LETTER: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine isn’t a world war — yet
The conflict has hit the world but not on a scale comparable with the first two world wars
Ismail Lagardien poses an interesting question: “How does one explain a ‘third world war’ conceptually?” (“War is war no matter who calls it and what they call it”, February 8).
His suggested frame of reference for the first two apparently is colonialism, for “when a European colonial power went to war their colonies were automatically part of the conflict”.
This is partly accurate, though more so for the first than the second. (Personally, recognising the particularly European origins of the conflict, I prefer the designator “great war” for the first and “world war” for the second.) By 1939 there was no guarantee that the constituent states of the British Empire would join in; SA almost remained neutral.
However, European influence over the world is an inadequate explanation. I would suggest that what made these conflicts “world” wars was their multifaceted origins, their reach and their impacts.
It is often forgotten that the much of the stage for World War 2 was outside Europe, in the Italian invasion of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) in 1935, and in Japan’s war on China. (One could argue that the 1931 invasion of Manchuria, rather than Hitler's 1939 invasion of Poland, marked the start of the conflict.)
Each conflict drew in all major powers of the time. Outside Europe the US intervened decisively in both; the Ottoman Empire was a major participant in the first; Japan fought in both, and as a central protagonist of the second.
In World War 2 numerous lesser powers such as Thailand and Brazil joined in for their own reasons, and peoples across the world saw correctly the latter conflict for the political earthquake it was — hence the rise of anticolonial movements and insurgencies, particularly in Asia.
Each war produced a hitherto unprecedented degree of suffering, some 20-million or more dead in the first, 70-million or (far) more in the second. Add to that the destruction of capital and infrastructure and the dislocation of economic systems — effects that were felt for decades in some places.
A third world war would, to my mind, need to meet those conditions. That isn’t the case in Ukraine. The immediate causes are localised (though larger geopolitical forces are clearly at play). There is no active intervention of troops aside from those of the belligerent countries. And while the effect has been tragic and has hit the world in the form of disrupted supply chains and some commodities, it hasn’t been on a scale comparable with the first two “world wars”.
That’s for now. History is always unfolding — think about Chinese sabre-rattling at democratic Taiwan — and one day the invasion of Ukraine may well be seen as the start of such a conflict.
Institute of Race Relations
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