January 16, 2023 - 2:00pm

The third world war has already started, according to one of France’s leading intellectuals, Emmanuel Todd. Speaking to Le Figaro last week, the anthropologist and historian claimed that, contrary to the prevailing idea that Russia has more to lose than its liberal opponents, the West, too, has entered into an “existential” conflict. 

“It’s obvious that the [Ukraine] conflict, which started as a limited territorial war and escalated to a global economic confrontation between the whole of the West on the one hand and Russia and China on the other hand, has become a world war,” Todd told the French newspaper. He acknowledged that Vladimir Putin had made a miscalculation at the beginning of the conflict, assuming that Ukraine would roll over at the first sign of aggression, but made clear that Russia has itself exceeded expectations, including those of its own people, who “did not anticipate” that they would be able to withstand economic pressure from NATO. 

Todd, who has in the past been critical of the western international order, wrote a book called After the Empire: The Breakdown of the American Order more than 20 years ago. During the interview, he expanded on his thesis, saying that “the resistance of the Russian economy [to sanctions] is pushing the American imperial system towards the precipice.” He added that, if Russia “managed to exhaust the European economy, while maintaining Chinese backing, American monetary and financial controls of the world would collapse, and with them the possibility for the United States to fund their huge trade deficit for nothing.” 

The historian largely agreed with the analysis of the international relations professor and proponent of ‘realist’ foreign policy John Mearsheimer that “from their point of view, the Russians are in a war that is defensive and preventive […] Because this is an existential question for them, they will strike back harder.” However, Todd suggested that his American counterpart “overestimates his country” in thinking that the US sees their involvement in Ukraine as “one game of power among others” and that the long-held belief of American exceptionalism is unjustified. 

“No more than Russia, [America] cannot withdraw from the conflict, they cannot let go,” Todd claimed, “This is why we are now in an endless war, in a confrontation whose outcome must be the collapse of one or the other.” The additional prospect of China waging a cold war against the West will lead to the rise of developing countries like India, according to the French thinker, while Europe declines.

Despite the US being twice as populated as Russia, Todd said, only 7% of American students focus on engineering, compared to 25% in Russia. “The US fills the gap with foreign students, but they’re mainly Indians and even more Chinese,” he went on, “It is a dilemma of the American economy: it can only face competition from China by importing skilled Chinese labour.” 

Additionally, the soft power of American and Western European liberalism is not as appealing as we might think. “For the collective non-West, Russia affirms a reassuring moral conservatism,” Todd noted. Indeed, it is not Putin who is isolated: “When we look at the votes at the UN, we see that 75% of the world does not follow the West, which then seems very small.” In what has been termed ‘the age of the strongman’, America and its ideological bedfellows are looking increasingly fragile.

is UnHerd’s Assistant Editor, Newsroom.