War unlikely but not unthinkable 75 years on from VE Day

War unlikely but not unthinkable 75 years on from VE Day

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Crowds celebrate VE Day in Trafalgar Square, London, 8 May, 1945. (AFP)

Friday marks the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe (VE) Day — a momentous moment in the Second World War, which remains the largest armed conflict in human history. Three-quarters of a century on, while another great power conflict cannot be ruled out, the odds are currently lower than during the first half of the 20th century, despite the deep decay of the post-1945 order.

For, amid this year’s coronavirus-restricted VE Day celebrations and those in August for Victory over Japan Day, there are growing geopolitical tensions, not least between China and the US. These have spiked recently over what President Donald Trump continues to assert is Beijing’s cover-up of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, which he claims was man-made and originated in a Chinese laboratory, despite failing to disclose evidence to support this jaw-dropping claim. 

The Sino-US tensions underline that the world of today does have some parallels with the first half of the 20th century. Once again, there is a significant movement in global power taking place.

Today, power is shifting to key developing countries, with Asian states, especially China, the primary beneficiaries so far. This contrasts with the early 20th century, when the US especially, but also other nations, including Russia and Germany, were at various times the key “rising nations.”

And, like 100 years ago, geopolitical tensions are mounting as “revisionist nations” challenge key elements of the US-led international order. This is partly driven by rising economic power resurrecting nationalism and claims for resources, as witnessed by disputes in the South China Sea, for instance.

Recent years have also seen Russia’s annexation of Crimea and intervention in Eastern Ukraine, but it is perhaps Asia where most tensions and insecurity lie in terms of the potential for a great power war. China’s remarkable rise is unsettling the region, and indeed much of the world beyond. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is just one of the leading politicians to have drawn parallels between the geopolitical landscape in Asia today and Europe in the first half of the 20th century.

Yet the irony is that it is the US itself that, under the Trump administration, is also hastening the collapse of the post-war order created after the Allied victory over the Axis powers. Trump, unlike all his postwar predecessors in the White House, has disowned much of the system of US-led institutions and alliances, promising instead an “America First” platform with the potential to reshape US foreign and trade policy more radically than at any point since the beginning of the Cold War. 

Trump, for instance, has shifted away from the postwar orthodoxy — pursued by both Democratic and Republican presidents — by scrapping the US’ involvement in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal with key allies in the Asia-Pacific and Americas; withdrawing from the Paris climate change deal agreed by more than 170 nations; and threatening the future of the World Trade Organization and World Health Organization. He has also renegotiated other international and regional deals, including the North American Free Trade Agreement.

So these risks are real, significant and could yet grow substantially in the 2020s. However, there are also some key differences that, in the absence of catastrophic miscalculation, make a major power war less likely for the foreseeable future. This is not least because memories of both world wars still linger. Aside from the many millions who died, these wars set in motion several developments that blighted the world for decades, including the emergence of communism in Russia and — as numerous historians assert — the rise of Nazi Germany and, eventually, the Cold War.

Sino-US tensions underline that the world of today does have some parallels with the first half of the 20th century.

Andrew Hammond

Another major difference between now and most of the first half of the 20th century is the presence of nuclear weapons, which, as during the Cold War, generally serve as a brake on major power conflict. It is noteworthy that today’s revisionist nations, as well as the status quo powers in the West, possess atomic arsenals.

Yet another important change is that one of the key legacies of the Second World War is the dense web of postwar international institutions, especially the UN, which continue to have significant resilience and legitimacy decades after their creation. While these bodies are imperfect and are in need of reform, the fact remains that they have generally enabled international security, especially with five of the key powers on the UN Security Council.

Taken together, the prospect of a major power conflict is, for the foreseeable future, not as high as a century ago. But the landscape of the 2020s is also volatile, fast-moving and could change significantly in relatively short order, especially if the erosion of the post-Second World War settlement continues apace.

  • Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.
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