Saudi Arabia vs Iran? US vs North Korea? It’s easy to imagine how either of these conflicts could break out into a major war. But what does world war look like in the 21st century? Would we see direct intervention or are we more likely to see a series of proxy wars, more reminiscent of the Cold War?
Alarmists in the media and in the political realm are quick to exclaim that the world is spiraling towards another major conflict. Conspiracy theorists even go as far as calling it an “extinction event.” With the growing nuclear tensions between the US and the North Korean authoritarian regime and Iran standing accused of arming rebels all over the Middle East, it becomes harder to ignore the possibility of World War III.
War in Asia?
International experts have wondered whether President Trump’s rhetoric against North Korea could actually lead to war. In October, retired four star general Barry McCaffrey stated in an interview with NBC that he believes there is a 51% chance of a full blown war breaking out with North Korea before the summer, “We are actually dealing with a potential outcome by next summer of all-out war – with millions displaced, hundreds of thousands killed and wounded.”
This week, sources close to the White House told the Telegraph that Washington was looking at potential military options in North Korea. Reportedly, President Trump is not looking to engage in a full on war, but to give a show of military might, what sources described as a “bloody nose,” to let the dictator know that the US is serious.
While many are concerned that North Korea now claims they hold ICBMs capable of reaching the entire mainland United States, others warn that an attack on the combative and unstable Kim Jong-un could lead to a full blown nuclear war, dragging the world at best into World War III and at worst back into the Dark Ages.
This situation seems to put the US between a rock and a hard place, so to speak. Although Washington possesses the military power to wipe out the regime, there is no saying what the consequences would be; it is always difficult for sensible men to preempt the actions of a madman. Highly decorated retired-General McCaffrey has emphasized this difficult position:
There are military options, they’re all bad… If we went in with a massive, conventional air and sea attack, aimed at their nuclear capacity, we’d get 95 per cent of it in the first 72 hours.
In November it was reported that the US had deployed some 14,000 near the coast of North Korea for war games with Japan. According to the US Navy, the 10 days of war preparation exercises were “designed to increase the defensive readiness and interoperability of Japanese and American forces through training in air and sea operations.” Does this indicate that the US is actually preparing for war with the communist regime, or is the military simply remaining Semper Paratus?
China, another US rival and an ally of North Korea, has also increased their war readiness. In the past month China has been caught multiple times running reconnaissance planes around the island of Taiwan, which they consider a province in open rebellion rather than a sovereign nation. This too led the international community to wonder whether war could spring up in China, especially considering the US’ recent arms deal to Taiwan and Donald Trump’s approval of a US warship visiting the island, which of course enraged Beijing, leading a spokeswoman to accuse the US of inciting a new Cold War.
In the Middle East?
In a different world arena, regional enemies Saudi Arabia and Iran are currently locked in a proxy war in Yemen, where US allied Saudi Arabia backs the government of their next door neighbor, and Iran is accused of arming the Houthi rebels. The tensions between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran has led many to fear that a World War III scenario is becoming inevitable.
Last week, US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, gave a press conference in Washington DC in which she presented the remains of the missile fired out of Yemen that nearly hit the King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh this past November.
According to Haley and US intelligence, all parts of the weapon were made in Iran, some parts having been made by the defense ministry itself.
Haley did not mince words in underscoring the threat she believes Iran serves to the international order, characterizing Iran as “the next North Korea.” She also highlighted Iran’s role in destabilizing the region saying, “It’s hard to find a conflict or a terrorist group in the Middle East that does not have Iran’s fingerprints all over it.”
Tuesday, Houthi rebels announced that they had fired a ballistic missile meant to hit the Al-Yamama royal palace in Riyadh, to mark the 1,000th day since the Saudi led coalition intervened in the Yemeni civil war. Saudi forces were able to shoot down the missile.
Despite the lengthy war, neither side shows any side of seeking peace. A spokesman for the Houthi rebels told Al Jazeera, “The Saudis started the war. Our response will continue and increase, whether it’s targeting deep inside Saudi Arabia, targeting military positions where Saudi jets fly from, or military bases inside Yemeni territory.” Will their resolve grow to target Saudi allies as well?
The war in Yemen has led to a humanitarian nightmare of starvation, civilian casualties, and epidemics of preventable diseases that perhaps foreshadows the crisis a modern world war would cause. This week, Human Rights Watch, held Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s airstrikes and blockade of Yemen directly responsible for the crisis, calling on the UN to impose sanctions against the prince.
What Would War Look Like?
With the massive advances in military technology in the past few decades, much of the fighting would probably be done via drones and missiles. With North Korea involved in the conflict, there is no saying to what extent there may be nuclear devastation to civilian populations. Add to the equation the possibility of a nuclear capable Iran and the potential is difficult to even contemplate.
However, alarmists must then turn to China. One cannot consider the impact of China without acknowledging the interconnectedness of the Chinese and American economies. How would such a conflict affect the two trade partners? How loud of a voice can business interests be expected to have? This is important to consider even as President Trump amps up his rhetoric against China and seeks to undermine their influence on the American economy.
In the 21st century, the world’s nations are more interconnected than ever before imaginable. Not only are national and regional economies more connected, but people travel more and communicate via social media. In the social media age, it’s more difficult for governments to control the flow of information. Will people allow their leaders to embroil them in another world war? Will governments be able to galvaniz the amount of resentment towards the enemy needed to sustain such an effort?
Ultimately, the most important question to ask is, will the globalized economy function as the 21st century equivalent of mutually assured destruction, or serve as fodder for greater military aggression?