – the useful mediation of Ethiopia in the Darfur conflict is one. But by and large, it is a depressing list of failure, vacillation and random, chaotic violence, particularly against civilians, in which it is hard to detect any longer, even the cynical, manipulative hand of the Western intelligence services.

Syria – and hence, neighbouring Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, Israel. Civil war developed following state repression of popular protests, has drawn in rival jihadist militias. Atrocities on all sides, a standoff at the UN between the US and Russia/China, 10 million displaced persons, two million-plus out-of-state refugees, 130 thousand dead, cities reduced to rubble and the total abandonment of civil order make resolution unlikely despite ‘peace talks’ currently limping forward unexpectedly with minor concessions and much mistrust (and no Iranian delegates) in Montreux.

Lebanon – re-emergence of the chronic instability and fractures in the unhealed faultlines remaining from the civil wars of the 1970s and 80s. Massive population pressures caused by Syrian refugees. Continuing Iranian-sponsored terrorism, involvement of homegrown Hezbollah movement (anti-Israel) in the Syrian conflict.

Iran – continuing suppression of political opponents of the regime. Mass executions. Conciliatory approach over nuclear weapons issue to the West by new president Hassan Rouhani countered by Supreme Leader Khameini and the Revolutionary Guard. Threat of Israeli preventative strike and cyber warfare remains. Continued involvement of Iran pursuing pro-Shi’ite proxy war in Syria threatens conflict with Saudi Arabia supporting Sunni insurgents.

Iraq – Increasing instability and terrorist militia activity in south and cetral regions as weak and corrupt al-Malaki government fails to include Sunni majority in post-invasion restoration of civil institutions, thus paving the way for al-Quaeda-backed insurgency. Continued failure to restore broken infrastructure. Civil war imminent.

Afghanistan – withdrawal of NATO forces in 2014 and weakness of army and police threatens to leave corrupt and unstable Karzai government vulnerable to return of Taleban in the south, warlords in the north. Continuing problems with clandestine, semi-official Pakistani support for jihadists in the border regions. Civil war a real possibility.

Pakistan – politically extremely unstable. Deep social divisions and intolerance of others. Secularists and modernisers vs traditionalists leading to support for Islamic fundamentalism in tribal areas on Afhan border. Potential for military takeover. Nuclear power. Continuing unresolved dispute with India over Kashmir with occasional flare-ups on the border.

India– rise of Hindu nationalism and hostility to Muslim Pakistan. Deep social and religious divisions leading to frequent localised massacres. Maoist ‘Naxalite’ insurgency affecting Andra Pradesh and wide areas of the country, many civilian deaths. The unresolved Kashmir question. Possibly unsustainable economic growth.

Turkey – initially a peace broker in the Syrian conflict, now threatened by its own internal divisions. Mass popular movement against increasingly hardline premier Erdogan. Rise of harder-line Islamist movement led by US-exiled Fetullah Gulen creating a ‘third force’ in the so-far nonviolent (other than for excessive use of police force) conflict. Some respite in the long-ongoing Kurdish nationalist insurgency but conflict with PKK as yet unresolved. Pressures of massive Syrian refugee population. Threat of jihadist insurgency from across the Syrian border. Threat of direct military involvement in Syrian conflict in response to border incursions and shelling. Cyprus question unresolved.

Egypt – Arab Spring uprising, largely nonviolent, brought down the authoritarian Mubharak regime but subsequent elections inadvertenly brought Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed Morsi to power, owing to lack of credible opposition leadership. New protests in 2013 led to intervention by Army leaders promising fresh elections, now looking as though the only candidates will be Army placemen. Morsi on trial, Brotherhood leadership in gaol acting as lightning rod for armed jihadi insurgents in Sinai. Increasing terrorist attacks on urban communities. Overpopulation, resource depletion.

North Africa – many unresolved postcolonial issues from Western Sahara through Algeria to Libya and Tunisia, Sudan; Islamist insurgencies in southern parts, tribal rivalries, gangster militias exploiting local power vacuums and failure of new governments as yet to build credible democratic institutions and restore civil society in the wake of Western-backed regime change operations in support of incoherent ‘Arab Spring’ manifestations; oil, water, energy supply shortages.

Central Africa/Southern Sahel – Islamist insurgencies across many countries compounding renewed tribal conflicts over land and resources in Southern Sudan, Central African Republic, Mali, northern Nigeria, northern Uganda and other regions. Longstanding conflicts in Congo, Somalia, Eritrea etc. continue to rumble on. Increasing Chinese economic influence and unwillingness of Western powers (other than France) to engage. Weakness of pan-African institutions. Arms trade, diamonds, resource wars…

China – growing Islamist insurgency in western provinces, rebellious Uighurs. Continued suppression of Tibetan nationalist movement. Armed intervention threatened against Japan over centuries-old disputed ownership of eight uninhabited Senkaku (Daoyou) islands in the South China Sea reopening unhealed wounds dating from Japanese occupation of Manchuria during WW2. Some resurgence of Japanese nationalism and rhetorical gestures getting out of hand. Resource shortages threatening and economic expansion slowing. Corruption and human rights abuses, growing popular anger at slow pace of reform. Cyber espionage aimed against western countries.

Korea – no progress after 60 years in still-unresolved war between North and South. Increasingly strident and bizarre rhetoric from new Northern president Kim Jong-un; recent history of military confrontations, sinking of South Korean warship, cross-border shelling; flagrant breaches of non-nuclear accords, testing of devices and  long-range launch vehicles; violent suppression of supposed dissidence within the ruling elite; economic impoverishment of the majority, labour camps, etc. all creating impression of dangerous instability of the regime. Cyber warfare being aggressively waged against hostile countries (that’s most of us!).

Thailand – pro-democracy, anti-government corruption protests turning violent. Continued ethnic and religious tensions in neighbouring Burma, Laos.

Ukraine – increasingly violent confrontations between protesters seeking closer ties with European Union and the authoritarian president Viktor Yanukovitch compounded with a deep ideological faultine emerging between the pro-European western and the post-industrial former pro-Soviet eastern halves of the country. Over-reliance on Russian energy supply, faltering economy. Potential for Russian intervention in support of Yanukovitch regime after the Sochi Olympic games finish at the end of February.

Indonesia – having achieved a measure of democratic freedom and stability after the CIA-supported coups and counter-coups and the massacres and endemic corruption of the 1970s and 80s, moderately Islamic Indonesia faces an increasing internal threat from jihadist groups, some possibly affiliated to al-Quaeda, and continuing separatist aspirations of larger island territories.

Russia – continuing terrorist insurgency by Islamist groups in the Caucasian republics threatening disruption of the Sochi Olymic games. Increasing militancy over ownership of Arctic resources with potential for conflict with Norway, Denmark, Canada, USA. Unresolved issues with Georgia over sovereignty of South Ossetia. Russian stranglehold on gas supplies to western European countries a possible lever for blackmail. Some manifestations of popular opposition to autocratic Putin regime, corruption and organised crime. Cyber crime and warfare being conducted actively in support of various global objectives.

Northern Ireland – resurgence of sectarian tensions in West Belfast, principally owing to economic recession. The old faultline re-emerging, as characterised by the refusal of political leaders to agree even on the display of symbolic flags. Increasing acts of random violence by dissident Republicans opposed to the Good Friday accord. Failure of political leaders to include the traditional Protestant working-class in post-accord settlements. Failure to meet Republican aspirations.

And finally, there are the macro-factors affecting all the conflicts mentioned: climate change, ‘Peak Oil’, water and other resource shortages, mass migration from South to North and the weakness of institutions such as the UN, the African Union, the ASEAN countries and the EU, which threatens to fragment under pressure from a disillusioned majority of citizens of its member states.

Have I left anyone out? Almost certainly – especially South America, where all seems relatively quiet! (Although Marxist insurgency, corruption, vast social inequality and drugs wars are endemic.)** So here’s another definition of a ‘Third World War’, my definition – a series of small wars simultaneously enveloping most of the countries formerly known collectively as the ‘Third World’, that threatens to realign the major powers once again.

Could 2014 be a rerun of 1914? Probably not, but will the world get to 2020 in one piece? It seems less likely by the day.

– Uncle Bogler

*Note: the suspicion has to be, doesn’t it, that the policy of ruthless suppression originated not with President Bashar, but with his psychotic brother Maher, head of the Secret Service?

** Oops, no, sorry. Economic recession in Argentina spurs upsurge of militaristic anti-British rhetoric over ownership of Las Malvinas islands. Increasing popular unrest in Venezuela following the death of Chavez.


To what extent are population pressures playing a part in the current trend of mass popular unrest and the breakdown of civil order? It seems odd that so much of this activity seems to have concided with the widespread announcement of the arrival of the world’s ‘Seven billionth citizen’… A visit to Wikipedia and its account of Professor John D Calhoun’s famous 1960s experiments with rat populations gives pause for thought!


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