New Delhi: The world faces peril today of the sort that it encountered in the years leading to World War I. The two situations are, to be sure, totally different and we may yet be saved from the insanity of a third global war which will indubitably be nuclear and exterminate the human race. The only likely survivor of a nuclear holocaust would be the tiny Tardigrade which is also called “water bear”.

Nuclear weapons make the current situation quite unlike the pre-1914 world. Further, we know about the First World War and all the subsequent wars that were fought, and our collective psyches are scarred (or at least ought to be) by Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This historical burden was simply not present in the war-like decades prior to the Great War. This is the other big difference.

And as powers go, the United States was still relatively innocent then. It possessed the geopolitical heft to make decisive interventions in both world wars. It was assisted in its geopolitical ambitions to a considerable degree by the fact of World War II being a “just war”: The most total war every fought and the last unambiguously just one of that scale.

Today, the United States is not the power it was. Since World War II, it has not won a single war of strategic consequence. It accepted stalemate in the Korean War; it was comprehensively defeated in Vietnam twenty years later; and its troops are engaged in conflicts without end in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. The United States is now challenged by nuclear North Korea.

To all the United States geopolitical infirmities has been added one more in the form of its President, Donald Trump. Confronted with the North Korean crisis, Trump is spoiling for a war with the hermit state which he is supremely unqualified and incapable to lead. Such a war, should it tragically occur, would be a continuation of a conflict that the United States did not win in 1950. It won’t win this instalment either. Almost certainly, however, a war will kill hundreds of thousands in the Korean Peninsula and in Japan. It could even trigger a global nuclear war should China intervene.

The North Korean crisis points to a world tearing itself apart without an order-imposing authority. This is why the present, in a limited sense, seems so like the years before World War I. Imperial Germany was without the moderating leadership of Otto von Bismarck. Suffering from an inferiority complex like Trump, the Kaiser craved for war heedless about its consequences. Great Britain was a fence-sitter. Russia and France made an alliance without being convinced of its value. The United States was in splendid isolationism across the ocean and no serious thought was paid to the outcome of its potential intervention.

Today, virtually all powers are neutered, including the United States; or to put it more charitably, they are all equally incapable of bringing wars to a successful conclusion. The United States’ failure in this respect is not an isolated phenomenon. Russia, the second major power, is burdened with an open-ended war in Syria. Its European frontiers are under threat from liberal democratic expansion which is erroneously described as NATO expansion. Forced to depend on China in the face of crippling Western sanctions, Russia cannot know the price China will extract for its support in hard times.

On the other hand, Western Europe denies the reality of a crumbling world order. Its alliance with the United States, never very successful despite a shared history, heritage and culture, lies in tatters today. Trump is largely to blame but not entirely so. In the nuclear age, and in an especially perilous phase of it like now, alliances can scarcely be meaningful. The Korean War was fought under UN aegis, however tenuously. Trump could only count on South Korea in a second Korean War while Japan will partner most unwillingly. All the major powers except one are at a strategic dead-end, and it is hard to say what the world would be like with China in a dominant position.

If you accept a grudging role for determinism in history, you would not be entirely surprised by the turn of events. The absence of a surprise element may even be a source of comfort. But there is no comfort in the present situation even if you accept its inevitability.

At the dawn of modern history about 1500, the world gained, for the first time, a sense of itself. After the end of World War II and the setting in motion of decolonization, sovereignty spread to most parts of the world. Nuclear technology, first a US monopoly, proliferated in a span of decades to reach middle powers like India and Pakistan. Globalization, in its turn, distributed the fruits of economic growth more evenly worldwide than at any time before in human evolution.

If the spread of democracy and the diminution of nationalism had kept pace with these developments, and democracy had penetrated deeper in places it was already happily located in, perhaps the world situation would have been less dire. Totalitarian states are rising and democracies are becoming authoritarian. Moral exceptionalism is no longer a force in geopolitics.

If the best that a democratic mandate can supply is Donald Trump, the free nations stand no chance to stabilize and reform the international order. At this rate, we might be left teetering on the edge of the abyss for the foreseeable future even if the fates deny Armageddon.