Book Review: 2034: A Novel of the Next World War

Journal of Indo-Pacific Affairs, Air University Press --

Book Cover: 2034
Book Cover: 2034
Book Cover: 2034
Photo By: Dr. Ernest Gunasekara-Rockwell
VIRIN: 210802-F-YT915-005

2034: A Novel of the Next World War, by Elliot Ackerman and James Stavridis. New York: Penguin Press, 2021. 320 pp. ISBN: 9780593298688.

2034 mixes enough plausibility with suspense to deliver a chilling play-by-play of the fall of the United States’ global hegemony at the hands of an ascendant and technically savvy China. Written by author Elliot Ackerman and retired US admiral James Stavridis, the novel offers intrigue and action, but it bears a warning for today’s political leaders. 2034 posits that American hubris will spell disaster for the United States. The American 21st Century is not a foregone conclusion - in fact, the authors frame that dream as an uphill climb against hostile forces. Chronically stressed-out characters and numerous dramatic tropes dot the landscape of this tightly written account of a hypothetical World War III. Even with a bit of glossing over the particularities of a global conflict and the state of the world in 13 years, 2034 plunges readers into a nightmare scenario for the United States. Its attempts to pull them out of that pessimism are less successful.

The plot sees America besieged by rivals. A Chinese cyberattack neutralizes the US naval squadron in the South China Sea, and Iran takes a hotshot F-35 pilot hostage. This leads to a series of escalations, and soon several US cities are reduced to radioactive craters as American nuclear counterattacks devastate Chinese cities. Russia takes advantage of the chaos and invades Poland, which is an obligatory event for a political thriller. The brief conflict comes at a great cost. India emerges as a peacemaker in Asia. The United States is humbled, no longer the number one power on the world stage. The American Century comes crashing down.

The central message of 2034 is that the United States will lose its way in a changing world if its leaders do not act with vision to avoid disaster and maintain global relevance. There are many allusions to the United States as a declining empire, with characters pointing out parallels between it and an overextended British Empire in the middle of the 20th century. Ackerman and Stavridis emphasize the threat posed by Chinese cyberwarfare and the need for leadership to prepare for a coordinated attack. The authors juxtapose China's cool and calculating actions against the ineptitude of a United States in decline.

Though 2034 paints a pessimistic picture for the United States, the authors keep faith in the American spirit to persevere. They rely on tropes to make the novel more entertaining and to offer some hope for those disheartened by America's prospects. Almost every other character quotes Lincoln, and American pop culture is heavily referenced by characters of all nationalities, paying respect to the immense cultural legacy of the United States. They show an admiration of a unique American ingenuity, and a reliance on “the old ways.” For example, the hotshot pilot is idealized for his knowledge of flying jets without fancy autopilot features, hearkening back to his great-grandfather who fought the Japanese as an Air Force pilot in World War II. When his ship is crippled on a bombing run of Shanghai, he sacrifices himself to complete his mission in a scene somewhere between the infamous “ride the bomb” scene in Dr. Strangelove and the scene in Independence Day where Will Smith punches an alien. There are many callbacks to a time of American greatness, and the novel never fully shuts the door on the possibility that its greatness can be found again.

There are technical shortcomings in the story that detract from the gripping atmosphere of global conflict. For one, very little is explained about the specifics of the cybertechnology that disables almost all American military capabilities at the novel’s outset. The advanced cybertechnology is just a plot device to start the chain of escalations that make the novel move forward. Furthermore, the story also suffers from a limited scope. The main character of 2034 seems to be the US Navy, and most of the meaningful tactical operations in World War III are conducted by or against the Navy, with scant mention of any other branches. This bias is easy to track, given Admiral Stavridis’ long career with the Navy and deep familiarity with naval warfare and capabilities.

This novel could offer a more nuanced look at world events without relying on a few major characters to propel the story. It would also have been refreshing to see the perspective of non-military or government actors, such as doctors, businesspeople, or journalists. This reframing would help give the destruction of World War III more impact. Without hearing a single story from a citizen of the ruined cities of San Diego or Shanghai, Ackerman and the admiral diminished their total destruction to an almost academic portrayal of a war game strategy. Outside of a purely military perspective, it would have been interesting to see the geopolitical predictions of Ackerman and Stavridis fleshed out more. The authors fail to explore the fallout that would surely follow Russia's invasion of a NATO member, as well as the sudden rise of India as an “economic powerhouse” capable of rivaling China. The least realistic part of 2034 is the cessation of nuclear conflict once the nuclear line has been crossed. With Shanghai blown sky-high, it’s almost impossible to see the Chinese government not retaliate against Los Angeles, New York, or any and all other remaining US metro areas. According to the authors, it would seem that there is no realistic way to control a nuclear exchange, except apparently by a stern talking-to from India.

Despite its shortcomings in scope and worldbuilding, 2034 delivers a solid character drama that peers into the future just over the horizon and imagines what a long-feared clash of the world’s great powers would look like. The implications for the United States are sobering. Stavridis and Ackerman sound the alarm that the United States needs to find its way again, take threats seriously, and perhaps invest more in the Navy if it does not want to become another fallen global hegemon, or worse, a nuclear wasteland.

Joshua Conaway

Mr. Conaway is graduate student at Missouri State University.



The views and opinions expressed or implied in JIPA are those of the authors and should not be construed as carrying the official sanction of the Department of Defense, Air Force, Air Education and Training Command, Air University, or other agencies or departments of the US government or their international equivalents.


USAF Comments Policy
If you wish to comment, use the text box below. AF reserves the right to modify this policy at any time.

This is a moderated forum. That means all comments will be reviewed before posting. In addition, we expect that participants will treat each other, as well as our agency and our employees, with respect. We will not post comments that contain abusive or vulgar language, spam, hate speech, personal attacks, violate EEO policy, are offensive to other or similar content. We will not post comments that are spam, are clearly "off topic", promote services or products, infringe copyright protected material, or contain any links that don't contribute to the discussion. Comments that make unsupported accusations will also not be posted. The AF and the AF alone will make a determination as to which comments will be posted. Any references to commercial entities, products, services, or other non-governmental organizations or individuals that remain on the site are provided solely for the information of individuals using this page. These references are not intended to reflect the opinion of the AF, DoD, the United States, or its officers or employees concerning the significance, priority, or importance to be given the referenced entity, product, service, or organization. Such references are not an official or personal endorsement of any product, person, or service, and may not be quoted or reproduced for the purpose of stating or implying AF endorsement or approval of any product, person, or service.

Any comments that report criminal activity including: suicidal behaviour or sexual assault will be reported to appropriate authorities including OSI. This forum is not:

  • This forum is not to be used to report criminal activity. If you have information for law enforcement, please contact OSI or your local police agency.
  • Do not submit unsolicited proposals, or other business ideas or inquiries to this forum. This site is not to be used for contracting or commercial business.
  • This forum may not be used for the submission of any claim, demand, informal or formal complaint, or any other form of legal and/or administrative notice or process, or for the exhaustion of any legal and/or administrative remedy.

AF does not guarantee or warrant that any information posted by individuals on this forum is correct, and disclaims any liability for any loss or damage resulting from reliance on any such information. AF may not be able to verify, does not warrant or guarantee, and assumes no liability for anything posted on this website by any other person. AF does not endorse, support or otherwise promote any private or commercial entity or the information, products or services contained on those websites that may be reached through links on our website.

Members of the media are asked to send questions to the public affairs through their normal channels and to refrain from submitting questions here as comments. Reporter questions will not be posted. We recognize that the Web is a 24/7 medium, and your comments are welcome at any time. However, given the need to manage federal resources, moderating and posting of comments will occur during regular business hours Monday through Friday. Comments submitted after hours or on weekends will be read and posted as early as possible; in most cases, this means the next business day.

For the benefit of robust discussion, we ask that comments remain "on-topic." This means that comments will be posted only as it relates to the topic that is being discussed within the blog post. The views expressed on the site by non-federal commentators do not necessarily reflect the official views of the AF or the Federal Government.

To protect your own privacy and the privacy of others, please do not include personally identifiable information, such as name, Social Security number, DoD ID number, OSI Case number, phone numbers or email addresses in the body of your comment. If you do voluntarily include personally identifiable information in your comment, such as your name, that comment may or may not be posted on the page. If your comment is posted, your name will not be redacted or removed. In no circumstances will comments be posted that contain Social Security numbers, DoD ID numbers, OSI case numbers, addresses, email address or phone numbers. The default for the posting of comments is "anonymous", but if you opt not to, any information, including your login name, may be displayed on our site.

Thank you for taking the time to read this comment policy. We encourage your participation in our discussion and look forward to an active exchange of ideas.


The views and opinions expressed or implied in JIPA are those of the authors and should not be construed as carrying the official sanction of the Department of Defense, Air Force, Air Education and Training Command, Air University, or other agencies or departments of the US government or their international equivalents. See our Publication Ethics Statement.