Why you should care
Because Cold War fears are back in style.
Even in the 1990s, during my days at Chicago’s St. Barnabas Elementary, what all of us kids assumed to be laughable Cold War civil-defense safety training became a quarterly routine. The drill was one of those things that’s now burned into memory. When the peculiar alarm — much harder to ignore than a basic fire alarm — would suddenly sound, entire classrooms of children were ushered single file into the basement cafeteria. There we would kneel on the floor, lined up against a wall away from the windows (always away from the windows!), bent over with our heads in our laps, struggling to figure out why the hell any of this was taking place.
After September 11, 2001, the drills made a little more sense, but the methods still felt out of touch. What could possibly impact us all the way in flyover country? The answer was more feeling than fact: adults’ unshakable sense of dread. Today, the threat of terror attacks has united with the looming fear of something worse — a thought absent many minds since the end of the Cold War. North Korea is the primary nuclear instigator these days, but there’s enough global instability these days to make anyone want to crouch in the corner of the cafeteria.
While you wouldn’t guess it from watching the news, Oxford University professor Max Roser and others have argued that we are living in the most peaceful era in the history of humanity. But is this all just a 70-year anomaly? Is World War III inevitable?
Forecasting World War III requires a long view. As Dr. John Scales Avery, head of the Danish Peace Academy, writes in the Cadmus Journal, the seeds were sown decades ago: “There is no doubt that the founders of nationalism in Europe were idealists; but the movement that they created has already killed more than 60 million people in two world wars, and today it contributes to the threat of a catastrophic third world war.”
While nationalistic North Korean leader Kim Jong-un loves thermonuclear smack talk with President Donald Trump, and Russian cyberwarfare is the hottest topic in Washington, it might be best to take a look at the United States-China relationship when pondering a third cataclysm. Harvard government professor Graham Allison has written about the “Thucydides Trap”: In 12 of 16 historic cases, when a rising global power threatens to push past an existing power, the result has been war.
The result may not look like a mushroom cloud. Electromagnetic pulse attacks, chemical warfare and the unknowns surrounding artificial intelligence mean the next big war — if it happens — will not resemble anything we’ve seen before. Perhaps Albert Einstein summed it up in 1949 when he said: “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”