The fear of a third world war has loomed since the end of the Second World War. The Cold War left many people convinced, for years, that the third war was coming at any moment with the potential for it being the last war as the fear of global nuclear annihilation was ever present.
Other conflicts including the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the War on Terror and the escalation of tensions with nations like China, Russia and North Korea have also given rise to fears of a new and terrible Third World War.
Thankfully, the very idea of World War Three is still firmly hypothetical. That doesn’t mean people don’t speculate, however. And there potential for this war could come on a number of fronts. Let’s take a look at what could potentially lead to a Third World War, how it might be different from wars of the past, and what can be done about it.
What Would a Conflict Called World War III Mean?
Both World War I and World War II have involved a large number of nations but by no means all the countries of the world. World War One involved over 30 nations of the world while more than 50 were drawn into the Second World War. Some of these nations joined to help allies, some joined opportunistically and some were forced against their will.
Regardless of the motivations, we can see that a world war is a large-scale conflict that spans the globe even if not in an all-encompassing way. It is chiefly the involvement of multiple nations known to be world powers in terms of military and economic might that set the tone for these wars.
Arguably, a conflict would never rise to the level of a world war in the future if it didn’t involve most if not all of the following nations:
The United States
The United Kingdom
These nine nations are the only known to be in possession of nuclear weapons and as such would likely have the greatest impact on any major global conflict. Likewise, many of these countries are economic and military powerhouses that have, historically, been at the forefront of most of the world’s major conflicts. It makes sense that most if not all would be drawn into the next major global conflict.
With several or all of these countries involved, others would likely become involved later if they were not already, allying themselves with whichever side they found to be more in line with their own goals. Again, traditionally, we have seen lines drawn that clearly separate allies here. The US and Great Britain have been allies for years, along with France and Israel and likely India as well. Russia and North Korea have been allies and China, though more aloof, has shown support for both nations as well. But no one can truly predict where allegiances might fall without knowing the specific cause for such a war in the first place.
What Could Lead to World War Three?
Unfortunately the world has no shortage of tensions and conflicts so the potential for World War III could spark almost anywhere. This is by no means an exhaustive list or even a definite one as any of these conflicts could escalate or resolve at any time. However, these are some of the most tense situations in the world today where a greater conflict seems most likely to occur.
Russia vs Ukraine
As 2023 began, all eyes were on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a potential hotspot that could escalate into something even bigger. With nations such as the US offering aid to Ukraine and NATO ruffling Russian feathers, President Vladimir Putin was not shy about threatening retaliation against any nation he perceived to be against him and Russia.
As Ukraine held out for weeks against the Russian invasion and then months surprising people all around the world, fears also rose that Russia would be willing to take the next step in ending the conflict. For months they had fought Ukraine in a battle of mostly traditional warfare with Russian soldiers on the ground and Russian planes in the air. But Russia is a nuclear superpower with a stockpile of nuclear weapons numbering in the thousands. In fact, Russia has the largest stockpile of nuclear weapons on the planet. The Russia Ukraine war could escalate at any time.
If Russia were to deploy a nuclear weapon in Ukraine then there is a clear understanding that other nations would likely retaliate. Since the end of World War II, no one has used a nuclear weapon in war and the fear of mutually assured destruction was the needle on which the Cold War was balanced. No one wanted to tip the scales. But if it does happen, the potential for an armageddon scenario would soon follow as weapons far more powerful than those used in Japan could be deployed with the ability to span the globe and wipe out literally billions of lives.
Most people believe the escalation to a nuclear weapon is just short of impossible, but the fear does remain. It may be unlikely but because they do have the weapons it’s never truly impossible.
Russia vs NATO
Russia has had a tense relationship with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization for decades now. NATO formed in the aftermath of WWII with the 30 members forming a pact to defend one another in the face of future military engagements if a war were ever to break out again. During the Cold War, NATO played a strong role in maintaining the fragile balance against the Soviet Union.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, NATO and Russia forged their own treaties while the nation did not outright join NATO. For a time it seemed like a peaceful accord was being struck but Russia and NATO butted heads, at least philosophically, many times thereafter during conflicts which saw Russia making aggressive moves against neighboring nations. While 2022 and 2023 saw them in Ukraine, past conflicts pitted Russia against Belarus, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Azerbaijan, Poland, Lithuania and several more. It is Russia’s perceived penchant for initiating or escalating conflicts that has put them at odds with NATO.
In the early 2020s, Russia and NATO split ways dramatically as Russian officials were expelled from NATO nations and in 2022 NATO officially declared the previous arrangements between themselves and Russia as no longer valid. Russia, for their part, has more than once claimed to be at war with NATO.
As tensions continue to rise, the escalation of the war in Ukraine could become a tipping point to push NATO and Russia closer to an all out war themselves. This would effectively put Russia at war with most of Europe as well as the United States.
The Korean Peninsula
The simmering conflict between North Korea and South Korea is decades old and has only gotten worse as the reins of North Korea have passed from Kim Il-sung, who established himself as the first Supreme Leader of North Korea after the country was formed to his son Kim Jong-il and finally to its current leader, Kim Jong-un.
Under Jong-il’s rule in particular the country became extremely isolationist and most stories about the nation were baffling to the point of being silly as we learned from defectors that North Korea children were taught that their leader was born on a mountain, that he was literally the world’s best golfer and that he invented the hamburger.
Silliness aside, there was a dark and sinister truth in North Korea that many of its citizens were starving and that many deemed enemies of the state, often for little to no reason, would be sent to prison camps or even executed outright.
Under the current reign of Kim Jong-un the country has aggressively pursued a nuclear weapons program and has threatened to use them numerous times against both South Korea and the United States. North Korean missile tests are a regular occurrence.
Much of the fear in this conflict stems from the perceived instability of Jong-un, considered a wildcard at best and a madman at worst. His behavior is often erratic and unpredictable and his boastful threats, while so far mostly toothless, could become real with seemingly little provocation.
Even if the conflict begins between only the North and South, if the North uses nuclear weapons, then their neighbors will be forced to retaliate and allies of the both will be drawn in. China, Russia, Japan and the United States would be almost inevitable participants in any conflict that arose and the potential for additional nuclear strikes would be terrifyingly high.
China vs Taiwan
Another of the world’s superpowers, China has long had a conflict with neighboring Taiwan. The conflict dates back to the end of World War Two, when Japan ceded control of Taiwan to the Republic of China. After a civil war, the Republic of China took up residence in Taiwan while the Chinese Communist Party retained control of mainland China.
For years the two countries have butted heads with China, officially the People’s Republic of China, on the side that Taiwan is and always has been China and not a separate nation. Other countries, notably the United States, have expressed solidarity with Taiwan in the past though never in an overt or aggressive way for fear of causing a breakdown in trade with China.
If the situation were to escalate with the People’s Republic taking full military action against Taiwan, then Taiwan could and likely would request aid from allies. That would put the US in a position of having to decide whether to push back against China. The potential for a full blown war could grow from this if neither side is willing to back down.
Because of its proximity to Japan, the Japanese would likely be quickly drawn into any potential conflict. Countries like North Korea and Russia could end up supporting China as well.
Iran vs USA
For some years now, Iran has been pursuing a nuclear program that has been staunchly opposed by the United States. Despite the US’s numerous attempts in the past to destroy or suspend the Iranian nuclear program, many experts have sounded off over the years that the country is still making progress and that the creation of a nuclear weapon is all but inevitable.
Because of Iran’s position in the world and its potential ability to affect oil transportation through the Middle East, there are serious financial reasons for both sides to want to triumph over the other in addition to ideological ones. If global oil prices were to rise as the result of a conflict between Iran and the USA, American allies would likely put pressure on the US to either de-escalate or end the conflict quickly.
The ensuing war would likely include numerous neighboring nations and could take the form of a traditional war or see Iran unleashing proof of its nuclear might on American and allied targets in the area.
Iran vs Israel
Tied up or leading into this potential conflict between Iran and the USA could be an additional war, or an instigating war, between Iran and Israel. Both of these nations have opposed to one another for many years now with smaller conflicts being par for the course.
If Iran’s nuclear program progresses, either side could foreseeably launch a strike against the other as a peremptory attack which would inevitably cause fallout, literally and figuratively to rain down on other nations. Israel has a strong ally in the United States but if Israel and Iran were to engage in nuclear conflict, the battle lines would extend well into other nations, and again, the strong likelihood that NATO, Russia, China and others becoming involved could make this a massive global conflict.
How Would a New War Differ From World War II
World War Two ended over 75 years ago and technology has changed drastically in that time. The most stark and terrifying difference lies in our nuclear capabilities. By the end of World War II, the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima and the world had never seen such devastation before.
Today, the world stockpile of nuclear weapons sits at over 12,000, with the USA and Russia claiming ownership of most of them. Our modern bombs are more powerful than those used in WWI and, in fact, each one can cause devastation that is 20 to 30 times greater than those dropped in WWII on average. But we do have some weapons which are as much as 3,000 times as powerful as those weapons.
In 1961, the Soviet Union tested a bomb called the Tsar Bomb, often touted as the most powerful nuclear weapon in history. This 50.1 megaton weapon, tested in the Arctic Ocean on an abandoned island, was 1,570 times more powerful than the combined might of the bombs dropped on Japan and 10 times more powerful than all the bombs used in WWII combined. It was not the most powerful nuclear weapon in history. It was just the most powerful one tested.
Russia developed three weapons known as AN602 physics packages. The Tsar Bomba was one of these but they had to scale it down before testing. It started at 101.5 megatons. Russia has two of these weapons left that we know of.
Beyond the threat of nuclear weapons, we know that warfare in general has changed greatly. Intercontinental ballistic missiles have the ability to travel the planet meaning neither side in a conflict needs to deploy troops to another region to ensure mutual destruction.
Methods of war are also significantly different. The use of computers and the internet in warfare has altered the landscape of battles. From propaganda to organization to access to infrastructure, countries can be brought to their knees by controlling information and systems attached to networks. One foreign government could potentially shut down the economy of another, their power grid, and more. A global conflict could be fought on many fronts and be far more destructive than past, traditional wars.
The Strength of Past Wars vs What’s to Come
Once upon a time the key to winning a war was just having a bigger army with better training and better equipment. A thousand soldiers with guns would beat a thousand soldiers with swords. A thousand warships beat a thousand sailing vessels. A thousand tanks beat a thousand men on horseback.
Modern conflicts don’t play by the same rules and brute force isn’t always the key to winning. While the US still has the most aircraft carriers in the ocean, for instance, that may be less relevant in future wars because of the technological issues we mentioned already.
In a world in which drone warfare can remove the human element, then carrier warfare is less intimidating to outmatched enemy forces. Likewise, those ICBMs and hypersonic missiles mean that enemy forces don’t need to engage in face to face battle and a target can be wiped out remotely from anywhere on earth. Smaller munitions like tactical nuclear weapons can be deployed to cause isolated destruction without a massive nuclear attack, though there’s no guarantee such a conflict would not escalate to global nuclear war.
Consider how different a battle like the one that took place on D-Day’s Normandy Invasion would be different if it were conducted today. While battleships laid down cover fire, paratroopers were dropped beyond the beach and soldiers came in on Higgins boats, the operation was far from smooth and as many as 9,000 allies died in just 24 hours.
Today, laser guided missiles and munitions would ensure targets were hit with far greater accuracy rather than a nearly random bombardment meant to serve as cover fire. Soldiers could be brought in with helicopter drops behind enemy lines while Apaches and Cobras rain hellfire missiles across strategic targets and Zumwalt-class destroyers fire a range of weapons eliminating the need for an amphibious assault at all.
Bomb drops would be able to take out encroaching enemy forces and systems like GATOR mines could be dropped to prevent enemy movements while Allies set up positions. It’s all hypothetical, of course, but a modern D-Day mission would likely end with far, far less casualties, greater advancement in a shorter time, and heavier losses to the enemy. And none of these even accounts for the drone or cyber attacks that could be going on to topple the enemy infrastructure.
Does a World War Mean a Truly Global Conflict?
As with the two previous world wars, World War III would likely start with one initial conflict between nations that spirals and draws in others. The ways this can unfold are numerous and often they progress slowly. Consider how much progress Germany made during the Second World War before all the Allied Forces were involved.
Germany declared war on Poland at the beginning of September 1939 and within two days the United Kingdom, France and many others responded. The Soviet Union would not join for about two weeks but they declared war on Poland, not Germany. In fact, Germany didn’t declare war on the Soviet Union until 1941. And the United States didn’t join until 1941, either. Hitler had been in power in Germany since 1934. The progression of a World War can be very slow.
Many countries will resist formally declaring or joining a global conflict until they are forced to. It was late in 1945 when many nations formally declared war on Japan and they had been at war with Allied forces, officially, since 1941.
The global landscape of a new war is difficult to predict for so many reasons. No one truly wants to go to war so nations not forced into conflict will be most likely to abstain, in particular nations with smaller armies and technological capabilities as well as those whose economies would be most at risk.
What’s Preventing World War III
A number of factors have kept conflicts over the past 75 years from escalating into a Third World War. One of these we have already touched on and that is the fear of mutually assured destruction.
Mutually Assured Destruction
When the US dropped the atomic bombs in Japan there was no method of retaliation which could hope to meet the scale of what the Americans had done. They had become a nuclear power. The attack was devastating not just in practical terms but psychologically as well. It demonstrated a terrifying advancement in warfare that chilled people around the world to the bone. The possibility had been reached that the human race could annihilate itself.
Much of the Cold War was predicated on the fear of mutually assured destruction and it continues to stay the hand of nations today. Because nuclear arsenals are so powerful the threat to our entire species is staggering. If one nation were to launch a nuclear strike on another, the response would be in kind and both nations, typically understood as the United States and Russia, would wipe each other off the face of the earth. But the destruction these weapons cause would wreak so much collateral damage that all nearby nations would suffer incredible losses right away.
The aftermath of nuclear war include deadly fallout and the potential for changes to global climate typically called global winter.
Today, scientists estimate that if Russia and the US engaged in nuclear war about 360 million people would die almost immediately, which is more than the entire US population. Within two years it’s estimated 10 times more will have died from famine. More than 5 billion would die within those first two years.
About 150 million tons of soot would be thrust into the atmosphere which could black out the skies and destroy crops and animals and spread the famine further. This would also destroy the ozone layer and lead to deadly levels of radiation from the sun as a constant threat for years. The global temperature would also drop significantly. Ocean temperatures would also drop, disrupting the ecosystems for generations to come.
Humanity might survive a nuclear holocaust but only in a general sense. Most people would die and those who survived would face a non-stop struggle in a harsh and unforgiving world. It would likely be hundreds of years if not longer before the world returned to anything like it once was.
Scaling back from total nuclear annihilation, another factor which keeps a true world war at bay is the threat to global economies. Even a non-nuclear war is an unwanted event because of the way it will disrupt a nation’s economy and the fact is, money is a huge motivator for how our world works.
We see how the economics of war affect the world even today as it relates to things like economic sanctions against Russian, or Middle-Eastern nations withholding oil. These non-lethal and not-traditional warfare tactics can have a huge impact not just on affected nations but the world at large. Even now, Russian withholding natural gas has caused economic strife across Europe and even in North America where this has been linked to higher global gas prices.
Alienating one’s allies in a truly global economy is a riskier and riskier endeavor as time goes on. Much of the world economy is linked like a spider web across so many nations that if one country is perceived as being an aggressor in a war, they risk being cut off in much the same way Russia has. Wealthy nations can withstand this treatment for a time, but even the wealthiest nations will succumb over time.
If economic instability becomes a big enough issue then any war runs the risk of collapsing on a second front. While countries wage war with each other, they risk a civil war at home as the people rise up in the face of intolerable conditions. People are only willing and able to exist under harsh conditions when they believe their government is at fault for so long. If people begin to feel that resources are being squandered elsewhere, they may overthrow the government and take control as has happened in a number of countries throughout history.
The fear of a protracted war is one that can keep battles from escalating too far and, in the modern age with information being almost instantly available, people are better able to organize, mobilize and share information. This means countries must either acknowledge the will of their own people, attempt to control the people, or control the narrative with lies and propaganda. Any of these can work but they may not work over the long term and are therefore additional reasons why getting involved in a major conflict may be unwanted.
The Bottom Line
We all hope that there never will be a World War Three but understanding how and why it could happen is valuable. It would be naive to think such a thing could never happen, especially given the levels of strife across the globe already.
If World War III does ever occur, it will be a war very much unlike anything the world has ever seen. The tactics and technology will be so much more intense than what the average person is expecting. It also has the potential to be far more deadly than any previous war in a way that affects civilians like never before all around the world.
There are some factors that are keeping the potential for a Third World War at bay, and only time will tell if they are enough.