World War III is fast approaching, and too few are willing to admit why.

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Are we on the on the verge of a third world war? In the age of “peak apocalypse,” it is easy to scoff at such a question. After all, we already find ourselves under constant pandemic surveillance, besieged daily by predictions of ecological collapse and drip-fed a diet of dystopian drama by Netflix’s rudimentary algorithms. But the risk of world war has surely not been this high since America found itself engaged in an existential battle against the USSR.

Around the world, authoritarian regimes fail. At a time of global stagnation, their inability to deliver on their promises to create jobs, fight poverty and grow the middle class is reaching a critical point. Paranoid about internal dissidence, autocrats are therefore increasingly encouraged to bet on strengthening their power by focusing on external enemies, whether through expansionist regional wars or high-risk existential conflicts against the West. .

The rapid crisis that erupted following a drone attack on US base near Jordan-Syria border is a perfect example of our scary new reality. Although Iran has denied direct involvement, it is clear that it is deeply involved in what is only the latest in a series of Tehran-linked attacks designed to drive the United States out of the Middle East. East.

Given the inevitable US response, this begs the question: why would Iran embark on such a reckless escapade? What often escapes the usual observations about Iran as a crazy and evil fundamentalist regime is that it is also a failed regime.

The decline of Iran is among the most extraordinary stories of modern times. It was one of the great ancient civilizations, ideally located at the center of global trade and presiding over some of the world’s largest oil and gas reserves. But a fossilized and incompetent theocracy has reduced it to burning down a country. Its infrastructure is comparable to that of a war-torn state, half of the population lives in poverty.

As the scale of the mullahs’ national mutilations becomes impossible to conceal and protest movements multiply, the embattled regime has sought to divert attention from its failures by doubling down on long-held ambitions to establish itself as regional hegemony, thus creating a “Shiite crescent”. ” which can function both as a defensive sectarian shield against Sunni and Western infidels and as a focus of imperialist pride. Becoming a nuclear power is of course crucial to such a vision.

In fact, the real danger may not be that Iran actually becomes more powerful, but that its leaders understand that time is not on their side. It is true that Tehran is probably only a few years away from building nuclear warheads for ballistic missiles. But as its economy collapses, the regime may suspect that it will be increasingly difficult to justify the cost of the program to its restive citizens.

This echoes a pattern that historians have identified throughout history. What previous world wars have taught us is that it is not confident, prosperous countries that start wars, but corroded, schizophrenic countries that both suffer from grandiose delusions and a mortal fear of war. ‘future.

Today, this paradox of the fragile aggressor is playing out not only in Iran, but even more terrifyingly in Russia. The Putin regime has failed spectacularly to capitalize on Russia’s intrinsic advantages – notably its natural resource embarrassment – ​​to raise living standards and create prosperity. Much of Russia’s population lives on the brink of destitution and the country is stuck in an oil trap usually reserved for third world countries. State predation, rampant monopolization, cronyism and a baroque universe of lies saw the gains of market reforms in the 1990s squandered.

Putin, in response, is trying to halt economic and demographic decline and distract from his national failures through conquest. Although it is called the bear, post-Soviet Russia is more like a jellyfish that continues to release devastating toxins into the water after death, its attack cells firing uncontrollably even after decapitation.

Again, what could make Russia even more dangerous is that its window for “recovery,” as Putin envisions it, is narrowing. If current trends continue, Russia will within a few decades become a geopolitical minnow, inferior in prowess even to rising African powers like Nigeria.

One might even wonder whether the gathering clouds over China could see Beijing flirting with a civilizational war with the West. Xi Jinping’s grand strategy – maintaining exceptional growth rates, largely through state investment – ​​has collapsed. He responded by moving China toward a military-autocratic model – from the pursuit of the Chinese dream to a vision of Greater China. Its new “military-civilian fusion” strategy, which aims to make China the most technologically advanced military power in the world, reflects this pivot.

It is also not unthinkable that China could increase the risk of a new world war by invading Taiwan. Xi knows he may only have limited time to act; Although it is estimated that by 2027 Beijing will have military superiority over the United States in the Taiwan Strait, given its shrinking population and stagnant economy, it remains an open question whether how long it could last.

The conventional attitude is that if World War III happened, it would be by accident. But we should consider the possibility that autocratic leaders—tortured by the prospect of death if power falls—may be willing to pursue survival strategies that, while irrational to us, seem profoundly rational to them. They can pose a threat to human survival, in the same way as, for example, insufficiently secure pathogen laboratories or the uncontrolled evolution of AI.

The risk is magnified in an era when rogue dictators sincerely believe they can win. As it moves toward a “first-strike” nuclear doctrine, Russia is increasingly convinced that it has an advantage in the event of a nuclear war. The Iranian regime, after having gone through a generation of isolation, could well suffer from an “arrogance of survival”.

The West, if it wants to contain the authoritarian threat, will have to use its own perilous asset: its own unpredictability, inherent in being a democracy. From the normalization of relations with China in the 1970s, which blindsided the Soviet Union, to the surprisingly robust response to the invasion of Ukraine, the West is feared by its enemies because they never know really what he will do next. You may need to reroll the dice to maintain supremacy.

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