Can we stop World War III?

Saturday 2 November, 10:0011:30, Auditorium 2Eye on the World

With rising tensions between America, China and the EU – not to mention the reemergence of Russia on the international stage – many argue that the old, post-1945 world order is breaking down. Changes in international relations mean that the old rules and conventions no longer work. Some thinkers today anticipate a ‘Thucydides moment’. The great ancient historian wrote that the Peloponnesian war was inevitable because of the growth of Athenian power and the fear this caused in Sparta. Today, we could be on the same path as the old and new powers clash.

But this is not simply about China versus the West. There are escalating strains within the ‘old’ West, too. Since the 2008 financial crash, differences between countries have evolved into bitter transatlantic ructions between the US and the EU. These rivalries were brought into sharper focus by the election of President Donald Trump in 2016 that seemed to open up a divide between a mercantilist and a globalist approach to world affairs. The US and EU have major differences on issues as disparate as the Iran nuclear deal and whether to use Huawei’s equipment to build 5G networks. The EU is also split within, not just over migration and the fallout from the eurozone crisis, but over how to deal with China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

The dangers of Trump’s mercantilist approach to international economic relations are widely recognised. Unintentionally though, the actions of globalist leaders who espouse multilateralism are also aggravating tensions. Appeals for cooperation around a ‘rules-based international order’ sound conciliatory. The question is: whose rules?

There is nothing natural to the persistence of the existing international order. Just as Sparta could not expect to always be on top, so America, and the West in general, cannot expect to always be the dominant powers. This creates a dilemma for the modern world. The rules agreed at the end of the Second World War reflected the balance of forces in the world then. But the world today has a very different makeup. When the rules no longer reflect the changing reality, they themselves can become sources of dissension.

Yet there are reasons to believe outright conflict can be avoided. The West has somehow managed to muddle through in recent decades, despite serious economic and political problems. The EU has, somehow, survived the Eurozone crisis and has managed to maintain a united front in the face of the UK’s departure. China still wants stable, open markets for its goods – and has domestic problems of its own. Russia, while belligerent, is economically weak. Perhaps pragmatism and compromise can continue to prevail.

How can we stop these tensions getting out of control? Is a peaceful transition to a new international settlement possible? Are the dominant Western responses helpful or inflammatory? To what extent is protectionism a cause or a symptom of conflict? Can appeals to respecting the rules-based international order help, or is the existing international institutional setup inconsistent with a changed world?