The Buzz

World War III: 5 Places It Could Really Start in 2018

The world remains jarringly dangerous. The diplomatic confusion of the Trump administration has only added to this danger, creating uncertainty around the world as to U.S. intentions and capabilities. While this uncertainty does not always result in opportunities for other states to step up, it does increase the chance for miscalculation in crisis and noncrisis situations. Hopefully, as Trump’s foreign policy team congeals and matures, it will develop a more coherent approach to diplomacy that will ameliorate the threat posed by some of these crises.

The world has managed to make it through most of 2017 without the return of cataclysmic, great power conflict. In some parts of the world (most notably Syria) tensions have declined significantly. In others, already difficult situations have grown even more tense. Here are five crises that could lead to great power conflict over the course of 2018.

North Korea

North Korea is undoubtedly the most serious foreign-policy crisis facing the world today. The DPRK’s success in developing ballistic missiles, combined with the diplomatic inexperience of the Trump administration, have created an extraordinarily dangerous situation. Having repeatedly conducted missile and nuclear tests over the last decade, North Korea is showing no inclination to collapse under U.S. pressure. The United States has responded with diplomatic incoherence, as senior officials often contradict each other within hours of making statements.

(This first appeared in December.)

To complicate the issue, North Korea and the United States both have substantial incentives to pre-empt; the United States in order to destroy North Korean communications and installation before the missiles can leave the ground, and the North Koreans in order to avoid such a fate. This situation could easily lead to miscalculation by either side, and the potential for war that could draw in Japan and China.

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Recent aggressive statements by Chinese military and diplomatic leaders suggest that at least some in the PRC believe that the military balance has shifted in their favor. This perception is almost certainly premature, and is likely not shared by the balance of China’s leadership, but nonetheless remains quite dangerous. China has also stepped up military activity in the region, although given the PRC’s steadily increasing military profile, this could be said of nearly every region along its borders.

The United States has responded with equanimity, condemning Chinese moves and announcing a major set of arms sales to Taiwan. However, the Trump administration had muddied the diplomatic waters through its confused stance on North Korea, which has included a major appeal to China for tighter sanctions. For a relationship that demands predictability and careful diplomacy, important players in China and the United States seem eager to embrace uncertainty, which could lead to devastating conflict.


The situation in Ukraine remains tense. The tenuous cease-fire in Eastern Ukraine is increasingly punctuated by violence between Kiev and Moscow-supported local militias. In Kiev itself, protests, demonstrations and the bizarre saga of former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili have raised questions about the stability of the government.

Conflict could break out in several ways. A Ukrainian government collapse, while theoretically beneficial to Moscow, could introduce violent instability. Moscow’s proxies might feel emboldened, and Putin himself might see a chance to seize more of the country. Conversely, a collapse of the Kiev government could bring right-wing hardliners to power, which would throw gasoline on the smoldering conflict in the eastern provinces.