By Matthew Clark
Recent events (February-March 2022) in the Ukraine have caused many people, rich, middle class, and poor, scholar and worker, teacher and student, to wonder if a General widespread war, between great powers, or even a World war, is imminent? If not then this will have just been another crisis in an era where crisis is all too common. On the other hand a positive answer to this question creates other queries that, at best are unsettling, at worst are terrifying.
Admittedly the future is an undiscovered country, filled with what if scenarios. Nevertheless educated guesses on what could transpire can be made by studying past history in similar situations.
In the late 19th and early 20th century a series of military and economic alliances were enacted amongst the nations of Europe and Asia. In the early 1890's France and Russia formed a military and economic partnership. This was later joined by Great Britain and became known as the Triple Entente. Germany, Italy, and the Austrian-Hungarian Empire formed a counter bloc to the Entente called the Central Powers. In the Pacific in 1902 Britain and Japan signed a Naval Treaty which included military support. Soon other nations, especially in the Balkans, reached formal agreements on mutual military and economic support. Sometimes nations would switch their allegiance from one side to another, such as what Italy did in 1915 by joining the (now expanded) Entente. These developments bare much of the responsibility for the Catastrophe/Tragedy of the Great 1914-1918 War
Since the 1990's geopolitics has gradually resembled the international situation proir to 1914. The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation has moved steadily eastwards across Europe towards Russia. In the East Pacific South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, the Phillipines, have, despite misgivings due to historical interactions, joined the United States in a military strategy of surrounding Communist China. In reaction to these circumstances the Russians and Chinese governments have cast aside, for the time being, the traditional rivalry they share with each other, to form an alliance of their own. Surprisingly India appears to have rejected their ancestral antipathy towards China, to join the Russians and Chinese in a common cause.
Meanwhile in the Middle East Iran and Syria have bonded together to thwart the Isreali
Saudi Arabia axis.
These developments, identical in pattern if not detail to the pre 1914 world, suggest the nations of the world are on the cusp of another Great war!
If this is so the next question would logically be who has the moral high road?
With the rise in authoritarianism in the last 30 years amongst North Atlantic Treaty Organisation Nations, and their Asian and South Pacific allies, no force offers a rise in individual freedom. China and Russia fit the description of oligarchial collectivism, so they too fail to offer any meaningful principle(s) in this area.
The issue of Sovereignty is another matter. Russia, China, and India do appear to hold a stronger hand morally. North Atlantic Treaty Organisation military forces are on Russia's border(s). Missiles very close (Poland) to Russia threaten her existance just as Soviet missiles on Cuban soil put the United States at existential risk in October 1962. United States naval forces, supported by Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and the Phillipines, constantly patrol the waters off the Chinese coast. In a territorial construct the United States, and her allies, are the aggressors. So it can be reasonably argued that a major war is imminent, and the Americn led alliance(s) are the aggressors and therefore hold a morally inferior position to her enemies.
Our next question on the future is as important as the previous inquiries. Which side will win in a General war between the Great Powers?
There is an immediate qualification to this examination. If the war goes nuclear, which is very likely as soon as one side starts to lose beyond an incremental degree, there will be no winners. Universal destruction will result. So the question changes to: On the unlikely chance that a general war among the worlds most powerful jurisdictions can be fought without the use of nuclear weapons, who would win such a conflct?
At first glance the United States led nations appear to hold the upper hand. North Atlantic Treaty Organisation states range from Russia's borders all the way back to the Atlantic Ocean, and then westward to North America. Included in this group is the great export country of Germany, Great Britain with its' capital London being one of the worlds' great financial centres and the largest in Europe. Above all for the coalition is its' leader, the worlds wealthiest country the United States of America.
In the East Pacific China faces a formidable economic and military power in Japan. South Korea and Taiwan are also strong in these areas. Unlike the Europeans these Asian tigers have a strong manufacturing base, extending from high tech semi-conductors (Taiwan) to automobiles (Japan, and Korea). Of course military hardware is included in this sphere. Meanwhile the Phillipines is developing rapidly, and has a large, youthful population. China also has to worry about Vietnam, an unaligned country but one with hostile sentiment toward their northern neighbour (hostilities occurred between the two countries in 1979).
In the Middle East Isreal, at this moment, is the mightiest military power. She also supports her martial forces with a healthy economy. Saudi-Arabia, with her abundance of oil, is wealthy. As a result the Saudis have a well equipped modern military. Syria and Iran, the likely opponents of the Irealis and Saudis, can counter this somewhat with a large, youthful population, while Iran also has its' own abundance of fossil fuels. Yet they are seemingly not equal to Isreal/Saudi-Arabia.
Nevertheless a more in depth look at the different sides indicates that the position of the United States led alliance(s) is fraught with peril. They would need to win quickly because time would be on the side of the enemy.
For starters given the size of public debt of the United States, as well as Canada (Canada also has a horrible private debt challenge) and the European countries, it is not assured a war could be adequately financed. Many of the governments of the North Atlantic Treat Organisation have a greater than 100% debt to Gross Domestic Product ratio. This is particularly true of the United States (130%). With the exception of Great Britain, Poland, and Americ none of the Alliances nations spend even 2% of their budget on the military. As well the Europeans many urban centres are hollowed out with 'No Go Zones, which are occuppied by hostile (to the state) migration groups, angry at the discrepency in their standard of living compared to the 'old stock Europen population.' This is a hazard during any conflict as it leaves room for fifth column movements, be they domestic, or foreign. Another immense challenge is the German dependancy on energy supplies from Russia.
Comparably Russia has a debt to Gross Domestic Product level of 20%. Besides enormous oil and natural gas reserves the Russians possess large amounts of military important materials such as nickel, and do produce a surplus of food and other agricultural products (such as fertilizer). President Putin has poured substantial resources into his country's armed forces, especially since the 2014 events in the Ukraine. Similar to the United States Russia has a formidable military industrial complex.
In the event of war the Europeans would need to boost up their military. This would take up time they do not have. An already vulernable financial system would crater. Rebuilding their militaries would be prevented as a result. Germany, the mightiest economic power on the continent, would be hobbled by the removal of energy supplies from Russia. Only support from the United States could prevent a Russian victory in Europe. Yet America, in time of war would be stretched thin due to her global committments ( Imperial overreach as described by Paul Kennedy in his 1979 work;"The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers"). Advantage Russia.
In the Middle East the deciding factor will be food! Isreal has the agricultural ability to feed itself. Saudi Arabia does not. Isreal can produce enough food to substantially supplement the Saudis diet but cannot get the food there because Syria is in the way.
With limited support from Russia, and larger committments from Iran, Syria can prevent her country from being completely occuppied by Isreal, although Isreal would overrun a large chunk of it. Turkey is unlikely to take up arms in this particular conflict as it will mean war with Russia. Final result no meaningful food supplies delivered to the Saudis. Saudis will seek terms with the Iranians.
Iran and Syria also cannot produce enough food to feed themselves. They can however get food from Russia and China. Iran borders Russia. Food can be delivered to Syria from Iran via the porous northern regions of Iraq. As a result Isreal will face Syria and Iran alone. Faced with this isolation she will settle on terms with those two nations which, while they will still leave Isreal in a viable position, will ultimately result in Syria and Iran achieving much greater regional power. In the case of the United States their forces will be stretched between Europe and Asia/Pacific. No meaningful contribution to the Middle East theatre of war will be made by them. Advantage Iran and Syria.
Finally there is the Asia Pacific conflict. Time will be on the sides of the Russians, Chinese, and Indians. With greater manufacturing power, surplus of raw materials, and advantage in manpower, the war will be theirs to win. It is entirely possible that the American, and East Pacific nations, with well organized, professional forces, win some impressive early victories over their opponents. The impact of these will be transitory.
In North America during the Seven Years War the first 3 years of war saw France continually vanquish her British adversary. Yet because her economic, naval (those two were/are intertwined) and population advantage in the New World was so superior to her opponent the Albion forces only needed one victory at Louisbourg to turn the fortune of war around. The next year, 1759, Wolfe's army, with overwhelming naval support, accomplished total victory.
Likewise the Napleonic Wars tell a related tale. The great emperor won campaign after campaign but could never completely subdue his enemies with their greater resources, both natural and manmade. After a failed campaign in Russia the die was cast for his total defeat on the fields of Waterloo.
During World War One Germany outperformed the Allies from August 1914 to roughly May of 1918. Then the Western Allies, possessing a greater depth, went on a 6 month campaign to ultimate victory.
There are even more historical examples of how early military defeats are overcome by a fundamentally strong, determined combatant(s). By most measures of war, manufacturing, natural resources, scientific knowledge, manpower (oops sorry humanpower), the Russian, Chinese, Indian affiliation have a greater supply than that controlled by the United States coalition. Advantage Russia, China, India. Thus to avoid defeat America, or a country friendly to her, will have to use nuclear weapons.
Better to de-esculate the present situation and get international relations on a more sustainable path. Advantage World.