I need to begin by toning down this message from Pope Francis, as a point of fact World War III has not been officially declared. Of course this headline, Pope Francis: ‘World War III has been declared’ from America magazine caught my attention. Pope Francis may want to raise the gravity of this current conflict but for my part I do not want to add hysteria to the volatile situation we find ourselves in. In the interview with ‘La Civilta Cattolica’ he tells the interviewer that the world must wake up to realization that the world has been at war for some time now, “we are experiencing a third world war fought piecemeal” Pope Francis says. Here he repeats the concern he expressed in his recent encyclical. But his emphasis in making this statement is that we must “not neglect the human dimension of war,” the human cost, the actual lives lost because of the geopolitical struggle of actors who see war as a politically calculated response.
The human cost Pope Francis is referring are the lives of all those who die and suffer in war. But there are even greater cost on the horizon connected to this war as Kenny Stancil reports from this Common Dreams article where he reports on World Food Bank Director David Beasley’s recent analysis.
“Even before the Ukraine crisis, we were facing an unprecedented global food crisis because of Covid and fuel price increases,” said Beasley. “Then, we thought it couldn’t get any worse, but this war has been devastating.”
Since Russia invaded Ukraine in late February and imposed a blockade on its Black Sea ports, agricultural exports from Ukraine—responsible for 9% of the world’s wheat, 16% of its maize, and 42% of its sunflower oil—have declined substantially, leaving millions of tons of stored grain on the cusp of rotting.Kenny Stancil, Common Dreams (June 17, 2022)
Beside raising the concern of the catastrophic costs of war Pope Francis raises another powerful insight which may be missed if not carefully examined. In the same interview Pope Francis tells us, “I am simply against turning a complex situation into a distinction between good guys and bad guys, without considering the roots and self-interests, which are very complex.” This war, and all the adjoining related struggles that have been happening, are part of a larger geopolitical shift that we need to recognize. If we can recognize this, then we may be able to identify the root cause of the Ukrainian war and other related conflicts. If we can see the bigger picture, we may be able to promote a peaceful resolution that can respond to these related crises.
Foreign Affairs magazine recently offered an article with another sensational headline (albeit, far less sensational than Pope Francis’ third world war declaration) titled, “The Real End of the Pax Americana.” This article written by Mark Leonard points to a geopolitical reality that we, as Americans, must come to recognize and accept. That we are no longer the lone superpower on the global stage. Russia and China are very much aware of this reality and for them the opportunity to claim superpower status and reap the economic reward of that status is on the table. The war in the Ukraine can be understood once we recognize this context for global dominance.
This is a sobering reckoning for America and its foreign policy. Mark Leonard provides an optimistic view of the developing alliances that he feels are emerging, especially with Germany and Japan.
On the one hand, Pax Americana will give way to more cooperative regional security orders. On the other, the United States will have to reinvent its alliances, treating allies as real stakeholders rather than infantilized junior partners. The transition could be painful and difficult for Washington in the short term. But in the long term, these changes will be healthy for the global order and even for the United States itself.Mark Leonard, Foreign Affairs (June 12, 2022)
But for this to happen the Unites States must be willing to enter a more cooperative engagement with other strong allies and with regional partners that it had formally bossed around. Leonard’s article examines the way Germany and Japan are emerging as they enter a stronger military and moral position on the world stage. Considering Russia and China’s own geopolitical dominance having Germany and Japan become dominant counterweights to these two powers will be crucial. But the end of Pax Americana must signal other forms of cooperation as well. The way the U.S. perceives its relationship with Latin America for example must shift. No longer can the United States intervene to dominate Latin American policies that favors American economic interest. We will have to learn to once again adopt FDR’s Good Neighbor policies and JFK’s Alliance for Progress policies, both were policies that aimed to treat South America as a cooperative political and economic partner. This was before we used the Cold War as the backdrop to support rightist dictators against the democratically elected governments of the people.
If we consider our own domestic troubles in the U.S., we will soon recognize that Americans, from both the right and the left, are tired of the age of American imperialism. This may be the one common ground issue that most of us have. Yet we must also come to terms with the fact that the current economic situation we have is based on a model of globalization that we, and our transnational corporate entities created. Put simply we rely on the resources that many other nations have, and we are not able to compete at the manufacturing level as we once did. This being the case we simply cannot ignore the reality of globalization and opt for a policy of isolationism. The genie is out of the bottle as it were, and we must reckon with that. All this calls us to consider the model of geopolitical cooperation that Mark Leonard suggest. This will not be an easy strategy for America to adopt, but according to Leonard, it will be to our benefit in the long run.
The United States will have to get used to more cooperative and equitable relationships in which alignment is earned. This will create challenges and headaches initially, especially as Washington is forced to rein in its unipolar instincts. But if the new international order proves stable and helps promote U.S. interests, American taxpayers might once again start to see the country’s network of alliances as an asset rather than a drain on public resources. Not only could the burden of providing security be shared more equitably in such an order but the United States and its allies would be able to establish standards and promote liberal values that, although not solely American, would definitely be more American than Chinese. In other words, Pax Americana could give way not to chaos but to a cooperative model of shared leadership.Mark Leonard, Foreign Affairs (June 12, 2022)
Unfortunately, not many superpowers in history have been able to gracefully let go of power. It often took catastrophic wars and violent conflicts before other superpowers conceded their own military dominance. Perhaps by raising the specter of the Third World War Pope Francis hopes that the great powers pause from thinking that their own geopolitical position must be won by catastrophic bloodshed and instead look to new forms of multinational cooperation.
I would like to suggest that we explore organizing regional economic, social and political partnerships with a common goal. This model can be organized with regional federations and enshrined in a declaration of a common vision and social values. I use the term federation in order to suggest a regional agreement that does three things at once:
- Offer a free and fair-trade policy for the regional partners to achieve equitable economic growth
- Promote and invest in social policies based on a shared social agenda and a common vision
- Agree on a regional system of good governance and civic participation based on free, fair and informed consent
These federations can enter models of economic and social cooperation with one another rather than competing ideologies. While Russia and China want to try their hand in developing their own superpower status the U.S., along with its traditional and emerging partners, can create this cooperative regional partnership that would be able to stand against any dominant superpower. Pope Francis offers an analysis on why this model is so very necessary with the current crisis.
The twenty-first century “is witnessing a weakening of the power of nation states, chiefly because the economic and financial sectors, being transnational, tend to prevail over the political. Given this situation, it is essential to devise stronger and more efficiently organized international institutions, with functionaries who are appointed fairly by agreement among national governments, and empowered to impose sanctions”. When we talk about the possibility of some form of world authority regulated by law, we need not necessarily think of a personal authority. Still, such an authority ought at least to promote more effective world organizations, equipped with the power to provide for the global common good, the elimination of hunger and poverty and the sure defense of fundamental human rights.Pope Francis, Fratelli Tutti, §172
This is the hope that Pope Francis offers us, and that Mark Leonard suggests may be possible. Instead of seeing a global order based on national and ideological competition Pope Francis suggest that global cooperation is the only way forward from the current crisis. It is certainly a better option than World War III. To help us see that let us consider the wisdom of the last President we had who led us through a World War:
“I have seen war. I have seen war on land and sea. I have seen blood running from the wounded…I have seen the dead in the mud. I have seen cities destroyed…I have seen children starving. I have seen the agony of mothers and wives. I hate war.”Franklin Delano Roosevelt, August 14, 1936