Thursday, March 6, 2014

Don't worry: World War III will almost certainly never happen

To borrow a phrase from finance, global trade has simply become too big to fail

Assured mutual destruction has limited recent skirmishes to proxy battles.

Assured mutual destruction has limited recent skirmishes to proxy battles. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Next year will be the seventieth anniversary of the end of the last global conflict. There have been points on that timeline — such as the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, and a Soviet computer malfunction in 1983 that erroneously suggested that the U.S. had attacked, and perhaps even the Kosovo War in 1998 — when a global conflict was a real possibility. Yet today — in the shadow of a flare up which some are calling a new Cold War between Russia and the U.S. — I believe the threat of World War III has almost faded into nothingness. That is, the probability of a world war is the lowest it has been in decades, and perhaps the lowest it has ever been since the dawn of modernity.

This is certainly a view that current data supports. Steven Pinker's studies into the decline of violence reveal that deaths from war have fallen and fallen since World War II. But we should not just assume that the past is an accurate guide to the future. Instead, we must look at the factors which have led to the reduction in war and try to conclude whether the decrease in war is sustainable.

So what's changed? Well, the first big change after the last world war was the arrival of mutually assured destruction. It's no coincidence that the end of the last global war coincided with the invention of atomic weapons. The possibility of complete annihilation provided a huge disincentive to launching and expanding total wars. Instead, the great powers now fight proxy wars like Vietnam and Afghanistan (the 1980 version, that is), rather than letting their rivalries expand into full-on, globe-spanning struggles against each other. Sure, accidents could happen, but the possibility is incredibly remote. More importantly, nobody in power wants to be the cause of Armageddon.

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