World War III?

By Adm. James Stavridis, Dean Emeritus of The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, and Elliot Ackerman

Four scenarios from former NATO commander Admiral James Stavridis and Elliot Ackerman, decorated Marine veteran, on how it could happen.

Last year, we published 2034: A Novel of the Next World War, in which an altercation in the South China Sea between the U.S. and Chinese navies quickly escalated into nuclear war. 

Looking around the world today—with Russia threatening to use a nuclear weapon in its war against Ukraine; Chinese military drills in the Taiwan Straits; the Iranian regime facing ongoing civil unrest; and North Korea firing a ballistic missile over Japan for the first time in half a decade—we’ve lately wondered whether we should have titled our book 2024

The explosion Tuesday in a Polish village near the border with Ukraine—which authorities have concluded was a Ukrainian air-defense missile gone awry as opposed to an errant Russian missile strike, as first reported—leant this wondering greater urgency. Poland is in NATO and an attack on any member of the alliance is viewed as an attack on all members under Article 5 of the NATO charter. 

It doesn’t help that America, which spent the better part of the past two decades engaged in the 9/11 wars, is becoming increasingly isolationist—or at least Americans are. People are exhausted by war. They are understandably disenchanted with the strategic missteps of elites and experts. They are suspicious of the half of the country that votes for the other guy. And they—we—are easily seduced by ideologues of all stripes. 

2034 was never intended as a predictive work but rather as a speculative one. We didn’t plan on saying what would happen, but rather how the worst could happen. 

It’s worth engaging in a similar speculative exercise now. This type of imaginative—or dystopian—work is something often done in the U.S. military through war games that plot out such scenarios move by move. One of us spent eight years in the Marine Corps, fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. The other is a retired four-star admiral. We have a fairly good idea of what such war games look like.

Nuclear War: How It Could Happen With Russia

A successful Ukrainian counteroffensive that began in September has forced Russian forces to retreat, with Ukraine having reclaimed territory in the northeast and southeast lost early in the war. Vladimir Putin’s initial strategy—a combination of economic blackmail in Europe and a low-scale special military operation meant to insulate Russians from the war’s costs—has faltered. Ukrainian overperformance on the battlefield, combined with Russian incompetence, has left Putin with a narrowing set of options. 

In such a scenario, the Russian military, according to its doctrine, would employ a strategy of escalate to de-escalate. The idea is straightforward: dramatically escalate from conventional to nuclear weapons with the goal of shocking one’s enemy into quickly suing for peace. It is a philosophy of warfare that differs fundamentally from our own, and that’s designed for a nation, like Russia, with a nuclear capability that far exceeds that of its conventional forces. 

Ominously, on October 27, Putin made unfounded claims that Ukraine was preparing to use a “dirty bomb”—a conventional weapon that, like nuclear weapons, distributes radioactive material. Those comments were part of a disinformation campaign conducted by Russia, which has itself used such weapons. 

If the war in Ukraine goes nuclear, there’s a good chance a dirty bomb will be the first rung on this ladder of escalation. Russia’s false accusation against Kyiv, far from being a call for ratcheting down the violence, should be seen as a sign that Russia intends to ratchet up the violence—that it’s trying to justify its future use of a nuclear weapon. If that were to pass, it would break a nuclear taboo that’s existed since the end of World War II.

War at Sea: How It Could Happen With China

Tensions in the Taiwan Strait haven’t been this high in decades. Through freedom of navigation patrols, the U.S. and its allies assert the neutrality of these waters by driving our warships through them. The Chinese consider the 110-mile-wide strait territorial waters and have objected to these patrols for years. If you’re looking for a spark that would ignite a Sino-American war over Taiwan, the South China Sea, which includes the strait, is the place to watch.

What would a Chinese invasion of Taiwan look like? Of course, it would have a naval component. But it wouldn’t simply be a rehashing of World War II’s D-Day landings. The invasion of Taiwan would have a significant asymmetric component as well. Chinese sleeper cells would activate in major cities like Taipei. Those sleeper cells, along with Chinese commandos, would move to seize critical infrastructure. Speed would be essential, as meaningful reinforcements wouldn’t be coming from right across the border (as was the case in Ukraine) but from across the strait. And, unlike the Russians, the Chinese military has been modernizing for decades, so it would be  less likely to underperform. 

Bear in mind that, while we were fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria, the Chinese navy became the largest in the world. The resulting naval war would be of a scope not seen in 80 years. It would draw in our regional allies, such as Japan, South Korea, and Australia. The outcome would not only determine the future of Taiwan but the entire Pacific. 

Assassinations and a Botched Missile Test: How the Former Could Happen With Iran and the Latter with North Korea

It’s the unpredictability of both nations that makes them such dangerous actors in our highly combustible world. It’s often said that Russia has become a gas station with a nation attached to it. If so, North Korea and Iran are Russia’s pals who like to smoke cigarettes next to the pumps. 

In the two months since Mahsa Amini’s death in the custody of Iranian police, the regime has been rocked by the most significant protests in a decade. Although it is far from out the door, a cornered regime is one that’s much more susceptible to miscalculation. 

Iran, long a state sponsor of terrorism, engaged in a plot to assassinate senior American officials earlier this year. Hatred of America has long proven a galvanizing force in Iran. The regime, out of desperation, could precipitate a crisis with the United States. A simple way to do this would be to assassinate a U.S. official. Our retaliation, if clumsily handled, could allow the regime to rally the Iranian people around a besieged flag. It might also lead the Iranians to accelerate their nuclear weapons program, something a nuclear-armed Israel would not tolerate. 

Meanwhile, North Korea, which is also predictable in its unpredictability, has conducted six consecutive nuclear tests this year. One of those tests sent a ballistic missile sailing over Japan. It isn’t yet clear whether it was intentional (or whether intentionality makes the occurrence more or less terrifying). 

The United States, Japan, and South Korea recently declared there would be an “unparalleled” response if North Korea chooses to conduct a seventh nuclear test. It’s unlikely that an “unparalleled” response would consist of direct military action, but if an errant North Korean missile crashed into South Korea or Japan, killing a significant number of its citizens, it’s difficult to imagine a response that wouldn’t involve some military action. 

Would the Chinese tolerate military action against their North Korean ally? In 1950, the answer was no, and the United States fought a war against the Chinese and North Koreans alongside our South Korean allies. China is now a global power. If they were to come in on the side of the North Koreans against our allies in the Pacific, this would likely escalate to a world war.

Domestic Conflict: The Greatest Threat

The single greatest national security threat faced by our nation isn’t any of the above. 

It’s our own dysfunction. 

Shortly after completing 2034, we were asked to plan a sequel. We had just been through the speculative exercise of imagining a war with China, but when asked to imagine the next great threat America could face, the answer seemed obvious. We live in an era of unimaginable polarization and tribalism. Some of us hate fellow Americans who do not vote the way we vote more than sworn enemies of America. 

The recent midterm elections, which came off without much protest, are some cause for relief. But countless Americans are now inclined to view the president, no matter who he or she is, as illegitimate—simply because that president hails from the opposing party. We should all fear the day when a vast majority of Americans cannot agree on who the rightful commander in chief is. All international what ifs pale in comparison to this domestic what if, and if we’re not careful, we could become our own worst-case scenario.

This piece is republished from Common Sense.

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