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What is the closest thing to World War 3?

The world has seen two devastating world wars in the 20th century that led to millions of deaths and reshaped geopolitics. While another global conflict on the sheer scale of World Wars I and II seems unlikely today, there are several simmering tensions and conflicts around the world that have the potential to escalate into something approximating a “World War 3” scenario. Without further escalation and prudence from world leaders, these flashpoints could lead to a broader conflict involving multiple nations on different continents.

The Russia-Ukraine War

The ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine that began in February 2022 is the most significant military conflict in Europe since World War II. While the war is currently confined to Ukraine, there is concern it could spill over into neighboring countries or escalate into a broader NATO-Russia conflict. Russian President Vladimir Putin has made thinly veiled threats about using nuclear weapons, which could rapidly change the nature of the conflict. The war has already had global ripple effects economically and politically.

Here are some key facts about the Russia-Ukraine war:

  • The war began when Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, starting with attacks on major cities and airports.
  • Russia has failed to capture Kyiv but occupies large parts of southern and eastern Ukraine.
  • Over 14 million Ukrainians, or about 30% of the population, have fled their homes due to the conflict.
  • Ukraine has put up stiffer resistance against Russia than most observers expected with the help of Western military aid.
  • The US and European allies have provided Ukraine with tens of billions in military and humanitarian aid and imposed tough sanctions on Russia.
  • There have been concerns Putin could escalate to using nuclear or chemical weapons if faced with more battlefield defeats.
  • Peace talks have failed to make progress so far as both sides remain far apart on key issues.

While the Russia-Ukraine war remains regional so far, a further escalation could draw other powers like NATO into a broader conflict. Much depends on Putin’s future actions and restraint from all sides. For now, it remains the closest current scenario to a new World War given the involvement of a major nuclear power in Russia.

China-Taiwan Tensions

Long-running tensions over the status of Taiwan have escalated in recent years, raising concerns about a potential Chinese invasion or military action against the island democracy. Taiwan has operated as a de facto independent state since 1949, but China still views it as part of its sovereign territory. Chinese military provocations near Taiwan have increased under President Xi Jinping, stoking fears that Beijing may use force to bring the island under its control.

Some key facts on China-Taiwan tensions:

  • The Chinese Communist Party has never controlled Taiwan, which has had full democracy since 1996.
  • China has ramped up military drills and flown warplanes near Taiwan with increasing frequency since 2020.
  • The US provides Taiwan defensive weapons and has strategic ambiguity on whether it would militarily defend Taiwan.
  • A Chinese invasion of Taiwan would pose major logistical challenges and risks for Beijing.
  • Taiwan’s chip manufacturing is important to global technology supply chains, giving it outsized economic importance.
  • Any conflict over Taiwan could rapidly draw in other powers like the US and Japan.

While neither China nor Taiwan wants an active war, the potential for miscalculation remains high. A Chinese attempt to forcefully bring Taiwan under its control would almost certainly ignite a regional or global conflict. The US and allies would face difficult choices on how far to go to defend Taiwan’s democracy and autonomy.

Middle East Tensions

The Middle East remains a geopolitical powder keg with several active conflicts and enduring tensions that could spiral out of control. While the region is no stranger to instability, the proximity of major powers like Russia makes the risks of escalation very real. Several key Middle East flashpoints have the potential to erupt into a wider conflagration.

  • Israel-Iran: Israel continues to clash with Iranian proxies like Hezbollah and has vowed to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. If Iran develops nukes, Israel may resort to strikes that could ignite a regional war.
  • Israel-Palestine: The unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict fuels perpetual cycles of violence. Heavy fighting in Gaza or West Bank incursions could draw in other Arab states.
  • Syria’s Civil War: Russia and Iran’s military intervention in Syria’s war has reduced violence but not stabilized the country. ISIS also still operates in the region. Increased turmoil could compel further foreign involvement.
  • Yemen’s War: Yemen’s civil war has become a proxy battle between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Continued fighting leaves Yemen vulnerable to humanitarian crisis and groups like Al Qaeda.

Though these conflicts seem contained for now, the risk of miscalculation or spillover into neighboring countries keeps tensions high. Any flare-ups could quickly take on a regional dimension, especially given the presence of external powers with their own competing interests.

The India-Pakistan Conflict

India and Pakistan’s long-running feud over borders, resources and power could also devolve into a much larger conflict. The hostile neighbors have fought four wars since 1947 and continue to regularly exchange fire across the volatile Line of Control in disputed Kashmir. Both nations are nuclear powers, meaning any full-scale war risks escalating into nuclear conflict. While nuclear weapons have deterred major wars so far, the risk of miscalculation always lurks in the backdrop.

Here are some key aspects of the conflict:

  • Kashmir remains the central territorial dispute, though India and Pakistan have fought wars over other borders as well.
  • Water access is another major source of tensions for the agriculture-dependent nations.
  • India has accused Pakistan of backing militant groups launching attacks in India, a charge Pakistan denies.
  • China also controls portions of disputed Kashmir but has historically backed Pakistan against India.
  • India’s recent revocation of Kashmir’s autonomy raised tensions with Pakistan.
  • Both nations expect support from allies in case of war, raising risks of escalation.

The proximity and animosity make periodic clashes between India and Pakistan virtually inevitable. Preventing these skirmishes from spiraling into a nuclear conflict will require continued prudent diplomacy on both sides.

A Clash Between Major Powers

While none of the existing flashpoints currently involve major power conflict, tensions between military powers like the US, China, and Russia still present risks. If any conflicts draw in NATO on one side and China/Russia on the other, they could rapidly take on global dimensions. Their competing strategic interests around the world increase chances of dangerous confrontations.

Here are some possible scenarios where major powers could come into direct conflict:

  • A Chinese attempt to invade Taiwan prompts US intervention, leading to war between the two superpowers.
  • Russia’s war in Ukraine continues to escalate, spurring greater NATO involvement that leads to outright combat between Russia and NATO members.
  • Israel strikes Iranian nuclear facilities, igniting a regional war that forces the US and Russia to back opposing sides.
  • India and Pakistan’s escalating tensions erupt into nuclear conflict, forcing the US and China to pick sides.
  • North Korea’s aggression leads the US to strike its nuclear facilities, bringing China into the conflict.
  • Chinese expansion in the South or East China Seas sparks naval conflicts with the US and allies in the region.

These scenarios illustrate how existing hotspots could conceivably mushroom into clashes between major global players. However, a direct war between powers like the US, China, and Russia remains unlikely due to the enormous risks on all sides. But the potential for miscalculation still emphasises the importance of diplomacy and communication.

Global Risks

Apart from existing geopolitical flashpoints, several global risks could also serve as wild cards that lead to significant international conflict. These include:

  • Climate change – Disasters and scarcity stoke conflict within and between nations over resources.
  • Global economic crisis – A debt crisis or depression reshapes major power relations and fuels nationalism.
  • Pandemic – A deadlier pandemic puts strains on governments and worsens inequality.
  • Cyber or technological warfare – Digital attacks cripple critical infrastructure and sow global instability.
  • Nuclear terrorism – Terror groups obtain and use dirty bombs or crude nuclear devices.
  • Space militarization – Nations start testing anti-satellite and other space-based weapons, starting an arms race.

While still unlikely, these scenarios illustrate how non-traditional threats could also undermine global order and peace. Preventing and cooperatively handling such risks can limit knock-on effects like mass displacement, economic collapse, or resource conflicts.

The Balance of Power

What’s prevented another global war so far is the balance of power between major nations and military blocs. Here is a comparison of key military powers today:

Country Active troops Defense spending Nuclear warheads
United States 1.4 million $801 billion 5,800
China 2.0 million $252 billion 350
Russia 1.0 million $65.9 billion 6,375
India 1.4 million $72.9 billion 160
France 203,000 $60.9 billion 290

This balance of capabilities has so far deterred unilateral moves for global dominance by any power. Maintaining this equilibrium while finding ways to cooperate on shared global challenges will be key to preventing escalatory situations that lead to a World War 3 scenario.

Globalization’s Impact

The interconnected nature of the modern globalized world has also reduced the chances of all-out global war. Here are some key ways globalization helps promote peace:

  • Closely interlinked economies make damaging wars economically disastrous for all major powers.
  • Increased trade and investment flows create mutual dependencies between nations.
  • Participation in multilateral institutions like the UN and WTO promotes negotiation over conflict.
  • Modern communications technology facilitates diplomacy and greater cultural/social understanding between populations.
  • Complex multinational supply chains mean few industries are reliant on one country for critical components.
  • Wars cause greater disruption of the global commons like international air travel and the Internet.

These factors encourage nations to pursue non-violent solutions and exert caution against destabilizing wars. However, globalization’s benefits are neither guaranteed or permanent. Economic integration can also be weaponized in the form of sanctions during conflicts.


While the shape would be different, several regional conflicts and tensions around the world have the potential to ignite a broader international conflagration approximating a World War III scenario. The risk of miscalculation always lurks, emphasizing the importance of stability and communication between major powers. No side stands to gain from escalatory moves. Fortunately, the deterrent effects of nuclear weapons and economic integration have limited conflicts so far. For world peace to prevail, diplomacy and cooperation must continue guiding foreign policies over militarism and nationalism.