A Delaware professor said war scenarios with the U.S. could involve: China, Russia and climate change.
SpongeBob, Michael Jordan and even R. Kelly all became World War III memes, after an Iranian general was killed on orders from President Donald Trump nearly two months ago.
That attack, of course, didn’t create a world war. Yet it did raise a major question: What would it take to tip the scales?
University of Delaware professor Stuart Kaufman, an expert on national security and the Iraq war, has an answer.
Kaufman served a year as a staffer on the national security council for the Bill Clinton administration in 1999. He decided to take us along on scenarios he believes could place the United States in another world war.
1. Beef with China
Things could get messy if Taiwan were to declare independence from China.
“China considers Taiwan to be part of China. As a practical matter, they’ve been on their own for 70 years, but not officially,” Kaufman said. “If Taiwan were to say, ‘Okay, we’re independent,’ China would start a war the next day. The U.S. might then feel obligated to get involved to help Taiwan.”
That would probably lead to a direct war between the U.S. and China, Kaufman said.
U.S. allies like Japan would probably get involved, he said. That would mean the three most powerful nations in the world would be fighting (in economic terms – U.S., China and Japan) and the major countries of Europe would likely back the U.S., too.
“India and South Korea could also get involved, plus maybe the Philippines (U.S. ally), Vietnam (a Chinese adversary), etc.,” Kaufman added.
Yet there’s a good reason Taiwan is still under China’s rule.
“They know if they declare independence, China’s gonna start launching missiles at them within hours,” Kaufman said. “There’s no question in their mind that would happen; and they’re smart enough not to do it.”
2. Drama with Russia
A clash with Russia could happen if any of the Baltic countries like Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania -- all formerly of the Soviet Union -- were attacked.
In 2004, those tiny countries on the corner of Russia joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. That means the U.S. has a treaty with them, obliging America and Europe to defend them against any foreign attack on a NATO member, the UD professor said.
Estonia and Latvia have a minority of ethnic Russians, he added.
“So the scenario there would be if Russia announces one day, ‘We’re militarily intervening in Estonia to support our fellow Russians who are being mistreated,’” Kaufman said. “Of course, it doesn’t matter if they’re being really mistreated or not, they’ll just say so.”
At that point, the U.S. would be compelled to act. Allies such as Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Poland would come to help that Baltic state.
“It could immediately turn into a war with Russia and all of NATO,” the national security expert said. “But the Russians know very well that would happen. So they don’t want to go there.”
3. Is climate change a factor?
Some experts believe the threat of a climate disaster could start a war, leaving countries in a situation where they’re forced to fight over limited resources like water and food.
Kaufman cited two places that have seen violence related to water shortages.
“In two recent examples, the conflict in Darfur in Sudan and the civil war in Syria, both of those things were definitely triggered by climate change, by droughts driving people off their land,” he said.
“Because they were driven off their land and weren’t able to grow food, they ended up rising against their governments,” Kaufman added.
Over three decades ago, the rains in Sudan began to decline and the average precipitation dropped about 40% since the early 1980s, which is connected to climate change (or a rise in temperature), according to a 2007 report from the United Nations.
The conflict broke out in 2003 and more than 200,000 people have since died.
Columbia University professor Joseph Stiglitz, teaching in the department of economics, wrote a 2019 opinion piece for The Guardian entitled: “The climate crisis is our third world war. It needs a bold response.”
In the article Stiglitz stated, “When the U.S. was attacked during the second world War no one asked, ‘Can we afford to fight the war?’ It was an existential matter. We could not afford not to fight it. The same goes for the climate crisis.”
Kirk Johnson, economics professor at Goldey-Beacom College, said he doesn’t know whether climate change would lead to a world war. But he does think it would create economic woes.
“I can speak to the impacts of food shortages, wealth loss and population migration,” Johnson said.
”I do not have any specific belief that this will lead to systemic conflict, but as modest sea-level rise occurs, there are more than a billion people worldwide that will lose their homes (for many their primary investment), their places of employment, social connections, and these tend to cause conflict,” he added.
UD professor Kaufman said climate change is currently mankind’s greatest threat. But it wouldn’t necessarily lead to a world war, unless there was simultaneous fighting among the majority of the most powerful nations.
Otherwise, Kaufman said, it’s safe to assume there would be civil wars popping up due to climate change.
“The way to think about it is not that we’re heading for a World War III that’s in any way like World War II. What we’re looking at is more and more places looking like ‘Mad Max’ movies,” the expert on national security said.
“It’s a very different type of image than organized armies going at it in big head-to-head battles. It’s smaller groups with light arms, rumbling around on a desert landscape, killing each other over scraps and water.”
4. Backstory in Iran
Concern about a wider war started after Gen. Qasem Soleimani, Iran’s most powerful military commander, was killed by a U.S. drone strike at Baghdad International Airport Jan. 3.
That added another chapter to the 40-year conflict between the U.S. and Iran.
Under Soleimani’s leadership, Iran bolstered Hezbollah in Lebanon and other pro-Iranian militant groups, expanded its military presence in Iraq and Syria and organized Syria’s offensive against rebel groups in the country’s long civil war, reported by BBC.com.
President Trump told Fox News Soleimani was killed because Iran was planning attacks on four U.S. embassies. He tweeted that Soleimani “killed or badly wounded thousands of Americans over an extended period of time, and was plotting to kill many more.”
The president’s decision to assassinate the general created a sharp divide within the country.
Nia Pope, of Magnolia, said Trump’s explanation was merely a ruse.
“Trump wanted to be narcissistic and draw attention away from his impeachment trial. That’s why I feel he chose this sort of timing to kill this general,” Pope, 20, said in January.
Chuck Mankin, of Smyrna, was in the National Guard from 1996 to 2012, with tours in Saudi Arabia in 2001 and Afghanistan in 2007.
He said it was “an excellent decision” to kill Soleimani, a known terrorist who’d been on the radar of American military leaders going as far back as the George W. Bush administration.
“Understanding a little bit about Arab culture, they’re very much into physical strengths and fighting for respect,” said the 52-year-old Mankin. “You have to be a strong person to be respected. If we would’ve said, ‘Well, that’s okay,’ it would’ve taken us down a rabbit hole that would not be good.”
Mankin said Soleimani was responsible for creating some of the worse improvised explosive devices used to kill U.S. troops.
“I’ve talked to friends of friends who were medics over there,” Mankin added, “and the stuff they’ve seen from the penetrator IED… basically it shapes the explosion so it pulls it in and the copper plate on it basically melts and then it’s shot as molten metal into the victim.”
Politicians also weighed in on Soleimani’s death. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) said he backed Trump.
“Qassem Soleimani masterminded Iran’s reign of terror for decades, including the deaths of hundreds of Americans,” Cotton wrote in a tweet. “Tonight, he got what he richly deserved, and all those American soldiers who died by his hand also got what they deserved: justice.”
Sen. Chris Coons (D-Delaware) told Fox News he didn’t question the Iranian general’s character. “Let’s be clear, none of us should mourn the death of Qassem Soleimani. He is someone who is a designated individual terrorist,” he said.
Coons, however, said he was concerned that assassinating the Iranian general might result in Iran striking back in the months to come. The senator wondered if there was a better alternative to killing him, such as a cyberattack or a lower-level military attack on Iranian capacities or assets, he said.
About a week after Soleimani’s death, Iran retaliated for his killing with ballistic missile strikes on two Iraqi bases hosting U.S. military forces. While no Americans were killed, more than 100 sustained traumatic brain injuries, according to Time.com.
Within hours of those missile strikes, Iran admitted it mistakenly shot down a Ukrainian jet, killing all 176 on board.
5. Now what?
Kaufman said the situation in Iran is likely to escalate from a low-intensity conflict (with air strikes and car bombings) to a regional conflict, similar to the war in Iraq.
About half a million people died in Iraq from war-related causes between the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 and mid-2011, Time.com reported.
Kaufman said nuclear powers like China and Russia would essentially stay out of a conflict between U.S. and Iran, although there’s a chance Russia could slip the Iranians weaponry.
He said this probably won’t be the last we’ll hear from Iran.
“They’ve been saying ‘death to America’ for 40 years. From their point of view there really is, I think, a genuine hatred for America,” he said.
“There will be in the future other terrorist attacks coming in; and it’s going to be because of [Soleimani’s death],” Kaufman said. “I think it’s inevitable.”