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Are we heading towards World War Three?

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Earlier this year, analysts at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute warned that the world was “drifting into one of the most dangerous periods in human history”.

Since then, a conflict in the Middle East that threatens to spill over into a regional war has only added to geopolitical tensions – and the risk of all-out war between emerging superpower blocs.

In reality, the US and its allies have been in a new cold war with China for the last five years, argued Niall Ferguson in The Times, with the invasion of Ukraine “roughly equivalent to the Korean War during the first Cold War, revealing an ideological as well as geopolitical division between the countries of the ‘Rimland’ (the Anglosphere, western Europe and Japan) and those of the Eurasian ‘Heartland’ (China, Russia and Iran plus North Korea)”.

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Now the Israel-Hamas war threatens to become the “next crisis in a cascade of conflict that has the potential to escalate to a Third World War, especially if China seizes the moment – perhaps as early as 2024 – to impose a blockade on Taiwan”, he warned.

So where does the biggest threat to world peace lie?

Middle East

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has “spent the past three decades sounding the alarm about Iran’s nuclear programme” and he has threatened to attack the country numerous times, but after Hamas’s assault on 7 October he “may finally be able to act on his threats”, said Al Jazeera.

Whether he does or not will ultimately depend on whether the current, limited, conflict in Gaza broadens out to a wider war in the Middle East involving regional superpower Iran through its proxy Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Many experts believe there is “little desire in Washington and Tehran for a regional conflict”, reported NBC News, but given the intensity of Israel’s bombardment and ground operation “the scope for miscalculation is huge”.

For decades, Israel and Iran have been engaged in a “shadow war” fought on land, at sea, and in the air, said Foreign Affairs. Now, the war in Gaza is “disrupting their already delicate calculus, and the longer the conflict continues, the more it will reduce the incentives for moderation and raise the risk of Israeli-Iranian conflict”.

Seeking to act as a deterrent against a further escalation, the US has continued its troop build-up in the region, with CBS News reporting the deployment of a nuclear-power submarine to join the two American aircraft carriers already in position in the eastern Mediterranean. However, Netanyahu and his ministers “may have something very different in mind for the US deployment, that goes beyond military deterrence and political posturing”, said Al Jazeera. “He may try to widen the scope of the war to include Iran.”

“Iran is how the conflict spirals”, agreed Sky News‘s Mark Stone, but in truth the path to escalation via a Hezbollah-led second front from Lebanon is “unlikely” said Lina Khatib, director of the Soas Middle East Institute, in The Guardian. It would most likely spark US intervention which has “the potential for the war to spread to Iran itself, which is the last thing Iran wants”.

Russia

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which began in February 2022, has been described as “more dangerous than anything Europe has seen since the end of World War II” by Politico.

In the 20 months since, the Kremlin’s hopes for a quick victory have turned into a drawn-out war of attrition, with even Ukraine’s commander-in-chief recently admitting the conflict was at risk of becoming a “stalemate”.

With European leaders thought to be tiring of the conflict and resistance growing in Washington to open-ended support, Putin’s “strategic priority is to divert Western support and attention away from Ukraine”, said Politico, and he may see the war in Gaza as the perfect opportunity to push his advantage.

Last week, the Russian president signed a law withdrawing Russia’s ratification of the global treaty banning nuclear weapons tests. Russia has the world’s largest nuclear arsenal and some Western arms control experts are concerned that Putin may be “inching towards a nuclear test to intimidate and evoke fear amid the Ukraine war”, reported Reuters.

He followed this up on Tuesday by formally withdrawing Russia from a post-Cold War era security pact restricting the use of conventional weapons. Nato has previously condemned the move, which has worsened relations between the US and Russia, which Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said were already “below zero”.

Last week, Dmitry Medvedev, the former Russian president and now deputy chairman of its Security Council, sought to ratchet up pressure on Poland – a key Nato member – by warning that continued aid to Ukraine may cause a direct confrontation with Russia and Belarus, which could result in the start of World War Three.

With Russia increasingly emboldened, Western war weariness could lead to the fall of Ukraine and, in due course, a Third World War, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy warned CBS‘s flagship 60 Minutes.

“I think that [Putin]’s going to continue threatening,” Zelenskyy said. “He is waiting for the United States to become less stable. He thinks that’s going to happen during the US election. He will be looking for instability in Europe and the United States of America. He will use the risk of using nuclear weapons to fuel that. He will keep on threatening.”

China

The greatest threat to geopolitical stability has long been assumed to be the growing tensions between China and the US, with relations at their lowest point in decades.

Believing continued economic growth would make it a rival centre of geopolitical power to the US, “the conventional wisdom was that China had time to wait”, said The Telegraph. “Time, and investment, would deliver armed forces capable of deterring American intervention within its sphere of influence,” said the paper. “But if China’s power has peaked, and still lags behind, none of this holds true. Instead, the incentive is to be aggressive and take what it can, now.”

The flashpoint, if it comes, is likely to be Taiwan.

Much like Russia’s claim over Ukraine, Beijing sees the island as an integral part of a unified Chinese territory. It has, in recent years, adopted an increasingly aggressive stance towards Taiwan. At the same time, the US under Joe Biden has ramped up its support – financially, militarily and rhetorically – for Taiwan’s continued independence.

In recent months there has been an attempt, led by Washington, to cool the hostile rhetoric and find common ground. However, analysts believe relations are so fraught that “re-establishing a semblance of stability and balance will take much more effort and political will”, said NPR, and will be “tested” by presidential elections in the US and Taiwan in 2024. “Mutual trust is running thin.”

Failure to de-escalate risks a doomsday scenario, in which China takes advantage of the current crisis in Gaza to impose a blockade on Taiwan that draws in the US.

The devastating human cost aside, even if fought by conventional methods, a military conflict between the world’s two biggest economies would lead to “a severing of global supply chains, a blow to confidence and crashing asset prices”, said The Observer‘s economics editor Larry Elliott. “It would have catastrophic economic consequences, up to and including a second Great Depression.”

Artificial intelligence

Recent high-profile advances in artificial intelligence have led to increased fears that AI could accidentally cause a global conflict.

A leading academic at the University of Cambridge told the i news site in March that the technology could, in an extreme case, “mistake a bird as an incoming threat and trigger a nuclear launch if no human override is in place to assess alerts from an AI-assisted early-warning system”.

Although no state is openly attempting to automate its nuclear weapons systems, “integrating AI with command systems seems promising and even unavoidable”, said Peter Rautenbach from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

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