Is the world in danger of a Third World War? Or perhaps it has already begun? The increasingly multifaceted confrontation between China and the United States, Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and a new outbreak of violence in the Middle East that threatens to escalate into war, render these questions far from hypothetical. The United States faces the most serious threats to its security in decades, or possibly in its history. Washington has never before had to face four fierce adversaries simultaneously — Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran — whose collective nuclear arsenal could nearly double that of the United States over the next few years, writes former US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates in an article titled 'The Dysfunctional Superpower: Can a Divided America Deter China and Russia?' Internal conflicts within the American leadership have so far failed to convince enough Americans that these developments are of far greater significance and pose a far greater challenge to America than they believe.
This challenge is rooted in Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin’s obsession with dramatically raising their countries' status and political influence, according to Gates. Both are convinced that they can restore the superpower status of their countries. For both leaders, this has become a key element of their domestic political positioning. For Xi, it means converting China's economic strength into political power, while for Putin, it manifests itself in a clumsy mix of attempts to revive the Russian Empire and reclaim the 'respect' it enjoyed in the world during the Soviet era. Moreover, both are convinced that developed democracies — primarily the United States — have passed the peak of their power and entered a phase of irreversible decline, evident in their internal political polarisation and disorganisation. And this offers China and Russia, as they themselves believe, an opportunity to demonstrate to the world the benefits of the authoritarian order of which they are ardent adherents.
However, the problem is not only these aspirations but also the miscalculations of both leaders, which are already evident today and will only increase in the future as the consequences of their initial actions are revealed. Xi Jinping, according to Gates, believes that he can secure a place in the Chinese historical pantheon alongside Mao Zedong only by seizing Taiwan. Xi is confident that this task is achievable, and its resolution would be a symbolic revenge for centuries of humiliations, asserting China's status as a superpower. According to Gates, Xi underestimates the risk of a global war, which is not his intended goal in this case. Similarly, Putin underestimated the consequences of invading Ukraine and is now forced to pay a much higher price than he had initially anticipated. Both leaders are unable to deviate from the path they have chosen, and this is the main danger to world peace, in Gates’s view.
The Chinese leader has already made a series of mistakes. First, by deviating from Deng Xiaoping's principle of 'Hide your strength, bide your time,' he has triggered the very reaction that Deng feared: the United States has begun mobilising its economic power to slow down China's economic development, as well as modernising its military, and strengthening its alliances in Asia. Xi's second mistake was a turn to the left in China’s economic policy, starting in 2015, which manifested itself in the Communist Party's increasing influence on the private sector of the economy, causing significant damage. Third, the zero-tolerance policy during the pandemic led to a reduction in China's consumer spending, causing even greater harm to the country’s economy. The need for vertical control takes precedence over economic interests and breeds insensitivity to economic losses. This increases the likelihood of a major conflict over Taiwan, despite potentially colossal economic costs. The mistakes already made, which have weakened China's economic potential, only amplify the likelihood of direct confrontation.
But who starts wars and why? These questions become critically important to understand the means by which they can be prevented.
A classical explanation for the mechanism behind the onset of many wars is the so-called Thucydides Trap. According to this theory, war is inevitable when a leader with an established position is confronted by a rising power, as was the case in the rivalry between Athens and Sparta in Ancient Greece or Germany and Britain before the First World War. However, Gates notes that there was nothing inevitable about the First World War; it started due to the foolishness and arrogance of European leaders. This raises the central question: what exactly makes a conflict inevitable — structural factors (the desire of a rising power to challenge the position of the leading power) or subjective factors related to the personal attitudes of political leaders and their domestic agendas?
One proponent of the first approach is John Mearsheimer, a classic theorist of 'offensive realism' (which argues that the desire to challenge the existing balance of power is a natural and inevitable factor in foreign policy). He gained worldwide attention (and controversy) with a prediction that he made in 1993: forcing Ukraine to give up its nuclear weapons was a critical Western mistake that would sooner or later lead to a Russian attempt to take over the country, he said. In a new book published in September titled 'How States Think,' Mearsheimer and his co-author Sebastian Rosato argue that, although for many analysts the decision to invade Ukraine seemed irrational, Putin and his advisors were thinking quite rationally 'within the framework of a simple balance of power theory': they saw Ukraine as a frontline in the standoff with NATO, and retaining Russia’s influence over Ukraine was a 'life-and-death matter' for them. And, if Russia ultimately loses the war and Putin loses power, it will not be because the invasion was irrational but rather due to the military incompetence of Putin and the Russian military leadership and the efforts of the West to support Kyiv.
'Realism,' represented by Mearsheimer's position, dominated the understanding of international relations for most of the 20th century, but in recent decades, scholars and experts have increasingly focused on how leaders think, their beliefs, and biases, according to a review article of Mearsheimer's book published in Foreign Affairs titled 'Why Smart Leaders Do Dumb Things.' Researchers have found that in the overwhelming majority of cases, psychology has a huge influence on the behaviour of leaders in the international arena. While the desire to challenge the established balance of power is ever-present, it does not necessarily lead to war. The question is: which means of 'contestation' are deemed appropriate and acceptable? This is where subjective factors and assessments come into play, and these often turn out to be erroneous.
Moreover, there is usually a significant distance between what is rational for a state and what is rational for a particular leader. For example, the desire to stay in power may drive a leader to wage distracting wars or resort to other costly projects that undermine the interests of their state. Indeed, Putin's emotional fixation on controlling Ukraine and confronting the West has increased the longer he has remained in power and has used increasingly illegitimate means to extend his presidential powers. Authoritarian leaders, not constrained by checks and balances, are more likely to turn their neurotic ideas, camouflaged behind rationality but based on false calculations, into political strategies. Clearly, as Putin did with Ukraine, when it comes to Taiwan, Xi Jinping is more likely to rely on his intuition, domestic calculations, subjective assessment of his own strength, and his understanding of the US's resolve to resist.
An important factor that increases the likelihood of military conflict and brings us closer to its brink is apparent weakening of the opposing state. Since the desire for 'contestation' exists, and the neuroses of leaders can push them to escalate events through military escalation or armed conflict, perceptions of the rival's strength and resolve can be an important constraint on them and the elites around them. Their misjudgment may become the trigger for confrontation. Analysts in Washington believe that Xi Jinping has ordered the Chinese military to be ready for an invasion of Taiwan by 2027. However, signs of polarisation and internal crises in America, as well as the crisis in East Asia, may push him to expedite events, Gideon Rachman has written in his column for the Financial Times.
According to Robert Gates, the Chinese military is currently unprepared for a conflict, leaving the US room for manoeuvre. Signs of weakness in the West could prompt Xi to increase pressure on Taiwan, fuelling patriotic hysteria inside China and gradually dragging it into war, as Vladimir Putin did by initially presenting his military preparations to elites as a tool of Western blackmail, and later enticing them with the promise of a blitzkrieg.
Therefore, Gates concludes, to reduce the risk of a global conflict, the United States must realise the magnitude of the threat as soon as possible, regain the ability to respond strategically, and be willing to take risks. The United States won the Cold War thanks to a consistent strategy that, for nine consecutive presidential terms, relied on a bipartisan foreign policy consensus. Today, they need a similar bipartisan approach and public confidence that US isolationism will lead the world to a less predictable state in which authoritarian countries will thrive. However, the ability of American society to realise this amid the country’s growing domestic polarisation in the run-up to next year’s elections does not seem promising. Most likely, it will require another more serious foreign policy shock.