On April 7, President Donald Trump ordered a cruise-missile strike against a Syrian airbase, in response to President Bashar al-Assad’s suspected, deadly use of chemical weapons on Syrian rebels and civilians. The following day, Russia deployed their “most advanced Black Sea frigate” to the area of the U.S. destroyers that launched the 59 tomahawk missiles. Then, six days after the strike, the U.S. dropped a GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast Bomb (MOAB) – AKA “Mother of All Bombs” – on Afghanistan, killing upwards of 100 Islamic State (ISIS) terrorists. Then, on April 24, the Trump administration requested all 100 U.S. Senators to be convened for a rare White House briefing on North Korea, following increased nuclear and missile testing by Chairman Kim Jong-un, which pose a looming threat to the U.S. and our allies in Asia.
These actions, and others like them, have led many Americans to ask the question: Is the United States about to start World War III?
In a word: No.
America cannot, by definition, launch World War III. Though international conflict and use of military power could exacerbate global hostilities, it would be the roll of other nations (or one rather ambitious state actor) to spear-head the Third World War.
The average colloquial definition of a “World War” is simply “when the world is at war.” And to its credit, this characterization is true insofar as it relates to multiple states in worldwide conflict. However, if we were to apply this definition to past wars, then it would only fall to WWII which covered the span of the entire globe, and not WWI which was primarily fought in Western Europe. A World War cannot, at the same time, be one major conflict that sparks various proxy wars throughout the world. If this were the case, the U.S. – Russian “Cold War,” which sparked such conflicts as the Korean and Vietnam wars, would have been aptly named WWIII.
The proper definition of a “World War” is “Hegemonic Warfare,” or an international conflict over central world dominance. A “Hegemon” is a single or collective world power, outranking other nations in terms of politics, economics and military. Arguably, the First World War was against the “Imperial Powers” (Britain, America and certain other Western Nations); and the Second, against the “League of Nations” and Allied Forces. Currently, the United States is the dominant world power, the Hegemon.
American domestic and international political power continues to rein supreme, from Constitutional limitations on government to inter-continental influence. Despite certain trade deficits and market fluctuations, the U.S. economy has consistently dominated on a global scale. With a growing annual budget of $600 billion, the American military is unquestionably the strongest and most powerful military on earth.
Whether or not these facts are well-received, it is indisputable that the United States of America is, at present, the highest ranking world super power – the Hegemon. This does not mean, however, that the U.S. will dominate forever. History is replete with every great empire’s rise and fall. But the fact of our current position of power alone makes it impossible for the U.S. to “start” WWIII – but it can facilitate it.
It’s an unfortunate truth, of historical precedence, that wars of every magnitude may begin for any number of reasons. Could the U.S., by overt acts of intervention, spark a conflict that merges into a hegemonic war? Could inaction, through fear of un-welcomed aggression, assist in the development of a struggle for systematic dominance?
In fact, the question is not “is the United States about to start World War III?” the question is, or should be, “how should the United States respond in the face of any war?” This question provides for a productive exchange of ideas between state actors, decision makers and everyday citizens. Drawing upon the victories and defeats of the past, the marketplace of ideas may be used in the policies that keep men and women, on the battlefield and at home, alive and well.