We Must Break the Logic of War Now--Before We Get World War III

By Shamil Idress

April 18, 2022

Originally published in "The Hill as A three-step plan for ending war in Ukraine and averting World War III "at https://thehill.com/opinion/international/3255507-a-three-step-plan-for-ending-war-in-ukraine-and-averting-world-war-iii/

As Russian and Ukrainian negotiators expressed cautious optimism following this week’s peace talks in Turkey, it is clear that we face two distinct challenges: stopping this war and resetting international relations to prevent World War III. 

Our ability to meet these challenges rests on whether leaders will exhibit the wisdom to accept hard compromises and the courage to rethink assumptions that have gone largely unquestioned for decades. Three lessons about how wars end and how peace is built should guide their thinking: 



This post is part of the Constructive Conflict Initiative Blog


First, nothing positive can be achieved until the bloodshed stops. Wars unleash decades of irreversible damage. Much of what has been destroyed in just a few weeks of war will never be restored. That which can be restored — the livelihoods of those fortunate enough to survive, a sense of security for the citizens of Ukraine and the broader region and a hopeful future for Ukraine’s youth — will only come with a full generation of reconciliation, restitution, peacebuilding and (re)development. And this process can only begin after the violence stops.  

That is why we must support all steps, whether facilitated by Turkey, China or others, to hasten a ceasefire. Global leaders — and the public — should rally behind the terms of any agreement that Ukrainian and Russian leaders may reach to end this war, even if the terms may be antithetical to the hopes of outside observers: They may offer Russian President Vladimir Putin a face-saving claim of victory, delay full accountability for atrocities already committed, or offer security assurances to which outside powers object. The terms of an agreement to end this war must be determined by those whose people are dying and being driven from their homes by it — the rest of us should apply all our efforts to hasten and support the processes that can get there. 

Second, violence today lays the groundwork for future violence, unless we break the cycle. The danger that war in Ukraine could spark World War III is so acute that steps that would otherwise be feared as a threat to global security are being lauded: the reversal of decades-old isolationist defense policy in JapanGermany and Sweden, which could signal the start of a new global arms race; the severe steps to sanction Russia, even while that isolation threatens the livelihoods of more than 140 million Russian citizens and millions more in neighboring countries that depend on Russia’s economy; the recruitment of disparate foreign fighters and armed groups to tip the balance on the battlefield, despite countless disastrous precedents that began with the arming of “the enemy of my enemy.” 

These steps are being taken to hasten the end of this war. Yet, they also make World War III more likely. This is the logic of war: that increased confrontation now may lead to greater stability tomorrow. Such approaches do sometimes work. The United Kingdom military’s intervention against the West Side Boys in Sierra Leone was pivotal in that country’s pathway from civil war to today’s lasting peace. But the West Side Boys were not a sovereign nation, let alone a nuclear power, and we cannot acknowledge instances when armed confrontation has hastened peace without recognizing that it much more often fuels more devastation, as is evident today from Syria to Yemen. Leaders must chart a path to reverse the momentum toward greater isolation and militarization that this war has triggered. And this points to the most sobering lesson. 

Third, if this crisis does not shock us sufficiently to generate a better way to prevent war, then it is likely that only World War III will. History reveals that we rarely achieve breakthroughs to a new world order absent the complete breakdown of the old one. Even after World War I claimed 20 million lives and was dubbed “the war to end all wars,” it was not until World War II claimed at least three times as many that we created a multilateral system that prevented war between great powers for the next 75 years. It is a travesty that countless lives lost to wars in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, or Yemen have failed to mobilize our collective will to modernize that system. These man-made disasters, combined with our inability to meet shared challenges like climate change or COVID, were blaring warning signals that the post-World War II multilateral system was failing. We must not allow this war too to pass without taking up this effort as if our lives depend on it, because they do. 

The ingredients may be there. 

Increasingly, leaders recognize that in a globalized world, war is more senseless and self-defeating than ever. As a way to expand territory and political influence, modern wars are unwinnable. Just last August, we saw the strongest military in history end its longest war ever in defeat to a non-state armed movement in Afghanistan. It has been decades since the U.S. has definitely “won” a war, not because of the state of its military, but rather because of the nature of modern conflict. Even among those who predict the ultimate military victory of Russia in Ukraine, it is hard to find anyone who believes Russia can maintain political control of a population of tens of millions who oppose it.

As for popular support, a global peace movement intent on breaking the logic of war and reorienting global priorities toward combating climate change, preventing future pandemics and tackling other shared threats is gathering force. The largest youth cohort in history is more connected and better able to mobilize collective action than ever and is justifiably furious about the monumental challenges that are being left to them to sort out while today’s political leaders fight yesterday’s wars. 

Major social and political changes often appear to come suddenly, through watershed moments. In reality, the pressure for them builds over years until triggered, often by tragedy. As we embrace every effort to end the tragedy unfolding in Ukraine today, we must seize this moment for what it is: our last best chance to prevent even greater tragedy tomorrow. 


Ukraine protest photo used on metagraphic drawn from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Stand_with_Ukraine_against_Russian_Invasion_-_Vancouver_Anti-War_Rally,_Feb_26th,_2022_(51906093623).jpg. Attribution: GoToVan from Vancouver, Canada, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons.