By, Inung David Ejim
On the 3rd of January, 2020 the United States of America attacked Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, revered/feared by many in the Middle East and recognised as the de facto number 2 person in Iranian leadership. For days following the assassination, the media was saturated with discourse around options for Iranian retaliation and the escalation that could result from that. Following the cooling off of tensions after Iran’s non-fatal (as claimed by the US) missile attacks on American bases in Iraq, I believe the time is appropriate to discuss the question of World Wars, a spectre which many felt was imminent just days ago.
I wish to present a few arguments for why World Wars and their corollary, Total Wars are anachronistic if not obsolete in today’s world.
A World War is a conflict engaged in by most of the principal nations of the world and fought over many areas of the globe. There have been two recorded World Wars, the first from 1914-1918 and the second from 1939-1945. Scholars argue that by the definition provided above, only the second qualifies as a World War for its global theatre, however, by social convention they both are referred to as such and being the two largest conflicts by casualties and variety of actors I believe the designation is warranted. Total War refers to warfare where all resources of state, civilian and otherwise are mobilised for and are legitimate targets of the war effort.
The first reason I believe World Wars are obsolete is the ascendancy of asymmetric and guerrilla combat. With today’s geopolitical reality, the flashpoints and potential source of origins for global conflict are places which have a storied history of and success with asymmetric combat tactics. The Middle East, Eastern Europe/Ukraine and Asia (India-Pakistan, South China Sea, Korean Peninsula, China-Japan) which are the global flashpoints most likely to start a war of global magnitude all have this experience. In combats with inferior resources and great conventional military deficits, groups like the Mujahideen in Afghanistan and the Communist in China, won against their superior foes. Where victory is not won outright, a long drawn out stalemate can be eked out until the loss of public support for the war effort as the FARC Rebels in Colombia and the Taliban in Afghanistan have shown. Thus, it is my belief that any conflict between modern states -say Iran V America-, would soon devolve into such tactics that there’ll be very limited conventional combat with a definite victor as witnessed in previous World Wars. More so, the conflict will be so low intensity and long drawn out as to make it lacking the momentum necessary for global spread.
Next, I believe there is unlikely to be wars of a global conventional kind because of the greater potency and proliferation of nonviolent attack vectors. If the goal of war is to weaken the will, economy and strategic advantage of a state, then the advancement of propaganda tools, cyberattacks and the use of economic sabotage are the best tools for achieving this in the modern era. Take Venezuela as an example. Whilst the United states has not succeeded in overthrowing Nicolas Maduro (yet), they have succeeded in sapping the economic vitality of the nation’s economy and caused a mass displacement of people due to economic privation. Surely, as many have not died as would have had war with or an invasion of the country occurred, but I dare say many of the consequences of this economic sabotage are similar to those of war but at lower costs to the aggressor. Cyberwarfare is another widget in this emergent toolkit. STUXNET, attested by many to be the first deployed cyberweapon was utilised (allegedly) by Israeli and other anti-Iranian interests to infiltrate and sabotage the Iranian Nuclear programme. The equivalent goal being achieved using conventional means would have cost more lives and most likely have led to immediate retaliation and regional conflict escalation. With disinformation campaigns, the world today has another potent attack vector by which states can foment crisis in enemy states, steer political discourse and achieve their goals at an unprecedented scale than ever before. Its no coincidence but an understanding of this power that has pushed many states to invest into owning conventional broadcast outfits like Press TV, CGTN, RT & Aljazeera while investing heavily into artificial intelligence, social media mining and manipulation.
The rise of anti-imperialism and breakdown of uncritical solidarity is the last factor I believe militates against the emergence of another World War. Historically, most of the world had little to no stake in the conflicts between the great powers, but were dragged into the conflicts due to colonial control and disregard of rights of non-Western peoples anyway. Most nations have since gained independence and while neo-colonialism persists across much of the developing world, there has been an increase in opposition to such overt coercion of states. It is my belief therefore that nations will not be commandeered into a global conflict against their interest, debt trap diplomacy or the presence of significant foreign assets regardless. If anything, I believe the tide would turn swiftly against the presence of the belligerent parties’ assets (like military personnel and bases) being in the developing nations. This was witnessed most recently with the vote by the Iraqi parliament to kick out American troops from their country in the wake of the Soleimani assassination. The West is also fragmenting. With Trumpian nationalism being mirrored across the West as evidenced by some nations increasingly building their own capacity for defence despite membership of NATO, there is no longer the certainty that the US would defend its allies in the wake of attacks or that the rest of the West would join in on America’s next war effort. With these factors, future conflicts are very likely to be contained to few countries or a region at most.
With World Wars being less likely, total warfare also diminishes in likelihood. Conflicts that are local/regional are unlikely to deploy the utterly destructive methods of total warfare. The asymmetric battles of the future may have the occasional shocking casualty numbers but will come nowhere close to the 60 million or so lives lost during the second world war.
With all this said, wars are not going away anytime soon. The profit motive for war and the fact that it is still the clearest way to exert control and avert threats available to nations makes this so. We can hope the world has seen the worst examples of this barbarity though and that is progress.