The Soviet roots of invoking fears about World War III

Days before the 2016 presidential election, candidate Donald Trump warned: “You’re going to end up in World War III over Syria if we listen to Hillary Clinton.|

Good thing President Trump ignored him.

Dire predictions about foreign intervention leading to “World War III” aren’t merely the most predictable and laziest form of anti-interventionist “logic.” They’re also an insidious echo of Soviet propaganda, routinely deployed to undercut the West’s defense of democracy and important international norms. If Trump had listened to his former self, he’d have abdicated an opportunity to enforce the global prohibition against use of chemical weapons.

On the campaign trail, Trump said Clinton’s suggestion of establishing a no-fly zone to protect civilians would risk confrontation with nuclear-armed Russia, which had sent men and materiel to abet Bashar al-Assad’s murderous regime. “You’re not fighting Syria anymore, you’re fighting Syria, Russia and Iran, all right?” Trump explained. “Russia is a nuclear country, but a country where the nukes work as opposed to other countries that talk.”

But after a recent chemical weapons attack against civilians reportedly perpetrated by the Assad regime, Trump ordered airstrikes against three Syrian government targets in concert with allies Britain and France and, noticeably, a world war didn’t start.

Before missiles were launched, the Pentagon warned Moscow through already established “deconfliction” channels that strikes were imminent, and subsequently, no Russian assets were hit. Russia vigorously protested the action against its client state—one in which it has an air and a naval base—but retaliation was entirely verbal, consisting of the usual diplomatic double talk at the United Nations, after this initial statement by Russia’s ambassador to the United States:

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About the author

James Kirchick

Visiting Fellow - Foreign Policy, Center on the United States and Europe, Project on International Order and Strategy