Ever since the end of World War II, politicians and analysts have been worrying about World War III. There were times during the Cold War when we seemed to come close, never more so than during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Fortunately, most of the Cold War consisted of mutual superpower hostility without direct military confrontation among the superpowers themselves, particularly after the near miss in Cuba. Once nuclear weapons began to enter the arsenals of more nations, both during and after the Cold War, the risks of triggering World War III escalated even more. But it didn’t happen. The United States has been cautious and smart on this, but it has also been lucky.
The path to world war, however, may not be obvious, even when we’re right on it. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is a violation and a blatant challenge to a fundamental element of the international system: the territorial integrity of states and the rejection of allowing borders to be altered by force. The strong NATO response to the February 2022 invasion is justified. NATO is supporting a sovereign state, a democracy, and a country whose interests have become increasingly aligned with most other European nations, against an authoritarian regime that has brought the biggest war to Europe since 1945. The significant response by NATO, with severe economic sanctions against Russia and the delivery of huge volumes of sophisticated military equipment to Ukraine, demonstrates the significance of Russia’s threat, though it also brings Russia and NATO increasingly closer to potential direct military engagement.
On the other side of the world, President Xi Jinping of China has his eyes fixed on Taiwan, with the aim of returning it to the control of China. At the same time, China declared only weeks prior to the start of the war in Ukraine that its friendship with Russia would know “no limits,” and it is now apparently considering providing lethal aid to Russia for its war on Ukraine. Top U.S. officials have urgently warned China against such a move. In this context, it seems sensible to at least consider that the world may now be on the path toward a war that nations have long sought to avoid.
The U.S. Intelligence Community alluded to the risks of broader conflict this week in its Annual Threat Assessment, saying, “Strategic competition between the United States and its allies, China, and Russia over what kind of world will emerge makes the next few years critical to determining who and what will shape the narrative perhaps most immediately in the context of Russia’s actions in Ukraine, which threaten to escalate into a broader conflict between Russia and the West.”
The die is about to be cast in Ukraine. Another year of Russia’s massive, indiscriminate, and constant missile and artillery attacks against civilians, cities, and infrastructure, and there may be little of Ukraine left to save. Russia has been sending hundreds of thousands more soldiers into the war as part of a new offensive, while Ukraine prepares for its own offensive actions. Through all this, the United States and its NATO allies have gradually become far more involved in the war. They are providing direct targeting assistance to Ukraine’s forces, as well as intelligence, training on new weapons systems, and the Patriot missile defense system to better protect Ukraine against Russia’s missile attacks. Most notably, for the planned Ukrainian offensive, a plethora of more lethal weapons, including large numbers of NATO battle tanks – the weapon at the heart of the European theater in World War II – are about to enter the fray to try and oust the Russians from Ukraine.
Boots on the Ground?
The question remains whether Ukraine can prevail in this war without direct U.S. and NATO involvement, including “boots on the ground.” Such action would mean direct military engagement between two nuclear armed states, but the stakes involved seem to indicate in that direction. Both NATO and Ukraine have come to see this war as the front line in the protection of Europe and the defense of liberal democracy worldwide. At the same time, the Russian government speaks about the war as vital to its own survival, and part of a larger project of reasserting Russian hegemony in Eastern Europe and Central Asia to protect its traditional sphere of influence, while also seeking to undermine Western democracies and the NATO alliance.
Meanwhile, in Asia, China has repeatedly launched missiles into the Taiwan Strait (a number of them flew when then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan in August 2022). China’s military conducts live-fire exercises near Taiwan, and its planes and ships often cross the median line – the unofficial border in the Strait. Moreover, Xi’s rhetoric suggests he favors taking action on Taiwan sooner rather than later, and he has stated that China can achieve unification with Taiwan “without a doubt.”
China’s actions and strategy of intimidation toward Taiwan are the biggest, but not the only, concern in Asia. China’s many border disputes with Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines, its territorial claim of uninhabited islands and atolls in the South China Sea, its subsequent buildup and development of military assets on these islands, and its view that Chinese territorial waters extend well into the South China Sea to the “nine-dash line,” all further confirm the belief that China seeks hegemony, through military action if necessary.
Ultimately, the fear in the West is that China’s goal is twofold: to overtake and eclipse the United States and the West in economic and military power while ensuring its own dominance; and also to overturn the existing liberal internationalist rules-based global order with one dominated by authoritarian regimes whose partnership has “no limits.” As the Intelligence Community noted in its assessment, “While Russia is challenging the United States and some norms in the international order in its war of territorial aggression, China has the capability to directly attempt to alter the rules-based global order in every realm and across multiple regions, as a near-peer competitor that is increasingly pushing to change global norms and potentially threatening its neighbors.”
Just as it has affirmed its resistance to Russian aggression in Europe, the United States has also grown increasingly confrontational toward China, particularly in the Trump and Biden administrations. With respect to Taiwan, the United States commitment to the island since 1979 has been geared toward maintaining the status quo of “one China, two systems.” However, President Joe Biden said in 2022 that American forces would defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion. The White House issued a clarification soon after this, saying the president’s statement did not indicate a change in U.S. policy toward Taiwan, but context matters. In a time of growing international conflict and tension, an American president publicly stated that the U.S. would be prepared – even if only under certain circumstances — to engage in direct military action against China, another country with nuclear weapons. In addition, there are U.S., British, and French military deployments throughout the Indo-Pacific region, including in Japan, South Korea, Australia, and the Philippines. There are even a handful of U.S. military personnel in Taiwan, and perhaps a next step may be to deploy an even larger number of U.S. forces in Taiwan in an attempt to prevent a Chinese attack.
Rhetoric Toward Great Power War
This looks like a world in which the great powers are increasingly moving toward war against one another. Both Russia and China have publicly stated their friendship with one another, and they have made clear their differences with the United States and their willingness to act on those differences. Putin stated on the first anniversary of his 2022 invasion of Ukraine that “The U.S. and NATO openly say their goal is to see Russia’s strategic defeat…It’s they who have started the war. And we are using force to end it.” Meanwhile, China has stepped up its rhetoric. Xi went so far as to name the United States directly, which Chinese officials usually avoid, saying that “Western countries led by the United States have contained and suppressed us in an all-round way.” And China’s new foreign minister, Qin Gang, said in his first news conference that “If the U.S. side does not put on the brakes and continues down the wrong path, no amount of guardrails can stop the derailment and rollover into confrontation and conflict.”
Meanwhile, the view from the United States is that in both Europe and Asia, the more vulnerable democratic states of Ukraine and Taiwan see their very existence threatened by larger, more powerful, aggressive, authoritarian states. To that end, in both places, the United States and its allies have taken action to protect the smaller states and challenge the larger ones by supplying arms and moving their own military forces into new positions.
This is a dangerous path for the United States to take, but one that is necessary. The lessons of the 20th century suggest that aggressors who invade their neighbors, eradicate existing governments, and take territory by force do not become satiated over time. Rather, they become more powerful and more emboldened, continuing to threaten others, and they become more difficult to challenge and defeat. Therefore, the defense of Ukraine and the fortification of Taiwan are essential to prevent further dangers.
Most importantly, no matter what occurs, or how fierce the fighting becomes, all confrontation must be kept non-nuclear. Deterrence must not break down. If it did, obviously the result would be far beyond the ordinary meaning of catastrophic. U.S. and allied leaders, diplomats, and soldiers must draw on all their tools, including financial and military aid, to ensure the freedom and security of those resisting aggression, find a way to end the war in Ukraine, and prevent future hostilities.
It is important to sharpen our attention toward the immense crisis that threatens global security. Russia and China are authoritarian governments, loosely aligned with one another, increasingly despotic, and increasingly arrayed against market democracies. They have also been disconcertingly vocal in their views that conflict can serve their ends. Their attitudes and actions toward Ukraine and Taiwan not only are troublesome and dangerous in the present, they also portend additional conflict in the future. There are too many signs to ignore, so it would be wise to not only hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.
This would ideally include greater unity at home, in contrast to the domestic disputes that currently dominate American politics. To that end, the bipartisan action of the U.S. House of Representatives to overcome acrimonious finger-pointing and vote unanimously to condemn China for sending a surveillance balloon across sovereign U.S. territory was a welcome first step. There must be many more such acts of unity, not only in the United States, but globally among NATO, the West, and democracies everywhere. This will be a work in progress with uncertain outcomes, as many countries around the world, including democracies such as India, have not sought to restrain Russia, but have instead sat on the sidelines by abstaining from U.N. votes to support Ukraine or have even increased their trade and interactions with Russia.
Democracy’s chances in the world have not always seemed to be a sure thing. It has found itself on the defensive, particularly in the period from the 1920’s through World War II, when the Great Depression, the rise of fascism, and global war threatened all. But it prevailed then, and with strong and vigilant action, it will prevail now.