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[Kim Seong-kon] Are we on the brink of World War III?

By Korea Herald

Published : March 6, 2024 - 05:35

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Recently, authoritarian leaders from formerly imperialist countries are threatening the world that they will start World War III if their territorial expansion policy and dream of restoring their glorious past meet challenges from other countries. Accordingly, people are beginning to worry about the possibility of World War III, which could likely be a nuclear war resulting in global annihilation.

In The Telegraph, Sherelle Jacobs recently wrote an intriguing article entitled: “World War Three is approaching fast, and too few are willing to admit why.” In this timely, insightful column, Jacobs points out that historically “it is not confident and successful countries that start wars, but corroded and schizophrenic ones that both suffer from grandiose delusions and mortal dread of the future.”

Indeed, we are now witnessing authoritarian leaders exhibiting “grandiose delusions” of recovering their magnificent past while failing to provide jobs and economic prosperity to their people.

Jacobs also predicts that failed tyrannical leaders may start a new world war as a desperate measure to avoid a fall from power. She writes: “Autocratic leaders – tortured by the prospect of death in the event of their fall from power – will be willing to pursue survival strategies that, while irrational to us, appear deeply rational to them.” Undeniably, those tyrannical leaders believe that war with external enemies will divert the people’s attention from their failure and unite them under patriotism.

Writing in the UK edition of The Week, Chas Newkey-Burden makes an equally prescient and disturbing point. In his article -- “How likely is an accidental nuclear incident?” -- Newkey-Burden reminds us that an accidental nuclear war could happen in any number of scenarios, such as a computer malfunction, a wrong AI decision or an unannounced nuclear missile test misinterpreted as an attack.

These insights are alarming when we look at the situation we are faced with today.

Currently, we are witnessing another cold war between the "free world" and the former communist countries, in addition to Middle Eastern countries. In one of his latest harangues, Donald Trump claimed that he could stop the impending Third World War if he is returned to the White House. Perhaps he is planning to withdraw support from existing or potential conflicts in Ukraine, Taiwan and the Middle East in favor of Russia, China and Iran. He does not seem to care about what might happen thereafter because he will lead America to isolationism. However, would America and the world be safe afterward? Experts seriously doubt it.

Are we, then, on the brink of World War III, or is it merely the bluff of some aggressive authoritarian leaders?

World War III may break out by accident because delusional, desperate leaders are highly unstable and unpredictable. Interestingly, a high-ranking Russian official recently amused us by arguing that a nuclear war might be accidental due to elderly US leaders who reportedly lack “cognitive abilities.” Actually, Russian politicians have been threatening to use nuclear weapons if it cannot not win in Ukraine.

You never know when imprudent tyrannical leaders may do reckless things that may result in World War III. Still, however, they could not do such suicidal things without a thought because World War III would not only annihilate the world, but also completely ruin their own country as well. Especially if they were to use nuclear weapons, it would inevitably cause human extinction and the tragic end of Earth as we know it.

Besides, authoritarian leaders would think twice before declaring war against the world because they cannot possibly win.

History tells us that allied forces have always won, as in the case of World Wars I and II. A single country, or only two or three countries, cannot win a war against the whole world. And if they lost, they would be on trial as war criminals in the international court, which they would not want at all.

Still, however, it is only our wish and hope because we never know what will happen in the future.

We strongly hope that authoritarian leaders are discrete enough not to start World War III. Meanwhile, the rest of the world should unite and demonstrate a strong will to confront and respond to the threat of authoritarian leaders, so they would give up any intention to begin nuclear war. If the world were resolute to stop authoritarian leaders’ delusions, they would not be able to start World War III easily.

It is sad and depressing that we have to worry about World War III in the 21st century. After suffering from COVID-19 for three years, we need a peaceful life. Yet, we now have to worry about nuclear war.

To make matters worse, we are facing global climate change, as well, which will be equally disastrous. Under the circumstances, what kind of future could we bequeath to our children?

We do not believe that we are yet on the brink of World War III. Nevertheless, we should do our best to prevent global disaster.

Kim Seong-kon

Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. -- Ed.