The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why Biden and the White House keep talking about World War III

Referencing aid to Ukraine and sanctions on Russia, the Biden administration has warned of “world war” multiple times when asked further actions in Ukraine. (Video: Joshua Carroll/The Washington Post)
5 min

From the beginning of Russia’s war in Ukraine, President Biden and the White House have taken great care to say that U.S. military action is off the table. They’ve said so more firmly, in fact, than presidents usually do.

But while firmer than most, such pronouncements have a way of being tested and sometimes succumbing to circumstance. What happens if Russia uses chemical weapons, for instance? (The White House equivocated on this a bit.) What’s more, despite the lack of virtually any American politician calling for it, support for sending troops is at not-insignificant levels: 41 percent in one poll this week, and 35 percent in another — even as that latter poll noted this would risk nuclear war. And Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky keeps pleading for a no-fly zone, which would require U.S. and NATO military might to enforce, and possibly more.

In other words, this subject isn’t going away. And increasingly, the White House is dealing with it in a very specific way: invoking World War III.

Biden mentioned the possibility briefly early in the invasion in late February, telling an interviewer the choice was between sanctions and “a third world war.” And over the past week, both Biden and White House press secretary Jen Psaki have sought repeatedly to emphasize that no-fly zones and such measures would probably be or would be tantamount to the launch of World War III.

Pressed on the decision not to provide Ukraine with military aircraft last week, Psaki responded, “Well, I would say what our assessment is based on is how to prevent a world war here.”

The following day, Biden mentioned World War III four times in two separate appearances.

“The idea that we’re going to send in offensive equipment and have planes and tanks and trains going in with American pilots and American crews, just understand … that’s called World War III, okay? Let’s get it straight here, guys.” He added that “we will not fight the third world war in Ukraine.”

On Monday, Psaki said that “starting World War III is certainly not in our national security interests.” And on Wednesday, she linked it to a no-fly zone, saying, “It would require us potentially shooting down Russian planes — NATO shooting down Russian planes. And we are not interested in getting into World War III.”

There is little doubt that something like a no-fly zone would lead to direct military confrontation between the United States and Russia; even supporters of the idea have conceded as much. As for whether that conflict would mean another world war, it depends upon how you define that.

“World war” actually didn’t come into popular use until well after the mostly European conflict of 1914-1918, known then as the Great War, concluded. When a similar conflict began, Time magazine in 1939 suggested it could soon become “World War II.”

Generally speaking, a world war is defined as one that involves many countries around the world and/or multiple leading countries. A war involving the United States and Russia would surely involve two such nations, and it’s difficult to see the United States getting involved in such a thing without other NATO countries.

In recent decades, the concept has come up infrequently during other conflicts. But not like today. (Biden, for instance, spoke dismissively in 1994 about concerns in Europe that Bill Clinton’s “lift and strike” proposal for Bosnia would lead to World War III. “Sarajevo 1994 is not Sarajevo 1914,” Biden said.)

This is in many ways an acknowledgment of a very possible reality — even if it’s jarring to hear. This is the first major land war in Europe in decades, after all, and there are indications that Russia’s intentions might go well beyond just Ukraine, creating the possibility of a conflict with NATO countries that would necessarily spur them all to act in the common defense.

Because of this, interest in “World War 3” spiked on Google even before the White House began repeatedly invoking it. On Feb. 24, interest in the term reached a level only seen once since at least 2004 — when the U.S. killed Iranian military leader Qasem Soleimani in January 2020.

But interestingly, if you spell it “World War Three,” interest still hasn’t spiked quite as high as it did in the summer of 2006, when Newt Gingrich compared the war on terror to a third world war. And the White House’s repeated invocations of the concept over the past week haven’t really forced it into the conversation.

Perhaps that’s because it has given people comfort that we aren’t actually headed in that direction. But regardless, it serves as a useful device in tamping down whatever militarism might crop up in the days and weeks to come. No-fly zone? Just know what that means. Zelensky is demanding more? Just know what that means.

Of course, to make that point, you must continually reinforce that this is a possibility that’s real enough to be talking about in the first place. When asked about Biden’s comments on the risk of World War III by NBC News on Wednesday, Zelensky didn’t disagree — but instead suggested perhaps it’s unavoidable or has already begun.

“Nobody knows whether it may have already started,” Zelensky said, “and what is the possibility of this war if Ukraine will fall?”

And it also means that any such actions you might later feel compelled to take — no matter how hard you try to rule them out now — will be difficult to play off as anything less than indicative of that kind of historic escalation.