The third world war, the BRICS+ and the salvation of the planet

, by  Boaventura de Sousa Santos

I’m asking the same question that the great Portuguese communist intellectual, Bento Jesus Caraça, asked in 1932 and I subscribe to the same prognosis. After stating that, as the First World War approached, "the intellectuals (with the exception of Romain Rolland in France [and, I would add, Karl Kraus in Austria]), instead of throwing all the weight of their prestige into the scales to try to prevent the catastrophe from breaking out and to bring order to a chaos of madness, used that very same prestige to fan the flames, to increase the disorder. Where they were supposed to elevate themselves, they demeaned themselves; they preferred betrayal to the performance of a noble and humane mission." The question is: has the situation changed in the present? Are we seeing clear and precise signs of an intention to redeem a dark past? BJC’s answer is unequivocal: "The truth is - no! There are undoubtedly significant groups of ’firm men’, of ’men of good will’ who put the best of their intelligence and activity into the fight against war, but unfortunately, the majority, the vast majority of intellectuals, are preparing for a new renunciation of the spirit. If a war breaks out, and we have never been so close to it, we will once again see thousands of facile desk heroes popping up all over the world, spouting the same torrents of lies that will lead others to the front of the battle... and ensure that they are comfortable in the rear." Ten years earlier, Karl Kraus wrote in The Last Days of Humanity: "The humor is no more than the self-reproach of an author who did not lose his mind at the thought of surviving, with his faculties intact, to bear witness to such profane events." And he vented: "Yet an unqualified admission of guilt at belonging to mankind, as it currently exists, must at some place and time be welcomed and valued."
Like Caraça, Rolland and Kraus, I can’t bear the idea of a new world war happening for the third time. And certainly the last, if it is, as it is likely to be, a nuclear war. "Not in my name!" The role of the intellectual is to join the active citizenry for peace, the political parties and social movements that genuinely want peace and denounce the global forces that promote war as a means of perpetuating their power. But experience shows us that this struggle, in order to be effective, must have an organizational dimension. That’s what I’m going to talk about in this text.

For a hundred years, Europe has been on the brink of war while healing the wounds of the previous war. Each time, the reasons are different, but they have in common the fact that, although they were born here, they take the world with them and thus become global. Actually, we have been living between wars. It is perhaps little known that as soon as the Second World War ended, the conservative forces, especially the Catholics and the peasants, were eagerly wondering when the new war would begin, this time against Russia. The rhetoric of the emerging Cold War inflamed tempers, and they only cooled off when the West watched passively as the Soviets crushed the Hungarian uprising of 1956. Peace was to last. The peace that lasted was the one made possible by the Cold War and the many regional hot wars in Africa, the Middle East and Asia. What’s new now?
If we look into the internal debates in the US before its intervention in the first two world wars, we realize that the US began by declaring itself neutral; the subsequent intervention in favor of the allies was somewhat reluctant and against the ideology of isolationism that was so popular until the middle of the 20th century. On the contrary, the third world war in the making is a US project. Europe is only a junior ally. Why is that? In the first two wars, US imperialism was in an ascendant phase and the wars were used only to consolidate this globally dominant position. The US came out of each war stronger. Just remember that in 1948 the US GDP was almost half of the global GDP (in 2019 it was 24%). Today, the US is in decline and war has been the option taken since the time of President Clinton to halt the decline, because it is in the military-industrial complex that the US has the most unequivocal superiority over rival powers. Just think of its more than 800 military bases around the world. In fact, the US has been at permanent war since its foundation. Different wars, to be sure; what its imperial wars since the 20th century have in common is the fact that they take place far from its borders. Today, it is a war of hegemony; while until a while ago the nuclear option was radically excluded, today it has become one of the possible scenarios. The seriousness of the situation stems from the fact that the decline of the US is not only evident in global politics and economics. It is now blatantly visible at home. In the richest country in the world, more than three million children die of hunger every year. Of the young offenders (aged between 10 and 17) in detention institutions, 42% are black despite the fact that the percentage of black youth in the US youth population is 15%. In 2023, there were 630 mass shootings (in each one more than 4 people were killed). Almost 50,000 people died from firearms in 2021, more than half of which were suicides. In 2023, there were 653,100 homeless people, an increase of 12% compared to 2022. The 2024 elections will certainly be free, but they will not be fair, given the presence of dark money in campaign financing, and they may not even be peaceful.
In the face of this multidimensional decline, the US is focusing more and more energy on the war of hegemony. The war of hegemony war aims to concentrate and maintain power in the hegemonic state in whose interests the international order is established, an order that is unipolar by nature. The duality of criteria in the "rules-based order" (compare Ukraine with Palestine) is the main characteristic of the hegemonic order. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Warsaw Pact (1991), the war of hegemony seemed to have been won forever. But as the development of global capitalism is uneven and combined, challenges to US hegemony have emerged, largely stemming from the development of China. In 1949, communist China began to prepare for a century of strengthening that would restore China to the position at the top of the world system that it held until 1830, although since the 16th century in a certain multipolarity with imperial Europe. As Xulio Ríos states in The Metamorphosis of Communism in China, Mao Zedong put China on its feet, Deng Xiaoping developed it and Xi Jinping personifies the final push to make China a powerful country with a central position in the global system, to culminate in 2049. While Mao set aside traditional Confucian culture and Deng prioritized developmentism over Marxism, Xiism seeks a synthesis of the three founding ideologies with the idea of "socialism with Chinese peculiarities in the new era".
Because, during the time of globalization, China was the partner that helped disguise the economic decline of the US, the alarms of the hegemonic war only began to sound during the time of Bill Clinton. Soon the neoconservatives (an ideological group ranging from Hilary Clinton to Victoria Nuland and her husband, for whom you shouldn’t negotiate with rivals to US hegemony; you should rather destroy them) took control of US foreign policy. Rivals have weak links and that’s where you have to attack them. China has two: its main ally, Russia, and Taiwan. The war in Ukraine was a regime change strategy from the outset (not in Ukraine, but in Russia). The aim was to wear down Russia’s political leaders (especially Putin), as was done in the 1980s, until a Gorbachev double would come along and turn Russia into a friend of the US, and therefore an enemy of China, which would immediately lead to China’s confinement to Asia. As is clear today, the objective failed, Russia grew stronger and its multi-secular presence in Eurasia expanded even further. The martyred people of Ukraine and the people of Europe, manipulated by an unprecedented propaganda war, are paying a high price for this strategy. As Volodymyr Zelensky knows little about international relations, he didn’t know Lord Palmerston’s phrase with his eyes on the USA: "Nations have no permanent friends or allies; they have only permanent interests". Although a pure speculation, if he can’t be replaced, Zelensky could have a fatal accident in the near future. China’s other weak link is Taiwan and it is there that the war of hegemony could be fought most violently. It will be a new Ukraine, but one where the US will learn from the mistakes made in Europe.
Since the masters of history have contempt for the impertinence of this servant of theirs, they didn’t foresee the anti-colonial resistance of the Palestinian people, led this time by Hamas. Israel’s war against Palestine is qualitatively different from Russia’s war against Ukraine for three main reasons. First, the former is a colonial war of extermination, the latter is a war of containment. Second, the US is not an ally of Israel; the US is Israel, because the pro-Israel lobby controls both US domestic and foreign policy. Besides, Israel’s war, far from being a perversion of the Western world, is its cruelest and most reliable mirror: a civilization that since the 16th century has created and celebrated humanity, while dehumanizing most of it. Third, on the other side are the historical losers of European expansionism, the Islamic world. The possibility of a global escalation of the war is qualitatively much greater in this case. Hence the immediate disinvestment in Ukraine. In the Middle East, too, the neoconservatives will try to find the weak link in China’s alliances. This link is undoubtedly Iran. It will probably be the next target.

Resistance against World War III

History is always contingent, however much some factors seem to determine it. The third war is not inevitable. The forces of resistance and peace are not in Europe, the world’s most violent continent. It is true that in the post-World War II period, a powerful peace movement emerged in Europe, the largest (and last) manifestation of which were the protests against the war in Iraq in 2003. This movement was particularly strong in Germany, which, however, since the war in Ukraine has returned to its dangerous warlike impulses. The resistance is in the global South. In this text, global North means the Europe of the old imperial projects (without Russia), as well as Japan and the former colonies where racism and white nationalism dominated (USA, Canada, New Zealand and Australia); the global South, on the other hand, means all the other former European colonies and countries that, although they were not European colonies, were dominated by Europe (such as China after the Opium Wars). It is possible that this designation is transitional and won’t last long, since it is a subsidiary of the most recent phase of colonial-capitalist globalization which, as we know, has been losing ground. The other problem with this designation and the dichotomy it entails is that it homogenizes the different socio-historical realities included in each of the poles of the dichotomy. A non-Eurocentric historical analysis will show the great heterogeneity of both the global North and the global South. Just bear in mind that the global North includes colonial European powers and some of their former colonies. On the other hand, within Europe there have always been asymmetries typical of internal colonialism, of Northern Europe in relation to Southern Europe, of Central Europe in relation to Eastern Europe, of Italian cities and their plantations in Cyprus with Slavic slave labor (centuries later, Hitler would call Slavs Untermenschen, subhumans), not to mention the Balkans, whose belonging to Europe has repeatedly been called into question.
The same (or greater) diversity can be observed in what is now the global South. The temporalities, logics of intervention and interaction, and political economies of colonial extractivism in the North Atlantic, South Atlantic, Indian Ocean and China Sea were very different, not to mention the fact that they included countries that were not subject to European colonialism. Today we don’t have the inaugural "innocence" of the early 20th century when all the advances of industrial society and communications were seen as factors of homogeneity. Of course, homogenization and convergence have taken place and continue to take place, but, contradictorily, differences, disagreements, reinventions of different pasts and divergent ethical and political vocations have also emerged. Dichotomies must therefore be used with the utmost caution and their usefulness is always provisional and limited.
With all these caveats, the global South today has a privileged actor, China, and a dense network of impressive regional and thematic cooperation, including the BRICS+. Is China communist? Is China imperialist? What direction will China give the global South as its privileged actor? All of these issues are up for debate. China is governed by a highly centralized communist party with around ninety million militants; in economic terms, it is today a mixed economy: a capitalist base – the vast majority of companies (61.2%) and employment (82.1%) belong to the private sector and are governed by market rules – with an exceptionally large share of state-owned companies and an exceptionally large and active role for the state in directing the economy and in financial control. This structure, combined with China’s foreign relations (mutual benefit contracts), seems to indicate a pattern of behavior that does not coincide with the imperialist pattern (domination and extraction through unequal contracts, military tutelage or violence). Regardless of this assessment, what should be emphasized is that China operates in conjunction with many other countries with intermediate development and a strong awareness of their sovereignty. The BRICS+ organization is today the densest and most operational organizational form in the global South.
As this is not a new edition of the Non-Aligned Movement, which sought development models that were neither Western capitalist nor Soviet socialist, we have to ask what the guiding principle of the global South is and to what extent it can be a fact of peace and prevent the third world war.
In my opinion, the Global South aims for an alternative that is perhaps more radical than the alternative between capitalism and socialism. It’s about the possibility of capitalism without colonialism. Leon Trotsky’s idea that the global development of capitalism is uneven and combined is based precisely on the variations in the combination of capitalism and colonialism in the different regions of the world. I have argued that since the 16th century, modern domination has consisted of a triad: capitalism, colonialism, and patriarchy. I have also argued that the three forms of domination act in permanent articulation and that none of them is sustainable without the others. In other words, I can’t imagine a capitalist society that isn’t colonialist and patriarchal. Historical colonialism (territorial occupation by a foreign country) has not yet ended, as the daily horror of the genocide of the people of Gaza shows us, and we must not forget the colonialism to which the Saharawi people are subjected. But today colonialism continues in many other forms, such as racism, the plundering of natural resources, the clearing of forests and the poisoning of rivers, land grabbing, the forced displacement of populations, the growing number of environmental refugees, the mass incarceration of the black population in some countries, unequal contracts, borders-fortresses of barbed wire and cement, etc. The reason for the permanence of colonialism and patriarchy is that capitalism cannot sustain itself without a larger or smaller fraction of labor being over-exploited or unpaid, or simply disposable. Colonialism and patriarchy, by generating racialized or sexualized populations, are the dominations that make this over-exploitation and theft of labor possible. And it is in the global South that they prevail most intensely.
The global South today is a vast and complex network of practices and ideologies that demand an end to the duality between the apparently civilized capitalism of the Northern metropoles and the barbaric capitalism of the colonies and neo-colonies. In other words, capitalism without colonialism at a global level. I suspect that if they succeed, what will emerge from their victory will not be capitalism as we know it, but something different which, for now, we can call post-capitalism. The warlike version of US neoconservative imperialism represents a desperate effort to prevent such success. However, the economic power that the global South now holds (the big difference with the Non-Aligned Movement) could force the US and its allies in the global North to negotiate. The BRICS+ today account for more than 30% of global GDP. Negotiation is the only way to avoid World War III. Therein lies our hope.

Will negotiation save the world?

At the beginning of 2024, the world faces four fundamental problems: global war, social inequality, ecological collapse, the future of the UN, and the lack of credible alternatives. Let’s see how the BRICS+ can contribute to solving these problems.


Throughout this text I have tried to show that the only possibility of stopping the imminent third world war lies in the ability of the BRICS+ to force US imperialism to negotiate. Of course, in addition to the BRICS+, there are other organizations, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, which can contribute to the same goal. However, I believe that the BRICS+ is the organization with the greatest political and cultural diversity and is therefore best placed to mobilize its populations against war. The difficulty lies in the fact that the continent where these conditions are most clearly present, Latin America, is the continent most dependent on the US and, therefore, where the destabilizing force of US public and private organizations at the service of imperialism will most effectively put pressure on moderately transformative governments. You only have to remember what is happening in Argentina or, in Chile, President Gabriel Boric’s refusal to satisfy the popular demands so exemplarily expressed in the movement that led to Chile’s first Constituent Assembly (2020-2022). Brazil is under constant imperial observation and President Lula da Silva is facing a hostile Congress made up of mostly rich white men, while 55% of the population declare themselves to be brown or black, 51% of the population is made up of women who occupy only 8% of the seats in the Chamber of Deputies, and 37% of the population goes hungry. It may be that the oil from the Middle Eastern countries that intend to join the BRICS+ will be more effective in putting pressure on the negotiation, which will be good for peace, but bad for all the other problems.

Social inequality.

The BRICS+ include the countries with the greatest social inequality (again Brazil, with one of the highest concentrations of income in the world). I argue in this text that the combination of capitalism and colonialism is partly responsible for the national and international conditions that prevent a more balanced distribution of wealth at both national and international level. International organizations are the faithful mirror of this capitalism-colonialism duo, be they the UN – and its various agencies, from the World Health Organization (WHO) to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, or the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees – the World Bank, the IMF or the WTO. To the extent that the BRICS+ successfully fight to refound these organizations or replace them with others, it is possible that conditions will be created for a more balanced distribution of wealth. How far this balance can go depends on what this new post-capitalist formation will be. As there has been no capitalism without colonialism to date, no one can guarantee that this will be possible. Nor the other way around.

Ecological collapse.

This is undoubtedly the great problem and challenge of our time, and also the only truly new political problem. It could even be argued that the terror aroused by the possibility of nuclear war is nothing like that which could result from global warming of 2°C above pre-industrial levels. The frustrating international experience of the last twenty years in preventing this from happening predicts the worst. I have advocated a radical rethinking of the concepts of progress, development, nature, and human rights in order to meet this challenge. Like the great ecologist Giuseppe di Marzo, I argue that the liberation of human beings is not possible without the liberation of the Mother Earth, which Western culture wrongly calls nature. And since it is not possible to think of the new without starting from the old, I have been proposing the idea of the rights of nature as an integral part of a future (truly) universal declaration of human rights, since the distinction between human life and non-human life no longer makes any sense for the purposes of preserving life on planet earth. I’m doing this in the wake of the ancient philosophy of indigenous peoples and peasants and of environmental movements guided by the idea of an integral ecology. There is no social justice without natural justice. Our body is the most faithful miniature of Mother Earth. That’s why we can’t claim a healthy life on a sick planet, as Pope Francis recently reminded us.
In view of this, and judging by the positions of some BRICS+ countries at UN environmental conferences, I suspect that the BRICS+ will be more part of the problem than part of the solution. The only political leader of international relevance who has a deep awareness of the challenges we face in this area is President Gustavo Petro of Colombia, a country that does not belong to the BRICS.

The future of the UN.

Like its predecessor, the League of Nations, founded in 1920, the UN was born at the end of a world war and with the aim of preventing another war from occurring. Like the League of Nations, the UN was created to consolidate the Allied victory. However, while at the time of the League of Nations isolationism still dominated the US Congress, which meant that the US did not join the organization, in the case of the UN the US was its fundamental promoter, the main financier, and even offered New York as the UN headquarters. The marks of the war were clearly present in the institutional structure of both organizations (similarly to the permanent members of the UN Security Council, in the case of the League of Nations the members of the Executive Council were England, France, Italy and Japan). The League of Nations had to deal with the protection of minorities given the countless population displacements that took place at the end of the First World War, both in Eastern Europe and in the Balkans. The League’s failure deepened as its inability to prevent or resolve conflicts between states was revealed, notably Japan’s invasion of Manchuria in 1933 and Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. Weakened by the absence of the US from the outset, the League of Nations gradually weakened with the departure of Germany in 1933 and Japan and Italy in the following years. With the outbreak of the Second World War, the League of Nations became an inconsequential formality.
In the case of the UN, its weakening goes back a long way and for similar reasons to those that led to the failure of the League of Nations, although the actors and issues are now different. Will the UN survive the first genocide of a people (the Palestinian people) broadcast live on television around the world? The marks of the Second World War are very much present in the UN’s current institutional structure and its inadequacy to current realities is becoming increasingly obvious. In the case of the League, the strongest countries responded to frustration by leaving. In the case of the UN, the BRICS+ are a new and potentially influential fact for the reasons I mentioned above. If they become a coherent collective actor, the BRICS+ have enough power and influence to follow one of two strategies: either to create multilateral institutions that will deplete UN intervention and force the option of multipolarism or to promote a very profound reform of the UN that will involve the organization as a whole (the Founding Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, etc.), its regional and thematic agencies, its headquarters and its funding. The US will boycott any of these solutions by all means. Whether or not they succeed depends on many factors, above all the resolution of the internal civil war that is currently latently dominating US political life.

Credible alternatives

Over the last hundred years, the struggles against inequality, injustice and discrimination have been of two main types: the struggles between left and right and the struggles for the liberation/self-determination of the European colonies. These were not always clearly distinguished, as sometimes the struggles for anti-colonial self-determination were also referred to as struggles between left and right, as in the case of Algeria, for example. In the case of liberal democracies, the struggles between left and right began as struggles between projects of society and political economy (capitalism versus socialism or communism); but after the Second World War they became struggles between different conceptions of capitalism (liberal capitalism or social democratic capitalism) and democracy (liberal democracy, social democracy, representative democracy, participatory democracy). In the last ten years, with the political re-emergence of the extreme right and fascism, the dichotomy between left and right has come to designate the struggle between democracy and dictatorship or "truncated" or "muscular" democracy. The anti-colonial struggles began with the political independence of the colonies and later came to include anti-racism and anti-patriarchal struggles. Today, especially after the emergence of the BRICS+, they seem to be aiming for a second independence, economic independence or capitalism without colonialism, as I mentioned above.
At the moment we live in a state of bifurcation in the conditions of social struggles for a fairer society and none of the types of struggle I identified above provide adequate political guidance. The bifurcation is between maintaining the distinction between humanity and nature or a new epistemology and a new politics that starts from the symbiosis between humanity and nature. In the first case, neither the struggles between left and right, nor the anti-colonial or anti-patriarchal struggles offer credible alternatives. The fundamental reason is that they lead fragmented struggles against modern domination, struggles that are sometimes economicist against capitalism, sometimes culturalist and identitarian against racism and sexism. Neoliberalism, in its multiple political-economic, socio-psychological, cultural and religious dimensions, is an incessant factory of non-alternatives and false alternatives. In the second case, the symbiosis of human and non-human life (the end of the dichotomy between humanity and nature) requires a re-founding of the categories of left and right, as well as the categories of self-determination and liberation.


The answer to the question of whether negotiating with US imperialism will save the world is no, it won’t. It may, at best, postpone its destruction. Such a negotiation is, however, essential in order to gain time, to allow for the emergence and consolidation of political forces guided by the idea of an epistemic-political re-founding that will allow us to listen to Mother Earth and heal her wounds, which, after all, are our wounds.