History Repeats: Are We Heading Towards Another World War?

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World War 2

A fleet of eight Russian warships sailed through the English Channel late last month, on their way to the Mediterranean Sea. And while this body of water along the British coast is an international zone, Moscow’s show of strength raised concerns amongst EU nations.

UK defence secretary Michael Fallon said British ships would “man-mark them every step of the way” in a bid to “keep Britain safe.”

While NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg said Russia had a right to operate in international waters, he was concerned the destroyers’ weaponry would be used to further desecrate the besieged Syrian city of Aleppo.

Demonise undesirables, and unite the public

The international community watches on, just as it observed the rise of extreme right-wing dictator Adolf Hitler as he brazenly brushed aside the requirements of the Treaty of Versailles and ultimately entered Poland in January 1934, sparking the Second World War.

Hitler sought a return to what he perceived as Germany’s “golden age”, pursuing a “thousand Year Reich”, using emotionally charged rhetoric not dissimilar to Donald Trump’s “make America great again” – identifying, demonising and persecuting a group which he saw as responsible for all of Germany’s problems.

Supporters of right wing politics in Germany saw themselves as protecting the nation against Jews and (left wing) communists, in a way not dissimilar to the demonisation of communists during the Cold War, or illegally invaded and occupied Muslim countries more recently, which has contributed to the rise of extremist groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS in the Middle East.

The situation has created a powder keg in the eyes of many.

The proxy war

Russia announced this week that it’s continuing its military operations in Syria, targeting the forces opposed to the Assad regime. Russia’s involvement has turned the tide against the opposition forces, which are backed by the United States.

This proxy war between Moscow and Washington has seen another alliance strengthened. Russia began using sites in Iran to launch airstrikes against Syrian militants last month.

It’s developments like these that are fuelling the speculation on social and mass media platforms that there could be another world war brewing.

Build-up along the Russian border

The 4,000 NATO troops to be stationed along the border with Russia – the alliance’s biggest military build-up since the cold war – are also stoking the rumours of war.

Britain is dispatching troops to Estonia, supported by France and Denmark. The US is sending soldiers to Poland. Germany and Canada have also pledged to send forces.

The Alliance announced last week that it’s also placing 300,000 troops on high alert in response to a “more assertive Russia”, and to reassure the Baltic States.

Meanwhile, Russia is strengthening its military presence. An estimated 330,000 troops are stationed close to its western border near Moscow, while tens of thousands of troops are being deployed to its border with Ukraine, in a move that’s meant to counter a perceived NATO threat.

Moscow moved nuclear-capable missiles into its Kaliningrad exclave bordering Lithuania and Poland last month, as well as sending two Russian warships armed with cruise missiles into the Baltic Sea.

President Putin recently assured a gathering at the Black Sea resort of Sochi that it was “stupid and unrealistic” to think Russia might attack a European nation. However, Russian state media has been openly warning citizens to prepare for a possible nuclear war with the US.

Trouble in the South China Sea

On top of all of this, there’s the tension in the South China Sea. China has been constructing a series of artificial islands with military capabilities upon partly-submerged reefs in the contested Spratlys archipelago. Beijing claims sovereignty over the majority of the sea.

A US warship passed through an area claimed by China on October 21. This was the fourth time the US has conducted so-called “freedom-of-navigation” operations in the disputed waters over the past year. Chinese authorities have described the operations as “illegal” and “provocative.”

A shifting of alliances altered the dynamics in the area last month. Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte said his nation would be separating from the US – the island nation having been the superpower’s closest ally in the region – and realigning with China, and perhaps Russia.

And just this week, a Chinese communist party official announced that the nation’s first aircraft carrier is ready for combat operations and could be heading to the South China Sea.

The president-elect

But are these actually signs of a pending international conflict, or just governments flexing their muscles and deflecting attention away from their domestic problems, as some commentators see it?

Putin adviser Sergei Glazyev said in a radio interview last week that if Hillary Clinton had been elected, it would likely have meant war. “Objectively, the Americans had two choices: either world war or agreement to a multipolar world,” he explained, adding that Trump has “a chance to change the situation.”

Indeed, the US president-elect spoke with Putin over the phone last Monday, reportedly agreeing to improve relations between the nations, and to unite against their common enemy: “international terrorism and extremism.”

However, not everyone perceives the rise of Trump as a sign that peace on earth will triumph. Despite his opposition to the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, the president-elect is considering several major advocates of that war for top national security positions.

Trump lacks foreign policy experience, so those appointed to senior positions are likely to be very influential. Former state department official John Bolton is under consideration for position of secretary of state, and ex-CIA director James Woolsey could become the director of national intelligence.

Political commentator Noam Chomsky said in an interview six years ago that this period in US history was like Germany’s Weimar Republic right before the rise of Hitler. He expressed the view that trouble could prevail if a “charismatic figure” took power. Some have seen this as a prophetic warning about Trump.

A divided Europe

Current US president Barack Obama warned at a press conference in Athens on Tuesday that the world needs to “guard against a rise in a crude sort of nationalism, or ethnic identity or tribalism that is built around an us and a them.”

He pointed to Europe as an example of what can happen when people “start dividing themselves up and emphasising their difference.” He stressed that the “20th century was a bloodbath,” alluding to the first and second world wars.

The Brexit vote in late June is seen as a sign that European nations could be dividing.

With Trump’s victory as a precedent, there are fears that ultra conservative National Front party leader Marine Le Pen could become the next president of France. Many believe her election could trigger more Brexit-type referendums around Europe, as countries like France and Italy express dissatisfaction with the EU.

Spiralling out of control?

But how could this world war break out? British academic Tobias Stone posits the following scenario:

Trump abandons his nation’s NATO commitments. The EU is weakened through divisions. Putin takes the opportunity to deflect from his domestic woes. He funds far-right activists in Latvia causing an uprising of Russian Latvians in the east of the country.

Russia then annexes Eastern Latvia, as it did Crimea in 2014. Divided European nations provide no military response and NATO is slow to make a move. Russia pushes further into Latvia and then into Estonia and Lithuania. The Baltic States then declare war on Russia.

Many European nations side with the Baltic States, while others with Russia. And as the chaos escalates and more nations become involved, it’s left to see which government or faction is the first to utilise a nuclear weapon.

Many feel we’re living in dangerous times, and it’s not the Muslims who possess the biggest gun.

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Paul Gregoire

Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He's the winner of the 2021 NSW Council for Civil Liberties Award For Excellence In Civil Liberties Journalism. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Paul wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.
Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim is an Accredited Criminal Law Specialist with 25 years of experience as a Criminal Defence Lawyer. He is the Principal of Sydney Criminal Lawyers®.

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