Efraim Halevy
Efraim Halevy
The book's cover
  • Author:
    Elliot Ackerman and James Stavridis
  • Publisher:
    Penguin Random House
  • Pages:
    320

This is a highly appropriate time to read “2034: A Novel of the Next World War,” a thriller published in March that describes a chain of events leading to a third world war. 

Its coauthors are seasoned veterans of the U.S. military. One is James Stavridis, 66, a retired Navy admiral who served in a variety of command positions. In 2009 he was named supreme commander of NATO and the top U.S. commander in Europe, positions he held until his retirement in 2013. The second, Elliot Ackerman, is 25 years his junior. A journalist and author, he served eight years in the U.S. Marine Corps as an infantry and special operation officer, including a brief stint with the Ground Branch of the CIA’s Special Activities Division. Ackerman served multiple tours of duty with elite covert CIA units in the Middle East and southwest Asia, including in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The book came out in English this spring and made the bestsellers list in the United States. 

They wrote “2034” to entertain, and to provoke debate. They genuinely fear that the United States and China, two superpowers with strategic and tactical nuclear weapons, are on course for confrontation, explains Stavridis, who retired from the Navy after 37 years and then served as the dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University by Boston. 

As Robert Gates, the secretary of defense under presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama and former director of the CEO, put it in his blurb for the book: “It’s a real page turner. 2034 is a novel about conflict we hope never happens. Drawing on the deep operational and diplomatic backgrounds, Admiral Stavrides and Elliot Ackerman have conjured a nightmare we desperately need to avoid. The novel is a cautionary tale for our times, and a reminder how quickly events can spin out of control – even before 2034.” 

A show of force

By coincidence, in late March, a few weeks after the book’s release, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi flew to Tehran and signed a 25-year strategic cooperation agreement with his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif. 

Few details about the deal have been published, but in a document  published by Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies after the event, Brig. Gen. (res.) Assaf Orion, director of the INSS research program on Israel-China, remarked cautiously that “[T]he developing China-Iran relations harbor negative trends for Israel’s national security.” (Proper disclosure: I am a member of the Institute’s ‘China Forum’ ). Orion noted that a year earlier Iran had leaked a draft of the agreement, showing it includes accords on promoting cooperation on military, technological, and intelligence fronts. 

In August, following the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, Iran’s new president Ebrahim Raisi reportedly claimed that the move created a new international agenda and opportunity for Iranian cooperation with China and with Russia. His remarks illustrated the extent of Iran’s interest in creating a unified anti-American bloc.

The South China Sea has been at the center of struggle for years. China claims sovereignty over the entire area, an enormous expanse of sea which has been a critically important passage for commercial shipping since World War II – and in which it has built artificial islands. Taiwan, whose relations with China have been tense since that war, also claims sovereignty over parts of the area, as do several other states including Japan, Malaysia, Japan and the Philippines, all of which describe China’s activity as aggressive and dangerous. In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague combat ruled that China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea violated the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. China rejected the court’s findings and treats the disputed area as its own.

Washington views freedom of maritime movement in the area as a strategic and military interest of the highest order. An estimated one-third of global shipping passes through the area, more than transit through the Suez and the Panama canals combined. Its shipping lanes are crucial to the movement of American cargo ships to all Asia. Disruption of trade routes through the South China Sea could precipitate a global political and economic crisis. Had China gained recognition and been perceived as the legal ruler of the space, it would have used all the tools at its disposal in the region to threaten U.S. security from a position of strength.

The novel begins with developments in three different locations: the South China Sea, the Strait of Hormuz and Washington, D.C. It opens with a bloody sea battle between the Chinese and U.S. navies. A U.S. naval flotilla conducting a patrol as a show of force in the South China Sea sees a ship on fire and heads toward it, but it soon proves to be a trap laid by the Chinese that sets off a confrontation between the forces. The Americans are defeated, losing over 100 service members and a number of ships.

At the same time, seemingly without any connection, an American F-35E test plane is flying over the Strait of Hormuz when a cyberweapon takes control of its systems. The plane lands in Tehran, and the pilot, who was testing a new system, is brutally interrogated by a senior Revolutionary Guard officer, in the course of which he passes out. His life is in danger.

The president of the United States, meanwhile, is flying back to Washington from an international conference. Her plane has only intermittent communication with the White House, because the U.S. is under an unprecedented cyberattack which, among other things, disrupts the electricity supply in the capital. Washington is thrust into utter darkness. 

James Stavridis. Credit: Stefanie Antosh / U. S. Department

The Chinese military attaché to Washington goes to the White House and submits an ultimatum to the president that ties the events in the Persian Gulf and the United States. In effect, he confirms that China has carried out a double ambush against the United States. On order from Beijing, he flies straight back to China, without waiting for the president’s response. 

In short chapters, the authors bring their readers to myriad locations, including the Barents Sea, north of Norway and Russia, where the American pilot’s Iranian interrogator is on a Russian warship. They describe the political and military developments in Iran as well as the deliberations and decisions that are taken in the United States.

The writing style is lucid and the authors take care to get the details right throughout their fast-paced storytelling. The readers jump from country to country and from continent to continent, sometimes at a dizzying speed.

The list of characters is diverse: A president (whose name isn’t mentioned), who was elected without the backing of a large party and who is dependent on her national security team, headed by a domineering figure who blocks her from accessing a range of opinions in her administration; Sarah Hunt, a flotilla commander in the South China Sea, who is involved in all the critical moves against China; Maj. Chris Mitchell, the test pilot, who was freed from captivity in Iran and plays a critical role toward the end of the campaign; Sandeep Chowdhury, an American of Indian origin and a deputy U.S. national security adviser, who expresses an independent, more moderate opinion to the president early in the plot and as a result is furloughed off by his superior. He will play a central role when he comes to India, another country with nuclear military capabilities, where to a great extent, moves are evolving to bring an end to the huge crisis spreading to vast parts of the globe.

The major characters on the opposing side include the heads of China’s defense establishment, who manage events in an atmosphere and out of personal and national considerations that are categorically different from those of their American counterparts. For them, the survival of the regime and their own personal survival are intertwined, and indeed, China’s top leadership remains in place, except for one scapegoat, a lone “traitor,” who is blamed in the end for all of China’s failures during the war. In the United States, however, the president fails to win a second term, and all her aides lose their jobs and pay a price for the crisis. 

The main characters on both sides of the conflict make frequent serious mistakes, and the authors emphasize the “human factor.” Ostensibly, all of the players want to avoid a nuclear war, but missteps lead to disaster. The president, for example, delivers an address to the nation that is also meant for Chinese ears, of course, declaring her willingness to consider using a tactical nuclear weapon, thus opening the gates of nuclear catastrophe. The commander of the South China Sea flotilla, who in the meantime has been promoted to admiral, takes a decision that precludes her from being able to call off the decisive mission. This is a book about superpowers and interests, but also about human beings and their troubles.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi.Credit: AP

Meanwhile, in Israel and the Persian Gulf

The book begins with a major incident in the Strait of Hormuz, and it ends there too. En route, the authors added a story that at first glance has no connection to the plot and little effect on a U.S.-China war. Israeli readers would find it of particular interest though.

In the novel, Russia, which does not play a major role in the confrontation between the United States and China, suddenly decides to take advantage of the international tensions to take control of the strategic waterway between the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman. The Revolutionary Guard officer who interrogated the American test pilot takes a surprising part in this development, in service to his country. 

Israel does not figure in the book at all, but after reading it Israelis will be left with intriguing unanswered questions, mainly about how Israel should act in the event of such a crisis, and how to protect its security.

From both a regional and a global perspective, Israel has long ascribed special importance to the Persian Gulf. For the past 60 years contacts with people and elements there have yielded sustainable ties that serve genuine strategic interests of Israel and the Gulf as well. Right after the Americans withdrew from Afghanistan, a significant wrinkle arose that Israel needs to note: Washington led the Group of Seven – Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States – to name Qatar as its representative to the dialogue with the Taliban. 

Qatar’s first move was to dispatch an advance team to explore the possibility of restoring operations at the Kabul airport. Qatari Assistant Foreign Minister Lolwa al-Khater announced formally that recognizing the legitimacy of the new Afghan government is not on the agenda. She stressed the importance of human rights in general and women’s rights in particular.

Earlier this month U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin visited Qatar and thanked the government for its role in managing the Afghanistan crisis. This could be an opportunity to bring Israel into the picture and allow it to monitor developments, particularly in light of Jerusalem’s good relations with Doha, an active player in the Israeli-Palestinian arena and an independent actor in the Persian Gulf. The Taliban have said they want relations with several countries, including even the United States, but they specified that Israel was not among them.

In the past decade China has stepped up its activity in the Gulf. In addition to reaching agreements with Iran, it has sent feelers out to other players. Beijing is expanding its physical presence in the Persian Gulf and in northeast Africa, and aims to intensify its military presence in strategic locations throughout the region. China maintains a permanent, symbolic but steadily growing military presence in the port of Djibouti, in the Horn of Africa not far from the Persian Gulf. Following the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, China is ready to enter and to maintain contacts with the Taliban government. 

So far the Chinese do not appear to have established themselves solidly enough to translate their capabilities into control and military activity against the United States. It’s early days to say whether they will risk deploying significant naval or ground forces to the Middle East in general or to the Persian Gulf specifically. But the Americans in the Gulf are on high alert and the Fifth Fleet headquarters are in Doha, the capital of Qatar, and in Manama, Bahrain. The United States faces two great threats: its traditional rival, Russia, but also China. Washington must carefully consider how to conduct itself in a conflict involving two or more fronts, in the absence of unlimited economic or military capabilities.

The climax of “2034” comes when the two superpowers, China and the United States, pay an inconceivable price that changes the global balance forever. 

Neither side ever imagined such an apocalypse, but a mutual spiral took away their judgment and their capacities for independent decision-making. We may not be anywhere near that horror scenario painted by the novel, but that doesn’t mean a similar scenario is out of the question, in our time.

Efraim Halevy is an Israeli intelligence expert and diplomat. He was the 9th director of Mossad and the 3rd head of the Israeli National Security Council. 

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