Foreign Policy Analyst • GIS Mapping Specialist • Bookseller • Freelance Writer & Photographer


Search This Blog

Wednesday, 6 June 2018

The Possibility of World War III: Outbreak in the Middle East

Mwahaki King
Spring 2015
B.A. Diplomacy and World Affairs || Occidental College
M.A. Law and Diplomacy ||  The Fletcher School, Tufts University 

Prompt: Your Head of State has asked you to assess policy towards the most volatile, dangerous flashpoint on the globe. Drawing upon your knowledge of the origins of World War I, where do you see the greatest risk of World War III breaking out? Is it inevitable? If not, what policies might help stave it off? Will "appeasement" or the "Vietnam syndrome" help or hurt? Write a memo of four (4) pages.

The Possibility of World War III: Outbreak in the Middle East

The area that poses the greatest risk for an outbreak of World War III is the Middle East. This is due to resource competition exacerbated by severe environmental concerns and the internal conflicts stimulated by regional instability and large youth unemployment. 
Water scarcity is a major problem for several Arab states. This, in conjunction with rapid desertification is having a detrimental effect on agriculture and increasing malnutrition rates.[1] These environmental concerns will only worsen as the century continues. [2] Furthermore, the regional instability seen in the Syrian civil war and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, coupled with the largely disenfranchised youth population that ignited the revolutions of the Arab Spring will lead to inter-state warfare as the environmental factors place additional stress on already limited resources. As this region is the epicenter of global oil production, Western powers such as the United States will feel the need to intervene to protect their national interest in the oil, elevating the conflict to a World War III scenario. Additionally, water scarcity is also a massive problem for rising power, India [3] and unless a solution is found the consequences in a World War III situation could be disastrous
However, an outbreak of World War III is not inevitable. The similarities do exist between this World War III scenario and World War I, particularly internal conflict, resource competition and in some spheres of the West the belief that with modern technology war can be easy. Nevertheless, we are not doomed to make the same mistakes. If policies are enacted to address the underlying issues, primarily water scarcity and youth unemployment the risk of war can be greatly reduced. While being problematic, regional instability alone will not lead to an inter-state conflict of World War III proportions. The Swedish and Swiss governments have already developed measures to tackle the water crisis designed for the Middle East and the World Economic Forum has made suggestions specifically targeted at Middle Eastern youth

Policies to stave off World War III

Water management
Sweden and Switzerland partnered with the Strategic Foresight Group to develop a system that addressed sustainable water management. The result was a report entitled “The Blue Peace: Rethinking Middle East Water” [4] and the Blue Peace Framework. The Blue Peace Framework outlines a policy structure that focuses on the combination of regional cooperation and sustainable management of water resources in order to maintain peace. It moves away from the simple allocation formula that has existed in the Middle East and incorporates strategies for cooperation. Previously countries such as Saudi Arabia and India have been using a needs-based approach to water management. This means that water is allocated based upon perceived needs such as population and irrigable land. However, this approach focuses on individual nations rather than a cooperation between states, thus inviting competition and conflict. Blue Peace creates a collaborative system between Arab states that expands and improves water resources rather than divide them. [5]

Blue Peace should be prioritized in American foreign policy towards the Middle East. As the U.S. is a major player in discussions about regional stability, so too should it promote the positive water management tools outlined in the report. While the strategies outlined in the report are solid and practical measures, Sweden and Switzerland do not have the large foreign policy presence in the Middle East that the U.S. and U.K. do. As the dominant Western powers in this regard, they should encourage Arab states to adopt the practices outlined in Blue Peace, thus considerably minimizing the risk of war. The lessons have already been effective in the Nile Basin and could also be implemented by the Indian government, which has been criticized for mismanagement of water resources, thus reducing the spillover effects of conflict. Implementing this framework could eliminate the resource competition problem that plagued Europe prior to the First World War

Youth unemployment
There are options that exist in a modern context that did not exist at the outset of World War I, namely the influence of international organizations and non-state actors such as non-profits and think tanks. The U.N. is far stronger than its predecessor the League of Nations. NGOs have knowledge and solutions that when implemented properly can be integral in assessing conflicts and mitigating the likelihood of total war. Youth unemployment in the Middle East is at a critical level [6] and The World Economic Forum has outlined three key suggestions for reducing the phenomenon. Integrating youth into society through positive means leads to long-term economic growth and national prosperity. Failing to do so, will lead to social unrest and conflict and given the other problems that plague the Middle East could be a recipe for World War III

Appeasement versus The Vietnam Syndrome
Arab governments have not truly committed to regional cooperation regarding water resources, favoring a more individualistic approach. There is no evidence that this approach will change in future and as such, hostilities between states in the region will escalate as the situation becomes even more desperate. Outside intervention may be necessary due to the region’s supremacy in oil production.

It is plausible that the United States would ally with Saudi Arabia to protect their national interest in Saudi produced oil [7] or at least appease demands placed on them by Saudi Arabia.[8] It is probable that this support for Saudi Arabia will be done at the expense of Yemen, a state that would also be embroiled in the World War III offensive due to the extreme constraints that water scarcity has placed on its agriculture and food production. The United States would prefer to appease Saudi Arabia and even the negative publicity associated with such a relationship, as Yemen’s insurgent groups in addition to its weak political and physical infrastructure would be seen as a liability

There will be criticism of any Saudi appeasement. Critics will ask if Saudi Arabia’s dismal human rights record is admissible given their petroleum hegemony [9] and is the United States’ desire to globally promote human rights a farce. However, a state must recognize its capabilities and intentions when discussing appeasement. America does have the largest military worldwide but acting against Saudi Arabia would be destructive to America’s national security from an economic standpoint and thus not a worthwhile endeavor. Saudi Arabian oil is a necessity as the U.S. cannot depend on Canada alone and the state has an even more tenuous relationship with third largest global producer of oil, Russia, than it does with Saudi Arabia

Furthermore, if the U.S. were to intervene against Saudi Arabia, it is likely to fall victim to The Vietnam Syndrome due its large army and the misconception, similar to World War I, that due to their military supremacy “war is easy”. Despite military exhaustion in Iraq and Afghanistan, there will be those who argue that advances in modern technology such as drones, require less manpower and make warfare more manageable. Regardless of military advances, preliminary calculations are vital. Politicians and strategists must realize that there are myriad issues in the Middle East and once involved warfare, the situation could quickly become a quagmire from which the United States cannot easily extricate itself

The possibility of a world war initiated by environmental threats is a 21st century reality and a large mass of disenfranchised youth has historically been a dangerous precursor to war. This situation is more dangerous in the Middle East due to the region’s control of the oil market. Foreign policy must understand and address these combined threats, otherwise the occurrence of an inter-state conflict such as World War III will be far more probable than previously anticipated. The aforementioned threats will place a strain on national security, thus increasing violence and leading to displaced populations, disease and death. However, as discussed, World War III can be avoided. Although, intra-state conflicts will still abound, massive inter-state conflict can be prevented if the existing solutions proposed by states and international organizations are respected and effectively implemented. Today, we can argue that Britain and particularly Prime Minister Chamberlain ignored multiple signs that Germany intended to pursue a course of European domination that eventually led to World War II until it was too late. If we do not skillfully address the potential powder keg of war in the Middle East, future historians may also argue that this generation ignored several key precursors to World War III.

1. “Desertification is a sweeping environmental problem, with vast effects in countries such as Syria, Jordan, Iraq, and Iran. Agriculture uses 85 percent of water in this region. It is common to misuse land by heavy irrigation in the Middle East. In the area droughts are more frequent, and contribute to the changing landscape. The overuse of water in agriculture is affecting the countries' already undersized water resources. Jordan, located in the Syrian Desert, and Yemen, on the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, both endure severe water scarcity in the Middle East. For example, Jordan's average freshwater withdrawal is less than ten percent of Portugal's average, despite being the same size. The cost of water in Jordan increased thirty percent in ten years, due to a quick shortage of groundwater. Yemen has one of the highest worldwide rates of malnutrition; over thirty percent of its population does not meet their food needs. In recent years, Yemen has not been able to produce enough food to sustain its populations. Water scarcity has damaged the standard of living for inhabitants of the Middle East.” The Water Project, Water in Crisis: The Middle East

2. “Water scarcity is among the main problems to be faced by many societies and the World in the XXIst century. Water use has been growing at more than twice the rate of population increase in the last century, and, although there is no global water scarcity as such, an increasing number of regions are chronically short of water. Water scarcity is both a natural and a human-made phenomenon. There is enough freshwater on the planet for seven billion people but it is distributed unevenly and too much of it is wasted, polluted and unsustainably managed.” United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA), UN Water 

3.  “With a diverse population that is three times the size of the United States but one-third the physical size, India has the second largest population in the world. According to the World Bank, India has taken significant steps to reduce poverty but the number of people who live in poverty is still highly disproportionate to the number of people who are middle-income, with a combined rate of over 52% of both rural and urban poor. Although India has made improvements over the past decades to both the availability and quality of municipal drinking water systems, its large population has stressed planned water resources and rural areas are left out. In addition, rapid growth in India's urban areas has stretched government solutions, which have been compromised by over-privatization. Regardless of improvements to drinking water, many other water sources are contaminated with both bio and chemical pollutants, and over 21% of the country's diseases are water-related. Furthermore, only 33% of the country has access to traditional sanitation. One concern is that India may lack overall long-term availability of replenishable water resources.” The Water Project, Water in Crisis: India 

4. Sundeep Waslekar, Strategic Foresight Group, The Blue Peace: Rethinking Middle East Water

5. From their analysis of over 200 shared river basins in 148 countries, the Strategic Foresight Group was able to assert that the Middle East faced the greatest risk of war due to water-related conflict: “This report states the truth as it prevails and as proved by facts and figures of situation on the ground. Out of 148 countries having trans-boundary water resources, 37 face the risk of war and they are home to more people on the earth than others. These are precisely the countries which have avoided active water cooperation with their neighbours. Alas, the Middle East is the primary theatre of war and risk of war in future, because most countries in the Middle East have rejected the idea of trans-boundary cooperation in water. A few treaties have been signed. Some training programmes have been held. Several meetings of officials have taken place. But they have yielded no result because of lack of vigorous political commitment to the idea of cooperation. On the surface, the leaders in the Middle East have spoken in favour of cooperation, as their quotes in this report prove. Beneath the surface, these words have not translated into programmes and actions.” Sundeep Waslekar, Strategic Foresight Group, Water Cooperation for a Secure World: Focus on the Middle East, preface

6. “Nevertheless, the situation has reached a particularly critical juncture in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), where regional youth unemployment rates are the highest in the world: 27.2% in the Middle East and more than 29% in North Africa, which is more than double the global average…Creating an enabling environment in which young people can turn their education into employment and realize their aspirations is critical to avoid frustration and to ensure social stability…” World Economic Forum, Rethinking Arab Employment: A Systemic Approach for Resource-Endowed Countries 

7.“Saudi Arabia is the second-largest petroleum exporter to the United States, after Canada.” U.S. Energy Information Administration: Independent Statistics and Administration 

8. It should be noted that if the United States has reduced its dependence on oil and given primacy to natural gas, such an alliance could be avoided. America could retreat to more isolationist policy in the Western hemisphere and continue to foster their relationship with Trinidad and Tobago, who as of 2013 was the largest exporter of liquefied natural gas to the U.S., supplying 74 percent of the countries liquefied natural gas imports. However, given the current U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia, a move away for oil dependence is highly unlikely and thus an agreement between the two states, similar to the Munich Agreement is more feasible.

9. “Saudi Arabia has 16% of the world's proved oil reserves, is the largest exporter of total petroleum liquids in the world, and maintains the world's largest crude oil production capacity.” U.S. Energy Information Administration: Independent Statistics and Administration