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The world has faced two world wars in its history, and some research indicates a rise in public concern about the possibility of another, but, according to two BYU faculty members, there is still plenty to be reassured about.
A 2022 study from the American Psychological Association showed that 81% of participants considered global uncertainty to be one of their top sources of stress.
Google Trends shows data regarding the interest and search of “World War III” over the last several years. In 2006, as the Middle East faced unrest, Google saw an increase in searches relating to World War III. Similar spikes can be found in 2017, possibly induced by rising tensions in North Korea, and in 2020 after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
BYU student Lydia Sloan said with all the various wars and contentions in the world, it can be difficult to predict what the future will look like.
“There are so many things going on all the time that it’s hard to know when something is going to lead to a war,” Sloan said. “Because there have been so many false alarms, it’s hard to know what’s actually happening and what’s real.
Early last year, President Biden said sending offensive equipment and tanks with American crews to Ukraine would result in “World War Three.” Almost a year later, he announced the United States would be delivering 31 M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine, prompting many to wonder whether another war is imminent.
Just over a year ago, Russia invaded Ukraine, creating Europe’s fastest-growing immigration crisis since World War II and causing over 8,000 civilian deaths and 13,000 injuries as of March 5.
In 2017, North Korea claimed to have dropped a hydrogen bomb in its sixth nuclear test that was being prepared for an intercontinental ballistic missile. Former President Trump responded to the provocation at the 72nd session of the United Nations General Assembly by threatening to “totally destroy North Korea” if they continued on their current path.
Sloan said some things are exaggerated and others are not discussed enough, which she finds confusing.
“While I feel World War III in our lifetime isn’t outside the realm of possibility, I have a hard time knowing where the world is going,” she said.
BYU adjunct professor Kerry Kartchner studies nuclear proliferation, the ethics of war and American diplomacy. While the world has always faced various threats, Kartchner believes our current situation is actually unique.
“Although the U.S. has been through scary times before, this is one of the scariest times,” Kartchner said.
In terms of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, Kartchner said Russia invading and attacking Ukraine has challenged the basic pillars of the global world order. For hundreds of years, the world order has been based upon non-interference in other countries’ affairs and respecting other countries’ sovereignty, something Russia is now violating.
“Russia’s indiscriminate use of ballistic missiles to attack urban centers, schools, hospitals and churches is also a violation of every known law of war, and that’s scary. Russia is not respecting any moral or ethical boundaries,” Kartchner said.
Nuclear saber rattling, which refers to a country making threats about its nuclear weapons, is also something Kartchner said Russia has recently been doing at an unprecedented rate, even more than during the Cold War.
However, Kartchner said the more a country touts its nuclear weapons, the more nuclear weakness it is hiding.
While Kartchner personally believes the threat of North Korea to be exaggerated, he does find grounds for concern in Russia and China’s non-compliance with the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, commonly abbreviated to the NPT, which was signed by many world powers in 1968.
The NPT designates the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France as the five countries allowed to produce nuclear weapons. These five countries are the same five permanent members of the U.N. security council. The purpose treaty is to minimize the number of nuclear weapons created and disseminated, “believing that the proliferation of nuclear weapons would seriously enhance the danger of nuclear war,” according to the document.
“Unfortunately Russia and China are both seriously damaging that nuclear proliferation regime,” Kartchner said. “About two years ago, China began rapidly building up its nuclear weapons arsenal.”
Kartchner also said the U.S. intelligence community believes China may double the number of nuclear weapons it has by the end of the decade.
“The rapid build-up of nuclear weapons in China is very concerning,” Kartchner said.
Assistant Professor Chad Nelson teaches political science at BYU and focuses his research on the international effects of revolutions, international relations and the rise of great powers. As Nelson discusses the possibilities of another World War and the current geopolitical landscape, he urges people to keep history in mind.
“The United States is in a proxy war in direct conflict with Russia which is a nuclear adversary, which hasn’t happened since the Cold War. Understandably, nerves can be jittery about that and everything going on with China. But I often hear the sentiment about how the world has never been more fraught, and that’s when I think there’s a lot of historical amnesia going on,” Nelson said.
Nelson believes the era of the Cold War, when there were direct crises between states that had nuclear arsenals, was scarier than anything we are currently facing.
“The world is becoming a somewhat more dangerous place, but the world has always been a somewhat dangerous place and we’ve certainly lived through historical episodes that have been much more dangerous than this,” Nelson said.
According to Kartchner, current U.S. leadership in the global arena is strong, and NATO remains the most powerful military alliance in the world, which is effectively deterring Russia from spreading conflict beyond the Ukrainian border.
“International trade is good, and there are a whole host of metrics of global health that are way up, but because they are good news they tend to not get mentioned in mainstream media which likes to share sensational, shocking and discouraging things,” Kartchner said.
As the United States continues to send assistance to Ukraine, Nelson said he is encouraged by the Biden administration’s prudence in developing boundaries they will not cross to prevent further escalation.
Kartcher and Nelson do not predict World War III erupting anytime soon. “This is a scary time in U.S. history. However, I think there are also a lot of things that are reassuring that are happening in the world,” Kartchner said.
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