Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

Will a Global Depression Trigger Another World War?

| May 13, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic has already devastated the international economy. Its military fallout remains to be seen.

By many measures, 2020 is looking to be the worst year that humankind has faced in many decades. We're in the midst of a pandemic that has already claimed more than 280,000 lives, sickened millions of people, and is certain to afflict millions more before it ends. The world economy is in free fall, with unemployment rising dramatically, trade and output plummeting, and no hopeful end in sight. A plague of locusts is back for a second time in Africa, and last week we learned about murderous killer wasps threatening the bee population in the United States. Americans have a head-in-the-sand president who prescribes potentially lethal nostrums and ignores the advice of his scientific advisors. Even if all those things magically disappeared tomorrow—and they won't—we still face the looming long-term danger from climate change. Given all that, what could possibly make things worse? Here's one possibility: war. It is therefore worth asking whether the combination of a pandemic and a major economic depression is making war more or less likely. What does history and theory tell us about that question?

Forr starters, we know neither plague nor depression make war impossible. World War I ended just as the 1918–1919 influenza was beginning to devastate the world, but that pandemic didn't stop the Russian Civil War, the Russo-Polish War, or several other serious conflicts. The Great Depression that began in 1929 didn't prevent Japan from invading Manchuria in 1931, and it helped fuel the rise of fascism in the 1930s and made World War II more likely. So if you think major war simply can't happen during COVID-19 and the accompanying global recession, think again.

Moreover, by its very nature war requires states to assemble lots of people in close proximity—at training camps, military bases, mobilization areas, ships at sea, etc.—and that's not something you want to do in the middle of a pandemic. For the moment at least, beleaguered governments of all types are focusing on convincing their citizens they are doing everything in their power to protect the public from the disease. Taken together, these considerations might explain why even an impulsive and headstrong warmaker like Saudi Arabia's Mohammed bin Salman has gotten more interested in winding down his brutal and unsuccessful military campaign in Yemen.

Posen adds that COVID-19 is also likely to reduce international trade in the short to medium term. Those who believe economic interdependence is a powerful barrier to war might be alarmed by this development, but he points out that trade issues have been a source of considerable friction in recent years—especially between the United States and China—and a degree of decoupling might reduce tensions somewhat and cause the odds of war to recede....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walt, Stephen M.“Will a Global Depression Trigger Another World War?.” Foreign Policy, May 13, 2020.

The Author

Stephen Walt