World War Three is approaching fast, and too few are willing to admit why


Are we on the brink of a third world war? In the age of “peak apocalypse”, it is easy to laugh off such a question. After all, we already find ourselves on permanent pandemic-watch, are besieged daily by predictions of ecological collapse, and drip-fed a diet of dystopian drama by crude Netflix algorithms. But the risk of a global war has surely not been so high since America was locked in an existential battle against the USSR.

Around the world, authoritarian regimes are failing. In an era of global stagnation, their inability to deliver on promises to provide jobs, tackle poverty and grow their middle classes is coming to a head. Paranoid about internal dissent, autocrats thus have a growing incentive to bet the farm on shoring up their power by focusing on external enemies, whether via expansionist regional wars or high-risk existential conflicts against the West.

The fast-moving crisis that has erupted following a drone attack on a US base near Jordan’s border with Syria is a perfect example of our frightening new reality. Although Iran has denied any direct involvement, it is clear that it is deeply implicated in what is merely the latest in a string of Tehran-linked attacks designed to drive the US from the Middle East.

Given the inevitable US response, it begs the question: why would Iran partake in such a reckless escapade in the first place? The point that is often missed in all the usual observations of Iran as a mad, evil fundamentalist regime is that it is also a failing one.

The decline of Iran is among the most extraordinary stories of modern times. It was one of the great ancient civilisations, auspiciously situated at the centre of global trade and presiding over some of the world’s largest oil and gas reserves. But a fossilised and inept theocracy has reduced it to a dumpster fire of a country. Its infrastructure is comparable with that of a war-torn state, half of the population lives in poverty.

As the scale of the mullahs’ national mutilation becomes impossible to conceal, and protest movements grow, the embattled regime has sought to deflect from its failings by doubling down on long-standing ambitions to establish itself as a regional hegemon, creating a “Shia Crescent” that can function both as a defensive sectarian shield against the Sunni and Western infidels and as a focus of imperialistic pride. Becoming a nuclear power is, of course, crucial, to such a vision.

Indeed, the real danger may be not that Iran is becoming genuinely more powerful, but that its leaders know that time is not on their side. True, Tehran is probably only a few years away from building nuclear warheads for ballistic missiles. But as its economy tanks, the regime may suspect that it will become harder for it to justify the cost of the programme to its restive citizens.

This chimes with a pattern that historians have identified throughout history. What previous world wars teach us is that it is not confident and successful countries that start wars, but corroded and schizophrenic ones that both suffer from grandiose delusions and mortal dread of the future.

Today this paradox of the fragile aggressor is playing out not only in Iran, but to an even more terrifying extent in Russia. The Putin regime has spectacularly failed to capitalise on Russia’s inbuilt advantages – not least its embarrassment of natural resources – to raise living standards and create prosperity. Much of the Russian population lives on the brink of destitution, and the country is stuck in an oil trap usually reserved for third-world nations. State predation, creeping monopolisation, cronyism, and a baroque universe of lies have seen the gains from market reforms in the 1990s squandered.

Putin, in response, is attempting to arrest economic and demographic decline and deflect from his failures at home through conquest. While they call her the bear, post-Soviet Russia is more akin to the jellyfish that continues to release devastating toxins into the water after death, its attack cells firing uncontrollably even after decapitation.

Again, what might make Russia even more dangerous is that its window for “recovery”, as envisaged by Putin, is narrowing. If current trends continue then Russia will be a geopolitical minnow within just a few decades, inferior in prowess even to rising Africa powers such as Nigeria.

One might even speculate whether gathering clouds in China could see Beijing flirt with a civilisational war with the West. Xi Jinping’s one-time grand strategy – to maintain exceptional growth rates, largely via a state-engineered investment – has collapsed. He has responded by shifting China towards a military-autocratic model – from the pursuit of the China Dream to a vision of Greater China. His new “military-civil fusion” strategy, which aims to make China the most technologically advanced military power in the world, reflects this pivot.

Nor is the notion that China could raise the risks of a new world war by invading Taiwan unthinkable. Xi knows he may have only limited time to act; while it is believed that, by 2027, Beijing will have military superiority over the US in the Taiwan Strait, given its shrinking population and stagnant economy, it is an open question how long that could last.

The conventional attitude is that, if World War Three arose, it would be by accident. But we should entertain the possibility that autocratic leaders – tortured by the prospect of death in the event of their fall from power – will be willing to pursue survival strategies that, while irrational to us, appear deeply rational to them. They may pose a threat to human survival on par with, say, inadequately secure pathogen labs or the uncontrolled evolution of AI.

The risk is amplified in an era when rogue dictators genuinely think that they can win. As it moves to a “strike-first” nuclear doctrine, Russia is increasingly convinced it has an advantage in the event of nuclear war. The Iran regime, having weathered a generation of isolation, could well be suffering from “survival arrogance”.

The West, if it is to contain the authoritarian threat, will have to make use of what is a perilous trump card of its own: its own unpredictability, inherent in being democracies. From the normalisation of relations with China in the 1970s, which blindsided the Soviet Union, to the surprisingly robust response to the invasion of Ukraine, the West is feared by its enemies because they can never quite know what it will do next. It may have to roll the dice once more to maintain its supremacy.

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