Q&A: Are we heading towards a third world war?
© Financial Times

Newt Gingrich, former US House of Representatives speaker, and Dan Gillerman, Israel’s ambassador to the UN, are all leading proponents of an emerging theory which seeks to characterise ongoing Islamist conflicts and acts of terror around the globe and the early stages of ‘world war three’. Even President Bush has suggested that 9/11 marked the beginning of another world war. Are they right? Is it helpful or appropriate to describe such disparate violence in such a way? Can such a war be won and how?

The FT’s chief foreign affairs columnist Gideon Rachman answers readers’ questions on the subject.


Economically speaking would a third world war get a lot of people off the hook?

Mike O’Rourke, Blackpool, UK

Gideon Rachman: Personally, I have never bought the theory that conflict in Lebanon - or Iraq - is cooked up by corporations or capitalists, bent on finding new opportunities for profit. Its not an accident that the words “peace and prosperity” are often linked. Wars, on the other hand, tend to be bad for stock markets. Of course, one can always point to particular companies that might do well out of a conflict, or an increase in international tension: arms firms that would benefit from increased military spending; companies like Halliburton that might get reconstruction contracts; oil firms that might get access to new fields. But even the argument that oil companies are stoking the conflict does not really stand up to close examination. The “neocons”, after all, are very pro-Israel; oil companies have tended to have close relations with the Gulf states, and many would regard the original neocon flirtation with overthrowing the house of Saud, with horror. And - in general - a third world war would, of course, be an economic disaster.


It has been argued that changing the discredited phrase “war on terror” to “World War III” is just a transparent attempt to dupe people into accepting the inevitability of US use of nuclear weapons in the Middle East. How would you respond?

Matt Dubuque, Austin, Texas

GR: No, I don’t think that is the case. What may be true is that many of the people who are attracted to the “world war three” theory are also foreign policy hawks, who might be more open to the idea of using tactical nuclear weapons in any major conflict. But I don’t think that people like Newt Gingrich have any specific military plan - nuclear or otherwise - in mind, when they talk of WW3. Rather they have cast themselves in the role of Churchill in the 1930s; prescient seers who are able to discern a global threat that others are still in denial about. So it is the nature of the threat - rather than the detailed nature of the response - which currently defines the argument.


Two weeks ago an American-Iranian taxi driver in Boston (US) told me that the current war In Lebanon was but a ploy engineered by Iran’s president in order to buy time to build his nuclear bomb. Do you agree?

Nuno Torres, Lisbon, Portugal

GR: I’ve heard that theory too - and not just from taxi drivers! I was in Paris last week talking to the French diplomats who are handling the “Iran dossier”. They pointed out that the Hizbollah incursion into Israel occurred very close to the deadline that Iran had been given by the Europeans and Americans to respond to the incentives package, intended to get the Iranians to stop work on their nuclear programme. It is also a matter of record that the Iranian negotiating team that had been in Brussels to discuss the nuclear dossier, then flew on to Damascus. And who are Hizbollah’s major sponsors? Syria and Iran.

Fighting broke out in Lebanon more or less immediately after the Iranians had left Damascus - and just before western foreign ministers announced plans to table a new UN resolution aimed at Iran’s nuclear programme.. That said, my French interlocutors - at least - did not in the end buy the idea that the Hizbollah attack had been directly ordered by the Iranians. They argued that Iran is too chaotic and faction-ridden to be able to make and impose such a clear decision. Make of that, what you will!


Podhoretz and others correctly rename the Cold War (c1948 - c1990) as the third world war. Some 20 million deaths across the globe were directly or indirectly connected to it - about a third of WW2. We should be talking about the Fourth next, whenever it may start. Do you agree?

Ian Dufour

GR: Well, its a fascinating, if unsettling, historical debate. Podhoretz is not alone in classifying the cold war as the third world war; Niall Ferguson, the Harvard historian, makes a similar argument in his recent history of the twentieth century. One problem with using the term “fourth world war” for the current conflict, however, is that since most people are not used to the idea that the cold war was a “third world war”, they think you simply can’t count, if you start arguing that we are now involved in WW4. More seriously, as I argued in my own piece, I think the parallel between the current conflict and the cold war is both closer - and more encouraging - than a comparison with world war two. It suggests that this conflict will ultimately turn on a struggle between different social models and ideologies, rather than being decided above all by force of arms.


Do you think that the mix of ‘neoconservatives’ and ‘assertive nationalists’ inside and close to the Bush administration would actually welcome WW3 as a means for finally getting to grips with what they see as existential security threats (rogue regimes which might acquire WMDs and these regimes’ - potential - links to terrorist groups)?

What are the chances of what has become known as the ‘Bush Doctrine’ continuing beyond the 2006 Congressional elections and/or the 2008 Presidential elections?

David Smith, Manchester, UK

GR: I’m not sure - because obviously for political reasons, this is not something they would feel able to discuss completely frankly. My guess is that they would be ambivalent. On the one hand, I think that the Bush people - like most sane people - would prefer to avoid widespread bloodshed. On the other hand, I think that many neocons and “assertive nationalists” do feel that the US and “liberal civilisation” faces a much more serious threat than many people are yet prepared to acknowledge; and that this threat should be dealt with sooner rather than later. And that, inevitably, that will involve further use of military force.

As for the survival of the Bush doctrine - that will depend on two things. First - obviously - the results of the American elections. Democrats will have to sound tough on security, but I think their instincts are clearly less bellicose than the Bush group. Second - events in the wider world. Further deterioration in Iraq will obviously discredit the Bush doctrine; on the other hand, another big terror attack on America could push things the other way.


Is the greatest single threat to the democratic state of Israel a military state? Will Israel be recognisably democratic in 20 years time?

Alastair Maclean, Paris

GR: It seems to me the biggest threat to Israeli democracy is not militarism, but demography. If Israel hangs onto the occupied territories - given the relative birth rates of the Jewish and Arab populations - the Israelis would fairly quickly face the choice between being a Jewish state and being a democratic state. It may be that this realisation is what persuaded people like Ariel Sharon to start letting go of the dream of a “greater Israel”. But you are right, continuing conflict and militarisation must place a strain on any democratic system.


How plausible is the view that Israel is deliberately inflicting ‘collective punishment’ on the Lebanese with the aim of creating a backlash against Hizbollah and do you think Syria will intervene directly in this conflict any time soon?

Matthew Hunt, London

GR: My guess is that the initial Israeli incursion was indeed partly intended to spark a backlash against Hizbollah, within Lebanon - however, given the recent pro-Hizbollah comments of the Lebanese prime minister, it seems to have backfired. I would be very surprised if the Syrians intervened directly - and openly - in the conflict. They must know that there are plenty of voices in Israel and the US that are keen to take on Syria - so it would be pretty foolhardy to give those voices a direct provocation. Making trouble behind the scenes, however, is another matter.


If the economic stakes became lower in terms of the developed world kicking its Oil addiction, could the rest of the World almost geographically cordon off radical Islam as a problem of lesser importance? Aren’t the stakes higher primarily became the economic fates are intertwined?

Satyajeet Thakur

GR: Well, oil certainly does complicate matters and raise the stakes. But - unfortunately - even if you take oil out of the equation, I think there are at least two big reasons why the idea of the west “cordoning off” radical Islam won’t work. The first is that people have a way of slipping under the cordon. After all Afghanistan has no economic significance and no oil reserves - and before 9/11, many people might have assumed that the west could safely ignore events there. And, as the British discovered, last year - radical Islamists now have a substantial presence within European societies like Britain, the Netherlands and France.

The second reason is Israel. The western world - and indeed the UN - is committed to Israel’s survival and to the creation of a Palestinian state. I just don’t think its feasible that the Americans or the Europeans would feel able completely to ignore, escalations in the Arab-Israeli conflict.


Conflating a wide range of problems into a simple conflict between ‘Islamists’ and the West misses the variety and complexity of the identities involved; terrorists are not simply religious zealots, they also have social, economic and other causes. Moreover, Islam itself is not a singular, indentikit motivation. How will the differences between Islamists (such as Shia and Sunni, or Arab and Persian) shape the future conflicts?

Piotr Brzezinski, London

GR: You are absolutely right. There are big rivalries there - some latent, and some which have tragically already broken out into bloody conflict - in particular within Iraq. Some believers in a “third world war” argue that nonetheless, radical Islamists of all persuasions and ethnic backgrounds are beginning to make common cause against the west - the historical analogy they use is the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. Others argue that the west should be doing much more to foment these divisions - by for example backing ethnic rebels within Iran. But I think the real answer, I’m afraid, is that we just don’t know how these ethnic and regional rivalries will shape future events. The west has a long record of being surprised by unanticipated events in the Middle East.


Why is the world increasingly being embroiled in a conflict between two closely related Semitic family groups who have peacefully co-existed for centuries? After all Baghdad was until recently the largest Jewish city. It seems to me that a lasting solution is withdrawal to the 1967 line of control by Israel and a cessation of hostilities by terrorists. Perhaps OPEC might step in and progressively reduce oil exports until a plan and solution for lasting peace can be effected.

Kevin Moore, Hong Kong

GR: It is one of the frustrations of the current situation that moderates on both sides - and western diplomats - have long been able to define the basic elements of a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian question. It’s getting there that is the problem. And it gets more problematic, the more violence there is - because that inevitably strengthens radicals in the region. Many of the parties to the current conflict - Hizbollah, Hamas, the Iranian government - are not believers in a two-state solution; their formal position is the they do not accept the right of Israel to exist at all. And as these sorts of opponents come to the fore, so that strengthens the voices in Israel who argue that all “concessions” (withdrawal from Gaza and Lebanon) will simply be interpreted as a sign of weakness, and will invite further aggression.


Why has US abandoned Afghanistan with little troops under NATO leadership when it is clearly the beehive of terrorism in the world? Shouldn’t we see action with Pakistan which is sheltering Taliban militants and Al-qaeda members?

Aris Angelou

GR: Good question. Of course, the US would not accept that it has abandoned Afghanistan. But the situation there is clearly worrying and seems to be getting worse. There is no doubt that the Americans are also frustrated that they are not getting more help from the Pakistani government. But they must also be very worried that any alternative to the current regime, will actually be less co-operative and more vulnerable to Islamic fundamentalism. Hence, there is a huge reluctance to undermine the Musharraf government - because the ultimate nightmare is a nuclear-armed Pakistan, which is taken over by fundamentalist forces.


Globally, oil supplies are barely in surplus over demand (1-2 mbd now). An absolute shortfall is coming within 5 or 6 years. How much weight do you give these oil constraint factors in your analysis of the risks of a coming world war III?

Adam Dadeby, London, UK

GR: Well I’m not one of those who think the Americans went to war in Iraq to secure oil supplies. But I do think concerns about energy security are now crucial to shaping western policy in the region. In particular, given the critical role of Saudi oil, they must place a big question mark over how far the Americans are prepared to push their “freedom agenda”, when it comes to the Gulf states.


Do you share the opinion that the Black Death epidemics in Europe fatally undermined the catholic church leading to the reformation and that this with the French revolution are exactly what is missing in the muslim societies today?

Steen R. G. Baaring, Copenhagen

GR: I’m not sure I buy the exact chain of causation. But it is often argued that there was no Islamic equivalent to the reformation or the enlightenment - and that, as a result, Islamic regimes have a particular difficulty coming to terms with modernity. That said, it is obviously clear that millions of Muslims all over the world have no problem coping with - and indeed thriving in - a modern, technologically-advanced society. Just a modest example - but some of the most famous doctors and surgeons in Britain are Muslims. The hope must be that, over time, Islam will develop forms of political expression that are as at ease with modern, secular society, as millions of individual Muslims are.


Throughout history Islam conquered, not converted nations. If we want to defend our self from conversion is there any doubt that we are in World War III already? The Koran constantly calls for Jihad against the Infidels. Does this not explain the current conditions as World War III?

Katalin Hosseinian, San Antonio, Texas

GR: I’m not as gloomy as you. You can find many things in the Koran, and indeed the Bible. Even President Bush has called Islam a religion of peace, after all; and Christianity has also gone through militaristic phases - think of the Crusades. For the sake of argument, however, let’s accept your idea that Islam as a religion is more wedded to conflict and violent conversion than other religions. That still does not explain, why we are in the situation that we are in now. After all Islam has been around since the seventh century. There is no doubt that in the current global political climate, militant Islamists are using their faith to issue calls for “Jihad” - and are gaining adherents. But I think the last 13 centuries show that it is perfectly possible for Islam to co-exist with other religions, given the right political circumstances


Related articles:

World War Three without the blood, sweat and tears

Editorial comment: No apocalypse now

Bush queries Lebanon peace plan

External links:

Newt Gingrich homepage - see What’s New for WWIII premise

Jean-Pierre Lehmann on Thinking the Unthinkable

Norman Podhoretz on why it might be World War Four

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