How World War III Starts: 5 'Sparks' That Could Set the World Ablaze

What might spark such a war, and how would it escalate into a global conflict? Here are five potential scenarios: none likely, but all possible.

Since 1756, the modern-state system has experienced four global wars; The Seven Years War, The French Revolutionary Wars, World War I, and World War II. The longest global peace came between 1815 and 1914, and it has now been seventy years since the last world war.

Every global war needs a spark.  A conflict somewhere ignites the interest of more than one great power.  World War I had the assassination of Franz Ferdinand; the Seven Years War had desultory fighting between the French and British along the Mississippi River. The combatants do not always appreciate that the sparks can lead to conflagrations.

But at some point things escalate.  Other major nations become involved, and the initial cause of war becomes subsumed under great power competition.  The goal of fighting becomes the establishment of a new global order, and with the increase in stakes comes an increase in the resources committed by the combatants, and the sacrifices that their people make.

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“World War III” would, in effect, be the fifth World War in the history of the modern state system. What might spark such a war, and how would it escalate into a global conflict? Here are five potential scenarios, none likely, but all possible:


The Spark:

At the moment, ISIS has drawn the attention of most of the world’s most powerful countries, including France, the United States, and Russia. But the explosion of attention (not to mention air traffic) could complicate the next step in the war. On the one hand, an accidental confrontation between NATO and Russia aircraft could lead to bad tactical decisions, with one or more planes shot out of the air.  On the other, a dramatic shift on the ground in Syria could force the hand of one of the supporters of the proxy combatants.

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Even if the emerging anti-ISIS coalition prevails, conflict between major power could ensue.   This could get ugly, as France, Russia, and the United States have very different views about how the future of Syria should look. If any of the three decide to intervene in favor of their preferred factions, the situation could very quickly come to resemble a game of chicken, with airstrikes, no fly zones, and secure enclaves providing the points of conflict.  Serious fighting between external powers in Syria could quickly draw in Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, and potentially spread to other parts of the globe.

India and Pakistan


India and Pakistan could go to war again for any number of reasons. If a Pakistani-sponsored terrorist group makes another attack similar to that in Mumbai, India’s patience could wear very thin. Either state could engage in some adventurism in Afghanistan, perhaps in response to the activity of non-state actors.

Debate over the conventional balance along the border between India and Pakistan has raged for years. But if Pakistan suffered a serious conventional defeat, the use of tactical nuclear weapons might seem like the only way out. If that happens, all bets are off.


The United States has grown closer to India over the past few years, even as it continues to send weapons and cash to Pakistan.  Conversely, China has intensified the relationship with one of its only client states. The 1971 Indo-Pakistani War nearly drew in both the United States and China; in that conflict, both would have intervened on the Pakistani side. It is unclear, at this point, how the United States would respond if China felt that it needed to intercede on Pakistan’s behalf in a war with India.

East China Sea


Over the past two years China and Japan have played a dangerous game around the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. Both countries claim the islands, and each has deployed military forces in their vicinity. A naval or air incident could create an upsurge of nationalist hostility in both countries, making it difficult for either Tokyo or Beijing to back down. Moreover, both countries have struggled to control the activities of nationalist groups, leading to additional potential flashpoints.