Why it’s too late to stop World War 3 – according to one of Britain’s greatest military historians

Can Iran create nukes? Will China invade Taiwan? As the world tilts towards global conflict, we are asking the wrong questions

Richard Overy, 23 June 2024 • 1:00pm

Imagine, for a moment, that the Iranian government ann­ounces it has developed a nuc­lear bomb and threatens to use it on Israel. The United States reacts with the threat of military intervention, as it did in 1991 and 2003 in Iraq. Iran signals that it will not tolerate a third Gulf war and looks for allies. American forces mass to enter Iran, which orders national mobilisation. Russia, China and North Korea express their support for Iran, and Washington expands its intervention force, bringing in a British contingent. Russia enters the game, raising the stakes in the expectation that the West will back down. A nuclear standoff follows, but with tense and itchy fingers on both sides, as leaders gamble on the risk of not striking first, it all ends in disaster. The Third World War begins with an exchange of nuclear fire, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Or picture this: Chinese frustration over the status of Taiwan prompts a build-up of invasion forces. The United States is pre­occupied with its own domestic political crisis. Japan anxiously watches the exchange of harsh words between China and Taiwan, wondering whether to intervene. The United Nations condemns Chinese actions, and China repudiates the censure and orders invasion, confident that a quick victory will prevent others from intervening, as Hitler hoped when he invaded Poland in 1939. The United States now activates contingency plans to save Taiwan, and each side uses tactical nuclear weapons against the other’s armed forces. North Korea and Russia side with China. There is no general nuclear strike, but Russia warns Europe to keep out, dividing American strategy between the two theatres, as it was in the Second World War. The conflict continues to escalate.

Now let’s consider a totally different kind of global conflict. The growing division between the democratic West and the arc of authoritarian states across Eurasia has entered a dangerous new chapter. Neither side wants to risk outright war, but there is a possibility that destroying satellite communications will undermine the military and economic capability of the other side. Without warning, the West’s satellite communication ­system is attacked and massive damage is done to its commercial and military electronic networks.

No one claims to have launched the missiles, but, in the chaos that follows, blame is quickly directed at anti-Western states. Retaliation is difficult to mount with the collapse of communications. Uncertain what to do, military mobilisation is ordered across the Western world, but Russia and China demand that it ceases. As in 1914, the wheels, once set in motion, are hard to stop, and the crisis grows. Welcome to the First Space War.

These three scenarios are poss­ible, though not one of them, I should make clear, is probable. ­Predicting – more accurately, imagining – the wars of the future can produce dangerous fantasies that promote anxiety over future security. It is likely that even the most plausible prognosis will be wrong. The development of nuclear weapons has substantially changed the terms of any future global conflict. There are no doubt contingency plans prepared by armed forces everywhere to meet a range of possibilities that might otherwise be regarded as fanciful in the real world. And while history may help us to think about the shape of a future war, the lessons of history are seldom learnt.

Yet the question of how a third world war might erupt haunts us today more than at any time since the end of the last world war. The very act of guessing is proof of our expectation that warfare of some kind remains a fact in a world of multiple insecurities. Conflicts in Ukraine, Gaza, Myanmar and Sudan are a reminder of that ever-present reality. And regular threats from Russia about using nuclear weapons suggest that our fantasies may not be so wide of the mark after all.

Perhaps, in attempting to forecast the outbreak of a future war, we should ask another question: Why do we make war at all? War has been a characteristic of almost the whole of recorded history, and warlike violence preceded the establishment of the first states. Why human beings have developed belligerency alongside their capacity for social cooperation remains a fundamental question.

It is a puzzle with which the human ­sciences have wrestled for much of the 20th and 21st centuries. For evolutionary biologists and psychologists, warfare was a means for early man to ensure survival, protect kin and cope with ecological crisis. No human biologist now argues that violence is in our genes, but early hominins, organised in small bands of hunter-gatherers or fishers, almost certainly used violence to protect against intruders, secure resources and food, and on occasion to act as predators on neighbouring communities. The resort to violence as one of the elements in the survival kit of early man became psychologically normative, as well as biologically useful. On this reading, bell­igerence is something deeply embedded in human development.

Yet this view is challenged by the other sciences, which see warfare as a phenomenon associated with the development of settled cultures and political systems, whether tribe, proto-state or state. By 10,000 years ago, there is no doubt that something resembling warfare emerged worldwide, evidenced in the archaeological record of weapons, iconography and fortifications.

Warfare was not like modern war, organised in mass armies and supplied by military industries, but took a variety of forms: a deadly raid, a ritual encounter, or a massacre, such as the Nataruk killings, dating to the 9th century BC: the remains of men, women (one of them pregnant) and children unearthed from this site near Kenya’s Lake Turkana show the victims were clubbed and stabbed to death.

It was evidently not necessary to have a state to engage in violence, as the tribal warfare observed in the past few hundred years has demonstrated, but war did mean the emergence of a warrior elite and a culture in which warfare was valorised and endorsed: the Spartans, the Vikings, the Aztecs. There have been very few cultures in which warfare has not played a part, usually a central part, in the life of the community. In the historic period of states, from about 5,000 years ago, there are no examples where warfare was not accepted practice.

This says little about why wars are waged in the archaic past or the present. Wars are always waged for something, whether it is pleasing the gods by seizing captives to ­execute or sacrifice, or coveting resources, or wars for belief, or extending power over others, or in the search for heightened security, or simply a war of defence against a predator. This mix of motives has remained remarkably constant.

The seizure of resources is an obvious motivation for war, an explanation that extends from the ancient Romans as they destroyed enemy cities and grabbed slaves and treasure and exacted tribute, to the Japanese forces in 1942 when they captured the oil and raw mat­erials of South-east Asia needed for waging further war. Wars for belief also span millennia, from the Muslim conquests of the Middle East and North Africa in the early Middle Ages, and the age of Christian cru­sades that followed, to the current jihad campaigns of militant Islam.

Security, as Thomas Hobbes famously recognised in his Leviathan of 1651, is always at risk in an anarchic world where there is no single common power to enforce it. Frontiers are a touchstone of security fears and lack of trust, as the wars in Ukraine and Gaza illustrate today. But the long Chinese frontier with the steppe nomads and the vast frontier of the late Roman empire were also sites of constant encroach­ments, defensive battles and punitive expeditions. 

Pursuit of power is perhaps the most common explanation for war – particularly popular with political and social scientists. Power Transition Theory, pioneered at the height of the Cold War, sees a constant race between major hegemonic powers as one tries to exceed the power of the other. The race, so it is argued, might end in war as a declining power seeks to protect its position, or a rising power seeks to replace it. At one time, the theory was applied to the United States and the Soviet Union, but they never went to war against each other; now it is applied to possible war between the United States and China, which has become a favourite scenario for those predicting 21st-century conflict. Yet it is a ­theory that works poorly. The two world wars began with a major power picking on a lesser one – ­Serbia in 1914, Poland in 1939 – and then dragging other powers into the maelstrom. That might indeed happen with Taiwan, as it is already happening with Ukraine.

Power works best as an explanation when history turns to the individuals who drove themselves to become the great conquerors, men whose raw ambition mobilised ­support from their people for unlimited conquest – Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, Napoleon, Hitler. This is hubristic power based on arrogant self-belief and it usually evaporates with the death or defeat of the leader. But so long as they lead, and there are people willing to follow, war is unlimited and destructive on a vast scale. This is the most dangerous and unpredictable explanation for the persistence of warfare and it covers the whole historical record. It is one of the surest indications that war still has a future as well as a long past.

The wars of the future draw on a grim heritage. The fact that peace would seem to be the rational option for most humans has never been able to stifle the urge to fight when it seems necessary, or lucrative, or an obligation. And that heritage is the chief reason it is possible to imagine a future war. After the end of the Cold War, there was once a fashion for saying that war was obsolete – if only that were so, we might now live in a world without weapons and fear. While few would actively seek the Third World War, few envisaged or wanted the other two. The sad reality is that our understanding of why wars occur has so far contributed little to setting warfare aside as an enduring element in human affairs.

Why War? (Pelican, £22) by Richard Overy is published on June 27