Tuesday, August 08, 2006

World War III or World War IV?

If you follow the commentaries by the pundits you will hear a discrepancy about how to locate our present moment in history. Are we in World War III or in World War IV? Historians will no doubt do that eventually. But some commentators and politicians say we are in the middle of World War III, others say it is World War IV since World War III was the Cold War.

We are definitely involved in conflicts all over the world. But who is "we". If "we" is the US then, yes, we are definitely involved in a worldwide struggle since our enemies are in every part of the world. But is it a world war? Are we there yet?

The Cold War was precisely named because it was not an actual physical confrontation between the parties involved but a long, mostly ideological struggle with a worldwide geographic distribution of small proxy wars, or battles. There were basically two antagonists in that struggle, the United States and the USSR (China posed only a limited and regional military threat at the time). The rest of the world lined up on either side of the spheres of influence of those two superpowers. The Cold War was a metaphor not a real war.

We are not in a world war yet, although it surely feels that way. While exaggerations serve to illustrate at times or to agitate and mobilize, there's always a problem with them, in the end they only help in distorting reality. The best analogy that comes to mind for our present moment is the period of world tension between 1933 and 1939 (although I believe WWII actually began with the Spanish Civil War, I will set that aside). It was during that period that a world threat to international peace grew in the form two strong forces. One was Nazism in Europe, and the other, nationalist imperialism in the Pacific Rim.

During that time the world sought various accommodations and diplomatic solutions to the demands imposed on international stability by these two forces. But diplomatic solutions continued to fail as either of these two forces committed violation after violation of international law and as their governments became more totalitarian against their own peoples. Countries were invaded, atrocities committed, repression and violations of human rights became entrenched as these forces became stronger militarily. Between failed diplomacy and acquiescence war finally came.

So if someone asks "Are we there yet?” regarding WWIII I would have to respond, "No, but almost there!"