Initially Published 23 April, 2018
Some of the following is an excerpt from one of the books I am working on as a follow up to The Simple Survival Smart Book and some are additions to that.
The last global war fought on earth officially ended on September 2, 1945 with the signing of the Japanese instruments of surrender on the foredeck of the USS Missouri anchored in Tokyo Bay. The Japanese were brought to surrender after the detonation of two low-yield nuclear weapons over the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in early August. Prior to that, Germany had surrendered after the German army had been defeated, Berlin was captured and 75% of the land area of Germany had been occupied by Allied troops. There has not been a true global war since. Depending on how you count, World War II was either the second or the fifth global war. Being a historian by training, I tend to count it as the fifth with the earlier global wars being The War of the Austrian Succession, The Seven Years War, the Napoleonic Wars, and the The Great War.
Since 1945, what has occurred is confrontation on a global scale. I am talking here of the Cold War, which was not really a war at all but rather two power blocs staring at each other from either side of a barbed-wire fence and daring the other to try something. The reason the Cold War never turned hot is intimately related to what brought about the end of World War II, nuclear weapons. Immediately after World War II, arguably even while the war was being fought, the Western Allies and Soviet Union found that their basic disagreements about how to order the world drove them apart. The Soviets wanted to initiate world socialism and the Western democracies did not. That simple fact really is the root of it.
The Western Allies had the reserves of manpower, weapons, and their economies were geared to continue the war with Russia as the new enemy but not the will. The population in the Western world was war weary and would not have countenanced another 4-5 years of war to defeat Soviet Russia and impose democracy east of the Oder. What the world has instead seen since 1945 is a series of small wars and proxy conflicts in which the two superpowers have refused to fight each other directly out of fear of escalation. This makes sense if you consider that neither the US nor Soviet Union would allow themselves to be defeated if they had the means of making their enemy pay, which both did after 1949 and the Soviet explosion of a nuke themselves. Thus came about the strategy of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), which ensured that superpower conflict would not occur by hanging the sword of nuclear destruction over whoever resorted to the use of nukes first.
From 1989-1994 the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact fell apart, supposedly meaning the West, and particularly the US won the Cold War. That did not remove the threat of nuclear war however as a diminished Russia kept their nukes and has even continued to upgrade their launch capability. Conventionally Russia may now only be a regional power but their possession of strategic nukes makes them a Great Power still. Russia is not the only country with nukes either. The declared nuclear powers are the US, Britain, France, Russia, and China. India, Pakistan, and North Korea have all entered the club since 1999 with North Korea being the last to enter after testing a nuke in 2006. Israel and possibly South Africa are undeclared powers widely assumed to have nukes and Iran has been pursuing nuclear weapons under the guise of developing an indigenous nuclear power capability since at least the late 1990’s.
In fact, the possession of nukes has been a stabilizing factor preventing Great Power confrontation. The question becomes how do nukes do this? The answer is simple, the threat of retaliation if nukes are used has stopped anybody from using them. Take India-Pakistan for instance, both countries have fought three wars over the disputed Kashmir region since independence in 1949 yet since both became declared nuclear powers in 1999 they have reduced tensions in the region and have worked to settle the issue through negotiations. As discussed in regards to terrorism, the biggest problem with nukes is not that a nation possesses them but the risk that a non-state terror group gets their hands on one. Regardless of how crazy or unstable one may think the leader of a nation is, why would they jeopardize their own survival by using a nuke in the near certain threat of retaliation? Every nuclear armed nation has a vested interest in ensuring that they maintain control of their nukes and prevent them from falling into the hands of others. So far that has occurred but as in picking stocks, past success is not an indicator of future performance. It is conceivable that at some point a nuke will fall into the hands of a non-state group. When/if that happens all bets on the use of nukes are off.
Nukes will prevent Great Power conflict but they do not prevent Great Powers from going to war; just from going to war with each other. There are numerous examples of Great Powers fighting since the end of World War II from Korea, to Algeria, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq. What is significant is that all of these conflicts were in essence regional and the Great Powers expended a lot of effort to keep them that way. From the way in which UN forces pulled back from invading China in 1950 to the way in which the US has generally refused to send ground troops into the Pakistani Tribal areas post-9/11 are examples of this.
Regional wars such as the current conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, sub-Saharan Africa, territorial disputes in the South China Sea, and Ukraine will continue to occur in the future. What gives reason for concern are the regional conflicts with the potential to get multiple Great Powers involved. These are mainly conflicts in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. It is in these areas where all the Great Powers have strategic interests at stake and thus where they are most likely to come into direct conflict. It is my opinion that Europe and Asia are the two most dangerous flashpoints. Europe because the memories of Soviet domination are still fresh in Eastern Europe and many former Soviet satellites are now NATO members and Asia because just about nobody in the region or in the West wants to see China get too powerful. As a matter of fact, it is highly likely that any conflict with China that draws in the US will eventually go nuclear. That is one of the reasons that so much effort is expended in the region to avoid conflict.
All in all however, I believe that global conflict is a thing of the past. That does not mean that it cannot occur, just that is highly improbable and unlikely and that all the potential participants have very, very good reasons to avoid such a conflict. That being said, nobody really wanted a European and globe spanning conflict in July, 1914 either but that is exactly what they got. History is full of examples of large wars that grew from small, seemingly minor events and provocations. Global war is a possibility, just a very small one.
Now, what do I see the likelihood of a new global war being? Here are my cloudy crystal ball predictions.
Short-term-the next 5 years – roughly 0.1% chance of a global war occurring
Medium-term-in 5-15 years – roughly 0.5% chance of a global war occurring
Long-term-more than 15 years from now – roughly 2% chance of a global war occurring (eventually a global war will happen as regional and super regional blocks of the future come into conflict with each other. I just think the likelihood of this is so far in the future that it is essentially unpredictable.)