The Dawn of World War III in the Gray Zone

O. Del Fabbro writes in 3 Quarks Daily: In September 2022, Fiona Hill claimed that with the war in Ukraine, World War III had begun. The statements of the American expert on Russia were clear: World War I and World War II should not be regarded as static and singular moments in history. Even though they were separated by a peaceful period, the latter is part of a whole process leading from one World War to the next. The peaceful period following the Cold War would then be comparable to the interwar period in the 1920’s and the 1930’s. From Hill’s processual point of view peaceful periods are as much part of major conflicts as the actual war periods themselves: from the Cold War via a peaceful period to WW III.

Using the concept of World War adequately depends on its definition. When is a World War a World War? If World War means that all or most of the world’s major powers are involved in a conflict, then, yes, it might be that the state of the world is steering towards WW III. Economically, this is already true for the war in Ukraine. Most of the major powers are involved in this conflict, either by supplying Ukraine or Russia: the USA, the European Union, Japan, Canada, Australia are supporting Ukraine, while Iran, North Korea, Belarus, Chechnya, and China ally with Russia. But, to be economically involved does not mean to have “boots on the ground”. Even current events in the Middle East show that major world powers avoid full scale involvement.

In fact, what we have so far been observing are rather operations in the gray zone.

The gray zone is a space of uncertain threats. Diffuse and hard to attribute, conflicts emerge unexpectedly, making it difficult for attacked parties to react robustly.  Often such threats are hybrid: fake news, online troll farms, misinformation, economic blackmail and sabotage, terrorist financing, paramilitary provocations and so on. The aim is often to merely destabilize without necessarily provoking effects of armed conflict. Per definition, the gray zone is thus a space in which defensive and offensive activities happen above the level of cooperation yet below the threshold of full-scale armed conflict.

Concrete examples of hybrid warfare are fake news and foreign electoral interventions used by Russia, economic sanctions used by the European Union against Russia, Iran financing and militarily supplying terrorist groups such as the Houthi rebels, Hamas and Hezbollah, the latter in turn, using paramilitary provocations and even ferocious attacks. Yet, hybrid warfare in the gray zone and full-scale armed conflict are not mutually exclusive. Since its full-scale invasion in Ukraine, Russia has been using as much hybrid warfare as it has been using conventional methods of warfare. The same can be said of the ongoing military operations in the Red Sea between the international US led coalition and the Houthi rebels. In other words, contemporary conflicts are becoming more and more complex, because of different actors being involved using multiple types of weaponry and tactics in order to destabilize enemies or harm them.

However, while military operations become more complex, the division between belligerents seems to become more and more clear-cut and simple: authoritarian regimes versus liberal democracies. The crack between these two camps, that emerged since the war in Ukraine, is widened more by the conflicts in the Middle East – not the other way around. But what does this mean politically? A new world order? And what are the consequences for a possible World War?

The trenches in Eastern Ukraine have been compared to trench warfare in WW I. This might be true. Maybe however, it is more accurate to say that current events are bringing us back to a pre-WW I scenario. The world is returning to a clear separation of major powers, maybe a balance of powers, similar to a European Concert in the 19th century, only that now it is a globally distributed concert. The current wars in Ukraine and in the Middle East then become nothing but proxy wars, wars in the gray zone, allowing the major powers to keep peace within their own designated national boundaries: the USA, the European Union, China, Japan, India, Saudi Arabia, Iran, even Russia, and so on. Nevertheless, caution is advised: as tranquil as balance of powers might sound, it should not calm our minds. If Hill’s processual perspective is correct, then the consequences of the European Concert are two World Wars within a time span of thirty years, with millions of people dead, genocide included. Indeed, is the current arms race not reminding us of the pre-WW I situation between Prussia, Russia, France, Great Britain, and Japan?

Therefore, we should not trivialize the potential threat of hybrid warfare in the gray zone. It is not just warfare being led geographically at the boundaries between major world powers such as the Middle East or Ukraine. Hybrid threats can target the heart of nation states, emerge at the very core of societies, being particularly harmful for liberal democracies. Liberal democracies are more organic political systems than authoritarian, top-down, hierarchical regimes. The robustness of their political body can easily be threatened by hybrid threats, if citizens of liberal democracies are not aware of and ready to defend the very principles that the political system in which they live builds upon. Hybrid threats such as fake news, misinformation, electoral interventions, economic blackmail and so on help destabilize liberal democracies, if citizens aid in the deconstruction of the democratic political body from within. Hybrid threats, especially the ones based on information and cyber-attacks, are thus fruitful if the target responds with self-harming actions such as voting for pro-Russian politicians, who not only want to ally with authoritarian regimes, but also plan to dismantle democratic mechanisms such as the separation of powers within their own governments, ultimately leading them to become authoritarian regimes themselves. Or, when citizens of liberal democracies defend cruel actions of rape and slaughter of civilians by terrorist organizations such as Hamas in public demonstrations. The right to vote and the right to assemble become futile, if they help instantiating or defend an anti-democratic system that leads to the abolishment of that very right.

This is why hybrid warfare in the gray zone is a powerful weapon for authoritarian regimes to destabilize liberal democracies. But such a weapon is only as efficient as the target is weak. Or, put differently: For hybrid threats to become ineffective in liberal democracies, the latter need to use their most powerful tool: the strength of the autonomy of the individual and its will and belief to not only know and appreciate what it means to live in a liberal democracy, but to be ready to actively defend it – no matter the cost. Liberal democracy is not a consumable good, passively observable. It requires active participation. In the face of hybrid threats in the gray zone, warfare is not something happening “out there” in cold Ukraine, or in the chaotic Middle East, no, hybrid warfare is occurring in the midst of society on an informational, even ideological level. The threat might be sparked from the outside, but it only spreads if the material from within reacts. Being in the middle of a hybrid war is currently the greatest test for liberal democracies. Are they capable of surviving within this gray zone, at the beginning of what looks like the dawn of WW III?