This is a discussion of what kind of external triggering event might set off World War III, and in result an internal Civil War II and the balkanization of the United States.

by Jonathan Chambers

It’s harder to have a World War today, because the colonial empires are gone.  1914 and 1939 turned into World Wars because, when the major powers of Europe went to war, they dragged their colonies around the world in with them.  If 21st century superpowers go to war, the rest of the World will want to stay out of the way.

There’s only one alliance in the world extensive enough to start a World War, and that’s NATO.  But it has no opponents; when NATO intervened in Yugoslavia and Libya, those targets had no friends willing to help them, and no world war resulted.

To have a World War, a rival alliance system to NATO would have to appear, and then one or the other would have to be stupid enough to blunder into a confrontation.  The Shanghai Cooperation Organization is not such a rival, but maybe over some years could develop into one, particularly if NATO expansion alarms China enough to make it see NATO as a worse danger than Russia.

What might trigger a war between NATO and SCO 2.1?  Maybe the Persian Gulf.  Suppose by 2028, Armenia, Georgia, and the western half of Ukraine have joined NATO, and Russia is alarmed enough that it sells its soul and its oil to Beijing, and a real joint staff headquarters is set up to have the Russian army, the PLA, and the other SCO powers work together with a view to fighting NATO instead of terrorism.  Iran, formerly an observer to the SCO, becomes a full member.

Then, some jihadist terrorist group smuggles a nuclear bomb onto a ship and detonates it in the harbor of Los Angeles.

A million people die in the first minute, two million more in the next week from burns, exposure and radiation sickness, and another three million are wounded.  A howl for revenge sweeps the United States.  Thousands of people blamed for the attack are murdered in mass riots, mostly Muslims.

The National Guard is deployed, but takes days to restore order.  The President demands the Director of National Intelligence tell him in 48 hours who launched this attack, because he must nail the perpetrator’s hide to the wall before popular outrage boils over again.  The DNI has everybody scan their threat indicators intensively for two days, and Iran is fingered as the likeliest culprit.  This would probably not be true, but it’s not as if our intelligence community has a stellar record on these matters, and not even the best intelligence agencies would be likely to perform well under that kind of time pressure.

The U.S. issues an ultimatum to Tehran: accept American occupation immediately, and the Council of the Islamic Revolution and the Revolutionary Guard leaders must surrender themselves to U.S. custody for trial on nuclear terrorism charges.  Iran refuses and calls the SCO for help.

It is just possible at this point, in the heat and rage of the moment and the seemingly absolute necessity that a nuclear attack must be met with a proportional nuclear counterattack, that the U.S. destroys Tehran with nuclear ballistic missiles, relying on the size of its arsenal to deter a general Russian/Chinese strategic counterstrike, especially if the President were overconfident that Iran was really responsible and there were a sense of time running out to attack before Chinese and Russian troops could arrive in large numbers to defend Iran.  Whether a nuke is used, NATO forces invade Iran.

SCO, unwilling to see its alliance shattered or the Persian Gulf to fall under NATO control, goes to full war footing and the fight for Iran begins, which escalates to a world war between NATO and SCO.  Where it would go from there I’m not sure, but I don’t think it could last very long.  A world nuclear exchange ends everything very quickly, of course; the few survivors will be too busy struggling for food and shelter to keep fighting each other.  A conventional war probably ends quickly too, because NATO, China, and Russia would all be financially exhausted very soon.