Speaking to supporters recently in Kissimmee, Florida, former President Donald Trump offered the American people what might strike some as a hyperbolic warning: “I make you this promise as your president. … I will restore peace through strength, and yes I am the only one that will prevent World War III because we are very close to World War III.”
Put aside the question of whether Trump is more likely to be the cause of, rather than our salvation from, an international conflict. The leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination might not be wrong about the peril of the moment we find ourselves in.
We appear to be closer to a world war than we have been at any time since the end of the Cold War. We as a nation have been slow to realize this. Yet, we are even slower to understand that the chances of such a conflict rise the more divided the American people are at home.
The danger of global conflagration demands that Americans take toxic polarization far more seriously than we ever have before.
What is the reality of the moment we are in? Two analyses must be brought to bear on this question: one is geopolitical, the other domestic.
With respect to our international circumstances, we must understand that the world is already at war. Counting the wars involving Ukraine and Russia, and Israel and Hamas, the Council on Foreign Relations’ Global Conflict Tracker identifies more than 25 ongoing conflicts, ranging from brutal civil wars in Sudan and Yemen to the tense and dangerous standoff between China and Taiwan.
War is a fact of life in the world. That it tends not to touch the daily lives of most Americans is a testament to the great safety and privilege most of us enjoy living in the United States.
In World War I and World War II, major military powers, with strong coalitions on both sides, engaged in prolonged conflicts that became global in scale in part because of existing alliances. In 2023, our geopolitical moment carries echoes of the strategic alliances that helped lead to World War I as well as the ideological tensions that helped to set off World War II.
The free world isn’t free of guilt: Blame Hamas for attacking Israel, but wars do not happen in isolation. Just consider Ukraine.
Broadly speaking, the United States, its NATO allies and democracies such as Japan, South Korea and Israel line up on one side of a vast ideological divide.
On the other side are China and Russia along with Iran and its proxy terrorist organizations.
Nearly two years after Russia invaded Ukraine and as fighting still rages, the U.S., our NATO allies and the fierce resistance of millions of Ukrainians have so far successfully stopped the war from spreading, despite initial fears that it would spill into other European nations.
Risks of global conflict rise with Israel-Hamas war
Now, however, with the eruption of yet another war between Israel and Hamas, and with the United States moving carrier strike forces and thousands of military personnel to the region in response, the dangers of broader conflict have quickly escalated.
It is in this context that the specter of Iran becomes significant. Israel is fighting against terrorist groups whose principal support comes from Iran. With Israeli forces now fighting inside Gaza, Iran faces a choice: to tepidly support attacks on Israel from a distance or to rally its allies in the region against Israel at the risk of ultimately having to engage the United States.
It’s a battle that Iran could never win. Still, the fury of Israel is forcing this choice.
Iran’s alignment with Russia and China is evident − they even staged joint naval operations in March in the Gulf of Oman. And each of them has geopolitical goals achievable only through aggression. Iran wants to see Israel destroyed. China wishes to take Taiwan. Russia wants to annex Ukraine.
It is the United States and its allies that stand in the way of those objectives, through deterrence and diplomacy.
Yet, a distracted, divided and destabilized United States might not be a reliable force for effective deterrence or diplomacy.
U.S. Chamber of Commerce: America’s leaders must act on the global and national challenges before us
A year from now, Americans likely will reelect either President Joe Biden or Trump. Will the losing side accept the results of our democratic process? We have cause to be concerned.
And what will be the consequences for trust in our judicial system and government as a whole if Trump is convicted or acquitted of the multiple felony charges he now faces ahead of next year’s election?
Either way, many Americans will question whether the system is truly impartial.
We shouldn’t take American unity for granted
Historically, Americans have united when our national security is threatened. We shouldn’t take for granted such unity now, even as the risks of conflict rise, given the deep distrust that many Americans hold for our leading institutions and for fellow citizens who hold different political and social views.
Opinion alerts: Get columns from your favorite columnists + expert analysis on top issues, delivered straight to your device through the USA TODAY app. Don’t have the app? Download it for free from your app store.
Already, rising isolationism and populism in the United States have heightened distaste for America’s support of Ukraine. How will China and Iran interpret that reality in light of their own goals?
A United States capable of soberly weighing the pros and cons of military intervention, support of allies and isolationism is an America that can avoid both the rush to war as well as the rush to appeasement. Either course could throw the world into chaos.
To address the rising danger in the world, we must address the chaos at home. But we have barely begun to do so.
John Wood Jr. is a columnist for USA TODAY Opinion. He is national ambassador for Braver Angels, a former nominee for Congress, former vice chairman of the Republican Party of Los Angeles County, musical artist, and a noted writer and speaker on subjects including racial and political reconciliation. Follow him on X, formerly Twitter: @JohnRWoodJr
You can read diverse opinions from our Board of Contributors and other writers on the Opinion front page, on Twitter @usatodayopinion and in our daily Opinion newsletter. To respond to a column, submit a comment to email@example.com.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump says we’re close to World War III. He’s not entirely wrong.