It wasn’t long after the collapse of the Soviet Union that American defense strategists had identified the new World War III scenario: Taiwan. Nearly a quarter century later, Taiwan remains on the tip of the geopolitical tongue. The election of the nationalist DPP in January has rattled cross-Strait relations. Beijing called on Taipei to abandon any “hallucinations” of independence. With tensions already flaring over the disputed South China Sea, this could be the beginning of the escalation spiral towards World War III many have feared for so long.
Taiwan isn’t the only World War III scenario experts have warned about in the past twenty-five years. India and Pakistan went nuclear in 1998, with the Kargil crisis ensuing a year later. Without a personal intervention by President Bill Clinton, many believe one or both of the South Asian rivals might indeed have pulled the trigger. More recently, China and Japan have come close to the brink several times, such as in 2010, when Japanese patrol boats rammed a Chinese trawler, and subsequently when the governor of Tokyo agreed to buy three of the disputed Senkaku Islands from their private owner, sparking enraged Chinese citizens to attack Japan’s embassy in Beijing. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe spent much of 2014 traveling from Davos to DC, warning the world that 1914 was playing out all over again. In 2015, Japan’s parliament lifted the country’s long-standing ban on overseas military operations, while the country weighs reviving its nuclear weapons program.
Every month also seems to bring some provocation by the pathologically erratic North Korean regime, whether a missile launch or maritime altercation. And then there’s Iran. Who can forget John McCain humming “bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran” in 2007? In mid-2015, he took to the Senate floor to all but advocate an Israeli preemptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Which brings us to the present. Every world power is racing to do business in Iran. India and Pakistan are negotiating a Most Favored Nation trade agreement and gas pipeline from Iran. Toyota cars are selling in record numbers in China, and Chinese represent the largest number of foreigners living in Japan. And in November 2015, former Taiwanese president Ma Ying-jeou and Chinese president Xi Jinping held a historic meeting in Singapore to discuss peaceful reunification. They made it sound as inevitable as two decades of experts have made war sound.
Here is my prediction: Taiwan won’t cause World War III. Nor will Kashmir, nor the Senkaku Islands, nor the nonexistent Iranian nuclear bomb. We aren’t very good at predicting wars. The wars that have broken out in the recent past—the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq after 9/11, Russia invading Ukraine, the proxy war under way in Syria—weren’t predicted by anyone.
Furthermore, applying ancient wisdom such as the “Thucydides trap” only gets us so far. In 2015, respected Harvard professor Graham Allison published a study covering five hundred years of geopolitical power transitions and found that war broke out between the “ruling” power and its “rising” challenger in twelve out of sixteen cases. Based on these historical odds, war between the United States and China is likely but not inevitable. The most important strategy to avoid sleepwalking into World War III, Allison’s brilliant paper urged, is a “long pause for reflection.” Let’s take that pause.
This isn’t 1914. In our haste to make analogies to a century ago, we have neglected the differences. European nations traded heavily across each other prior to World War I, but they did so as vertically integrated mercantile empires drawing on raw materials from their own vast colonies. They traded in finished goods without outsourcing production to each other. We did not have today’s internationally distributed manufacturing networks in 1914. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries brought trade interdependence; in the twenty-first century, we have complex supply chain dispersal as well—including among rival superpowers.
Even more than trade, it is investment that determines the stability of relations. Under a Cold War geopolitical paradigm, rivals wouldn’t invest in each other either; the United States and the Soviet Union certainly didn’t. But today’s robust flows of global investment among friends and enemies—“frenemies”—highlight how we have shifted from a Westphalian world to a supply-chain world. This financial and investment integration comes in the form of the trillions of dollars of assets invested in each other’s currencies and equities, as well as the tangible, productive capital—factories, real estate, banks, agriculture—they have bought and built inside other’s territory to efficiently and profitably access their markets.
If the United States and China were to go to war, the most immediate casualty would be Walmart, America’s largest retailer, 70 percent of whose merchandise is imported from China. Walmart has also been buying e-commerce companies such as Yihaodian.com to boost sales in China. The world’s most valuable company, Apple (also American), would also see its stock plummet, with so much of the market sentiment around its potential linked to growth in China. Two other American technology giants, Google and Facebook, would have to give up their cherished dreams of equal access behind China’s “Great Firewall,” and Hollywood studios, already accused of self-censorship to gain investment such as Dalian Wanda’s recent purchase of Legendary Entertainment for $3.5 billion, would find themselves banned from the world’s fastest-growing film market.
Approximately 60 percent of the Fortune 500’s revenues come from overseas sales, and the recently ratified Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement is an American-led effort to nudge Asia’s share of America’s exports up even higher—with the potential for China itself to eventually join the trade area. As of March 2016, China imports American shale oil supplies from Texas. Direct confrontation is thus not in anyone’s interest so long as China needs peace for growth, America needs China for its hardware and everyone relies on shipping through the South China Sea.
Supply chains thus diminish the incentives for conflict. Leaders think twice, and step back from the brink. The growing depth of global cross-border trade and investment make geopolitics much more complex than in previous eras. When Presidents Obama and Xi held a 2013 summit at Sunnylands in California and spoke of aspiring toward “a new kind of great power relationship,” that was a reflection of the current reality—not a future scenario.
The common-sense truth is that while leaders talk about “red lines” for public consumption, and navies come dangerously close to trading direct fire, global market integration churns forward, knowing that there are two kinds of mutually assured destruction at play: military and economic. Military maneuvers don’t tell us enough about what drives leverage among great powers nor what they are willing to fight over. The tangled complexities of today’s system force leaders to think beyond borders and make functional calculations about the cost-benefit utility of their strategies—knowing full well that supply-chain warfare involves not just an enemy “over there” but also one’s own deep interests “over there.”
Waiting for World War III thus recalls Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, in which Vladimir and Estragon resolve to hang themselves if Godot does not arrive—so they simply sit endlessly. Their would-be savior, of course, never comes, but the protagonists never actually commit suicide either.
It is well documented that the number and frequency of interstate wars has fallen to nearly zero. Equally important, but far less discussed, is our ability to ring-fence conflicts, containing them at the local or regional level rather than allowing them to spillover too widely or escalate too sharply. The one genuine international conflict of the past several years, between Russia and Ukraine, is an example of this. Russia has not invaded the Baltics, marched into Poland, shut off gas to Europe in the winter or otherwise cleaved the European Union. Russia lacks the capacity to do so, and knows the repercussions of overreach.
The Arab world also continues to seize daily headlines. Syria is undeniably a regional proxy war, meaning that chaos there will continue. But it is not likely that Sunni powers such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia will directly escalate against Russia and Iran, whose forces are backing Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite regime. Saudi Arabia and Iran are also jockeying in Iraq, marking yet another chapter in Iraq’s destruction that began with the 1980s Iran-Iraq War, the disastrous invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the U.S. invasion in 2003 and brutal insurgency ever since. But Iraq, too, will not become the flash point that triggers war among great powers. While all of these conflicts are tragic, none of them, civil or international, are of world-historical significance.
A far more important driver of the long-term geopolitical positioning among key powers is not their role in any of these minor wars, but how they play the great supply-chain tug-of-war that is a far more pervasive reality than international warfare. Tug-of-war is an apt metaphor for our times. The world’s oldest team sport, its rituals are recorded in ancient stone etchings from Egypt to Greece to China to Guinea. Often conducted in resplendent royal ceremonies, tug-of-war was used by the soldiers of great armies to build strength in preparation for combat. In the eighth century, the Tang dynasty emperor Xuanzong was known to pit over five hundred warriors on each side of a rope over 150 meters long.