Thursday, July 18, 2024

Azu Ishiekwene: Is World War III coming?

Global institutions expected to keep the fragile balance for peace have almost all broken down, and all five veto-wielding members of the UN have gone rogue.

• April 18, 2024

This was the question a friend of mine in his late 20s asked me when we woke up on April 14 to the news that Iran had launched over 300 drones and missiles towards Israel.

Apart from video war games, the young man has not seen any wars. Nigeria’s civil war ended nearly two and a half decades before he was born. Of course, you don’t have to experience war to feel it. There’s a sense, for example, in which the more recent wars in the West African subregion or the more distant ones in Northeastern Africa or Europe tend to reach us, wherever we are. 

Our televisions and phones bring the horrors of war right into our living rooms. A generation for which these smart devices have become a playground is right to be concerned that the flare-up in the Middle East could lead to something more serious. 

Apart from the war in Ukraine and the underreported conflicts in South Sudan and Central Africa, no other war in recent times has riveted the world like the one in Gaza. For all the talk about the potential escalation into a wider regional conflict, it didn’t seem likely that the Israeli-Palestinian war would spread beyond shadow attacks by Hezbollah and other Iranian proxies, until Israeli air strike killed seven Iranians in the Iranian embassy in Damascus and six Syrians.

An unusual response

That was when the threat of escalation became real. Not even during the Yom Kippur War in 1973, did Iran, a regional power, take a direct aim at Israel the way it did in its revenge attack on April 14. If half the drones and missiles aimed at Israel had hit their target, Israel would be reeling from a devastation worse than anything that happened on October 7. The world might have been a different place today.

It may be convenient to dismiss concerns about a possible outbreak of a Third World War as far-fetched and perhaps even childish. Yet, remembering a few of the things that led to two world wars might help us not to take too much for granted. 

The immediate cause of WWI, for example, was the murder in Sarajevo of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a Serbian nationalist, prompting the Austro-Hungarian empire, supported by Germany, to declare war on Serbia. Russia, Serbia’s ally, joined. It wasn’t long before Germany declared war on Russia and invaded France, drawing Britain into the war.

Of course, the murder of the Archduke may have been the tipping point, but a web of other factors also contributed, from the competition for territories and economic rivalries to militarism and from the unstable alliances to the crisis in the Balkans. The Sarajevo murder was only the last straw. 

Rules-based system

God knows just how many more straws before we reach another breaking point. We like to think that we have a rules-based system, that the world is wiser today, restrained as much by competing interests as it is by the assurance of mutual destruction. 

The two world wars claimed the lives of a population nearly the size of Ethiopia’s 120 million and left millions more ruined forever. And yet, since the last two years we have seen, starting from the Russia-Ukraine war, traces that the world is going mad again.  

If by the death of one man – the Archduke – the world descended into chaos, was it irrational to fear that Israel’s killing of 13 people, including seven Iranians in Iran’s embassy in Damascus and the destruction of the embassy was sufficient to spark a wider regional conflict? Has anything really changed or the world learnt anything new 110 years after WWI?

Fewer warmongers?

Some studies suggest so. One interesting study, for example, points to demographics as a good predictor of civil conflicts. The study, famously called the “youth bulge” suggests a strong correlation between countries prone to civil conflicts and those with fast-growing youth populations. So, the older the population, the theory goes, the less likely its appetite for a hot war.

It suggests that in spite of the sabre-rattling in the world’s former war-mongering capitals – Washington, Berlin, London, Paris, Tokyo and Moscow – the dominance of older, wealthier populations in these countries combined with concerns about managing their ageing populations have reduced their appetite for war. 

A few, like the U.S., Britain and France, may press the world to the edge of a frenzy with the sort of disgraceful complicity seen in the Middle East. But just before madness finally takes over, the theory argues that the leadership in countries with older, wiser populations would dial back and make the kind of last-minute call to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that saves the world for another day.

There have also been those, like foreign affairs columnist Jonathan Power, who argue that in spite of the Russia-Ukraine war, the war in Gaza, and the under-reported deadly conflicts in South Sudan and Yemen, the world has never been at greater peace with itself than it is. 

Although Ukraine is not too far from becoming a meat grinder and the death toll in Gaza has topped 32,000 (minus hundreds unaccounted for), studies suggest that thanks to the better angels of our nature, there has been a reduction in battle deaths per 100,000 in state-based conflicts since the Second World War.  

Spells of peace

War historians say that outside the Pax Romana, and the Golden Age of Islam, the post-World War II era is probably the most peaceful time in world history. 

A number of other reasons have also been given why a Third World War is improbable. It’s believed that the end of colonialism, the prioritisation of human rights, the general rise in global prosperity/literacy, and particularly the establishment of the United Nations have accounted for the longest spell of peace in human history and might yet keep the world from descending into another catastrophic war.

Maybe – and that’s a big maybe. The safeguards of our sanity are already fraying at the edges and we may just have entered a violent new era. 

If, after 77 years, Israel would still not accept the UN’s two-state solution to the problem in Palestine, preferring instead to kill over 30,000 Palestinians in pursuit of the last Hamas, if recourse to the International Criminal Court (ICC) cannot restrain Israel from the widespread carnage in Gaza; if the US, Britain and France will veto the UN’s condemnation of the attack on the Iranian embassy in spite of the significant casualties – a crime they would not accept if it had been done to them; if the U.S. keeps showing by its conduct that might is right, then the world is not too far from another world war.

Global institutions expected to keep the fragile balance for peace have almost all broken down, and all five veto-wielding members of the UN have gone rogue: Russia in Ukraine; China in Taiwan; and the U.S., Britain and France in the Middle East, and indeed anywhere else they please in pursuit of their strategic interests.

To continue to ignore the impotence of and disdain for the global institutions supposed to preserve peace and still believe that nothing would happen, is foolish and dangerous.

Ishiekwene is Editor-in-Chief of LEADERSHIP

We have recently deactivated our website's comment provider in favour of other channels of distribution and commentary. We encourage you to join the conversation on our stories via our Facebook, Twitter and other social media pages.

More from Peoples Gazette

Katsina State


Katsina youths pledge to deliver over 2 million votes to Atiku

“Katsina State is Atiku’s political base because it is his second home.”

Tinubu and Ajaero


Tinubu, NLC, TUC agree on N70,000 minimum wage

President Bola Tinubu’s government, NLC and TUC have agreed on N70,000 as the new minimum wage.

Ebonyi state governor, Francis Nwifuru [Photo: Twitter]


LG polls: Police deploy personnel, restrict movement in Ebonyi

The police command in Ebonyi has deployed its officers and men to boost security ahead of Saturday’s local government elections.

JAMB Registrar, Prof. Ishaq Oloyede


JAMB sets new rules for students’ matriculation

The Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board (JAMB) has set aside new rules for students’ matriculation in tertiary institutions.

Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich


Trial of U.S. reporter Gershkovich continues in Russia

Mr Gershkovich’s arrest is also being seen as a warning to foreign correspondents still working in Russia following the invasion of Ukraine.

Shelling of Donetsk


Heavy Russian attacks on Ukraine’s eastern front in Donetsk

The General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine has reported heavy Russian attacks on the front in the east of the country.

New York Times


German court rejects New York Times action on Wordle trademark

The New York Times bought Wordle from its inventor, Josh Wardle, for $1.2 million.