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Knocking on the Door of World War IV


The world is on a precipice. The international community faces a growing array of situations that could precipitate major regional and cross-continental conflict. The norms, patterns of cooperation and the institutions that the West has relied on for over three generations to ensure its protection and rising prosperity – and to spread its benefits to an ever larger part of the world – are under serious fire. The Western track record is anything but pristine: far too many serious crimes and stupidities have been committed in the name of occidental democracy. That said, the West’s serial stumbling has created openings for political agendas, which if realised, will make Western failings look episodic in comparison. We already see signs of this in the way Russian nationalism and ISIS fundamentalism have come to articulate themselves and pursue their political programmes.

With this article, I try to lay out the main challenges and fault-lines in the current and emerging international system, speculate on how they can interact with one another and conclude with some thoughts on a possible way forward for a West that is as rudderless as it is beleaguered. The way back will be long and hard.

What’s in a World War?[2] [3]

The Ukraine crisis has given rise to the view that we may have entered a new Cold War. The use of this term raises all sorts of questions. Here are just a few. How does this possibly new Cold War compare with the old Cold War? What is a cold war and how does it differ from a hot one? And can a cold war become a hot one and if so, how?

The Cold War between the United States and Soviet Union, and their respective allies, that dominated most of the second half of the twentieth century was in many ways like World Wars I and II. They all involved a significant number of the then existing states, drawing in all regions of the world to a greater or lesser extent. They all endured over a generation – and sometimes two. They all displaced, wounded, maimed and killed tens of millions of people. This was as true of the Cold War’s many wars (from Korea to Vietnam to Afghanistan), as the world wars that preceded it.

Each of these wars was driven by an effort of one or more powers to transform the prevailing system of international power to its advantage.

Thus, in World War I, the key contest saw the authority of long-​established empires – Austro-​Hungarian, German, Ottoman, and Russian – being threatened by the new nationalisms that had emerged on their territory in the nineteenth century. But the Great War also put Great Britain and France on the front line, inflicting on both these imperial powers huge casualties even as they emerged as victors alongside a rising America. Their empires would remain more or less intact until after the next world war.

World War II pitted the world’s then more democratic states against the authoritarian nation-​states that sought to aggrandize their power. The main aggressors in this story are generally identified as Germany, Italy, and Japan, but the effort to extend one’s borders and control over other nations was far more widespread than that – one only need look at the behaviour of numerous countries in Eastern Europe and the Balkans, and not least the Soviet Union, prior to the Nazi invasion of 1941.

The Cold War was essentially a contest between two socio-​economic and political systems: democratic capitalism and totalitarian communism, each vying for global dominance. So, the twentieth century knew no less than three world wars, whereby the third was just as much deserving of a number as were World Wars I and II. In my book, the Cold War was World War III.

If a world war is essentially about an effort on the part of various actors to challenge the internationally established order, then we should probably also rethink the start and end points of these conflicts. Thereby, we also need to take into account the inter-​state altercations that helped build momentum towards major war, as well as the subsidiary conflicts that were spawned in their wake.

By this logic, the opening salvo in World War I was probably the Russo-​Japanese War of 1904-​05. It was followed by several other wars – and in particular the two Balkan Wars of 1912–1913 that established key fronts that would be in place in 1914. Similarly, this first great war of the twentieth century gave rise to several other conflicts that continued or broke out after the 1918 Armistice, including the Russian Civil War of 1918–21 and the Greek-​Turkish war that began in 1919 and ended with the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923. So seen, World War I lasted 19 years.

Similarly, one can consider that World War II began not in 1939 but in 1932 when Japan marched into Manchuria, and it ended not in 1945 but in 1954 when the last of the Indochina Wars unleashed by this great conflict came to an end. This would make World War II 22 years old at its conclusion.

And what was the starting point of the Cold War, or what I have suggested should be designated World War III? In my view, it was in Cuba in 1958. This was the first major challenge that was launched to the world order established by the previous world war. It was only with the end of the Yugoslav Wars of Succession in 2001 that it was really laid to rest, for a total of 43 years. In between lay the decolonialization process that saw the dismantling of the world’s remaining empires in Africa, Asia, and Europe and the more than doubling of the number of states in the international community. Their emergence was more often than not accompanied by civil wars coloured by the ongoing East-​West rivalry.

World War III differed from its two predecessors in one very important respect. While it proved in certain ways to be a fight to the finish between the US and the USSR, in the final analysis the two superpowers did not attack each other frontally. That said, the Cold War could have very easily turned hot if the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1963 had gone nuclear.

As for the new Cold War, it can be said to have started in 2007 when Vladimir Putin made a speech at the Wehrkunde international security conference in Munich, in which he made a blistering attack against the United States for provoking a new arms race, destabilizing the Middle East, undermining international institutions, expanding NATO and supporting democratic revolutions in the Commonwealth of Independent States. He concluded by insisting that Washington accept Russia’s demand for equality, in practical terms giving Moscow a free hand throughout the former Soviet Union, and appealing to other countries to join Russia in an effort to end what he called the American campaign to create a unipolar world. The following year brought the Georgian-​Russian war and Russia’s occupation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, two self-​proclaimed republics that had broken away from Tbilisi at Moscow’s urging.

The new Cold War differs significantly from past world wars. All three of the previous conflicts were conducted to a greater or lesser extent on all continents. The new Cold War is for the time being local and covert. Russia denies any military involvement in Eastern Ukraine and has put itself forward as a mediator between Kyiv and the two self-​proclaimed republics that have emerged to challenge the sovereignty of Ukraine’s central government.

The new Cold War is, however, only part of the strategic situation currently taking shape in the world. A second story concerns the rise of ISIS in several countries of the Middle East and North Africa, where conflict, unlike in the Euro-​Atlantic theatre, is overt. Probably, the jihadists of Al-​Qaeda and the Islamic State would see their conflict with the prevailing powers in their part of the world and with the westerners that have helped sustain the latter as a world war going back at least two decades.

A third story is about China’s rise in its region. Here conflict is neither covert nor overt but for the time being latent. What was this story’s opening chapter? It might be said to have coincided with the rise of Xi Jinping as of 2012. Whether his ongoing effort to bolster the role of the autocratic Chinese communist party in an economy that increasingly beats to a capitalist drum but looks also looks seriously vulnerable to basic economic realities announces the onslaught of conflict in Asia is anybody’s guess. But if it does, then World War IV could be said to have taken hold in Asia as of about 2012.

How this all pans out will determine the kind of world we live in as the twentieth-​first century unfolds.

The Three Rings of Conflict

Three major areas of conflict – or what might be called rings of conflict – dominate contemporary political and strategic developments. On how they develop and interact hinge the prospects for world peace in the face of a possible World War IV.

The first ring of conflict is shaped by tensions between the Euro-​Atlantic states and the Russian Federation. For the time being, this conflict revolves around the question of whether it will be Moscow that determines the domestic and foreign policy orientations of the former Soviet republics that have not become European Union and NATO members, or these countries themselves. In this way, Russian President Vladimir Putin intends to prevent these countries from being examples of development models that differ from Russia’s, and whose credible emergence could spell his demise. Moscow’s weapon of choice in this contest is the existence of significant Russian-​speaking minorities throughout former Soviet space. Its currently preferred stratagem is to support disgruntled local elements in the states emerging from the defunct USSR with Russian volunteers and equipment, with a view of carving out more or less autonomous entities on the territory of these states that can then be used to hold them hostage to Moscow’s machinations.

The second ring of conflict is constituted by the broad band of countries with significant Muslim populations that stretches from Mauritania in the west to Pakistan in the east, extending to the more religiously-​mixed states of the Sahel and adjacent areas, as well as non-​contiguous countries, such as Malaysia and Indonesia. The conflict profile of these lands ranges widely, from theatres where central governments oppose jihadist forces to those where there is no central government at all and generalized chaos has ensued. This is the current situation in no less than five countries in this area: Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria and Yemen, and partly so in two others, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Increasingly, what we observe across this region are several inter-​related different kinds of conflict: an inter-​Muslim war pitting Sunnis against Shiites, the former with several standard-bearers, the latter championed by Iran; another inter-​Muslim war in which fundamentalists and modernists vie for supremacy; a conflict in which ethnic and religious minorities strive to defend their fundamental human rights and oftentimes their survival; strategic competition among the major state actors of the region – all this strewn with opposing views about what should be the place of Israel and outside powers in these lands.

The third ring of conflict is centred in East Asia. The primary question revolves around China’s emergence as a great power, and whether this will be benign for the region or result in large-​scale conflict. There are several driving issues here. One is about territorial sovereignty over islets, adjoining waterways and underlying resources. China is embroiled in disputes over boundary lines at sea with no less than six of its regional neighbours. A second issue concerns unfinished business from World War II. As we have seen at different junctures in recent history, quarrels over what happened or did not happen during World War II – and who was responsible – persist particularly amongst elites in China, Japan and the two Koreas: the tensions among these states have potential for consolidating revanchist agendas that could drive the descent into regional conflict. These two issues serve as a fig leaf for fundamental divergences about socio-​economic and political choices, and regional power ambitions. At the same time, in an effort to maintain its political status quo, China is committed to neutralizing the attraction of different socio-​economic and political models espoused by the other Chinese-​majority entities/​states of Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, and Singapore.

As argued in the previous section, the place of each of the rings in the conflict spectrum currently varies considerably. In the first ring, the conflict is for the time being at least still local and largely covert. In the second ring, the conflict is being waged in several regional states. In the third ring, the conflict is latent. That said, the ongoing or potential conflict in each of the rings could engulf all the states of the region. Each of the conflicts already has an international dimension, one that could become much more pronounced if and as the regional situation deteriorates.

Similarly, the dominant regional actors based in the region – Russia in the first, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-​Sham (ISIS) in the second and the People’s Republic of China in the third – share a number of common characteristics.

All three are revisionist actors, in the sense that they seek to challenge the strategic status quo in their region and perhaps beyond. All three are revanchist, wishing to reverse territorial losses incurred under entities that they see as their historical antecedents. All three are irredentist, aiming to reintegrate communities that for one or the other reason have been lost to other states or religious communities. All three are expansionist, apparently committed to increasing the territory under their control and/​or their influence over the decision-​making of neighbouring states.

So, on this last point, Russia has changed borders in Georgia and now Ukraine, and is poised to repeat this pattern elsewhere. ISIS is calling for an international caliphate that would replace the states of the region, purging it of non-​Sunni elements. As such, it presents a direct challenge to both Sunni states and the Shiite-​majority state of Iran, another possible regional hegemon, but like its Sunni equivalents one that does not appear capable of spreading its power beyond the areas where its co-​religionists dominate. As for the People’s Republic of China, it is challenging maritime borders derived from the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea of 1982 that it has signed together with all of the six regional states with whom it has jurisdictional disputes.

Finally, all these actors share the common challenge of needing to neutralize or critically weaken the role of the United States in their region if they are to meet their goals.

How Another World War Could Ensue

The prominent German columnist Theo Sommer, recently writing in Die Zeit, argued that the West had nothing to fear from Russia and should stop “rattling its swords.” With the Soviet Union’s end, he observed, Russia lost one-​quarter of its territory, one-​half of its population, and a significant portion of its wealth. He noted that its army, which counted four million soldiers in Soviet times, now numbered three-​quarters of a million. What is more, Western experts are divided on the question of how many could be moved into or close to a combat zone, such as the thousands of Russian troops deployed over the past year alongside or over the Ukrainian border. (Note that some sources place these numbers at around 80,000, which is many more than most NATO members can field.)

That said, Russian President Vladimir Putin probably means it when he says that anyone who attacked NATO would have to have his head examined. From this, I think we can safely conclude that Russian Forces will not launch a frontal attack on NATO if it is clear to the Kremlin that Alliance members are ready to honour their security guarantees under Article V of the Washington Treaty.

But are they? A recent Pew poll has shown that less than 50 percent of publics in six out of eight larger NATO member countries would be in favour of using military forces if a NATO ally became involved in a major military altercation with Russia. Germany came last in the group of eight countries polled. The US and Canada were the only two countries that polled over 50 percent. But just how far would the two North American states be prepared to go if their main European partners seemed less than prepared to intervene on behalf of an ally, let alone a partnering state such as Ukraine?

So, President Putin can be forgiven for doubting whether Alliance solidarity would be engaged if he launched an action of the type that he did in East Ukraine in the Baltic states, where there are large Russian populations and very small national defence forces. NATO is preparing to correct this over the next year or so by prepositioning equipment, establishing local command centres and increasing the number of troops that can be rapidly deployed towards its eastern front.

If confirmed, this will undoubtedly give the Russian President food for thought. My suspicion, however, is that he has another ace or two up his sleeve, namely to leverage the rivalries present and/or building in the two other major regions of the world, or rings of conflict, as discussed in the last seciton..

The first ace is the Islamic State of Iraq and al-​Sham (ISIS). Within a year or so, this competitor of Al-​Qaeda has managed to occupy huge expanses of territory in Syria and Iraq, build a war chest of about a billion dollars, and attract thousands of jihadists – nobody seems to really know how many – from outside the region to help establish a new caliphate. ISIS is potentially a threat to Assad’s Syria and the Mullahs’ Iran but even further afield to Russia, given its fifteen to twenty million strong Muslim population, and even China given its thirty million strong Muslim community in the country’s western reaches. In both countries, there have been serious signs of alienation within these communities vis-à-vis the centre.

For the time being, however, both Assad and Putin – and even China – have an interest in ISIS continuing its surge. First, ISIS can help weaken or destroy the Free Syrian Army and the Nusra Front, the two main forces aiming to remove President Assad. Second, ISIS with its mediatized beheadings and mass murders against Shiites and minorities makes Assad “look good” and may bring some key western countries around to accepting Assad as the lesser evil, an eventuality that would confirm the position that Russia and China have taken on this conflict from the start. And third, a strong ISIS absorbs the West’s energy and attention, correspondingly reducing their capacity to address issues in and around Ukraine.

The situation in Iraq is more complex but not dissimilar. What we observe in Iraq is an increasingly fragile state where realities on the ground are pushing it towards at best a kind of proto-​federalism and at worst disintegration into three states. Iran, through the support it has given to the Shiite-​dominated government in Bagdad, seems to be slowly but surely creating another pro-​Iranian bastion in an increasingly dangerous Middle East. At the same time, it seems rather unlikely that the Shiite-​dominated Iraqi army or the Iranian-​sponsored Shiite militias will be able to press significantly into Iraqi Sunni or Kurdish territory.

The provisional outcome in this theatre is one whereby Tehran notches up another foreign policy advance. This is important at a time when Iran has not only negotiated a nuclear deal with the United States and its colleagues in the P5+1, but is also talking to Russia about a transaction that would result in the sale of the S-​300 air defence system, which could protect it against an Israeli or an American attack designed to take out its nuclear capacity.

So, Moscow is potentially sitting pretty. Up to a point, it “owns” Damascus and Baghdad. Its position seems strong enough to do a deal on Assad’s demise in return for its help with the Iran sanctions accord and Western acquiescence on Ukraine. And its actions have at the same time helped to strengthen ISIS in both countries, forcing Westerners and above all Americans to focus on a second crisis area, dissipating their efforts in the European theater in the process. I would also not exclude the possibility of back channels between Russia and ISIS on an agreement that would see Russia use its influence with Damascus and Tehran to leave Sunni-​areas dominated by ISIS in its control in return for ISIS agreeing to refrain from establishing new chapters of its Caliphate on Russian territory.

Vladimir Putin’s second ace involves the People’s Republic of China. Some five years ago, Moscow launched its pivot to Asia, roughly coinciding with the unveiling of a similar initiative by the US. In the interim, Russia-​China cooperation has increased significantly. Moscow has expanded its commercial and energy exchanges with Beijing. China was one of the few countries to send soldiers to Moscow to commemorate the Russian/​Soviet victory in World War II earlier this year. The two countries have carried out joint manoeuvres, including in the Eastern Mediterranean – and so on.

In parallel, the United States has worked to improve the bilateral relationship with China at the same time as strengthening ties with Japan, South Korea, and the six regional states embroiled in tensions with Beijing over maritime boundaries in the South China Sea.

How much of the Sino-​Russian linkage is show, how much is substance? Both Russia and China share an interest in weakening what they see as a unipolar world dominated by the United States even if their interests are far from identical. I suspect Russia would be more than happy to see a worsening of the security situation in and around the East/​South China Seas, as this would compel the Americans to divert attention away from the European theatre. Similarly, China would likely welcome a deteriorating situation in Europe, which would reduce US capacity to deal with the situation in Asia. Of course, both Russia and China would probably prefer that ISIS became such a threat to the status quo in the Muslim world that this would obviate any Western effort to deal with developments in their respective regions, without of course putting themselves at risk.

In summary, Vladimir Putin, to make his game in Europe, needs to help create other fronts that preoccupy his adversaries and soak up their energies. He is roughly half way there.

There is nothing new about such machinations. Strategic slight and shifting alliances have been part and parcel of all the great wars of the twentieth century. We should not be surprised to see them in action again. But we also need to be clear about the fact that we are engaged in a process that risks descending into another world war, by my reckoning the fourth in the last hundred years.

Strong Points of the West

In dealing with the current challenges to international peace and stability, the West currently enjoys several strong suits. Here are what I think to be the most important ones.

First, and most obviously, all the members of NATO and the European Union (EU) have democratically elected governments, supported by rule of law, a free press and thriving civil societies.

Second, the resources they can call on are unparalleled. The EU has a gross domestic product (GDP) of just under a quarter of the world’s total. The EU, Canada, and the United States together make up roughly half of global GDP. In contrast, Russia’s GDP is about one-​tenth of the EU’s. And the population of NATO Europe alone is almost four times as large as that of Russia.

Third, the Western world can call on a long experience of interstate cooperation. The United States, Canada and their democratic allies in Europe and around the world enjoy a historically unparalleled tradition of working together, in many cases going back well over a half century. Much of this cooperation is conducted through an array of intergovernmental organizations, active across several sectors.

Here, the security dimension is particularly relevant. The military ties that bind the West and the increasing number of countries from around the world that have sought to work with NATO are unprecedented. The Alliance’s 28 member states work together with 22 partner countries and another 15 nations involved in varying degrees in a wide range of NATO programmes.

NATO’s partners include all the former Soviet and Yugoslav states not members of the Alliance (cooperation with the Russian Federation has been frozen since April 2014), six European neutral states, fourteen Muslim-​majority states, as well as Australia, Japan, Korea, Mongolia and New Zealand. While the breadth and intensity of cooperation between NATO and its partner countries varies considerably, ranging from tight forms of interoperability to looser partnership relations, this is by far the largest and most potent security network in the world.

NATO militaries and their partners can also draw on their joint experience in the field. Since the end of the Cold War, they have seen action on a variety of fronts: the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, in the Mediterranean with a variety of interdiction and stabilization measures, off the Horn of Africa with anti-​pirating actions, support for the African Union, plus a series of other non-​NATO actions such as in Iraq, Libya and Syria in which NATO member states and partners have played a leading role. Neither the Islamic State nor Al-​Qaeda, nor indeed Russia or China, has anything even closely approximating this operational experience under their belts.

It is also useful to be mindful of some key military numbers. If one looks at NATO Europe alone (without the United States and Canada), it has twice as many potentially deployable military personnel as Russia. The NATO members bordering Russia have forces – standing and reserves, including those of Ukraine – that represent roughly two-​thirds those of Russia. (By the same token, these countries have not undergone defence spending increases anywhere close to those of Russia in recent years.)

In the Asian theatre, the numbers are broadly similar. Here, there is no equivalent to NATO but there are some fifteen countries – the ten ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) members plus the five regional NATO partners mentioned above (Australia, Japan, Korea, Mongolia, and New Zealand) – that could potentially work together if China were to overplay its hand. ASEAN, for example, has recently departed from its tendency to be diplomatically polite, criticizing China for its efforts to lay claim to ever wider swathes of the seas around its territory.

Theoretically, the combined militaries of these regional actors, roughly half a million in size, could be expected to resist any strong-​armed moves on the part of China to secure its dominance in these waters; if one includes India, this number would rise to 1.7million. China, with its few regional allies, could at most assemble one and a half million. If we compare regional defence spending, the numbers are also not in China’s favour.

Of course, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-​Sham (ISIS) has nothing comparable to show in any of these areas. It is opposed by Iran as well as the twenty-​two states of the Arab League (Syria’s membership is currently suspended). Twelve of the Arab League’s members are NATO partners and six are involved in the ongoing actions against the Islamic State in Iraq and/​or Syria. The GDP of Arab League members is roughly one thousand times as great as the resources reportedly available to ISIS. While Arab League states can call on active and reserve forces of some five million, their effectiveness in dealing with anything other than a domestic insurgency are widely questioned. That said, in April 2015, the organization announced that it would be putting together a joint Defence Force of forty thousand. The numbers imputed to ISIS range wildly from thirty to an hundred thousand, with the only certainty apparently being that the numbers have been steadily increasing.

But whether the recent efforts by the Arab League and ASEAN to show some teeth will amount to anything over the short-to medium term is anything but clear. And numbers tell only part of the story

Challenges for the West

While the current situation facing the West is anything but hopeless, it is rather less than encouraging. Three issues stand out.

First, the credibility of Western democracy is increasingly threatened on a number of fronts: a collapsing political centre, political party corruption, rising extremism, the dominance of big money (what has been called donocracy in the US), voter apathy especially among youth, and so on. In far too many western democracies, politicians enjoy the credibility often imputed to used-​car salesmen.

In the US, the key issue is the chronic gridlock in Washington. Arcane party financing practices have produced a situation whereby your average American politician spends more time raising money for various campaigns than focusing on the challenges facing their constituency, let alone the nation. At the same time, these practices also encourage the Republican and the Democratic parties to appeal to views on the right or the left as opposed to seeking out the only place where meaningful compromises can be forged – the centre.

Similar issues also plague the member states of the European Union. The EU, for all its joint institutions and common treaties, has twenty-​eight national decision-​makers and no less than three presidents, some more powerful than others but each capable of blocking or subverting the decision-​making process. The key position in this scrum is, of course, taken by Germany with its debilitating history, own national interests, and a population of eighty million in a union of over five hundred million. How exactly is this supposed to work? At the best of times, this system is impossibly dysfunctional. At its worst, it is totally ineffectual.

Currently, the EU faces three existential challenges: the continuing flow of refugees from the southern shore of the Mediterranean; the crisis in and around Ukraine; and the crisis with and about Greece. All these issues are set to be major thorns in the EU’s side, absorbing political energies desperately needed elsewhere, for some time to come. They cannot be resolved within the prevailing political framework.

Second, the picture on the economic front is similarly disconcerting and ties into the governance challenges plaguing western democracies. While Western wealth is still impressive on any comparative scale, the back story is one of increasingly economic inequality. In the US, the inequality quotient is at levels not seen since the late 1920s. In the EU as a whole, the uptick from the financial crisis of 2007–2009 has been slow in materializing, while the unemployment rates among youth remain stubbornly high.

A third issue concerns America’s leadership role. Since its entry into World War II, the US has been the West’s indispensable nation. It has been NATO’s lynchpin, building a system of bilateral alliances around the world, sometimes with unsavory states, but for the most part with states where democracy would eventually take root. Today, however, the United States is strategically tired, fed up with military engagements abroad that have gone nowhere and delivered only continuing chaos. I do not agree very much with Russian President Putin about anything but his blistering criticism of US and Western dilettantism in their policies towards the Middle East is justified. Not that Russia has done any better: witness its policy towards Syria.

Then there is the credibility issue. Diplomatically, two recent incidents in particular have left very serious scars. One was the failure of the US president to act after the setting a red line in 2012 on the existence and use of chemical weapons by Syria. In the end, after the British House of Commons elected not to offer its support, it was a deal brokered by Russian President Putin that helped the US save face (well, sort of). The other was the failure of the US and UK to honour their security commitments to Ukraine under the 1994 agreement – the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, co-​signed by Russia and of course Ukraine – that made Ukraine a non-​nuclear state. At the two separate negotiations that took place in Minsk over the Ukraine crisis in 2014, neither the US nor the UK were present. This says it all.

Beyond that, Western and US policy in a range of Muslim-​majority countries has several albatrosses around its neck. The main one is the almost uncritical support provided to one regional dictator after the other in return for energy and a not too tough line on Israel’s policies in the Middle East. America’s new energy independence provides an opportunity to review its policies towards the region but whether it will is an open question, largely dependent on whether the next US President can break loose from the lobbies.

These issues count. They shape the preparedness of Americans to support their government at difficult strategic junctures. They influence the disposition of America’s historical allies to remain allied. They can be decisive in determining how states and communities around the world cast their lot as the strategic environment evolves.

In short, whether the West manages to rise to the new strategic challenges on its horizon is not so much about GDP but about the credibility of its alliances and the relations enjoyed among allies and with partners. The world wants to know whether the western democracies can maintain their superior system of governance and their historical tradition of cooperation. Their combined resources are more than a match for any adversary, but they are currently disorganized, unfocused, and undercut by a bout of strategic confusion and hesitation.

[1] The material for this article is based on a presentation that I gave at a roundtable organised by the CDA-Institute on 10 June 2015, which was later turned into a series of five blogs that were posted on their website at during July 2015. The blogs can be accessed as

[2] The approach to the periodization of conflict used in this section is based on the work of Herman F. Achminow, lecturer at the University of Oklahoma, senior research fellow at the erstwhile Institute for the Study of the USSR in Munich (and my thesis director). See in particular, “Der 3. Weltkrieg ohne Propaganda” in Am Grossen Kreig Vorbeischleichen: zur Friedensstrategie des Konservatismus, Europrism, Bonn, 1983, pp.98-115.

[3] For numbers of deaths in the world and other wars, there are several sources available on the internet. See for example, accessed on 1 June 2015. As for the world wars numbers range widely depending on the wars that are subsumed to be part of the global conflict, the inclusion or not of related civil war casualties and the general difficulty of amassing reliable figures about the numbers of victims in conflict at a time when oftentimes governmental and social structures were in total disarray.

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