© Tom Haugomat

GQ Hype

Why you shouldn't be scared of World War Three

We get it: it's a scary place out there, with risk, conflict and mendacious global leaders on the rise. And yet the one thing keeping us safe might just be the biggest threat of all...

I know that everyone who grew up during the Cold War claims to have been haunted by the prospect of nuclear Armageddon, but it really was true. I used to have a recurring dream in which I was sitting on a beach and – as they used to say – the balloon went up on the horizon and people just sat and stared, waiting for white hot annihilation to reach the shore. It was grim but at least it was by the sea and the sun was shining. Every mushroom cloud, eh?

Those of us exposed to the 1984 BBC drama Threads had to consider the inevitability of horrible death coming to a post-industrial Britain already ravaged by unemployment and heavy rain. And then there were the baby boomers recalling how they cowered under their desks in school as the terror of the Cuban Missile Crisis drifted over their impressionable minds like radioactive miasma.

Perhaps it’s because I’m getting older or because I have children, but 2019 is the first time I’ve been frightened of the world since the Eighties. It feels like the game of real-time Risk has entered a new phase, pushing us the closest we’ve been to a global crisis since the days of Ronald Reagan and whichever semiconscious Soviet leader he happened to be facing that week. As a new Cold War begins, the chances of the next one being hot bring all that 20th-century anxiety rushing back. It’s now been 74 years since the last Great Power war. That seems quite a long time...

There are always reasons for a parent to be worried, though the heightened empathy that comes with a family is usually accompanied by a mixture of smug browbeating and self-congratulation. The question “What kind of world will I leave for my children?” comes up a lot around dinner party tables and mum-heavy Facebook threads. Newspapers often talk of one thing or another being “a parent’s worst nightmare”, but I’ve been a parent for ages and for most of that time my worst nightmare has been being served fish mousse. Now I’m sensing a different fear, or rather the return of a familiar one. Climate change is a catastrophe we can predict with some assurance, whereas war is something you fear in the pit of your stomach, knowing that it’s waiting somewhere around the corner – a top-hatted Jack The Ripper emerging from the fog. The human race has a compulsive personality disorder. It just can’t help itself.

© Mikhail Metzel/AP/Shutterstock

I used to watch repeats of The World At War as a history enthusiast. Now it’s as a weepy father who glimpses footage of soldiers separating children from their parents through embarrassed tears. But the same horrors are taking place around the world right now in Syria, in Yemen and the civil wars of central Africa. When I look at my children and think, “You don’t know how lucky you are,” I am stating two empirical facts: firstly they are bloody lucky and, secondly, of course they don’t know it. They’re children.

I’m as spoilt as they are. After all, civilians in the West have enjoyed four generations without conflict. Call it the impossibility of war in the mind of the peaceful. With no sense of jeopardy, without even the tiniest inkling of what the human consequences of war are, it is easier to get behind leaders who promise security through aggression or easy solutions to intractable problems.

The sight of self-styled men of destiny and their macho regimes (the US included) riding the tiger of ethnic nationalism and facing off in the South China Sea, the Strait Of Hormuz or the Crimea is depressing as well as frightening. The historian AJP Taylor said, “Great men can be splendid in wartime, even essential, but they can be dangerous in peacetime.”

2019 is the first time I’ve been frightened of the world since the Eighties.

So while citizens of liberal democracies argue about whether Greta Thunberg is the new Joan Of Arc or just a child who’s missing too much school, the illiberal regimes of the world pursue their aims regardless.

Of course, climate change is itself a threat to world peace and always has been, as explained in Geoffrey Parker’s epic book, Global Crisis: War, Climate Change And Catastrophe In The Seventeenth Century, in which the links between conflicts around the world and climatic disasters are explored with alarming clarity. In the 17th century they blamed comets and witches for everything that went wrong. What’s our excuse?

When even the West won’t uphold Western values, the world seems a much scarier place. If there must be a war it would be nice if there was something to fight for, to make it a little less darkly absurd. Cold War One was so beautifully delineated you always knew who was on whose side. Cold War Two resembles more the fragmented international struggles of the 19th century: all “spheres of influence” and the precarious balance of power. Bad Vlad Putin presaged the latest G20 summit by saying liberalism was “obsolete” and had “outlived its purpose” as an ideology. It shows his confidence.

© Collection Christophel / Alamy Stock Photo

It has been so easy for China, Russia, Iran and others to push back against the “triumph of the West”, which has been unravelling since its Nineties honeymoon, blindsided by Francis Fukuyama’s “End Of History” thesis that liberal democracy was the end point of human development. This isn’t hindsight. Anyone who knew history knew history wouldn’t succumb easily to the idea that it no longer matters. You can’t say history is over and then invade Iraq.

The assumption that a grateful world would lap up freedom of speech, a free press, pluralism and tolerance now looks as foolish as investing in Blockbuster. In fact, the reverse is happening, as the West reacts to posturing tyrants with strong men and conspiracy peddling of its own. The ne plus ultra of this is how the rise of the new right and the new left in the US and Europe has combined – with gleeful opportunism on one side and wilful forgetfulness on the other – to revive anti-Semitism. It’s not only obscene in itself, but is a sign of laziness, of how easily we become lotus eaters. It is the kind of thought process that leads, when extrapolated on a national scale, to conflict. A Great Power war is always the triumph of forgetting over memory.

A cold war with China is not an obvious battle of ideologies, as with the Soviets, but a battle of interests or, God forbid, a clash of civilisations. China considers itself a homogenous ethnic, territorial and cultural bloc and is of a mind to insist on its power being acknowledged, which appears dangerous only when its interests rub up against those of others (Japan, South Korea, the US). But a scruple-free China’s great advantage is its ability to plan 40 or 50 years into the future, a luxury not afforded by the short-termism of a true democracy. The race for technological supremacy is still on, but the problem for the US is not simply China’s carefully managed aggression but that it always seems one step ahead. Powers in decline are just as, if not more, dangerous than powers in ascent.

It’s an odd, cold comfort that mutually assured destruction may be our saving grace.

Where once I lived in fear of nuclear weapons, now I pin my hopes on them. No Great Power would allow itself to lose a war without resorting to the nuclear option. So although a tech-cyber conflict seems sexier these days than actual bombs and guns, if a nation ever felt its survival was at stake then actual bombs it must be. All you need is a couple of angry soldiers and a mobile missile launcher.

When I was 12 – about the same time Threads was on television and Frankie Goes To Hollywood were at No1 with “Two Tribes” – I saw a repeat of AJP Taylor’s televised lecture How Wars Begin. His parting words have spooked me ever since. “People ask me will there be another world war and I am inclined to answer, ‘If men behave in the future as they have done in the past, there will be another world war.’ It’s always possible that men may behave differently. As a personal hunch I think it’s unlikely and there will be a third world war. One day, the deterrent will fail to deter.” They don’t call me happy-go-lucky in the office for nothing.

If there is one thing we can be sure of it’s that the great nations of today are no less myopic, selfish and greedy than those of 150 years ago. A Great Power war feels inevitable. Overdue, even. It is an odd, cold comfort that mutually assured destruction may be our only saving grace. That’s what some people believed in 1984 (the year, not the book). Nuclear weapons should make victory and defeat impossible. The trouble is, human beings love a challenge. And I must spend more time at the beach. That will take my mind off it.

Read more:

In the past, fascist leaderships were built on ideals. Now they're built on the lack of them

Dominic Cummings, the PM's new chief of staff, is an expert in destruction

Boris Johnson could be a great prime minister if he wasn't such a coward

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