The Pope asserted today that we are, in fact, currently in World War III. Speaking in a homily at a monument to Italy's World War I dead, the Pope asserted that we are effectively in a "piecemeal" World War III even now, when you consider the range of armed conflicts that have raged for over a decade.
On reflection of this, it strikes me as obviously true. The reason we haven't previously referred to ourselves as being in World War III is that, during the Cold War, we had already reserved that name for the future and, we thought, inevitable fight between NATO and the Soviet Union.
But, based on the criteria whereby World Wars I and II were so named, it's clear the current global situation qualifies for the name World War III.
World War I was called the Great War and only retroactively termed World War I. The Time Magazine issue of June 12, 1939 first named it such, while already referring to their contemporary hostilities as World War II.
The current range of hostilities is well beyond that seen in World War I. That was essentially a war in Europe with somewhat related actions in Turkey. In the last decade, combatant nations and groups from across the globe have launched attacks in North America, Europe, Africa, and Asia.
One might counter the claim that we are in World War III by asserting that the disparate hostilities the world has seen are not strictly related to one another. To be honest, however, World War II was really two generally separate wars. The Nazis and the Japanese had a pact, but they were never true allies. The Japanese had to be aware that the Nazis considered them an inferior race who were just conveniently dividing the American forces. And the Nazis had a non-aggression pact with the Soviets as well, which they broke the moment they felt it was no longer in their best interest.
Further, it's not clear that the bloodshed of the last decade is completely unrelated. An argument could be made, for instance, that Russian intervention in the Ukraine was emboldened by the perception that Europe and the United States are preoccupied with concerns in the Middle East.
And so, I agree with the Pope. We are currently in what will likely someday retroactively be termed World War III. Historians will consider September 11, 2001 to be the convenient beginning of the war, though, like all wars, the flashpoint was preceded by a building of tensions.
Less clear is how World War III will ever be declared to have come to an end someday (God willing). Perhaps it will yet evolve into a transnational conflict that could see someone eventually surrender and the world collectively decide it's done with war for a while. More likely, after what could be at least another decade, the current conflicts will have cooled and, following an interval of relative peace, the world will declare that period of conflict finally over.
And, in that moment, people will begin to ask what World War IV will resemble.