World War III blues and the surly bonds of earth

There is a growing view that the world is bumbling or sleepwalking into a nuclear war

By Chidanand Rajghatta

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Published: Wed 22 Feb 2023, 8:55 PM

Last updated: Thu 23 Feb 2023, 12:06 AM

Several times over the last few months, hashtag #WorldWarThree has trended on social media platforms. The frequency and urgency of the hashtag and related posts have intensified lately. Some of the posts have been in a lighter vein, distilling what should be an existential global crisis into memes and jokes. While you would think it is hard to make a civilisation-ending point in 280 characters, some have done it effectively with a single visual.

One post showed a man wondering why the sun is glowing late at night — moments before he is eviscerated by a nuclear explosion. Another showed people scrambling out to the far corners of the world, notably New Zealand, hoping to escape nuclear conflagration. There is, of course, the famous poster from the 1970s advising people what to do in case of a nuclear war, including spending all your money before it begins, bending down and putting your head between your legs... and kissing your backside goodbye.

Such laconic jokes aside, fears of World War III are starting to animate global geo-political discourse. There is a growing view that the world is bumbling or sleepwalking into a nuclear war. US President Joe Biden’s high-wire visit to Ukraine on Monday and Moscow’s suspension on Tuesday from participating in the START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) Nuclear Arms Control talks appear to be part of the slippery slope syndrome that could lead to the conflict intensifying and possibly expanding into Armageddon.

There is plenty of blame and finger-pointing going on. The US — and not necessarily all Americans — blame Russia and its leader Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine for putting the world in jeopardy with a nuclear overhang. Russia and its supporters blame the US and its NATO allies for it, saying they provoked and backed Moscow into a corner by bringing NATO to its doorstep. Some even blame Ukraine’s actor-turned-President Voldymyr Zelensky, even though he is a heroic figure for the allies, saying he is goading the US on to a dangerous path instead of cutting a deal with Moscow.

One of the more fascinating aspects of this debate is the position of the American extreme right, which has adopted the stance of “Ukraine is not our friend; Russia is not our enemy” while largely blaming President Biden for pushing the world towards a nuclear war. While it is President Putin and his aides who have been wielding the nuclear rattle, right-wing commentators in America are attacking Biden for endangering America by allegedly bombing the Nord Stream pipeline, hyping up the dangers of a purported Chinese balloon gone astray, and his “provocative” five-hour dash to Kiev. In their view, it is America which is trigger-happy, not Russia. “The scary thing to me is to hear people like Zelensky and Biden administration officials speak so calmly about World War III,” said Tulsi Gabbard, a former Democratic lawmaker and military vet who had taken a hard right line on the TV talk circuit to become a Biden critic.

One would think there would be more peaceniks on the left given the traditional national security orientation of conservatives in a party that gave America and the world war-mongering neo-cons. Instead, we have the radical right blaming Democrats for leading the US towards a World War III situation, which, in the words of former President Donald Trump, “has never been closer than it is right now”. In stunning remarks he delivered on Tuesday, Trump took aim at the US establishment, blasting bureaucrats and politicians in Washington DC and saying, “we need to clean the house of all the warmongers and ‘America Last’ globalists in the Deep State, the Pentagon, the State Department and the National Security industrial complex.”

“One of the reasons I was the only President in generations who didn’t start a war is that I was the only President who rejected the catastrophic advice of many of Washington’s generals, bureaucrats, and the so-called diplomats who only know how to get us into conflict, but they don’t know how to get us out,” Trump raged, calling his opponents “candidates of war” and warning that “we’re teetering on the brink of World War III and a lot of people don’t see it, but I see it. And I’ve been right about a lot of things.”

Of course, the peace Trump claims he achieved was based on the appeasement of powerful nations riding roughshod over vulnerable countries. A Trump second term, either the one averted in 2020 or a prospective one in 2024, would almost certainly have resulted in/would result in not only metaphorically nuking the NATO alliance, but also dismantling the traditional US national security establishment that the former President says is full of globalist warmongers, lobbyists and big defense contractors “pushing our senior military and national security officials toward conflict, only to reward them when they retire with lucrative jobs getting paid millions and millions of dollars.”

So, while leaders and politicians on earth are duking it over nuclear matters, here’s what is happening at the International Space Station (ISS) some 220 miles above earth. Three astronauts left stranded there by a leak on their return capsule will get back to earth in September in a Russian Soyuz MS-23 replacement. The crew includes two Russian cosmonauts and an American astronaut. Apparently, it requires humankind to slip out of what the poet John Magee called the “surly bonds of earth” and tread the “high untrespassed sanctity of space” to achieve peace.

(The writer is a senior journalist based in Washington.)

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