A key part of speculative history is new World Wars. Often times authors and politicians will use the term to describe a future conflict on par with World War II. However, in recent years some maverick historians and scholars have begun to reconsider what a world war means and have re-categorized conflicts into that structure. It turns out that as a human race we are fighting not World War III, but World War IV. Here are the reasons why.
(As a note, this is not meant to be fear mongering. We live in the safest time in world history by a long shot, but I am more of interested in using the term “world war” to show how we look at contemporary events, rather than for fear mongering purposes.)
The term “World War” is really vague
For most of the world the term “world war” refers to the two major conflicts of the 20th century, World War I and World War II. But, the term world war is quite vague and does not have a consistent agreed upon definition. Generally, the term describes a war in which most nations of the world fight with one another, spanning multiple continents and creating a massive death toll. This idea was first discussed in the mid-19th century by Marxist philosophers as describing future class struggles but was later extended to the two wars that now bear the name.
However, the vagueness of the term excludes other wars that are World Wars under the criteria. Wars such as the Mongol invasion and the Three Kingdoms War in China had greater death tolls than World War I, and multi-continent wars are not uncommon in history. Other more modern conflicts could also be considered world wars. Some scholars believe that the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars in the late 18th and early 19th century could be considered world wars. Other historians have taken to calling the Second Congo War in Africa a world war due to its tremendous death toll and the number of nations involved. Contemporary conflicts such as the Syrian Civil War and ISIS conflict have the makings of a classical world war. However, none of these conflicts bear the title. The best delineation of whether a conflict is a world war is whether people call it that.
When the conflict later called World War I broke out, it was not initially recognized as a world war. The participants did not know how big or how long the conflict would last, and they definitely were not aware that there would be a second conflict of even bigger size. At first, World War I was known as The Great War or the European War. It was not until World War II that the moniker struck throughout the world.
The first usage of the term world war to describe World War I was in American newspapers which began to call the conflict that after the United States entered the war. In England people called World War I the Great War until the 1940s although Winston Churchill referred to the war as a world war in his 1927 memoirs. Academic circles used the term more quickly after hostilities ended.
Interestingly enough, most people began calling World War I by its current name around 1941 when World War II was in full swing. Possibly this was because the citizens of the world recognized strong similarities between the conflict that they were in and The Great War. Whatever the case, it is clear that during World War I people did not consider it a world war, and instead referred to it by a less ominous name.
World War III might have already happened
Given that the term world war is vague and World War I was only called a world war after the fact, some historians and military leaders believe that World War III was the Cold War, even though that war never technically went hot. Even though the Cold War never actually involved a confrontation between NATO and the Soviet Union, it features many of the elements of a world war, just in non-traditional ways. The death toll of the proxy conflicts between the nations is on scale with the other two world wars and the Cold War fits the criteria of involving nearly every country in the world by various alliances.
The idea that the Cold War was actually World War III is a common opinion in military history circles. Michael Ledeen of the American Enterprise Institute state in an interview that the world is now in World War IV with World War III being the Cold War. Military strategy scholar Eliot A. Cohen also considers World War III the Cold War stating: “The Cold War was World War III, which reminds us that not all global conflicts entail the movement of multi-million-man armies, or conventional front lines on a map.” Although this opinion is not a part of mainstream historical thought, it is becoming more popular among students of military history and the Cold War.
The whole world is in the war
A key condition of a world war is the amount of nations involved in the war and how many continents the war has spread to. If most of the world’s countries fight in the war, then it is a world war. For the fourteen years of the War on Terror, it has touched nearly every country and spread through various continents, mostly Asia and Africa.
While most of the fighting is happening in well-defined geographic area, the effects of the conflict has spread throughout the world. Right after the 9/11 attacks 142 countries mobilized at least some resources to freeze terrorist assets and begin to fight against terrorist organizations. The United States led coalition conducted anti-terror operations in 60 countries. While not all of them had troops on the ground, they still took part in anti-terror operations. Mass surveillance operations are taking place world-wide. Even though some politicians have stated that the Bush led War on Terror is over, the conflict has rolled into the current fight against ISIS. The anti-ISIS coalition now has 62 nations and organizations. These countries are not contributing the massive amount of material from World War II, but most of the world is in the fight, making it a world war.
September 11 might have been our Pearl Harbor
Generally people accept that world wars need to start with some sort of attack or violent action that gets the gears of war moving. If that is the case, than the war on terror really does fit the criteria for a world war with its start being the attack on September 11th. Like the attack on Pearl Harbor, September 11th was a sneak attack that bears similarities to early attacks that started wars.
Even right after the attacks some journalists considered the attack the start of a new world war since it bore so many similarities to the Pearl Harbor attack. The similarities further increased with the Bush administration used the attack as a basis for launching a full-out attack on Afghanistan whose effects are still being felt today with the current fight against ISIS. Other journalists have pointed out the similarities, and writer Norman Podhoretz stated that the only way to understand why the attacks happened and what they meant was to view them through the lens of a world war. As mentioned above, the ensuing conflict has involved nearly every country in the world and is still ongoing. It is not that far-fetched to think of September 11th as the start of World War IV.
Politicians consider us in a World War
Most important to this discussion is that some world leaders and politicians believe that the world is in another world war. Some believe this war is World War III, others World War IV, but they all agree that the world is in another global conflict. One of the earliest proponents of this thinking was George W. Bush, who stated that the September 11th attacks opened up a new world war.
More recently, the Iraqi Prime Minister stated that the war against ISIS was a new world war, since ISIS’s goal is to set up a world-wide caliphate. Syria’s head of antiquities has also gone on record with similar observations.  The idea that we are in World War IV is also brought up by various academic and military scholars. Eliot A. Cohen believes that it is dangerous to call the war on terror anything other than World War IV. Ex-CIA director James Woolsey is also a proponent of talking about the current conflict as a world war. The belief that we are fighting World War IV is not mainstream yet, but may catch on in the near future.