Why So Many Politicians Are Talking About World War III

7 minute read

Not too long ago, some Americans feared an inexperienced and mercurial President Donald Trump would start World War III. Now, he’s basing his comeback bid on avoiding it.

In a recent fundraising email, Trump lamented, “it truly breaks my heart to see Crooked Joe—the weakest and most incompetent president in history—ruin our country as he pushes America to the brink of World War III.” On the campaign trail, he’s boasted that he’s the “only one that will prevent World War III.”

Amid ongoing wars between Russia and Ukraine and Israel and Hamas, fears about the prospect of another world war are rising, and Trump is just one of the political figures employing such dark language. On the left, the right, and even within the White House, the specter of the kind of global conflict not seen for nearly 80 years is proving to be a useful rhetorical tool, even though it’s a comparison that historians say isn’t apt for the current moment.

“This is language, I think, expanding way beyond the capacity for reality to sustain it,” says Jay Winter, a 20th Century war historian and a professor emeritus at Yale. 

A survey conducted by the American Psychological Association soon after Russia invaded Ukraine last year found that nearly 7 in 10 Americans feared “that we are at the beginning stages of World War III,” a sentiment that allies of Russian President Vladimir Putin have encouraged. The organization has not asked the question since then, but the outbreak of war in the Middle East appears to be raising those fears again; in an interview with The Hill this month, Democratic Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia said, “I have had to answer a question from people that I never had to answer in 30 years of public life, which is: Could this be World War III?”

More From TIME

Trump isn’t alone in playing to those fears. Biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, the Republican rival most aligned with the former President, held a “Stop World War III rally” in Miami this month. A day later, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie also invoked world war on the third debate state.

“Let’s remember the last time that we turned our back on a shooting war in Europe. It bought us just a couple years,” he said onstage. “And then 500,000 Americans were killed in Europe to defeat Hitler.” 

The argument isn’t limited to Republicans, either. Various figures on the left have brought up fears of a third world war in their criticisms of Israel’s bombing of Gaza. When Dr. Cornel West, who has launched an independent campaign for President, was asked by TIME last month if a second Biden term was preferable to a second Trump one, he answered, “Is World War III better than Civil War II?” 

Biden himself has a long-running habit of referencing the specter of another world war. Soon after Russia invaded Ukraine last year, the President was said to be telling aides, “We’re trying to avoid World War III,” according to reporting from The New York Times last year. It’s a message he and his aides have reiterated publicly since, though less often in recent months than his rivals.

John E. Herbst, a former ambassador to Ukraine who is now senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, suggested the Biden administration should be more careful with its word choice.

“It's not wrong, in the privacy of government consultations, to say, ‘We obviously don't want World War III,’" he said. "But at the same time, we should be saying, ‘We do have vital interests in this war, we have to make sure those vital interests are secured.'”

Few experts think the hand-wringing about World War III means that we’re on the brink of that kind of crisis. Though there’s disagreement about what constitutes a world war, it generally involves two major power blocs of countries fighting for dominance, with numerous nations on each side taking up arms against each other in more than one theater. In September 1939, TIME may have been the first to dub the conflict that started that month “World War II,” but others had predicted that one might break out. In 2015, P.W. Singer and August Cole, two writers with backgrounds in national security, speculated in an essay in TIME about what a third world war could look like, predicting that “Russian land grabs in Ukraine” and rising tensions with China could lead to another global battle fought in outer space and cyberspace.

For now, ongoing battles don’t appear to be rising to the level of another world war, experts say. 

“I don’t see enough interconnectedness between the crises and conflicts yet to have that kind of worry at the moment,” says Michael E. O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and its director of research in foreign policy.

Winter notes that because nuclear weapons are strongly associated with World War II, many people may be making that connection in relation to the players in the Russia-Ukraine and Israel-Hamas conflicts. Russia has nuclear weapons, Israel is presumed to, and Iran, which backs groups that have fought with US forces in recent weeks, has its own nuclear program. Yet even the kind of international response that might result from a nuclear attack wouldn’t necessarily elevate the state of the world to a world war, experts say. What is more likely, they suggest, is a war between NATO and Russia, but all of the people who spoke to TIME were hesitant to label even that potential conflict a world war.    

Nonetheless, in the months after Russia invaded Ukraine last year, allies of the Kremlin often suggested that World War III had already begun. Since then, they have periodically warned a world war was imminent.

“This is a Kremlin information strategy of emphasizing the risks of the war for the West and trying to use that as a way to reduce support for Ukraine,” says Bryan Frederick, senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation. He adds that Ukraine has sometimes responded by evoking the term as well, with President Volodymyr Zelensky trying to keep allies united by warning “that if Russia has not stopped here, it's going to keep going and that will lead to World War III.”

Here in America, some who voice concerns about another world war may be raising legitimate fears about getting too deeply involved in conflict abroad. But the sensationalism of the term stands to overshadow that nuanced discussion.

“Of course, there are people that are genuinely worried about the escalation risks for the conflict and the potential for drawing in the United States, even though they do also support Ukraine,” says Frederick. But he argues most of those people are not using the term “World War III.”

“I mean, ‘World War III’ is sort of an evocative term that is not well-defined,” he says.

Those who do employ it are mostly trying to get voters' attention by drawing a strong reaction, and not entirely a negative one in some cases, says Winter.  

“If you can see the emotional appeal of the term ‘world war’ as bringing back the grandfather's generation … the greatest moments, but also the greatest evil, then I think you can see its appeal,” Winter says.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to Mini Racker at mini.racker@time.com