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The Next Global War: How Today’s Regional Conflicts Resemble the Ones That Produced World War II

Author: Hal Brands  

Affiliation: Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS)

Organization/Publisher: Foreign Affairs

Date/Place: January 26, 2024/ USA

Type of Literature: Analysis 

Word Count: 3054

Link: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/united-states/next-global-war 

Keywords: The Global War, Regional Conflicts, Revisionist Powers, US Capabilities, World War II Lessons

Brief:

In this article, Brands draws parallels between current regional conflicts and the events that led to World War II to warn about the escalating risks of current global conflict, urging the United States to address its military capabilities and strategic preparedness to face the coming challenges. He reminds us that World War II began as a series of initially loosely connected competitions for primacy in key regions around the world, which later escalated and converged into an all-encompassing global conflict. The same might happen with the current hot rivalries: in Europe, the Russian invasion of Ukraine; in the Middle East, the conflict between Israel and Hamas and the resulting regional instability; and in East Asia, “China’s aggressive actions” especially across the Taiwan Strait.  

 

The article is divided into three parts. In the first part, the author returns to the historical context of World War II. He points out that the global war stated as a gradual evolution of the conflict from three distinct regional crises: “Japan’s rampage in China and the Asia-Pacific; Italy’s bid for empire in Africa and the Mediterranean; and Germany’s push for hegemony in Europe and beyond.” These crises initially had little in common, except illiberal governance and a desire to alter the status quo, and the fascist powers were more often rivals than allies to one another in the late 1930s. 

The author identifies factors that contributed to the gradual merging of regional crises and the formation of rival alliances. First, the fascist powers shared a fundamental similarity of purpose, seeking a transformed global order where the “have not” powers would establish vast empires through brutal tactics, surpassing democracies. Second, a perverse form of interdependence emerged, where instability in one region exacerbated instability in another. For instance, Italy’s humiliation of the League of Nations principles by its aggression in Ethiopia in 1935 paved the way for Hitler’s remilitarization of the Rhineland year later. The third factor was the polarization of the world into rival camps due to programs of extreme aggression by the fascist powers. Germany and Italy formed alliances against Western democracies, and Japan joined in 1940 to deter U.S. interference in its Asian expansion. The three revisionist powers aimed to create a “new order of things” globally. In 1941, this pact pushed President Roosevelt to state, “the hostilities in Europe, in Africa, and in Asia are all parts of a single world conflict.” Ultimately, the Axis powers’ cohesion and escalating aggression forced a broad array of countries into a rival alliance against them. Brands highlights how World War II transformed regional clashes into a global struggle as the United States became involved in conflicts in both Europe and the Pacific.

 

In the second part, Hal Brands draws parallels between the present geopolitical landscape and the 1930s. He emphasizes three major contemporary regional challenges: China’s rapid military buildup in the western Pacific to eject the US from the region, Russia’s war in Ukraine as part of its efforts to reclaim dominance in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet space, and Iran’s involvement in a struggle for regional dominance in the Middle East. The commonalities among these revisionist states are autocratic governance, geopolitical grievances, and a desire to challenge the existing U.S.-led order. Two of these challenges have escalated into active conflicts—the war in Ukraine, a proxy contest between Russia and the West, and the war in Middle East, which might trigger a violent spillover across that vital region. 

The author notes that, similar to the 1930s, the revisionist powers (China, Russia, and Iran) do not always share identical objectives. Despite seeking preeminence in certain regions, they may end up in conflict among themselves if they manage to push the common enemy, the United States, out of Eurasia. For instance, Russia and China both seek preeminence in Central Asia. However, the current strategic partnership between Russia and China is strong. It is similar to the Soviet-German pact of 1939, which enabled the two powers to rampage through Eastern Europe without risking conflict with each other. This partnership has facilitated a focus on their contests with the United States. Furthermore, the war in Ukraine has strengthened the relationship between Russia and Iran, as well as Russia and North Korea, intensifying challenges posed by the revisionist powers. The author underscores the increasing interlinkage of Eurasia’s regional conflicts, with the revisionist powers aiding each other. Despite differences from the 1930s, such as the scale of revisionism and relative peace in East Asia, the author acknowledges the potential for catastrophic conflict. The prospect of a conflict in East Asia, particularly involving Chinese aggression against Taiwan, is considered highly detrimental, potentially leading to a situation with large-scale violence simultaneously occurring in all three key regions of Eurasia. This scenario, while not necessarily a single, all-encompassing world war, could result in a world plagued by interlocking conflicts across vital strategic terrain.

 

The third part outlines a potential nightmare scenario of pervasive Eurasian conflict given the world’s proximity to such a situation and the U.S.’s unpreparedness for it. The author points out to the diminishing capabilities of the U.S. military relative to the numerous and interrelated challenges it faces. The U.S. is currently grappling with simultaneously supporting Israel and Ukraine, with the military and financial demands of these conflicts straining its military capabilities. Brands highlights a shift in Pentagon strategy during the 2010s, moving from a focus on defeating two rogue-state adversaries simultaneously to prioritizing a one-war strategy against a great-power rival, China. While this shift made sense given the demands of a high-intensity conflict, it left the U.S. ill equipped to handle simultaneous threats from multiple revisionist powers.

The defense industrial base, crucial in winning previous wars, has declined due to persistent underinvestment and the broader decline of U.S. manufacturing. The article suggests that the U.S. would face difficulty in mobilizing for a multi-theater war or even sustaining protracted conflict in a single region while supplying allies in others. On the other hand, China’s status as a global industrial powerhouse, particularly in key areas like shipbuilding and microelectronics, could provide it with a crucial mobilization advantage. Consequently, Brands warns that “If war does engulf multiple theaters of Eurasia, Washington and its allies might not win.” The author acknowledges the absence of an obvious, near-term solution to these challenges. While some propose focusing U.S. military power overwhelmingly on Asia, such an approach could have global leadership repercussions. Dramatically increasing military spending, though strategically essential, appears politically challenging. The Biden administration’s current approach involves muddling through conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East with marginal increases in military spending, while hoping China does not become more bellicose.

 

The article concludes by underscoring the disintegrating international scene, emphasizing the need to recognize the eminently thinkable nature of global conflict as the strategic environment deteriorates. The author reminds us by saying: “In 2021, the Biden administration could envision a “stable and predictable” relationship with Russia—until that country invaded Ukraine in 2022. In 2023, U.S. officials deemed the Middle East quieter than at any time this century—just before a devastating, regionally destabilizing conflict broke out. U.S.-Chinese tensions aren’t particularly febrile at the moment, but sharpening rivalry and a shifting military balance make for a dangerous mix. Great catastrophes often seem unthinkable until they happen.”


By: Djallel Khechib, CIGA Research Fellow

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