PETER APPS: ‘Most dangerous world in decades’ mulls mounting risk of war
Along with what appears to be an ongoing US-UK military campaign in Yemen, the first weeks of 2024 have brought a much greater focus on the risk of war in both Europe and the Pacific
Taipei — As last week’s Nato defence chiefs’ meeting drew to a close, Nato Military Committee chair Adm Robert Bauer outlined the steps he believed households within the alliance should already be taking in the event of war.
“You need to have water, you need to have a radio on batteries and you need to have a flashlight on batteries to make sure that you can survive the first 36 hours,” he said, adding that in any major conflict member nations might need to introduce conscription to keep their militaries in the fight.
The shifting “tectonic plates of power”, he warned, were producing the most dangerous world in decades — and risks that could only be tackled by the private sector, industry and governments together to deliver greater resilience.
“We need public and private actors to change their mindset from an era in which everything was plannable, foreseeable, controllable, focused on efficiency ... to an era in which anything can happen at any time,” Bauer said. “An era in which we need to expect the unexpected.”
Alongside what now appears to be an ongoing US-UK military campaign in Yemen, the first weeks of 2024 have brought a much greater focus on the mounting risk of war in both Europe and the Pacific — as well as an awareness that the US military commitment on both sides of the world is now in question.
In the last week, that awareness appeared to intensify further.
On Wednesday, British chief of general staff Gen Sir Patrick Sanders became the latest European commander to warn his country might need to consider reintroducing conscription in the event of a major European war, a suggestion no UK military leader has had to make in decades.
Swedish commander in chief Gen Micael Byden called on people to “prepare themselves mentally” for conflict while minister for civil defence Carl-Oskar Bohlin warned that “war could come to Sweden”. German defence minister Boris Pistorius said experts in Berlin believed the greatest threat might come in five to seven years.
Norway’s defence chief suggested an even tighter timeline. Gen Eirik Kristofferson suggested Kremlin collaboration with Iran and North Korea might lead Moscow to rearm faster still, giving Nato nations only “two, maybe three” years to prepare.
That would fit the tighter timeline suggested by some US officials for a potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan, which some analysts believe might be synchronised with a Russian attack on Europe and potentially a North Korean offensive against the South.
Some US officials have suggested Taiwan could be attacked as soon as 2025, while others offer 2027 as a more likely date.
Others, particularly inside Taiwan, suggest a slightly longer time frame, with the 2030s the most likely point of risk, particularly given reported purges within the Chinese military as President Xi Jinping attempts to clamp down on corruption and shortfalls in military effectiveness.
The prospect of a Trump return to office, however, is throwing many of those estimates into question. His unpredictability makes his actions, and the results, extremely hard to model.
Trump deepens uncertainty
Throughout January, further details have emerged of comments by Donald Trump in which he expressed his feeling that defending Europe is a poor deal for the US.
French European Commissioner Thierry Breton said in Brussels last week that he had been present at a 2020 meeting between Trump and European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen at which Trump pledged to leave Nato, describing it as “dead”.
“You need to understand that if Europe is under attack, we will never come to help you and support you,” Breton quoted Trump as saying.
This week, Trump also appeared to question whether the US, Taiwan’s biggest arms supplier, should defend the island, which China views as a rogue province, accusing it of damaging the US economically by its dominance in microchips.
“Taiwan did take all of our chip business,” Trump said. “We used to make all of our own chips, now they're made in Taiwan.”
Those comments were immediately condemned by others within the US political and national security establishment. Voices in Taiwan warned that the island’s resilience against Chinese pressure, let alone invasion, might be significantly undermined if it looked as though the US might abandon Taiwan to its fate.
Some argue Trump’s often toxic reputation abroad and long-running reluctance to protect some US allies mean the threat of conflict in Europe and the Pacific would be heightened during his administration. Others suggest hostile states including Russia and China might instead hold back rather than face the sheer unpredictability of his response.
Almost no-one questions that the threats are growing — but there are mounting disagreements on what choices must be made.
Elbridge Colby, a former Pentagon official under Trump who wrote much of its 2018 National Defense Strategy, has argued repeatedly that the US must scale back in the Middle East and Europe to prioritise the greatest threat — a rising China intent on inflicting a strategic US defeat over Taiwan.
“We simply don't have enough power for global hegemony, so we must choose,” Colby wrote on Tuesday on social media platform X.
The more Russia, China or other potentially predatory nations believe Europe, Taiwan or other US allies such as the Philippines might be left unsupported by Washington in the event of an attack, the more likely such an assault is to take place.
Already, some in Washington warn that the US military risks running down its vital missile stockpiles for any Asian war with its ongoing campaign in Yemen. Artillery shell stocks across Western states have been heavily diminished by supporting Ukraine, and while multiple nations have moved to dramatically increase capacity to produce, that may take years.
In Asia, tension remains high between the Philippines and China over the disputed Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea, while January has also seen North Korea revamp its rhetoric towards the South. The eruption of conflict over either, some worry, might well be a precursor to a Chinese move on Taiwan. Others worry a Taiwan assault and Russian attack on Europe might well come simultaneously.
Ukraine is already nervous of being abandoned — either by Congress now, or a re-elected Trump administration at the start of 2025. Biden administration officials are now furiously lobbying congressional leaders for additional funds having exhausted those already allocated.
Last week saw a detachment of European and Canadian Nato parliamentarians descend on Washington to attempt to encourage both Republicans and Democrats to keep up support for Kyiv, as well as the rest of Europe. Such demands, however, are likely to simply prompt a growing US response that Europe must do more to defend itself.
Steadfast Defender, Nato’s largest military exercise since 1988, began in January involving about 90,000 personnel mostly from within Europe. That Nato’s current largely professional small military forces might be enough for a long-running continental war, however, is in doubt.
In part, that reflects another worry — a mounting recruitment crisis in multiple Western militaries, one that has already prompted Australia and Germany to suggest recruiting foreign personnel.
“Maybe military recruitment numbers are low among military families today because veteran parents think the next war will be bloody,” former US Navy officer and journalist John Konrad wrote on X this week.
When his own son asked about joining the military, he said he tried to be supportive.
“But inside, I’m also thinking that two John Konrads (from prior generations) resting in Arlington National Cemetery are enough.”
• Apps is a Reuters columnist writing on defence and security issues.
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