The Peloponnesian War in ancient Greece between Athens and Sparta lasted 50 years and ended with Sparta defeating the otherwise all-powerful Athens. At the end of the war, one of the warring parties, in this case Athens, conceded defeat to the alliance between Sparta and the then Persian Empire.
Over the course of the last century humanity witnessed two world wars, the first from 1914 to 1918 and the second from 1939 to 1945. Both wars ended with winners and losers, victors and vanquished, and both had endings that were translated into armistices and peace treaties.
However, one enduring lesson from World War I was that when victorious you should show magnanimity and not humiliate your “enemy” in the war. The 1919 Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I is considered to have been one of the main causes of the later rise of Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich because of the way it dealt with Germany that lost the war.
It is thus also seen as one of the main causes of the outbreak of World War II, one that witnessed the use of the atomic bomb for the first time in the history of warfare on two occasions, once to bomb Hiroshima and once to bomb Nagasaki, both cities in Japan.
From the second half of the 1940s until the fall of the former Soviet Union in December 1991, the two superpowers of the Cold War years, the United States and the Soviet Union, adopted a preventive strategy called Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) that ensured that neither would lightly, recklessly, and irresponsibly resort to the use of nuclear weapons.
This preventive strategy of the Cold War years saved humanity from a possible nuclear holocaust as a result of the Cuban Missiles Crisis of 1962.
The present war in Ukraine that has been raging since February with apparently no end in sight is our contemporary Cuban Missiles Crisis, though there are also two major differences. The first is that in the Cuban Crisis the US faced the former Soviet Union alone with the notable absence of a united NATO and Western front. The second is the complete and utter absence of statesmanship today. The world is suffering from the absence of the kind of leadership offered by former US president J F Kennedy and former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1962. No Western leader today comes close to the calibre of then French president Charles de Gaulle.
Given the latest developments, both political and military, in the Ukraine War, the world today is not far away from the threat of a nuclear showdown. The protagonists in the war, whether directly or indirectly involved, have been talking nonchalantly about the possible use of nuclear weapons, seeing this as a way of winning a war that in fact is unwinnable for either party, whether the US-led alliance supporting the Ukrainian government or Russia.
The US-led alliance has not defined what end it is pursuing in Ukraine. Aside from some grandstanding by US and Western leaders about the inviolability of the Charter of the United Nations and a “rules-based international order” – rules that in fact only serve their own national interests – we do not know whether this alliance’s endgame is to defeat Russia militarily or to deny it an outright military victory or to prevent a long-term political settlement between the two neighbouring countries of Russia and Ukraine that one day, however distant that day might seem to be, will have to end the senseless war that is going on in Ukraine.
This war has led to the deaths of thousands of soldiers on both sides and to the destruction of several Ukrainian cities. The danger the world is facing today is of a long war with no warring party capable of achieving the kind of military superiority on the battlefield that brought the two 20th-century world wars to an end.
I am afraid that the war in Ukraine, if it is not stopped in the very near future, could escalate into a world war. The world badly needs statesmen today that can rise to meet the challenging times that have set the world on the brink of a nuclear confrontation.
* The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 6 October, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.