Last month, as the political classes continued to fixate on Donald J. Trump’s “war” with the media and as the president suggested “going nuclear” during confirmation hearings for the next Supreme Court justice, at least one global statesman worried that we were missing something more important: The world is preparing for a real war on a global scale. Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, winner of the 1990 Nobel Peace Prize, wrote in a little-noticed Time magazine essay in January that “politicians and military leaders sound increasingly belligerent and defense doctrines more dangerous. Commentators and TV personalities are joining the bellicose chorus. It all looks as if the world is preparing for war.”
And it’s not just the rhetoric that is escalating. As Mr. Gorbachev pointed out, “more troops, tanks and armored personnel carriers are being brought to Europe. NATO and Russian forces and weapons that used to be deployed at a distance are now placed closer to each other, as if to shoot point-blank.” Three years ago, the last American tanks left Europe. Now they are back, as senior U.S. military officials take up the task of returning to Europe the men and material they moved out of Europe at the end of the Cold War. The buildup is a response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, as well as increased Russian military maneuvering in the Baltics. The redeployments are “the embodiment of the United States’ commitment to deterring aggression and defending our European allies and partners,” General Frederick Hodges, known as Ben, commander of the U.S. Army in Europe, told NBC News in December.
According to P. W. Singer and August Cole, two of the country’s leading experts on 21st century warfare, the risk of a global war is greater still because “military planners and political leaders on all sides assume their side would be the one to win in a ‘short’ and ‘sharp’ fight.” If that sounds familiar, it’s because we’ve been here before. As Barbara Tuchman wrote in The Guns of August, her bestselling account of the origins of the first world war, the consensus among military planners then “had combined to fasten the short-war concept upon the European mind. Quick, decisive victory was the German orthodoxy.” Instead, as we now know, the whole of Europe was plunged into years of stalemate and slaughter.
For his part, Pope Francis believes that the seeds of the Third World War have already been sown. “The word we hear a lot is insecurity,” he said last summer, “but the real word is war,” a growing global conflict over “interests, money, resources.”
Will this conflict escalate further? Is a war among the great powers really in the cards, or is this just alarmist thinking? The Council on Foreign Relations recently surveyed foreign policy experts on this very question. While few believe that such a war is certain, a growing number believe that it is possible, and a NATO-Russian confrontation topped their list of potential threats in 2017. According to the survey, there is a “moderate” likelihood of a “high impact” event involving “deliberate or unintended military confrontation between Russia and NATO members, stemming from assertive Russian behavior in Eastern Europe.”
As you likely noticed, the key and most ominous phrase in the C.F.R. formulation is “deliberate or unintended.” As Singer and Cole have written, “wars start through any number of pathways: One world war happened through deliberate action, the other was a crisis that spun out of control.” Mismanagement or madness, in other words, are as likely to cause the next great war as are neonationalism or cynical strategic calculation.
Which brings me to the current occupant of the White House. President Trump and President Putin “need to break out of this situation,” as Mr. Gorbachev has said, “to resume political dialogue aiming at joint decisions and joint action.” But there is a big elephant in the room: What does Mr. Trump know about Russia? What does he not know? Does he know what he doesn’t know? What is the extent of his personal and business interests in Russia? Is there something there that could cloud his judgment? These are not just legal or political issues. Questions about Mr. Trump’s ties to Russia are not irrelevant simply because some of the questioners may have base, partisan motives. Within the next year, the president may face the gravest international situation since the Cuban missile crisis. Americans need to know that he can prevent a catastrophe.